May 8, 2017
Words & Language
Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein wrote: In most cases, the meaning of a word is its use.1 This phrase from Philosophical Investigations, published after his death in 1953, is often given as: The world we see is the words we use. Wittengenstein may or may not have written that version of his famous dictum.
The man was a piece of work: Austrian immigrant, Oxford University don, philosopher, misogynist, madman, genius. Never dull, our Ludwig. And oh so quotable. Here he is again: If a lion could talk, we could not understand him. This suggests that the world we see, is not the world a lion sees; nor is it one a bat sees. Nor a bee, a bear, a weeping willow or whathaveyou. So many realities, so little time
Words do seem to be the tool that homo sapiens use to create the phenomenon of their world. The genus homo---homo erectus, homo habilis, homo naledi, among others---evolved over a million years ago. From then until just a few thousand years ago, these folk were without language as we know it. They managed. This has significance.
The world we see is not quite the words we use. In fact, words and language, it might be argued, are nought but a veritable rat's nest; and, further, that they hinder humans far more than they help. Huang Po, a 9th century CE Chinese philosopher, Zen master, recluse, genius and teacher non-pareil suggests that words and the concepts that follow are precisely what ail us. The conceptual tails we chase are the words we misconstrue. Too many words. Entirely too many words.
1Ludwig Wittegenstein, Philosphical Investigations, Anscombe translation, Basil Blackwell Ltd, Oxford, 1958, # 43.
2Ray Monk Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, Penguin Books, 1991, p404.
3Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,
4John Blofeld, Translator: The Zen Teaching Of Huang Po, Grove Press, Inc, New York, 1958, p. 57.