Let’s wander in the forest of language on a twisted trail of words

Ludwig Wittgenstein founded his life as a philosopher on the claim that all knowledge and thought could be rigorously mapped and described by mathematical formulae.

But Wittgenstein fled in the opposite direction intellectually after spending months in the trenches of WWI witnessing the absurdity of civilization’s claim to rationality, stability and order. He concluded that all thought, and the language that claimed to describe or embody it, was mysterious, multi-dimensional, subjective, unmappable and unpredictable.

“Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination,” Wittgenstein wrote in his Philosophical Investigations, which was published posthumously in 1953. The tonalities of language and knowledge are too rich and complex ever to be transcribed or fixed on a sheet of paper, Wittgenstein ultimately concluded. Each note depends on ever-shifting contexts, subverted by its neighbors and local ambiance even as it’s played. As Wittgenstein put it in the same book, “Language is a labyrinth of paths. You approach from one side and know your way about; you approach the same place from another side and no longer know your way about.”

Language controls us rather than vice versa, Wittgenstein thought. “If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world,” Wittgenstein wrote, adding that “the limits of your language are the limits of your world.” In this view, we have no hope of controlling language: “The aspects of things that are most important to us are hidden because of their familiarity and simplicity.”

Experiencing language’s mystery is part of what makes our secret word game so wonderful, sparking a feeling of awe, delight and (sometimes) terror at language’s fundamental failure to live up to our expectations for clarity or stability.

Like Hansel and Gretel, we lay down a trail of word crumbs in the forest of thought. But language consumes itself, and by the time we turn back, a few hours or days later, to attempt to retrace the path of our thinking, it’s been consumed. So we create a new trail of words to find our way back to the beginning, the place where we hope to close the loop of logic and finitude. But when we arrive, our starting place has moved a little… or even disappeared.

And, so, onward to another hunt for the secret word at the center of the day’s maze.

[See also: how English shapes our thinking about thinking.]