The Function of Language According to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s TRACTATUS LOGICO-PHILOSOPHICUS
“The right method of philosophy would be this:
To say nothing except what can be said.”
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)
Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, proposition 6.53
The brilliant and influential but long and rather technical Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Logische-Philosophische Abhandlung) is the only book Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) published in his lifetime. In the preface he says that the value of his book consists in two things: “that in it thoughts are expressed” and that “this value will be the greater the better the thoughts are expressed.” And at the end of the book Wittgenstein says, “My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless.” The book deals with the problems of philosophy and endeavors to show that traditional philosophical problems can be avoided entirely by application of an appropriate methodology, one that focuses on analysis of language. But the fact that the author himself assesses his book as senseless makes it obviously clear that to understand the whole sense of Tractatus and the propositions contained in it is no easy matter.
Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.
As Wittgenstein himself writes, the whole sense of the book can be summed up in the words: “What can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.” The Tractatus consists of numbered propositions in seven sets. Proposition 1.2 belongs to the first set and is a comment on proposition 1. Proposition 1.21 is about proposition 1.2, and so on. The seventh set contains only one proposition, the famous line just quoted above. The main schematic structure of the Tractatus is as follows:
1. The world is everything that is the case.
2. What is the case, in fact, is the existence of atomic facts.
3. The logical picture of the facts is the thought.
4. The thought is the significant proposition.
5. Propositions are truth-functions of elementary propositions. (An elementary proposition is a truth-function of itself.)
6. The general form of truth-function is: [ , , N( )]. This is the general form of proposition.
7. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.
It is the conviction of Wittgenstein that language mirrors the world, and that things that are in the world are expressible through language. The world is a collection of facts, which are comprised of states of affairs or atomic facts . States of affairs can be reduced to a collection of objects. Language is also reduced in this fashion and each level of the structure of language matches a level of structure in the world. So, language can be reduced to a collection of propositions, which match facts in the world. These propositions can be broken down into elementary or atomic propositions, which correspond to states of affairs in the world.
The first proposition of the Tractatus states that “the world is everything that is the case.” As has already been mentioned above, on Wittgenstein’s view, the world consists entirely of facts. This means that the world is a representation of what is not incorrect: a representation of what is incorrect can always be clarified by replacing the incorrect elements with correct ones.
The second proposition states that “what is the case, in fact, is the existence of atomic facts.” Everything that is true—that is, all the facts that constitute the world—can in principle be expressed by atomic sentences. Imagine a comprehensive list of all the true sentences. They would picture all of the facts there are, and this would be an adequate representation of the world as a whole. In other words, the fact is a representation of what is not inappropriate: the fact with redundant elements can always be clarified by simplifying it.
The third proposition states that “the logical picture of the facts is the thought.” Human beings are aware of the facts by virtue of our mental representations or thoughts, which are most fruitfully understood as picturing the way things are. These thoughts are, in turn, expressed in propositions, whose form indicates the position of these facts within the nature of reality as a whole and whose content presents the truth-conditions under which they correspond to that reality. In short, the picture of a fact can always be clarified by reconstructing it logically: it cannot be illogical.
The fourth proposition states that “the thought is the significant proposition.” Wittgenstein asserts that reality is dependent on our use of language. This precisely means that the thought can always be clarified by its application to the appropriate representation of the true facts, giving it sense.
The fifth proposition states that “propositions are truth-functions of elementary propositions.” According to Wittgenstein’s picture theory of meaning, it is the nature of elementary propositions logically to picture atomic facts or states of affairs. He claimed that the nature of language required elementary propositions, and his theory of meaning required that there be atomic facts pictured by the elementary propositions. On this analysis, only propositions that picture facts—the propositions of science—are considered cognitively meaningful. Metaphysical and ethical statements are not meaningful assertions.
The sixth proposition states that “the general form of truth-function is: [ , , N( )].” Since propositions merely express facts about the world, propositions in themselves are entirely devoid of value. The facts are just the facts. Everything else, everything about which we care, everything that might render the world meaningful, must reside elsewhere. According to Wittgenstein, a properly logical language deals only with what is true. Aesthetic judgments about what is beautiful and ethical judgments about what is good cannot even be expressed within the logical language, since they transcend what can be pictured in thought. They aren’t facts. Therefore, the proposition can always be clarified by reference to its general form as a logical representation of the appropriate elements: it is not correct alone.
The book concludes with a single statement: “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.” This shows that what can be represented at all can be represented clearly; and what cannot be represented is beyond the boundary of propositional language. In more simple terms, what Wittgenstein means is that there is simply nothing to be said about what cannot be said. It is essential, therefore, to say nothing except what can be said.
It appears that the central claim of the Tractatus is that propositions are meaningful insofar as they picture states of affairs or matters of empirical fact. Anything normative, supernatural or metaphysical is to be considered nonsense. In other words, to talk of things that fall outside reality is to engage in meaningless discourse, because there is nothing for such thoughts to picture. That is why it is necessary to say nothing except what can be said.
To say nothing except what can be said
My general assessment of the Tractatus as a book is that it is very technical and requires great effort to understand. Wittgenstein’s arguments and conclusions are difficult to follow. He asks many questions an
d his views are complex and not easy to grasp. I find it ironic that he is attempting to understand and explain the functions of language by using a language so technical that it is only accessible by a few. I think the only way to understand what Wittgenstein tries to convey is to let go of some of our intuitions. We need to know and always bear in mind that the meaning of our thoughts and expressions do not exist independently of language. Only in this way can we appreciate and understand what Wittgenstein wants to elucidate to us.
What I appreciate very much about the Tractatus is that it is a sincere attempt at acquiring an understanding of how language functions. A good understanding of how language works is very important because I believe that before we can even begin to solve philosophical problems we need first to understand how we use language and how it relates to the world around us. Our main weakness, it seems, is that we fail to notice that we are always doing things with language.
What is the function of language? Wittgenstein defines reality as the totality of facts about the world. And for him, the function of language is to picture reality. Words only gain their meaning by naming objects in the world. I agree with Wittgenstein when he concluded that reality as we know it is dependent on our use of language. It is our language that shapes reality, not the other way around. We cannot represent the world to ourselves before acquiring language and we cannot mean anything without language. It is only by learning language are we able to understand and conceptualize the world in which we live and to make sense of our existence. I am totally in accordance with Wittgenstein when he said that the limits of our language are the limits of our mind. All we know is what we have words for. That is why if we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world.
As has been stated in the first part of this paper, Wittgenstein maintains that a properly logical language deals only with what is true, with what is real. To speak of things outside of reality is to speak nonsense. That is why Wittgenstein himself said that philosophers are oftentimes engaged in nonsense talks – they attempt to solve problems that are not really problems and answer questions that are not questions at all. In Tractatus he says, “Most propositions and questions, that have been written about philosophical matters, are not false, but senseless. We cannot, therefore, answer questions of this kind at all, but only state their senselessness. Most questions and propositions of the philosophers result from the fact that we do not understand the logic of our language.”
Philosophers, I believe, should be self-critical. They must admit that sometimes their theories are nonsense. It is my opinion that one of the main tasks of philosophers is to present the logic of our language clearly. This will not solve important problems but it will show that some things that we take to be important problems are really not problems at all. Through it we will be able to focus only on things that really matter and are meaningful to our everyday existence. As Wittgenstein himself said: “The right method of philosophy would be this: To say nothing except what can be said” (proposition 6.53).
And I think that is the essential function and value of language – to make sense of our lives and of the world we live in. Without language, our lives and our world would be empty and meaningless. And as people who are always communicating with others, the least that we can do is to say nothing except what can be said.