wittgenstein-500There’s this story about Wittgenstein in the trench warfare of WWI. Supposedly, he sat down in the middle of no man’s land, bullets flying over his head, and started scribbling in a notebook. His platoon was flummoxed. When they later demanded an explanation he said he realized he was having, in that moment, the most important thoughts of his life and had to write them down so he wouldn’t forget.

I don’t know if that story is true, but what he was writing came to be known as Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, regarded not only as some of his most important thoughts, but also one of the most important contributions to the discipline of philosophy. There is one idea from its preface that I almost always share with my students:

the outermost edge of language is the outermost edge of expressible thought; whatever falls on the other side of that edge is nonsense.

In class, this is supposed to turn into an interesting debate about the imprecision of language or linguistic determinism, but where it often ends with my students is at a question of their own vocabularies. They wonder if the outermost edge of their own language, is also the outermost edge of their own thoughts. If their own expression and articulation of ideas is governed by the words that they know. Are there thoughts they cannot easily express (or even access at all) if they don’t have the words for those thoughts?

Across the college, many of our disciplines are networks of key terms; so, as students learn our vocabularies, they also learn our ways of knowing. They start to say things like “social contract” and “eigenvalue” and “identity,” and these words, if they are not only jargon, uncover an entire world of ideas – they push that outermost edge by another inch.

I’m remembering my first year at Las Positas College. At some point, in one of my critical thinking courses, the instructor was using the word “presupposition.” I’m sure I had heard the word, and read it, but I very clearly recall the first moment I used the word for myself, and understood its meaning, and meant its meaning. And it wasn’t simply that I had added a new entry to my lexicon; the word actually gave me a new way of looking at debates, and the ways people dismiss one another before they even begin to speak. In arguments, many of us presuppose we are already right, and presuppose the other is already wrong. We do this even to the extent that if someone says something compelling we will already presuppose there is a sufficient response that we just haven’t heard yet. So the word itself, in its very existence, taught me this critical move – taught me to understand my interlocutor’s presuppositions and to especially recognize my own. Only then could we really begin the work of persuading each other.

So, what words are we teaching to our students? And do we teach those words in such a way that they open up whole new worlds of thoughts, new vistas from which students might see previously unseen ideas?


8 thoughts on “Words

  1. Really cool stuff. My “presupposition” was “cultural hegemony,” and it had a similar effect on me.

    But I can’t get completely behind Wittgenstein, that thoughts inexpressible verbally are nonsense. I think if my favorite artist, Jackson Pollock, who KNEW what a fractal was viscerally, and communicated that idea powerfully with paint on canvas. It wasn’t until a dozen years after his death that the math people came up with the language (including mathematical language) to identify and describe the abstraction that Pollock communicated nonverbally. Would Wittgenstein say that Pollock expressed nonsense that only later became sense? I’m really uncomfortable with that…


    1. I don’t know if I can completely get behind Wittgenstein either. I just like to use this because it provokes a good conversation in class; like what you bring up here. It’s a great question.

      I’m wondering though, and perhaps this is too generous, if Wittgenstein’s ideas wouldn’t actually preclude a painting from acting as some kind of language – especially if we would say, and I agree with you, that Pollock’s paintings “communicate” complex ideas. Some of the earliest written languages began with pictographs and imagery, so maybe it’s not so strange when someone says, “This painting speaks to me…”


  2. Since the attack on Charlie Hebdo, I’ve been thinking about the freedom of expression that I normally take for granted and wonder to what extent the freedom to speak influences our freedom to think. What takes place in the sanctity of the mind is private and not subject to attack or suppression, but do cultures that restrict speech shorten the distance to “the outermost edge of expressible thought?”


  3. In this discussion, I immediately think of the learning of a second language. ESL students always make judgements as to how well they can express themselves in their new language, English, compared to their first language. Often students tell me that they must sound like little children to us in English since their vocabulary is so limited. One student once said, “How sad, Mr. Morasci. You can’t know what a really funny person I am.” So, as students extend their linguistic boundaries, are they extending the boundaries of their thoughts? Or do those thoughts exist, but ESL students can’t express them?

    I don’t know whether I should step into the ring of the “Je suis Charlie” debate, but Mary brought it up, and this is what I have been wondering about: just because it is allowed in France, should the Charlie Hebdo journalists have again depicted Mohammed in its latest cartoon, which has set off anti-French riots around the world? What was the point? If we claim to be supposedly culturally sensitive, isn’t this the height of cultural insensitivity? But it is not only in France. I once wrote a letter to the cartoonist, Mike Lester, who drew a cartoon showing people jumping out of the World Trade Center on 9/11. (tumblr_m30h7rRiNg1rr5t33o1_500.jpg) I was appalled. I will never be able to forget those horrendous images from that day, and for someone to poke fun at those who had to jump just didn’t make any sense to me. I’m not for banning cartoons, but doesn’t common sense ever play a role when it comes to cartoonists and freedom of speech? I know: I am off topic.

    However, to return to Mary’s point about “to what extent the freedom to speak influences our freedom to think,” I am reminded of the films that came out of Eastern Europe before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The censors were alive and well, so the filmmakers had to come up with a way of expressing what they wanted to say and still get their films past the censors. The filmmakers became very creative in masking their message, but censorship did not restrict their freedom to think. In fact, it might be argued that it forced them to be even more imaginative.


  4. Hi everyone. I’m supposed to be grading online discussion posts, so of course I’m here reading this great post and thread of comments. I’m liking the twists and turns this conversation is taking. To me, it’s not just about words; it’s about context. Language does not exist in a vacuum; it gains its power not in the simple knowing of a word, but in a true understanding of the context in which it’s expressed. When we teach students how to analyze rhetoric, do we not teach them to identify and understand the *person* behind the text? And when we ask students to write rhetorically, we ask them to identify their audiences, not only intended but unintended? Speakers and Listeners, Writers and Readers, Artists and Viewers. Expression for the sake of expression is a soapbox on a street corner. People may hear your, but rarely stop to listen.

    Anyhoo, on a lighter not, this makes think of this book I read last year, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. In it, the author, Danah Boyd, discusses the ways in which teens express themselves on social networking sites. Because they often have their parents and their friends on their site, they experience something called “compressed contexts.” In other words, in the real physical world, a teen might move from one context to another (work to home to mall), code-switching along the way. On something like Facebook, these contexts are compressed, overlapping, making code-switching impossible. So teens have found a way to express themselves in ways that communicate different messages to different audiences simultaneously. For example, a teen is feeling depressed and wants to post this, but doesn’t want her mom to know. She chooses to quote a lyric from a song. On its surface, the lyric expresses something happy. But her friends know that this song is from a particular movie, and in the context of that movie, its message was sad. The friends understand meaning because they understand context.


  5. Mary and Rich, I’m always interested in this connection between language and thought. For decades, linguists have been telling us that vocabulary doesn’t limit our thoughts, it just encourages certain ways of thinking. But Orwell, right!? 1984: If the government can eliminate the word “revolution” from people’s vocabulary, does that mean people will stop thinking about revolutions? Maybe. It certainly might make these thoughts less articulate, less expressible, less tangible, but not impossible.

    I think words (and especially the context in which we learn and use them, as Val is saying) can make certain kinds of thinking easier. Words become like well-worn grooves in a machine, smoothing out familiar functions so we more readily think this or that idea.

    For ourselves, and for our students, this should encourage plenty of experimentation. Learn new words. Use them in strange new contexts. It may be clunky, sure, but it might also be interesting.

    Val, I’m totally fascinated by what you say about the simultaneous meanings of words based on context. Because we all learn words in different contexts, it’s difficult to really anticipate exactly how people will interpret what we’re saying. What nuance will they take? This is one of Wittgenstein’s (sorry to bring him up again!!) other ideas about the imprecision of language. I say “green,” but we’re most likely not thinking of the same “green.”


  6. I love this post. As a psyc major, I stumbled across the importance of the connection between words and ideas sometime during my undergraduate or graduate years. While in grad school SFSU, I had the opportunity to give a guest as a TA in a cognitive psychology class. The lecture was on the cognitive operations employed for reasoning. The lecture was a collection of about 20 vocabulary terms like schema, inductive reasoning, nuance, etc. I added each term to the white board, until all 20 were present to help students make connections between the concepts and gain insight into their own reasoning process by deconstruction the tools used to reason (as you might expect, metacognition was also one of the terms). While I lectured, the professor of the class who was also my thesis adviser was sitting at the front of the room. At one point during the lectured, speaking off the cuff, not from empirical research, but from my own intuitions – something I wasn’t sure I had license to do in a psychology lecture – I mentioned that words are ideas and when you increase your vocabulary you increase the set of ideas with which you can think. I looked to my thesis adviser a to see if he approved. He nodded was nodding head in agreement. That was a good day. Anyways, I appreciate this very eloquent post on the topic and how you connect this idea across disciplines.


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