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Wittgenstein’s 4 Principles of Communication

2010 September 19

I was still in high school in the 1980’s when I first heard the term “information age.” I wasn’t quite sure what it meant, but it seemed to be important then and has since proved to be a true revolution.

It is clear now that the information age is now giving way to the communication age.  There is an abundance of data, but getting the right information to where it can be most useful is where real value is created today.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the most intriguing characters of the 20th century, can help guide us.  Ironically, despite being a profound thinker about communication, he was somewhat inscrutable himself.  Nevertheless,  there is much we can learn from him if we make a little effort.

A Short History

Early in the 20th Century, at about the same time and in the same place where G.H Hardy discovered Ramanujan, the scion of one of Europe’s richest families burst into Bertrand Russell’s chambers at Cambridge and insisted that there could be an elephant in the room.  Nonplussed, but intrigued, Russell took Wittgenstein on as his protege.

World War I intervened and Wittgenstein found himself on the other side, fighting for Austria.  He was presumed dead, but toward the end of the war got a note out from an Italian prison camp that he had, while lying in the trenches, solved the problems of logic.  The result was one of the classics of 20th century philosophy, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

Then, having accomplished that, he decided to quit philosophy, renounce his fortune and teach grammar school in poor villages in the Austrian Alps.  He was not popular there, but found himself anointed a saint by the Vienna Circle, most of whom he couldn’t stand.

Unhappy and frustrated, he returned to Cambridge. He was met by John Maynard Keynes who announced to his wife, “God arrived today, I met him on the 4:15 train.”  Over the next decades, Wittgenstein wrote in his journal, read cheap detective novels, watched cowboy movies and told his students that philosophy was a waste of time.

His notes were published posthumously as Philosophical Investigations, which along with the Tractatus, forms the body of Wittgenstein’s thought on communication.  Here’s a summary in four principles:

Be Concrete

One of the foundations of Wittgenstein’s thought is his picture theory of language, which evolved into what is now called the verification principle, first formulated by A.J. Ayer. The basic idea is that for statements to be logical and useful they must refer to verifiable facts.

As an example, look at these three statements:

1. The President is the head of the of the US government

2. Barack Obama is the President of the United States

3. Barack Obama is a bad man

The first statement is an identity, it is true by definition.  The second statement is easily verified, by checking election results, visiting the Oval Office, etc.  The last statement is merely an opinion and therefore logically meaningless because it can’t be verified.

Maybe someone thinks Barack Obama is a bad man because he speaks with his mouth full or because he runs over small children in the presidential limousine.  Either of those statements could be verified or disproved.  However, opinions can’t be, so they don’t have truth value and therefore don’t communicate much.

In a similar way, we are often told that we must “innovate or die,” seek out “blue oceans” and that it’s now “all about the conversation.” These things tell us very little, if anything at all.  Much of the confusion in business could be dispelled if discourse was limited to verifiable statements and poetry was left to the poets.

Break Things Down into Atomic Facts

One thing that drove the ordinarily eccentric Wittgenstein positively insane was the tendency for philosophers to force universal concepts.  He saw this as causing unnecessarily confusion and advocated what he called aspect seeing.  To get an idea of what he meant, take a look at the famous Klitschko brothers below.

They are obviously very similar.  Both are big, strong guys with dark hair who are world champion boxers and share the same mother and father (even having met them both on several occasions, I still sometimes have trouble remembering which one is which).

The problem comes when you try to identify what is the “essence” of Klitschko or the “Klitschkoness” that is essential to their being.  If you just accept that one is Vitaly and one is Vladimir and leave it at that, there is no confusion.  Wittgenstein called this “letting the fly out of the bottle.”

Whenever we generalize, we lose information.  Sometimes, that’s necessary – we can’t be expected to describe every detail when all we want to do is make a simple point.  However, different aspects of a situation need to stand on their own.  Problems need to be broken down into atomic facts if they are to be solved.

If You Can’t Express It, You Don’t Know It

It is fairly common to hear people say, “I know what I mean, but can’t explain it to a non-specialist.”

If you can’t express what you mean, you never really did know it in the first place. Wittgenstein pointed out that people who say such things really mean that they have their own private language that nobody else can understand.

People who need to use latest neologisms and an alphabet soup of acronyms aren’t communicating, they’re obfuscating.  Instead of being able to speak in a common language, they say things like:

I communicate the USP to the target demographic, while maximizing CTR by implementing the latest in SMM strategies.”

Huh?

There’s really no reason to speak like that.  If you truly know what you’re doing, you should be able to explain it to your mother or anyone in the street.  Want to spot the incompetent at a meeting, look for who uses the most acronyms.

Some Things Cannot Be Said, They Can Only Be Shown

Wittgenstein’s first great work, the Tractatus, was almost hopelessly byzantine and dense.  It is a series of 6 propositions, each followed by pages and pages of sub-propositions, weaving an intricately balanced argument of how logic should be practiced.

However, the most famous is the 7th and last proposition, which stands on its own:

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent

What he meant was that good communication is essentially about humility and discipline.  We can’t explain everything because we can’t know everything and it’s important to make the distinction between what can and can’t be communicated effectively.

A Simple Legacy From a Complex Genius

It’s unfortunate that Wittgenstein himself was such a poor communicator and so inaccessible, both in person and in writing, for his ideas are sorely needed in modern society.  Many business problems could be avoided if people were more concrete, broke things down into atomic facts, spoke in a common language and refrained from speaking about what they don’t know.

However, I would like to add a 5th rule of my own: Good communication starts and ends with the desire to be understood rather than to impress.

We all like to look sophisticated and it’s easy to confuse the unintelligible with the profound.  Using big words and acronyms can convey a veneer of sophistication to even the most vacuous idea. So it’s not surprising that many people fall into the trap of confusing when they should be informing.

But make no mistake: It is a trap.  Communication is effective only when it breeds understanding.

– Greg

21 Responses leave one →
  1. David permalink
    September 19, 2010

    Well said. I think the ‘humility and discipline’ parts are the key.

    More business gets done through unclear communication – not productive work, but increased workloads leading to greater trade and profit. So maybe not so bad. Thoughts?

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    David,

    I’m not sure how unproductive work can lead to greater profit. It would seem to me to be quite the opposite.

    – Greg

    [Reply]

    Pat Parslow Reply:

    I suspect that it depends on your definition of ‘productive’, and how the economics of the situation are set up.
    As a computer programmer, I, along with many others, tend to find meetings are generally unproductive. No code is being written, and seldom is any design or architecture being created. These meetings, however, are often time consuming and because people are often paid for the time they spend on a task, increase the profit taken by the provider. The customer, in the meantime, gains a greater feeling of ownership and control over the process.
    Even in a piece-work scenario, the time taken to meet enables the producer to convince the customer that the work is of a sufficiently high standard, and that implementing ‘X’ is not necessary or desirable. This is non-productive use of time, but does increase efficiency, and, in turn, profit.
    I wouldn’t say this is the ideal situation, but it is certainly how things work, in my experience.
    Pat Parslow´s last blog post ..ThisIsMe in school

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Pat,

    I guess it’s a matter of perspective. I think that clients would be irresponsible not to check up on suppliers. There are people in their organization whose work depends on you delivering on spec and on time. So while it might not seem productive from your point of view, it is probably very productive for clients to understand what is going on with the project they contracted for.

    – Greg

  2. September 19, 2010

    Really nice post Greg. The point about not knowing it if you can’t express is dead-on. One of my earliest managers was mostly full of crap, but one thing he always said that was true was that if you can’t explain it to an intelligent layperson, then you don’t actually understand it yourself. We were trying to explain industrial chemistry to people that usually had a high-school education and English as a second language – so this was occasionally challenging. But I think the point is very much correct.
    Tim Kastelle´s last blog post ..Vote for Three Good Innovation Bloggers

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Very nice explanation, Tim. Even I could understand it!

    :-)))

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  3. September 20, 2010

    Logic is of course useful in communication – yet limited for a number of reasons – one being that language is simply symbols and noises representing thoughts, feelings and sensations. It seems obvious when you say it – but from a writer’s perspective it’s worth bearing in mind. The other problem is that we have left and right brain and two very different ways of comparing and analyzing data. And you can add within that processing system a trillion other layers of complexity regarding layers of emotional context built up over our lifetime for our comparative data analysis – from status issues to fear of the unknown. The only rule of thumb really is to know who you are communicating to a well as possible – try and figure out as close to jazz as you can what the mix of emotional logical attachment/detachment they have to the subject in question and match your pitch in a manner that fits their context (not your ambitions). Of course all I have said is rather unverifiable and non-specific – but I bet you get the gist. It also happens to be true – in my experience. Love and peace. Uncle Jimi. Greg – yu tha man.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Thanks, Jimi.

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  4. December 4, 2010

    It’s been a long time since I read Wittgenstein (BA, Philosophy, GWU, 1967), but I do remember that although he believed that to communicate you had to make yourself understandable, was, himself, not understandable. I remember him as insightful and I respect him as a truly benchmark philosopher with great impact.

    I think there is a more recent book on communicating and understanding that is critically important. It is The Origins of Human Communications, written by Michael Tomasello, who is with the Max Planck Institute — you can get the book at Amazon, or simply read the free sample the provide here: http://tinyurl.com/b7467y. Using his own original scientific, anthropological and psychological research, along with research by others, Tomasello lays out a research-based argument that humans (hominids) communicate for one basic reason: to collaborate! This is a fascinating premise. If you assume that it is true (I do, after having read the book), it might very well change the way you look at organizational structure, what makes communications truly effective, etc. I think it is very important (BTW, it has received major recognition and is highly respected).

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Doug,

    Your right, it is ironic that despite making important communications to the philosophy of communication, Wittgenstein was famously opaque himself.

    Thanks for the recommendation. It’s on my Amazon list now:-)

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  5. December 5, 2010

    Greg,

    A great post. Not many folks look at LW for guidance in IT. Practitioners quickly get lost in “Classes”, “Properties”, “Semantics”, etc. There is a area of Philosophy, Ontology, that deals with tangible objects. Unfortunately it has been co-opted by Artificial Intelligence and used to describe language semantics. Wittgenstein’s work was the basis for early 20th century development of Ontology.

    LW also stressed that language and knowledge are social constructs. Language is created through language “games”. If I wanted to teach you the concept RED, I would show you crayons, bricks, Irishmen, roses, etc until you could show me that you “know Red” by picking out a red sweater at a store. I have taught you “Red”. The concept is loose and ill defined, but works in a social organization.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Hal,

    Thanks for this. It is true that philosophical ontology and the ontologies being used for semantic applications are vastly different. Not sure how that happened.

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  6. December 6, 2010

    Hi Greg

    Helpful post. You might enjoy Robert Thouless’s “Straight & Crooked Thinking”, available for download free, here: http://tinyurl.com/32he7sc

    Lucid, practical and funny.

    Kind regards

    Geoffrey

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Thx for the tip!

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  7. George permalink
    March 27, 2013

    I solemnly believe that nobody who has read Tractatus Logicus Philosophicus thinks that “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent” has anything to do with humility.
    Now here we have a problem:
    1) Either you have never read Tractatus Logicus Philosophicus (which is totally understandable, it’s long and hard to read and I am sure you just wanted to write an article about your blog/website)
    Or
    2) You are the first person to have read Tractatus Logicus Philosophicus and interpret the 7th proposition as a cry for humility. If that is the case (I consider that improbable yet possible) please explain to me what made you relate Wittgenstein’s line to humility, cause I honestly did not receive that at all from reading the book myself and talking about it in class and with friends.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Well, everybody is entitled to their opinion, but I am certainly not the first to interpret it that way. George Monk, the British philosopher, for example, is quite adamant on that point.

    Thanks for your comment.

    – Greg

    [Reply]

    George Reply:

    Hello Greg,

    Who is George Monk? Cause I literally have never heard of him (I was a philosophy major in college) and not even the internet seems to know him. Again, I am asking because I would like to read him.

    Thank you,
    George

    [Reply]

  8. George permalink
    March 27, 2013

    Hahahah!

    Did you mean Ray Monk? The guy who wrote a book on how to read Wittgenstein?
    You also did not answer my question on whether or not you have read the book in question.

    I apologize for my behavior, it really isn’t appropriate and I am aware. I am just bothered by the fact that my whole entity is convinced (especially after the “George Monk” incident and your response) that you have not read Tractatus Logicus Philosophicus (again, nothing wrong with not having read it, the article is meant to talk about Wittgenstein in general). At the same time you neither cast doubts to my conviction nor do you heroically admit that you haven’t read it. If you have, would you please care to explain to me then, why you think (although that’s not what you said in the article; in the article you write “What he meant was that good communication…” as if you have spoken to Ludwig in private and he told you that this was what he meant) that Wittgenstein refers to humility and discipline in his last proposition at Tractatus Logicus Philosophicus .

    I will understand if you won’t put up this comment, it’s not a praising one. However, regardless of whether or not you do, I would sincerely appreciate it if you could answer to me, I am only asking with the best intentions.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Yes, Sorry. I meant Ray Monk. I guess I confused his name with yours because you are obviously a scholar of equal calibre.

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  9. George permalink
    March 28, 2013

    It saddens me that you have to resort to mockery cause for a second there I thought you would actually answer my question (since it took you longer to respond), but you didn’t. I apologized many times in my comments if I were coming off too strong, I am just passionate about logic; I thought you were too. What I was trying to do is get you to defend your opinion that the last proposition in Tractatus Logicus Philosophicus highlights the importance of humility. I don’t want to give up, for it seems to me that you are a supporter of communication and I hope that you will decide to stop your ad hominem remarks and share some of your knowledge with me. Once more, I really hope you do.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I suggest you read Mr. Monk’s analysis. He has spent a lifetime studying Wittgenstein and I’m sure you will find it educational.

    – Greg

    [Reply]

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