The Power to Depict

Once again I feel the desire to return to the inspiration for The Literacy Bug: the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein

By this stage, it lies in the distant past that this website was once known as Wittgenstein on Learning, but despite the passage of time Wittgenstein’s influence remains ever present.

The man was preoccupied by how we are able to express anything whatsoever through language. And in his flawed masterpiece Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein presents us with a conceptualisation of language which encourages us to be amazed by our ability to transfer pictures of the world through our utterances. From this perspective, a function of language is to express propositions of the world to one another. That is, language is powerful because we can use it to propose states of affairs to one another through a system of sounds (to which we attach shared meaning). By propositions, we can take it to mean “sentences on the world”. 


Through the lens of the Tractatus, each proposition (or sentence) paints a picture of a state of affairs, and that state of affairs is open to consideration and contemplation (as long as the speaker and the listener share some form of language). In other words, language permits people to generate, communicate and examine possible states of affairs, whether real or fictitious ... declarative or speculative ... true or false. I can convey and receive pictures through language, and there is no necessity that I am able to experience these pictures directly for me to understand them and draw meaning from them. 

The Tractatus is flawed only in the sense that our human language consists of a greater variety of propositions than merely descriptive sentences. We tell jokes. We ask questions. We talk about abstract things. We create rules and so on. Even these paragraphs - the ones you are currently reading - are valuable in that they present a picture of abstractions - languages, propositions, sentences - that may influence your future perception of “how certain things work”. In Wittgenstein’s own words from a later work,

"This picture has a double function: it informs others, as pictures or words inform -- but for one who gives the information it is a representation (or piece of information?) of another kind." (Philosophical Investigations, 280)

If we take a moment to consider descriptive sentences, there is an elegant and meditative quality to the acts of writing and reading. In the acts of writing and reading, we are builders. We are builders of experiences. We are speculators on cause and effect. We are builders of how our concepts are meant to fit together. In writing, we may chisel out an unfolding picture as we lay sentence after sentence onto the page with the aim of describing how something occurred or how something works. We must have the patience, motivation and care to find this recording process beneficial and - in fact - important to how we live our lives. That is, we must find some value in recording an observation for ourselves and others to return to. In reading, we must find some benefit in encountering and constructing a mental image of a state of affairs as we come to navigate texts. Some texts may be more accessible, whilst other texts may be “harder to crack” because they are more difficult for a particular reader to generate pictures from them.

Implied in all of this is a substratum to language: our ability to experience, perceive, notice, visualise, critique and represent aspects of the world or possible words. And whilst we have all read mechanically (focusing merely on decoding) at least once in our lives, we have also had to reread a section of text to get a proper image of what we failed to grasp in the first place. And if I am to demonstrate my comprehension, I’d be compelled to represent my understanding in some way (either in words, images or schematics). And we share these representations with others to determine whether our understanding of a text is shared by others. Have we extracted the right image?

So … amidst The Literacy Bug’s recent focus on the alphabetic principle, I feel it is important to splash a bit of paint on the purpose of our reading and writing, since the acquisition of literacy is a means to an end - not an end in itself. We want learners to become dexterous with the written word so they can discover, debate, and develop knowledge of the world, of themselves within it, and of people around them. And the learners should be deeply motivated to do so, and it is our role as teachers - in whatever capacity we serve - to foster this compulsion to examine, express and explore. This sentiment is elegantly captured by Mr. Stanley Cavell,

"The pupil must want to go on alone in taking language to the world, and that what is said must be worth saying [and writing], have a point (warning, informing, amusing, promising, questioning, chastising, counting, insisting, beseeching, and so on) … If it is part of teaching to undertake to validate these measures of interest, then it would be quite as if teaching must, as it were, undertake to show a reason for speaking [writing and reading] at all." (Cavell, 2005, pg 115)

So … please imagine, explore and enjoy! The path to discovery involves many patient moments of illumination.


Cavell, S. (2005). Philosophy the day after tomorrow. In Philosophy the day after tomorrow (pp. 111 – 131). Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Wittgenstein, L. (2001a). Philosophical Investigations (3rd ed.). Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing.

Wittgenstein, L. (2001b). Tractatus logico-philosophicus. London: Routledge.

An Ode to the Sentence: A Vehicle to Express Thought

It might sound a bit pompous, but we do like the elegance of the Commanding Sentences quotes/notes on this site. Also, we’d like to say that the notes section is a part of the site that probably does not get as much attention as it deserves. In fact, the collected quotes/notes is where everything started in the first place.  

In relation to Commanding Sentences, Wittgenstein exudes a respect for the sentence (or proposition), particularly in his early work. There is a respect for the ability of a sentence to capture, express and shape meaning. In fact, there is also a respect for the time and care that one takes to reconstruct experiences and ideas for re-examination. 

PI 280: Someone paints a picture in order to show how he imagines a theatre scene. And now I say: “This picture has a double function: it informs others, as pictures or words inform — but for one who gives the information it is a representation (or piece of information?) of another kind: for him it is the picture of his image.

However, the time necessary to attend to our words can be lacking in the stream of language and living. Even though we speak regularly and often, it is important to draw a distinction between sentences and proposition. We speak lots of sentences, but not every sentence proposes a state of affairs worthy of reflection.

TLP 3.141: A proposition is not a blend of words. — (Just as a theme of music is not a blend of notes.) A proposition is articulate.

There is something admirable about the time one takes to arrange  sentences in such a way that they represent the inter-relationships amongst ideas, events, actors, and more. 

If you have the chance, please visit the Commanding Sentences notes/quote section. To help guide you, the following represents the logical sequence of the categorised quotes:

  • Introduction: We start with the recognition that a sentence has the capacity to “communicates a situation to us”;
  • Picture Theory: That in a proposition “a situation is, as it were, constructed by way of experiment”;
  • Decoding/Projecting/Processing: However, a proposition stands in need of decoding and processing, since “a sentence is given [to] me in code together with the key”;
  • Reasoning: Every sensical sentence expresses a sense but it is up to us to determine “its truth or falsity” and to decipher its purpose/intention;
  • Making Meaning: It is up to use to determine the meaning of a sentence, and “some sentences have to be read several times to be understood”;
  • Discussing & Discourse: To understand a sentence, we must also appeal to the conversation it is part of, because if you are to “understand anything in language, you must understand what the dialogue is, and you must see how understanding grows as the dialogue grow.”
  • Linguistic & Intellectual Turns: We come to develop a rich set of grammatical forms that allow us to make intellectual moves, since a “discipline in form is a discipline in thought” (also see Building knowledge through discussion); and
  • Action: We apply these sentences to get things done, since “*speaking* of language is part of an activity, or of a life-form”. Therefore, “reading and writing in any domain … are not just ways of decoding print, they are also caught up with and in social practices.”

I welcome you to explore and enjoy!