I’ve been reading Ludwig Wittgenstein, a German philosopher fascinated by a seemingly simple question: What do words mean?
“One thinks that learning language consists in giving a name to objects,” Wittgenstein writes. “To repeat – naming is something like attaching a name tag to a thing.”
Yet, as he points out, language is far more complex than that.
“Our language can be regarded as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old an new houses, of houses with extensions from various periods, and all this surrounded by a multitude of new suburbs with straight and regular streets and uniform houses.”
A word’s meaning is dependent on context – when it’s used, how it’s said. Is it followed by a question mark or an exclamation mark. Does everybody have the same understanding of the word being used?
Through countless language-games (Sprachspiel), Wittgenstein argues that language is always in exact, and that understanding the inexactness is critical to communication.
“Only let’s understand what ‘inexact’ means!” he exclaims, “For it does not mean ‘unusable!'”
Indeed, an inexactness of language does not mean we are unable to communicate. It just means that we are likely to be misunderstood.
And of course language is inexact, he argues. “Thinking is surrounded by a nimbus.”
“What is essential now is to see that the same thing may be in our minds when we hear the word and yet the application still be different. Has it the same meaning both times? I think we would deny that.”
Wittgenstein even demurs from defining the word “game,” though it’s used heavily throughout his work.
“One can say that the concept of a game is a concept with blurred edges. – ‘But is a blurred concept a concept at all?’ – Is a photograph that is not sharp a picture of a person at all? It is always an advantage to replace a picture that is not share by one that is? Isn’t one that isn’t sharp often just what we need?”
All this is important because – we need language to communicate. With out it, we are alone.