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Ludwig Wittgenstein

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I'm a senior in high school and an assignment in my English class was to respond to "the words around you," meaning literally words, phrases, etc that we see every day. I chose to respond to a quote that my teacher had put on one of the walls by Ludwig Wittgenstien. Please let me know what you think of my essay and if there's anything that I've missed (be gentle I'm new to objectivism and philosophy in general) Thanks!

As I sat down at my desk in my senior English class for the first time, I pondered what this new class, headed by my new goatee-clad teacher would be like. When I looked across the room and saw the quote printed boldly on the opposite wall, I quickly became pessimistic. Written by an unstable (most likely due to three of his brothers committing suicide) Austrian philosopher named Ludwig Wittgenstein, it read, "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world." What an awful world that must be!

This quote and Ludwig's philosophy in general (which seems to just be an extension of Kant's) belittle the grandeur of human experience. His philosophy rests on the idea that the world is simply a collection of true statements and if you could somehow write down every true fact, it would be a sufficient description of the universe. He claimed that all aesthetic and ethical judgments are irrelevant and unnecessary because they aren't facts and can't be proven. In Ludwig's world, there is no right or wrong, true or false; only what is a fact and what isn't. He also said that all propositions are of equal value; that a concept is nothing more than a bunch of arbitrarily grouped facts, so there is no hierarchy of thought. Dear God, was this philosophy going to dominate my English class as it dominated the beige wall in front of me? I hoped not.

If, as Ludwig believed, there are no concepts as such, then the only means of differentiating between concretes one has is the words we use to describe them. The only thing, in Ludwig's mind, that separates a stone from a tree is the fact that we have different words for each . He thought that because one cannot, for example, definitively pick the point at which the color spectrum changes from orange to red, that the entire concept of color should be discarded. The quote in question is an extension of this idea. He thought that the world is not a collection of objects, but words. In his mind, the extent of one's world depends on how well one can describe it.

Perhaps I'm missing something, but there seems to be a gaping hole in this logic. If there are no concepts, how did language evolve? Language is simply a collection of symbols (sounds) that represent concepts. If there is no objective way to divide the world into concepts, how did pre-verbal man create words? If the only thing separating a tree from a stone is the words we use to describe them, why did prehistoric man decide to call them different things in the first place? Ludwig's philosophy completely discredits man's ability to volitionally change the metaphysical - the facts - through means of his conceptual faculties. In order to develop the first spears, early man must have had a conceptual understanding of the principal that a sharp object is more effective at piercing animal hide than a blunt one and been able to integrate that concept by sharpening a stick. Concepts existed and were understood long before we had words for them.

I sincerely hope that this quote was found by my teacher typing "language quotes" into Google rather than in the pages of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Ludwig's only philosophical book (and I use the world philosophical very liberally here.) The book is full of contradictions and flat out stupid statements such as “All philosophical propositions are nonsense,” and “whereof one cannot speak thereof one must remain silent.” By his own logic, he said, “The book is an attempt to express what cannot be expressed, and, therefore, nonsense.” He also said, “This book will perhaps only be understood by those who have themselves already thought the thoughts which are expressed in it — or similar thoughts.” So to get anything out of his book, I must already know everything in it? Is this really what philosophy has come to? In the words of Ayn Rand, "People would not employ a plumber who’d attempt to prove his professional excellence by asserting that there’s no such thing as plumbing—but, apparently, the same standards of caution are not considered necessary in regard to philosophy." It is sad that this philosophy, or lack there of, has so thoroughly infiltrated our schools and society as a whole.

note: sorry if the formatting got messed up

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My only critique would be that if you haven't read or Kant (which I imagine you haven't) then don't include him. Making comparisons between authors who you haven't read calls your credibility into question, which probably isn't something you want haha. Otherwise you certainly write better than I did in high school.

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Also I would try not to implicitly insult your English teacher if I was you.

sincerely hope that this quote was found by my teacher typing "language quotes" into Google rather than in the pages of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Ludwig's only philosophical book (and I use the world philosophical very liberally here.)

or

Dear God, was this philosophy going to dominate my English class as it dominated the beige wall in front of me? I hoped not.

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I have two points:

1) You said you chose to respond to the quote of Wittgenstein, but your essay hardly deals with the quote. Instead, in a few paragraphs, you attack his entire philosophy. I think the essay would be much better (more importantly, more in line with the assignment you were given) if you were to limit yourself to exploring the meaning of the quote. You express disdain for "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.", but you don't even say what you think it means, or doesn't mean. I could certainly find possible interpretations that would not lead one to the conclusion "What an awful world that must be!". Have you considered any such interpretations?

2) I've never read Wittgenstein, so I don't know whether or not your claims about his ideas are true or false. What you've written does not support your claims or lead me to have confidence in their veracity, since you've included not a single quotation of his writing. As far as I can tell all you've done is regurgitated someone else's (Ayn Rand's?) ideas about Wittgenstein.

John Link

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John:

To your first point, I agree that there can be many interpretations of the quote, and I believe my teacher may have chosen that quote under the pretense of a different interpretation than Wittgenstein intended. It is for that reason exactly that I chose to spend the majority of my essay on his philosophy rather than the quote itself; the quote can be misinterpreted if it's context isn't thoroughly understood. However, I agree that I did not clearly define what the quote means within the context of Wittgenstein's philosophy.

As to your second point, I counted four quotes in the last paragraph but I agree that they were merely regurgitation. I took them out in my final draft.

Here is my final draft; I hope you find it more illustrative than the first.

As I sat down at my desk in my senior English class for the first time, I pondered what this new class, headed by my new goatee-clad teacher would be like. When I looked across the room and saw the quote printed boldly on the opposite wall, I quickly became pessimistic. Written by an unstable (most likely due to three of his brothers committing suicide) Austrian philosopher named Ludwig Wittgenstein, it read, "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world." It was not the quote itself that unsettled me (there are many benign interpretations of it) but the philosophy behind it.

Ludwig was very interested in language and the way it shapes understanding. While it's true that the word(s) we have for a concept can shape our understanding of that concept, he went as far as to say that words create the concepts they refer to. He argued that a new experience can only be understood to the level that it can be communicated. Because of this, he claimed that the only thing that language, and thus philosophy, can accurately deal with is the metaphysical - the facts - because they are the only things that exist without language. He is famous for saying "A picture is a fact." Everything else: all aesthetic and ethical judgments; all notions of right and wrong, good and evil, beautiful and ugly, are "nonsense," because they can't be proven, i.e. described with language. In his mind, there are no concepts as such, only arbitrarily grouped facts. He believed, for example, that because there is no way to definitively pick the point at which the color spectrum changes from red to orange, that the entire concept of color is null. He believed that the only reason we consider red and orange to be different is because we have different words for them. What he means by "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world," is anything that cannot be exactly defined, doesn't exist.

Perhaps I'm missing something, but there seems to be a gaping hole in this logic. If there are no concepts as such, how did language evolve? Language is simply a collection of symbols (sounds) that represent concepts. If the only thing separating colors is the words we use to describe them, why did prehistoric man decide to call them different things in the first place? In order for pre-verbal man to have created weapons, he must have had a conceptual understanding of the principle that a sharp object is more effective than a dull one at piercing animal hide. Just because he did not have the words "sharp" and "dull" doesn't mean he didn't understand the difference between the two; and we have the spears to prove it. If truly "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world," then the concepts of sharp and dull did not exist before we had words for them. By this quasi logic, man integrated that which does not exist when he created the first weapons.

In Buddhism, Zen is defined (or rather not defined) as "A special transmission outside the scriptures; No dependence on words and letters…" I find it strange that my teacher, who is Buddhist, would choose to plaster a quote across his wall that considers Zen to be nonsensical, and thus nonexistent, having no communicable definition. I wonder if he truly understands the philosophy and implications of those bolded black words; or perhaps he does and simply enjoys the paradox of working towards something that doesn't exist. Either way, I think I'll stick to a philosophy that doesn't render itself nonsensical by its own logic.

Edited by zfish

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