Friday, February 17, 2012

The Blue Book

Ludwig Wittgenstein made his students dictate a lecture series he gave to them. The book was covered in blue and thus is called “The Blue Book”. In this book, Wittgenstein treated the essential problem of language and thinking.

There is the fundamental gap between the language and the object that the language is trying to identify. For instance, if one says “Please take the pencil there” to his or her mother, how the mother can make sure that the pencil she took is definitely the object, i.e. “the pencil there”? Take another example. Let’s say that your friend says she feels pain. How can you know that?

There are two reasons of the problem, according to Wittgenstein.

One is the usage of word. We don’t have ostensive meaning in words. Most of the words have various meaning, and it is not possible to let one word to identify a specific object, or in other words, no fixed definition can exist. According to Wittgenstein, objects of thought are not the facts, but shadows of facts. We have certain sensations not referring to the object. Thus, he says: “We are unable clearly to circumscribe the concepts we use; not because we don’t know their real definition, but because there is no real definition to them.” (page 25)

Only what we can do is to set the context and to make the gap narrower. As Bertrand Russell wrote in his bookThe Problems of Philosophy“, to collect more sense data could help to fill the gap between the cognition and the object. However, the gap will never be eliminated. What I see cannot be exactly equals to what she sees.

Regarding this point, he quotes what Saint Augustine said: “How is it possible that one should measure time? For the past can’t be measured, as it is gone by; and the future can’t be measured because it has not yet come, and the present can’t be measured for it has no extension.”

Another reason of the problem is the usage of grammar. Here, Wittgenstein seems to use the word “grammar” as something like logical correctness. He claims that we often misuse the grammar and understand the things metaphorically. For instance, we say “The sun rises from the east sea”, but it is not grammatically correct, as the reality is that the earth rotate around the sun.

Take another example. We think thinking as an activity. However, an activity needs to have the location where it takes place. Where is the locality of the activity? In fact, thinking is operating with signs, and not the activity. Thus Wittgenstein argues that: “By misunderstanding the grammar of our expressions, we are led to think of one in particular of these statements as giving the real seat of the activity of thinking.” (page 16)

After pointing our the problem in our thinking, he tries to fix it.

“The scrutiny of the grammar of a word weakens the position of certain fixed standards of our expression which had prevented us from seeing facts with unbiased eyes. Our investigation tried to remove this bias, which forces us to think that the facts must confirm to certain pictures embedded in our language.” (page 43)

To fix the problem, he introduces the concept of Language Game”, which is the form of language with which a child begins to make use of words. The concept is described in “The Brown Book”.


I was just surprised by how smart he is. When I read great books, what I mainly feel is the authors’ belief, perspectives, passion etc, all of which move me pretty much. However, I do not often sense the smartness of the authors. I think it is a book of the genius. Though a bit redundant, his line of reasoning is elegant, and I wish if I could do the same in the future.

Another remark is that, ironically, it is quite difficult to find remarks. He just forces us to face the fundamental problem in our thinking. As we often lose our words when we face unfavorable or surprising truth, I was just overwhelmed by the book.


Ludwig Wittgenstein, "The Blue and Brown Books", Wiley-Blackwell, 1991/1/16

Bertrand Russell, "The Problems of Philosophy", Dover Publications, 1999/1/26

No comments: