A lot of unhappiness comes about in this world because we can’t let other people know what we mean clearly enough. One of the philosophers who can help us with our communication problems is Ludwig Wittgenstein. He was a recluse. He had a stutter, paused for ages in the middle of his sentences and had a habit of storming out if he didn’t like what people were saying. It was weirdly the ideal background for someone intent on studying how easily communication between people goes wrong. Ludwig Wittgenstein was born Vienna in 1889. The youngest child of a wealthy, highly cultured but domineering steel magnate. Three of Ludwig’s four brothers took their own lives, and Ludwig himself was frequently troubled by suicidal thoughts. When he was young, he was interested in engineering. After studying at Cambridge, his father died and he inherited a lot of money. He gave it all away, mainly to his already very rich relatives and went to live in spartan solitude in Norway. Then he started writing a book published in 1921 called Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. It was a short, beautiful and baffling work. The big question that Wittgenstein asks in it is: How do human beings manage to communicate ideas to one another? And his answer, which felt revolutionary, is that language works by triggering within us pictures of how things are in the world. Wittgenstein thought of this while reading a newspaper article about a Paris court case in which, in order to explain with greater efficacy, the details of an accident that had taken place a road junction, the court had arranged for the accident to be reproduced visually using model cars and pedestrians. It was a Eureka moment. In Wittgenstein’s view words enables us to make pictures of facts. To say: The palm tree is by the shore, paints a rapid sketch that like the model lets another person see the situation in their mind and understand. We’re constantly swapping pictures between us. But the Paris court needed to resort to an actual model for a very important reason. Because on the whole, we’re very bad at managing to make good pictures in the minds of others. Communication typically goes wrong because other people have, as we put it, the wrong picture of what we’re meaning. It can take an age for two people to realize divergences over quite basic things. Problems of communication typically start because we don’t have a clear and accurate enough picture of what we mean in our own heads. We say quite meaningless or modeled or unelaborated things which therefore can go nowhere in the minds of others. There’s another danger: That we read more meaning into the words of others than they ever intended or than is warranted. You tell your partner you had a conversation with an interesting person at the hotel reception. The picture in your mind is an innocent one. But your partner swiftly forms a very different impression. The Tractatus is a plea by a very taciturn, silent and precise Austrian philosopher to speak more carefully and less impulsively. As he famously put it: “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.” When he published it, Wittgenstein thought somewhat grandly that the Tractatus was the last work of philosophy that would ever need to be written. So he looked around for how to fill the rest of his life. He turned to architecture and spent a couple of years designing a house for his sister in Vienna. He spent ages getting the door handles and radiotors right. Very late on in the project, he got increasingly bothered about the ceiling in one of the rooms and came to the conclusion that is was too low. At immense inconvenience to everyone, he insisted on having it raised by three centimeters. It made all the difference, he thought. Then, in 1929 Wittgenstein suddenly returned to Cambridge and to philosophy because he realized he had some new things to say about language and communication. And so he began to write a second book published posthumously, and that we know know as Philosophical Investigations. Instead of thinking that language is only just about pictures, he developed the idea that language is like a kind of tool that we use to play different games, which doesn’t literally mean games, more patterns of intentions. So if a parent says to a frightened child: “Don’t worry – everything’s gonna to be fine”, they can’t know it really will be fine. They aren’t playing the Rational Prediction From Available Facts Game. They’re playing another game: The Words as an Instrument of
Comfort and Security Game Wittgenstein’s point is that all kinds of misunderstandings arise when we don’t see which kind of game someone is involved in. If one’s partner says: “You never help me. You’re so unreliable.” The natural inclination might be to hear this as a part of a Stating the Facts Game; like saying: The battle of Waterloo was in 1815. So one might respond by citing facts about how actually you got the car insurance yesterday, and you bought some vegetables at lunch time, too. But actually, this person is involved in a different language game. They’re using words not to capture facts. They’re playing The Help and Reassurance Game. So in the language game, they’re involved in, “You never help” means “I want you to be more nurturing.” Working out the game in question, is, Wittgenstein realized, key to good communication. In the Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein also wanted to draw attention to how much of our self-understanding depends on the words of others, on languages that have developed publicly and communally over many centuries long before we’re born. For example, on Sunday afternoon I might fall prey to a worried, confused mood as I think about the week ahead and everything I’ve got to do. My ability to know this very private side of myself and to help others know me will be hugely enhanced if I have to hand a word that’s been around a while: Angst. A word which was helpfully formulated by the philosopher Kierkegaard in 19th century, Copenhagen. Words like angst or also nostalgia, melancholy or ambivalent and many others help us to name elusive areas of our own experience. Language is a public tool for the understanding of private life. The richness of the language we’re exposed to is therefore really important to our self-knowledge. Reading many books gives us tools with which to help to know who we are. Though a lot of Wittgenstein’s philosophy is deeply complicated, it’s underpinned by a desire always to be helpful. The task of philosophy, said Wittgenstein, is to show the fly the way out of the fly bottle. The particular fly bottle, he was interested in, was language. And before his death from cancer in 1951, he managed to let out for us a lot of word flies usefully for us all.