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Humanities LibreTexts

2: Language - Meaning and Definition

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  • The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) was one of the most influential, and controversial, philosophers of the twentieth century. He spent most of his time thinking and writing about languages and how they work, with his theme focusing on the ways that language can create philosophical problems. He started off his career claiming that all philosophical problems are actually linguistic in nature, came up with a way of “proving” that all philosophical problems are actually linguistic ones (and if they’re not linguistic, then they are literally meaningless), left philosophy since there was nothing left to do in it, realized he was wrong, and spent the rest of his life trying to understand all the ways that there are genuine problems in philosophy that actually aren’t linguistic and offering ways that we might better understand them. Regardless of whether one agrees with Wittgenstein’s conclusions, rational people ought to concede he was right about one thing: many disagreements stem from linguistic problems. To resolve this, we simply (though it’s not actually simple) must use language clearly and precisely. If we eliminate all linguistic issues, then we’re left with the more meaningful philosophical problems, and real arguments can now happen since we know exactly what we’re talking about.

    So how do we resolve these linguistic problems? By doing a few things:

    • Appreciating the context in which we are talking, like the situation, audience, etc.
    • Understanding the nature of the claims we are making (Are they generally accepted? Are they our own opinions?)
    • Using simple and precise language (Instead of “There was that one day some time last week” you say “Last Wednesday” or instead of saying, “I don’t believe in religion” since I don’t know if that means you don’t believe religions exists, don’t believe in a particular religion, don’t believe God exists, etc., and instead say, “I don’t have a particular faith I practice because I don’t think any are correct.”)
    • Clearly defining any ambiguous words you might use (like if you say, “I wish I were back at home” when you’re sitting in your living room, I might be wondering about your sanity, but if you say, “I wish I were back home in the town I grew up” then you’ve clarified what you mean by “home.”)

    It’s easy, but tedious, to be clear in your speech and writing. If you practice it, however, it becomes second-nature and you will rarely be misunderstood or misinterpreted.