We often develop ideas in our minds we’d like to communicate with others – only to realize we don’t have the proper words to explain ourselves. This is especially true for people suffering from mental illness – it can be very difficult to explain just how we feel to somebody who’s never suffered.
Luckily, there are and have been philosophers highly interested in finding a solution to this problem. And one of them is Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Though rather reclusive and awkward in person, Wittgenstein has a fascination in the way people talked to one another. He devoted much of his life to observing how communication works and what we can do to better explain ourselves.
Within this blog, we’re going to look into his philosophy and the answers he offers for better communication. At the end, we invite you to ask more questions.
Be Specific When Speaking
Wittgenstein is prominently known for one specific concept – when we speak to someone, the other person interprets what we say through pictures .
This is simple enough to comprehend considering it happens to us daily. If you’ve recently gone on a trip to Mexico in the midsts of a bitter winter, it’s very likely you’re going to go back home discussing the sandy beaches, radiating sun, and tropical palm trees. And, for a moment, the person you’re speaking to is going to visually create a picture of paradise in their heads.
Wittgenstein’s idea is known as the picture theory of language. And it’s a vital tool we can all incorporate into our lives more often. For if we’re not specific enough when we speak, we may be painting the wrong picture.
Take the following two statements as an example:
- Donald Trump is the President of the United States
- Donald Trump is a bad person
The first statement is clear as it’s a fact we can verify. But the second statement is too much of an open-ended opinion.
What makes Donald Trump a bad person? Does he have a bad foreign policy? Is he negligent towards his wife? Does he steal candy from babies?
As you can see, you can take the second statement in a number of directions. No matter where you do take it, the statement NEEDS a direction. One of which can be verified or disproved. For without it, the opinion has no value to it at all.
The Meaning of Words
It’s inevitable we as people are going to develop opinions about a number of topics. However, it essential these opinions are taken into consideration only with facts.
Wittgenstein went against most philosophers as he was against forcing people to develop a comprehension for universal concepts. In fact, he often found these concepts very confusing and believed people would benefit more from something he called “aspect seeing” .
This is when we look at one thing in a multitude of ways. Wittgenstein gives us an example using the picture “duckrabbit”. It can be viewed as either a duck or a rabbit.
There are many instances within our lives that we believe words hold meaning behind them. Of course, they do to many regards. But to categorize each word with ONE meaning is to ignore seeing each word with a multitude of meanings.
And many words have more than one meaning to them.
When talking to another person, we should feel open to experimenting with wordplay. Just as the author gets creative in their descriptions within a book, we should get creative in our ways of talking about day-to-day topics.
For when we play with words, we allow ourselves to paint different kinds of pictures.
Of course, this comes with one fatal flaw.
Do People See What You See?
Describing a sunset on the beach is simple enough and something we can all imagine in our heads. But what if we were to try to talk about a deeper topic, such as depression.
Personally, I’d describe the mental illness as a catastrophe of the mind. When we’ve taken everything our lives have built and demolished much of it with one single objective – whether it be the loss of a loved one, the ending of a relationship, or a newly found addiction to drugs. The empire of our lives vulnerable to destruction by one simple trigger.
I purposefully tried to paint a picture in your head with that statement. However, what I visualized when writing it and what you saw when reading it are very likely to be two completely different pictures.
Part of this has to do with our personal life experiences. Everything that happens in our lives builds a perception we live this life through.
For example, the famous author Dostoevsky was nearly shot to death while a prisoner of Siberia. It was only when a message of retrieval arrived at last moment that the execution was stopped and he was freed. In turn, he developed a very appreciative feeling for existence that might be difficult for many of us to comprehend .
In turn, this appreciation Dostoevsky had for life painted the pictures he’d later visualize when having conversations. In the very same way our different life experiences paint our own pictures during a discussion.
So, to sum it up, our most fatal flaw in understanding one another is often our lack of ability to develop a perception outside of our own. In effect, this doesn’t allow us to see the multitude of meanings words can have in a discussion.
“Life is in ourselves and not in the external” – Fyodor Dostoevsky
Difficulty in Expressions
You ever had those moments where you’re trying to get a point across, only to end your point with, “it’s hard to explain”?
Wittgenstein believes that if you can find the words to express what you’re trying to explain, then you don’t know what you’re talking about in the first place. And, as he saw it, you shouldn’t try to talk about it to begin with.
This isn’t to say you don’t have something you want to express. There are many occurrences where we feel something, but can’t put it into words. In these cases, Wittgenstein believes we all have our own private language that only we truly understand.
When circumstances arise where only our private language can explain what is happening, Wittgenstein influences us to do our research and find a way to talk about it with someone else.
More specifically, to look for the facts within the way we feel and provide it to a friend in a way s/he can easily digest the words.
When to Keep Your Mouth Shut
Going off the above, if you can’t (or haven’t taken the time to) find the proper words to explain yourself, it’s best not to say anything at all.
Wittgenstein believed that good communication requires a strong sense of discipline and modesty.
It’s impossible to know everything there is to discuss. And when conversations appear where we know nothing, it’s best to remain silent. It’s in our benefit to decipher when we can and can’t offer effective communication.
Still have questions concerning Wittgenstein’s philosophy of communication?
We invite you to ask them in the comments section below. If you have more knowledge and/or personal experience on the above topic, we’d also love to hear from you.
We try to reply to each legitimate comment in a prompt and personal manner.
 Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Ludwig Wittgenstein
 Academia: Wittgenstein on Seeing ASpects and Forming Concepts
 Middlebury: Biography of Dostoevsky
Featured Artwork: Pat Perry (official website)