Wittgenstein's Two Views of Language

From "The Wittgenstein Controversy" by Evelyn Toynton in The Atlantic Monthly (June 1997).


Whilst not the article's focus, Toynton's article does presents the common division between Wittgenstein's early and late perspectives on language.  The young Wittgenstein was deeply influenced by the study of logic. Consequently, he sought to illustrate how our descriptive sentences convey pictures of the world, which could articulate empirical truths under examination. However, he admits that a vast range of propositions do not fall into this category, including religious, ethical and aesthetic statements. These statement cannot be understood by merely understanding the elements of the sentence. One needs to understand the context in which these propositions are uttered and applied to fully grasp their significance. This leads to Wittgenstein's later philosophy. In the latter years, he was preoccupied with the ways we use language in context and in culture and in our form of life. Instead of seeking the absolute structure of language, he sought to investigate the vast range of human practices in which language plays a role in shaping experience and in executing activity. 

Tractarian View of Language

"This was the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922), which altered the practice of philosophy, perhaps forever, by calling into question the ability of language to talk about ethical and metaphysical questions in any meaningful way. Wittgenstein maintained that language could only show; it could not say anything that went beyond description: "Most propositions and questions, that have been written about philosophical matters, are not false, but senseless. . . . Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." To establish the limits of what could be spoken of, he stripped language down to its logical structure, which he saw as mirroring that of reality."

View of the Philosophical Investigations

"Wittgenstein abandoned his earlier quest for a logically perfect language to consider how language acquires meaning through use, the multiple ways it functions "in the stream of life."