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Wittgenstein Language theories




Ludwig Wittgenstein was born in 1889 to a wealthy protestant father who was a Jewish convert, and a catholic mother.14 His family was not only a wealthy one, but also rich in intellectual and artistic talents. His life was held to have been dominated by an obsession with moral and philosophical perfection.15 He was baptized and buried a catholic, but neither did he practice nor was he a believer. He was the youngest of eight children, but three of four brothers committed suicide.16 He inherited a fortune after his father death in 1913 but he gave them up, volunteered for the Austrian army during the war, and there he earned so much medal for his bravery. Although he studied engineering and researched on aeronautical design in the University of Manchester, he forfeited all these after developing interest in pure mathematics and the philosophical foundations of mathematics.17 Following these desires, he engaged the works of Bertrand Russell, and further enrolled in the Trinity college at Cambridge in 1912 to study with Russell.

Russell, recognizing Wittgenstein’s zeal and passion for philosophy, predicted to Wittgenstein’s sister that he would become the next philosophical sensation.18 This prediction turned out to be fulfilled as Wittgenstein’s work has reverberated in philosophical discourses till date, all thanks to the wonderful theories proposed in the Tractus Logico Philosophicus (1921) and Philosophical Investigations (1953).

After publishing his Tractatus, Wittgenstein took a break from philosophical voyage and took up teaching in an elementary school in Austria from 1920-1926.19 He also served as a gardener assistant in a monastery, spent years designing his sister’s house , after which he took up the philosophical mantle again. He returned to Cambridge in 1929 to do a research in philosophy, and was eventually made a trinity college fellow.20 Also, he began giving series of informal lectures, which came in the form of dialogues, to a group of selected students in 1930.21 These lectures were circulated around Cambridge by his students, and were eventually published after his death as The Blue-Brown Books.22 During the second world war, he worked as a hospital porter in London, and a research technician in Newcastle, after which he returned to his lecturing job after the war. Wittgenstein’s second philosophical voyage gradually reached its culmination first in his retirement from teaching in 1947, leaving him with the research he picked up after his retirement.23 He died on April 29, 1951 after a bout of illness, and two years after his death, his Philosophical Investigations was published, giving rise to a new dimension of analytic philosophy.24 Wittgenstein influenced the 20th century philosophers greatly, ranging from the Vienna circle Logical Positivists to the Oxford school of thought.25 He greatly admired the works of Plato and Liebniz, and was greatly influenced by Schopenhauer, Russell, and Frege.


Wittgenstein posited the picture theory in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. The Tractatus is a small book which contains series of short numbered statements in seven set, with the seventh set containing only the famous premise, ‘when we cannot speak about; we must pass over in silence’26. It was published before Wittgenstein was 30. The philosophical insights posited in it has been opined to be the bridge between Russell’s logical atomism and logical positivism.27 Despite the differences, these philosophical current, and that captured in the Tractatus can be summed up in three points, namely;28

  1. The repudiation of traditional metaphysics

  2. The attempt to reduce language to a series of elementary propositions that will correspond to observable facts

  3. The attempt to develop a theory of language that would establish the boundaries of meaning.

Wittgenstein begins his Tractatus by asserting that the world is made up of facts which are divided into simple or complex facts.29 These facts, according to Wittgenstein, are the existence of the state of affairs, and despite the fact they appear complex, they are only a combination of atomic facts. By these, he bought Russell idea of logical-atomism which holds that, despite the complex nature of the world, it is made up of simple units.30 Thus in the same vein, language in language is made up of atomic proposition which cannot be further analysed, and molecular propositions which are constituted of atomic propositions.

In his picture theory, he holds that in every form of propositions or sentences, there is a hidden structure.31 This came to him after seeing a car accident being represented in a law court by means of small models in a magazine. For him, these models or images could be used to construct different types of proposition. A proposition, should be a picture of reality, for if I understand a proposition, I know the situation it represents, and I understand the picture without having it explained to me.32 Thus, for Wittgenstein, a proposition should carry sense in itself. 33(4.022). By these, he emphasizes that just as the meaning of the picture is not explained before we understand, so also it should be for propositions. G.O. Ozumba holds that Wittgenstein’s stand is built on the belief that there is a one-to-one correspondence of the elements that appears in language and the facts which it pictures.34 Thus, while atomic proposition picture atomic facts, molecular proposition picture molecular ones. From this we can deduce that the truth of molecular proposition, since it is dependent on the atomic proposition, are also dependent on the truth of atomic proposition. These atomic propositions are made up of name, signs and symbols, but these do not picture facts in the sense of fact in Wittgenstein’s picture theory. 35 This is because for Wittgenstein, pictorial function is done on a sentential level. He holds that sentences possess form and structure that is needed to picture reality which also possess form and structure.36 He further asserts that there is a one-to-one correspondence in the elements of the structures of reality, and if pictured accurately by language produces the true picture of reality.37 This assertion raises a question as to whether propositions in Wittgenstein’s picture theory can fail to picture true reality .


holds that a picture depicts reality by representing a possibility of existence or non-existence of state of affairs.38 Thus, in attempting the question of the possibility of the falsity of a proposition, he opines that a proposition can simply be the arrangements of name, rather than an arrangement of objects signified by the names.39 By these, he asserts that it is the duty of a proposition to create an image corresponding to reality, but it is the duty of logical analysis the decipher the extent of the correspondence, i.e. the extent of the truthfulness or falsity.

He maintains that the truth or falsity of a proposition can be discerned or evaluated through the picture or model it portrays.40 Reality, thus becomes conspicuous through logical analysis of language, and it is by this means that philosophical problems will be solved.41 From these, we can decipher that truth for Wittgenstein is the ability of a statement to correspond to the fact or reality it seeks to present, as emphasized in the correspondence theory of truth.


Another important part of Wittgenstein’s picture theory is the establishment of the limit of language. He does not assume that language has all it takes to express every form of event or experience, hence the establishment of the limit.

Wittgenstein’s philosophical views in the Tractatus has been held to take a form of ‘linguistic Kantianism’.42 By these, the limits of language is established just as the limit of human knowledge in Kant’s noumena and phenomena. Wittgenstein believed that the task of language is in its representation of the state of affairs in the world, and that the relationship between the elements of a proposition is the same as the logical relationship among objects of the world.43 Simply put, a proposition is meaningful if it describes a specific, possible situation within the world. He further claims that;44

  1. The only meaningful language is the fact stating language of the natural sciences. (T4.11)

  2. A correct understanding of the logic of language would eliminate most traditional philosophy. (T4.0003)

  3. Philosophy does not give any data about reality. Thus, it should be concerned about clarification of propositions. (T4.112)

This doctrine of Wittgenstein is not so much distant from the earlier positions of logical atomism and positivism. What then makes his work unique?

Like Kant, Wittgenstein places a limit to language. While before the boundary, i.e. the domain of language, he opines that all that exists there should be the propositions of science; after the boundary of language exists what Wittgenstein terms the ‘Mystical’.45 The mystical, for Wittgenstein, those things that are inexpressible in human languages since they transcend its domain. Thus, the mystical manifests itself in the world, and through its manifestations, we gain perception of their existence.46 So, language is not meant to delve into the ‘mystical, realm, or it risks over stepping its boundaries.47 Some of the concepts that Wittgenstein categorizes into the mystical includes the ego (the subject of language), death, God, and language itself. Clarifying the inclusion of ego or man in the category, he held that just as the eyes cannot see itself, so also can the ego not see itself in the language it uses. 48Indeed, this is a major shift from the earlier positions of some of his predecessors who held anything outside to be non-existent.

According to his picture theory of meaning, propositions are meaningful insofar as they picture the states of affair or matters of empirical fact.49 From these we can deduce that, for Wittgenstein, statements that are unempirical like metaphysical statements are not meaningful. However, scholars have pointed out that words like ‘object’, ‘reality’, and ‘world’ are illegitimate, as they are purely formal, priori, and do not represent a picture or state, thus the theory declares the statements of the Tractatus as nonsense. It can also be held that Wittgenstein’s aim might have been to show through nonsense, how philosophers answer questions that are not really relevant or propose theories that are nonsense. Little wonder his proposition in 4.003. More interestingly, his Tractatus has also been held by scholars to be outside the domain of meaningful language since expresses the relationship between language and the world.50 This critique has been accepted by Wittgenstein who held his propositions to be only steps to be used to understand the relationship between the world and language, after which it could be disposed. Little wonder, he later on criticized the pictorial theory of the Tractatus.


The picture theory of Wittgenstein greatly affected and influenced the logical positivists and philosophical discourses afterwards. The resonance of the ideas deposited in the picture theory appeared to have disturbed Wittgenstein that he had to pick up his pen again. Despite the many interpretation and commentary that the theory has gotten, its fundamental position remains that;

  1. Language ought to picture reality

  2. The reality language pictures could either be true or false, depending on its correspondence to the structure of reality which could be deciphered through logical analysis.

  3. There is a limit to language, and after this boundary lies the ‘mystical’

His picture theory is not just limited to visual images, as it incorporates language, music, art, and engineering.

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