Wittgenstein’s 4 Principles of Communication
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:
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.”
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.