Wittgenstein: Reality is Shaped by the Words we Use

“Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment
of our intelligence by means of our language.”

— Wittgenstein

Philosopher Bertrand Russell described Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein as “the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived, passionate, profound, intense, and dominating.”

Wittgenstein, an Austrian philosopher, worked primarily in logic, mathematics, and the philosophy of language. He published one very short book: Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

The book’s aim was to identify the relationship between language and reality. Interestingly, he spent the last twenty-two years of his life disputing the conclusions he wrote in Tractatus. “I have been forced,” he wrote, “to recognize the grave mistakes in what I wrote in that first book.” He started over but his life was cut short before he could publish his new conclusions.

After his death these works were assembled in a book titled Philosophical Investigations, which many people consider one of the most important books of the twentieth century.

“Wittgenstein came to believe,” writes Robert Hagstrom in The Last Liberal Art, “that the meaning of words is constituted by the very function they perform within any language-game. Instead of believing there was some kind of omnipotent and separate logic to the world independent of what we observe, Wittgenstein took a step back and argued instead that the world we see is defined and given meaning by the words we choose. In short, the world is what we make of it.

To help us understand, Wittgenstein drew a very simple three-sided figure.

Wittgenstein's Triangle

Wittgenstein then writes:

Take as an example the aspects of a triangle. This triangle can be seen as a triangular hole, as a solid, as a geometrical drawing, as standing on its base, as hanging from its apex; as a mountain, as a wedge, as an arrow or pointer, as an overturned object, which is meant to stand on the shorter side of the right angle, as a half parallelogram, and as various other things … You can think now of this now of this as you look at it, can regard it now as this now as this, and then you will see it now this way, now this.

In essence, reality is shaped by the words we use.

“The words we choose,” Hagstorm continues, “give meaning (description) to what we observe.”

In order to further explain and/or defend our description, we in turn develop a story about what we believe is true. There is nothing wrong with storytelling. In fact, it is a very effective way of transferring ideas. If you stop and think, the way we communicate with each other is basically through a series of stories. Stories are open-ended and metaphorical rather than determinate.

We all use narratives but we must be careful doing so because they shape the way we see a problem.