There’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?