Most of us who work in the language business sooner or later encounter the great Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Who was this man, you ask? Wittgenstein was primarily a logician, and he published only one finished book – Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus – in his lifetime (1889-1951).
Like Friedrich Nietzche and other “anti-philosophy philosophers,” Wittgenstein thought that the entire discipline of philosophy was tragically flawed. This view was due in large part to the prickly relationship between language and reality. He thought the gap between the two is so wide that much of what we say is utter nonsense. So what did he do? He struggled mightily to answer, among others, the following question in the Tractatus: What can we actually articulate with accuracy and authority?
And? What next? Well, he arrived at several conclusions – primarily that the world consists of “atomic facts,” and the role of language is to articulate these facts.
The Tractatus is structured as a series of numbered declarative statements. The book begins: “The world is all that is the case.” From there, Wittgenstein defines the physical world as a collection of facts. Like atoms, these facts combine with each other to create chains of facts. He concludes that a logical and meaningful language, therefore, is a language structured in a way that precisely mirrors these physical facts. This is known as the “picture theory of meaning.” If something can be pictured in the real world, it can be articulated in proper language. Fair enough.
What’s the big deal, you say? Well, things get really interesting with the book’s final statement, which we here at n/n consider the cliffhanger of all cliffhangers in Western philosophy (and instructive to most writers). Here it is:
“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.”
What in the world? You see, Wittgenstein set out to discover what could be “said” and ultimately concluded that the irresolvable mysteries in life – most of which exist in the realm of speculation and the imagination – are beyond language. What doesn’t exist, we can’t effectively articulate. And what we can’t articulate, we must pass over in silence. But don’t worry, there’s a little comfort: this silence isn’t to be feared, but cherished. It’s where many of life’s most meaningful experiences reside.
It’s true that Wittgenstein refined and even repudiated some of his own conclusions later in life. But that doesn’t change the importance of the Tractatus. In a way, it brings us back full circle to Hemingway’s iceberg theory (for more on that, see our brief blog post on May 20).
Think of it this way: that which is unseen and unknown may lack a corresponding image or voice, but it is still felt – and that feeling is often the most powerful presence on the page. Quality writing doesn’t force everything into words. Rather, it affords mystery the dignity of silence.
“My work consists of two parts: the one presented here plus all that I have not written,” he said. Well put, Mr. Wittgenstein. Those of us at n/n — when confronted with such erudition — feel compelled to remain silent.
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