Language

Wittgenstein And Philosophy As Fiction


“I say that it will form an important part of the training, because it is so with human beings; not because it could not be imagined otherwise.”

– Ludwig Wittgenstein, from Philosophical Investigations. Written in the context of exploring the nature of how humans learn basic language and communication.

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After so many references to Wittgenstein’s monumental contributions to religion, language study, and philosophy from the venerable J.R. Benjamin at The Bully Pulpit, I began to feel at a loss without knowing more of the man first hand. More recent explorations of poets like Charles Bernstein led me back to Wittgenstein’s monumental philosophical contributions on linguistics, and I decided to buckle down and prioritize at least a cursory look at his work. After only a few pages each from Wittgenstein’s Lectures and Philosophical Investigations, I am realizing that the emphasis on logic in language and communication which I have long annoyed other with is something I have in common and more to learn about at Wittgenstein’s feet.

This little quote above impressed me so because I made an immediate link to the value of speculative fiction. Much of Wittgenstein’s genius and discernment comes from his distinct ability to hone in on what can be logically validated and what is not verifiable by a human in the given universe. He often illustrates his lofty and meticulous conclusions with practical analogies and, although he rarely indulges in distinguishing the possibilities, a major and intrinsic component in his process is understanding and exemplifying what does not fall within our sphere of possible knowledge and what would change with alternative reality.

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All of this brings to mind the transcript of a conversation between Kingsley Amis, Brian Aldiss, and C.S. Lewis on the value of science fiction as a format for exploring the state of the world as we can perceive it. They speak of their personal favorite concepts among alternate reality and space exploration stories and the ideas they’ve found in science fiction which have most drastically affected the way they perceive the world around them. Their discussion frequently returns to science fiction’s place in literature.

 

“Lewis: Oh, yes, do, I beg your pardon. . .But probably the great work in science-fiction is still to come. Futile books about the next world came before Dante, Fanny Burney came before Jane Austen, Marlowe came before Shakespeare.

Amis: We’re getting the prolegomena.

Lewis: If only the modern highbrow critics could be induced to take it seriously. . .

Amis: Do you think they ever can?

Lewis: No, the whole present dynasty has got to die and rot before anything can be done at all.

Aldiss: Splendid!

Amis: What’s holding them up, do you think?

Lewis: Matthew Arnold made the horrible prophecy that literature would increasingly replace religion. It has, and it’s taken on all the features of bitter persecution, great intolerance, and traffic in relics.”

Of course, Lewis is right and we see that, by and large, culture and even academia have begun to embrace or at least tolerate speculative fiction, although the attitudes toward all forms of fiction have drastically changed as well.

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Finn The Human, as genius in repose

Obviously, most philosophers would scoff with a genius Finn The Human “What Quaint Notions!” at the idea of finding value in a science fiction paperback. Many Star Wars geeks would roll their eyes and begin to feign snoring if you attempted to start a linguistics conversation that wasn’t on Elvish or Klingon. The point is not that one equals the other, or that most will find them mutually fascinating. The wonder is simply that such externally different interests can and usually do actually come to the point of overlapping. Most great writers of speculative fiction address very real psychology in human struggles and moral and social concepts. Philosophers like Wittgenstein are constantly creating small fictions to both illustrate the real and the impossible. And then there are those of us who are equally fascinated by each in turn, constantly seeking to learn and to create. This makes sense, according to Wittgenstein, for living life is simply “an intellectual problem and a moral duty.”

 

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Further Reading

 

 Rod Serling On Speculative Fiction And Censorship

Non-Fiction Should Change You For The Better

C.S. Lewis On Writing For Children

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Author Quotes: C.S. Lewis and How Words Die


“A skillful doctor of words will pronounce the disease to be mortal at that moment when the word in question begins to harbour the adjective parasites real or true. As long as gentleman has a clear meaning, it is enough to say that So-and-so is a gentleman. When we begin saying that he is a ‘real gentleman’ or ‘a true gentleman’ or ‘a gentleman in the truest sense’ we may be sure that the word has not long to live.
. . .The vocabulary of flattery and insult is continually enlarged at the expense of the vocabulary of definition. As old horses go to the knacker’s yard, or old ships to the breakers, so words in their last decay go to swell the enormous list of synonyms for good and bad. And as long as most people are more anxious to express their likes and dislikes than to describe facts, this must remain a universal truth about language.

– C.S. Lewis, excerpt from the essay entitled The Death Of Words.

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A great example of this happened to me just a few days ago when I asked my wife a question which offended her. She was not offended by the question itself so much as the fact that I accused her of having a “scheme”. She, like many, automatically assumed a “scheme” to have negative connotations when, in fact, its original meaning is simply to have a coherent and consistent plan of action.

I have frequently seen commentary on the way that English language usage has evolved to use words like “love” so broadly as to describe both affections for a grandmother and desire for a cheeseburger, but rarely have I heard a discussion of what we do to allow the changes to take place. While I enjoy slang as much as the next person might, Lewis’ point is driven home for anyone who is familiar with buzzwords from various time periods. Often a word (or whole sets of words) that had specific meanings to generations before are effectively rendered general, then banal, then obsolete. I am constantly stumbling onto new antique words or phrases with fascinating origins that often provide unique clarity when they are properly understood.

Lewis goes on to say,

“It is important to notice that the danger to the word. . .comes not from its open enemies, but from its friends. It was not egalitarians, it was officious admirers of gentility, who killed the word gentleman. . .when, however reverently, you have killed a word you have also, as far as in you lay, blotted from the human mind the thing that word originally stood for. Men do not long continue to think what they have forgotten how to say.”

On this line of logic, perhaps we could save ourselves some history lessons if we spent more time preserving an understanding of our language.