Wittgenstein, Language, and Logic

By Eric Bright

Ludwig Wittgenstein

A few days ago, David Harvey asked the following question in my Google+ Philosophy Community:

Can anyone help me with Wittgenstein’s thoughts on language? I find his ideas mad, but I can’t help but wonder whether my teacher is twisting what his ideas are slightly (I never feel I can rely on them for correct information…) We’re doing Religious Language in class and my teacher has said that Wittgenstein said that like the rules of a game of chess cannot be used for a game of basketball, the rules of language cannot be used for another. Then, and this part I’m a bit sceptical of, my teacher said that, for example, he would argue that an atheist cannot critique the theist’s view as they are talking with different base ideas (or in different “languages”).

To me, I think this is simply about tautologies to do with statements. So, it is tautological that a Christian believes Jesus is the son of god whilst a non-Christian would not think so…

Furthermore, it is argued that even if we spoke the same language as a lion, we would not understand it for language is based on experience and the lion has a very different experience to us, but I doubt this for language deals in universals (something I have learned from Russell) and I’m sure if we spoke the same language as a lion we could understand what each other meant by “eating” etc….

I would appreciate someone to lay out Wittgenstein more clearly (Wikipedia isn’t being very informative) and let me know what is wrong here?

Here is my answer to that question:

  1. I am not sure if you are using the term “tautology the same way that it means in logic. To see what “tautology” means in logic, this article might help: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tautology_(logic)So, whatever Christians mean by Jesus being anything and anyone, it cannot be what we mean by tautology. That’s to say, the term is used in a different sense than how it’s used in logic.
  2. If anyone speaks of tautology, and insists that he refers to the concept that exists in logic, he is already using the logical language in which his claim can be assessed. If he says you are not allowed to assess his claim, then he is just plain stupid and does not understand what he is saying, or, alternatively, he thinks that you are stupid.
  3. If he says that he is not using language the way we commonly understand it, then the burden of proof is on him to (3.1.) define his language, (3.2.) to show us its properties and rules bases upon one can and cannot assess statements, (3.3.) to prove that what he has just demonstrated is not the same nor is it overlapping with the way we use language in anyway (i.e. that his new language is not our old language with a different cloak, and (3.4.) to prove that it is a necessary language (i.e. (a) there is not any other way possible or conceivable to speak of the same truths and facts with the language that we already have and (b) his language is the only language that can speak of such truths).

If he can successfully take step (3), then we can sit at a table and talk. Before that point, what he is saying is empty talk and unsubstantiated bluffs.

The problem usually is that such people use logic to prove that they are not using logic; don’t ask me why. After a person takes all the necessary steps to show you that he is not using the language-game as we commonly use it, it would be very easy to show him that all the steps that he has taken, are taken with the language-game that we already have been using.

“65. When language-game changes, then there is a change in concepts, and with the concepts the meanings of words change” says Wittgenstein in On Certainty. That’s true. But, logic, you like it or not, is not a language and nothing in logic means anything per se. There are only place-holders and empty symbols in logic. Logic, does not convey any meaning. It is not even invented. It’s discovered. It tells us about the necessary relationships between propositions. It does not say what those propositions are or should be. It only tells us what follows what IF so and so is assumed and IF such and such steps are taken.

There has not been any way of thinking, not any that I know of, that could avoid logic. No one has been able to show in any way that (1) it is possible to say something that has any meaning AND (2) it is possible to mean it with none of the three laws of thought (which are the foundations of logic) being employed immediately. Anyone who can show otherwise, that’s to say, he can prove, without using logic, that it’s possible to mean anything with none of the three laws of thought already being assumed in meaning it, would probably deserve every award and medal and prizes that humanity has ever reserved for any intellectual endeavour.

But, rest assured, he did not sound that smart to me (from what you explained so far). The way he is misusing Wittgenstein’s language-game play, it’s obvious that either he does not understand it at all, or he thinks he can use it as an excuse to fool unsuspecting audience as if they cannot understand it either.

He probably has forgotten that Wittgenstein also said, “156. In order to make a mistake, a man must already judge in conformity with mankind” (Ibid.) Which also implies that, ‘In order to not make a mistake, a man must already judge in conformity with mankind’.

I would not have argued with him if I were you.

When I posted my answer, another member of our community, Hjalmar Tieman, posted this follow-up question:

Eric, I find it very interesting what you say about logic. I think however that there are more ways of thinking (by thinking I mean mental activity) then logical ones; for instance mythical thinking or poetical thinking, which do not follow the rules of logic. This is of course not something that can be proven, because the concept of prove is a part of logical thinking and does not apply to anything outside that realm; but something that cannot be proven, could still exist. How do you see this? Also, could you tell me what the three laws of thought, of which you speak, are?

In regards to Hjalmar’s question, I am going to answer his second question first:

Please have a look at my earlier post on the laws of thought. They briefly are as follows:

“The law of identity states that an object is the same as itself: A ≡ A.”


“In logic, the law of non-contradiction … states, in the words of Aristotle, that “one cannot say of something that it is and that it is not in the same respect and at the same time”.”


“In logic, the law of excluded middle (or the principle of excluded middle) is the third of the three classic laws of thought. It states that for any proposition, either that proposition is true, or its negation is.”


The conception of logic that Hjalmar is talking about is a common error that most people make, though unintentionally. Let’s dissect the two examples that he talked about and see if they can escape logic in any meaningful way:

Mythical thinking and Poetical thinking

Whatever way of thinking that we might conjure up (or we might not even be able to conceive of many of them), they would have one thing in common: They are ways of thinking.

Even animals that do not use words when they think (or we still have not seen enough evidence to the contrary), they engage in different sorts of mental activities. I bet, when a lioness is looking at a gazelle, she does not think the same way that you and I would do. But, nevertheless, her brain processes the information to make sense of her external environment. Those processes are where and when logic is embedded into; in the fabric of the universe (multiverse, parallel universes and the rest are all included).

How is that?

For a process to go through its due course, the process has to be the same as itself (even a quantum process with all of its uncertainties). As soon as we understood why a process, whatever that process might be, is the same as itself, all the other two laws follow immediately, for the other two are different faces of one another and cannot be without the others. It is not that they come into existence from nowhere when we noticed them. They are there, and then we might or might not notice them.

So far, we are only talking about those thinking ways that use no words and they, for better or for worse, can happen because of this property of our universe in which the three laws flow.

Now, let’s move on to mythical and poetical thinking. These are different ways of thinking, right? They are something in addition to the simple, mechanical ways of processing information that we just discussed. They rely on the more basic forms of data processing and make it even more elaborate. However, they are still operating the same or similar machines that are in brains. When brains are not exceptions when they produce thoughts (be it in a lioness’ brain or Einstein’s brain), then people who use their brains, are necessarily using the machines that unexceptionally operate in such a way that they observe the laws of logic. One might not see it immediately, but it’s there.

Mythical or poetical thinkings, whatever they might be, either convey meanings or do not. If they do not mean anything, then there won’t be much to talk about. But, as soon as them being constructed in such a way that they attempt to convey meaning, any meaning, then immediately they are bound by the laws of logic.

Logic to thoughts is like space-time to things in the universe. There is nowhere in this universe where one can go that it would be outside of space-time. Space-time is not something we can detach from the universe or from any part of the universe. Space-time is not a thing like an atom or a subatomic particle that can be imagined to disappear from this universe in any meaningful way (where you have more space and less time, more time and less space, you are merely shifting the space-time equation from one side of it to the other side). By the same token, logic cannot be set aside while we are composing a piece of poetry or when we engage in mythical thinking. Mythical thinking is precisely called so because of the logical comparison that can be made between it and other kinds of thinkings ( comparison is a logical construct). That’s true about poetic thinking too. It can be distinguished from, let’s say, mathematics, precisely because logic says so, or else, you could not tell them apart. Comparison is logic. The fact that you are able to say, ‘this way of thinking is different from that way of thinking’ is due the fact that logic allows you to make such distinctions (‘this way’ is ‘this way’ and is not ‘that way’ at the same time and in the same respect and so on).

Logic is nothing that can be separated, in any meaningful way, from a process that acts on information.

Please cite this article as: Bright, Eric. (2013) Wittgenstein, Language, and Logic. BlogSophy. https://sophy.ca/blog/2013/01/wittgenstein-language-and-logic/

Tell me what you think below (comments are moderated)