What we can all learn from Wittgenstein about the art of living well

By correctly attending to the ways in which we use language, we may become more tolerant, respectful, and happy.

comment1Ludwig Wittgenstein was perhaps the most important philosopher active in the 20th century. Wittgenstein’s main concern in his philosophy was with language; how we use it, and what we can and cannot say. As a ‘linguistic philosopher’ it may seem that Wittgenstein doesn’t have much to tell us about the good life, or any other practical advice that would be useful in our own lives. This is not, however, a completely accurate assessment. Wittgenstein can inform us about how we should approach disputes in life, and how to be more tolerant of the opinions of others.

Limits of language

Wittgenstein’s first work was the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. In this work his concern is with the limits of what we can say in language. What we say concerns facts about the world, and we use language to ‘picture’ states of affairs in the world. It is only these sentences, sentences that concern facts about the world, that can have meaning or sense. Any attempt to say something beyond these facts lacks sense, and will either be senseless tautology, or else will be ‘nonsense’. We speak nonsense when we fail to picture a really existing state of affairs in the world, and thus fail to attach meaning to certain words we use, such as ‘God’, ‘evil’, ‘soul’, or ‘beautiful’.

Wittgenstein differentiated between things that can be said, and things that can only be ‘shown’. Nonsense statements arise not when we talk about things that do not exist, but rather when we attempt to say things that can only be shown. Any attempt to name what cannot be said will, by definition result in nonsense. However, things we cannot say may be able to be shown. Under this view, metaphysical issues around about morality, religious experience, and the ultimate nature of reality cannot be said. This does not mean that they cannot be shown.

Wittgenstein’s views on language changed as he grew older. In his later work The Philosophical Investigations he accepts that we can meaningfully use words such as ‘God’ and ‘good’ in our discourse; they are just used as part of a different ‘language game’ from scientific statements about the world. This view of language isn’t so narrow; it doesn’t just involve using sentences to picture states of affairs in the world, but rather accepts that the uses for which we use language tend to be multifaceted.

Living well

What can any of this tell us that will be of use in our own lives? Many of the most bitter and heated debates in public and personal life concern moral issues, and issues of religion. People appear to disagree on the facts of the matter when they disagree, for example, about the morality of abortion or about the existence of God. Wittgenstein, however, suggests that these are not genuine disagreements at all. If people understand what they can actually express in language then such debates may never arise in the first place.

We often get angry when other people behave in ways that we consider irrational, or when they fail to see the truths that are so apparent to us. Wittgenstein tells us that many of the things we argue about do not involve genuine disagreements, but rather occur because we attend incorrectly to the proper uses of language. The early Wittgenstein would say that arguments about issues in religion or morality, for example, are attempts to put in words something that can only be shown. An understanding of what the limits of language are can help us to be more aware of what we can ultimately achieve in these sorts of disputes, and of what use they therefore have. We may be well-off to take his advice that what we cannot speak about, we should pass over in silence.

The later Wittgenstein, taking a more holistic view of language, would see many of disputes people get involved in as arising because they are involved in different language games, which might have different criteria for meaningfulness and significance. Having different conceptual schemes means that two people who appear to be disagreeing are really interpreting the world in radically different ways. This doesn’t just apply to disputes about the ‘big’ issues of morality and metaphysics; it also holds in everyday disputes with our friends and family. By attending to the fact that the person we are disagreeing with may conceptualise the world radically differently, and hence that the words they use don’t have the same meaning for them as they do for us, we can have more sympathy for their position, even if we don’t fully understand or agree with it.

The insight we can take from both early and late Wittgenstein is that correctly attending to the proper uses of language can help to end disputes, and foster a greater level of respect and tolerance in our private and public lives. This respect and tolerance is essential for healthy relationships and a functioning civil society. At the very least a greater level of understanding may decrease pain and humiliation for those with marginalised views. At best, it may help us to live better, happier lives.

Illustration: John Tierney