Some readers of this book may wonder why I quote Ludwig Wittgenstein so often. This essay explains why.
Although no thinker exists totally outside of his environment, Ludwig Wittgenstein came close. Originally schooled in engineering, he entered philosophy by way of formal logic and mathematics. His work is based to a great extent on introspection and rigorous analysis, and his analysis of language set the intellectual climate for much of the twentieth century and resonates today. He is generally considered to be the most influential philosopher of the 20th century – pretty good for a guy few people have heard of!
One of Wittgenstein’s most basic concepts is that language is a “game” in which we all participate; it is a social phenomenon which can be described but not explained.
Grammar is not accountable to any reality. It is grammatical rules that determine meaning (constitute it) and so they themselves are not answerable to any meaning and to that extent are arbitrary.Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Grammar
Because of this aspect of language, we begin to blur the distinction between things-in-themselves and the words which represent those things. We think that the words floating about in our minds have Meaning (with a capital M), separate and distinct from us thinking them. However, Wittgenstein points out:
When I think in language, there aren’t “meanings” going through my mind in addition to the verbal expressions: the language is itself the vehicle of thought.Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations
According to Wittgenstein, many, if not most, of our philosophic problems arise from the misleading nature of language. There are at least ten ways that language misleads us:
Suggesting misleading pictures; surface similarities concealing deeper differences; suggested analogies that can’t be carried out; leading us to try to say what cannot be said; entangling us in our own rules; conflicts between different uses of words; creating out-and-out illusions; giving incorrect accounts of uses of words; inventing a myth of meaning; counting some useless thing as a proposition…
Being thus mislead, we find ourselves in the grip of pathologies of language, which lay hold on us as powerfully as any mental or physical disorder.Finch, H.L., Wittgenstein (book by this title)
In the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, Wittgenstein states that everything that can be said can be said clearly, but not everything can be said. Specifically, direct experience cannot be coded into language. To see why this is, consider the sentence “I went to the store” – this sentence is fraught with generalizations and lack of detail. Not only the obvious things such as what store and what time, but much more subtle things such as the subtle smell of bakery items or the feel of the receipt on your fingers. Direct experience means all of the sense data you experience, most of which cannot be captured in words.
Thus, the very essence of our experience of life cannot be communicated.
What, then, is communicated when we use language? Language is a series of learned abbreviations and approximations which can never fully capture the entire contextual web associated with what we mean when we speak. These abbreviations, approximations, or codes are learned during the learning of our first language. For many of us, especially monolinguals, this code turns in on itself and becomes the very medium of thought which is thus constrained by the coding system we have learned. It is upon reaching this point in his thinking that Wittgenstein (1922), thinking that he had resolved the issue, wrote: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
In the end, Wittgenstein gives us a solid, logic-based, argument for the necessity of mysticism.
There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
 As a quick thought experiment, describe the smell of coffee without using the word “coffee.”