On Not Understanding Wittgenstein

Ludwig WittgensteinArt theorist and painter Gian Paolo Lomazzo was born on this day in 1538. French master Eugene Delacroix was born in 1798. American impressionist Edmund C. Tarbell was born in 1862. And everyone’s favorite Nazi Rudolf Hess was born in 1894.

Carol Burnett is 80 today!

But the day does not belong to painters, comedians, or even Nazis. No, today belongs to the great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. It’s hard to know what to say about him. His work was largely analytical—more math than philosophy. What I find most interesting is his discussions of how language maps to reality and how we can transcend the limits of language. Umberto Eco in his essay “Absolute and Relative” puts it well:

[I]t would be quite enough for an Eskimo to meet us to understand perfectly well that when we say “snow” for the four things that he supposedly describes in different ways, we are behaving in the same way as a Frenchman who used the word glace for ice, glacier, ice cream, mirror, and window glass—and the Frenchman isn’t such a prisoner of his own language that he shaves in the morning looking at himself in an ice cream.

It’s that kind of stuff. But harder.

Happy birthday Ludwig Wittgenstein!

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “On Not Understanding Wittgenstein

  1. I don’t recommend shaving in the ice cream. There are better uses for it. Same goes for eating the "glace".

  2. @Thras – It’s a constant problem. I never can tell is I read a book or have read a book. I keep trying to figure out how I was able to think enough to learn to talk when I could only think by talking. Confusing!

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