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LostInParadise's avatar

What do you think of Wittgenstein's statement, Whereof one cannot speak, thereon one must remain silent?

Asked by LostInParadise (17812 points ) July 2nd, 2012

The statement flows much better in the original, since German has a word for being silent. Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen. I think it is a wonderful statement, that is unfortunately not followed enough. It would eliminate so much BS.

I have no problem with feelings expressed in poetry. There is more to words than their literal meaning. What bothers me is people like Karen Armstrong, a purported follower of Wittgenstein, who has written several books on God and come to the conclusion that God is beyond verbal description. Anybody for irony?

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32 Answers

thetas49's avatar

Solid advice, oh too often ignored!!

ragingloli's avatar

Also known as “If you don’t know what you are talking about, shut the f*ck up!”
And yes, I can taste the irony.
(And if that woman thinks that “god is beyond verbal description”, perhaps she should consider buying a dictionary.)

elbanditoroso's avatar

I disagree. It is through discourse (and conversation, and discovery) that progress is made towards understanding. Saying nothing because you are ‘ill informed’ seems like self-induced censorship, and is counter to learning and intellectual development.

One might argue that the time to speak up is precisely when you do not know enough to speak, in order to gain the knowledge.

Armstrong would be one of many proofs of my contention – if no one can truly know god, then it is incumbent upon us to speak of the godly phenomenon in order to try and achieve that understanding.

but the same principle holds for science as well – if we had not spoken because we knew nothing about quanta, then how would we have developed quantum physics?

Wittgenstein is wrong on this one.

bkcunningham's avatar

@elbanditoroso, at his death, Wittgenstein was writing his second book to show how wrong he was with Tractatus. He died before the work was completed.

http://www-history.mcs.st-and.ac.uk/Obits/Wittgenstein.html

digitalimpression's avatar

I don’t know, I think it’s still fun to talk about things that you don’t know much about. Can’t it just be conversation sometimes? Must it always be so serious?

LostInParadise's avatar

@elbanditoroso, @bkcunningham There is a difference between not understanding something and not having anything to say about it. If there is some phenomenon that I do not understand, there may still be a great deal I can say to describe my observation of it and to describe my reaction to it. On the other hand, to say that something lies beyond perception, direct or indirect, is to talk nonsense.

cazzie's avatar

I can just hear him use that as his excuse for ignoring his female guests and lecturing on refusing women the vote. He was a bit of a misogynist.

ragingloli's avatar

I think that rule applies to fields where there already exists a body of knowledge and person X, who has not bothered to learn anything, starts talking about the topic as if he were an expert.
Like creationists.

thorninmud's avatar

I’ve only read a smattering of Armstrong’s writings, but what I’ve seen is more an exploration of how God has been represented, and the ways people have related to their concept of God. That’s a very legitimate line of inquiry, and hardly conflicts with her conclusion that God can’t be described. It’s more a recognition that God has been described in various ways, and that those conceptualizations have had major repercussions. Maybe I’ve missed instances where she puts forward her particular vision of God.

We certainly speak of energy all the time, and I’m not sure we actually know what that is even now. We know what it does and how it behaves, but it’s pretty resistant to conceptualization in itself. And it can’t even be contrasted with its opposite; what isn’t energy after all? It’s fundamental to everything, right? In the act of describing anything at all, I’m describing a particular manifestation of energy. But I couldn’t begin to describe energy apart from its manifestations.

We do nevertheless assume that energy is something, and we feel free to talk about it.

linguaphile's avatar

Armstrong’s statement isn’t original.

The Way that can be told of is not an unvarying way;
The names that can be named are not unvarying names.
It was from the Nameless that Heaven and Earth sprang;
The named is but the mother that rears the ten thousand creatures, each after its kind. (chap. 1, tr. Waley)
The Tao Te Ching opens with, basically, that God/The Way are impossible to describe.

It’s interesting when compared to this, from John 1:1
1 In the beginning there was the Word. The Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Several other religious texts mention similar concepts—God/The Great Spirit/Whatever’s-out-there can’t be described.

I disagree, though, with remaining silent. I believe that through interactions and discussions, we learn..

wundayatta's avatar

I think it’s the kind of elitist statement that some academics will make when they want to shut up other people so they can talk all the time.

tups's avatar

I don’t think talking always has to be intellectual and clever (which it rarely is anyways) and sometimes people can just talk about nothing. But I do think talking is an overrated form of communication though. It seems like the only way people can get to know new people and the way people communicate is talking. The greatest talkers are usually the most popular people. It would be nice if people could just be together sometimes, without having to think of something to say all the time.

marinelife's avatar

Well, if true, it would be the end of FLuther as we know it, wouldn’t it?

LostInParadise's avatar

Talk does not have to be profound, but it should be about something. There is nothing wrong with silence either. I can’t remember who said, but I like the quote that a friend is someone with whom you can be silent. Would be difficult to do on Fluther though.

wundayatta's avatar

@LostInParadise Talk is always about something. If you think it isn’t, you don’t know how to understand.

digitalimpression's avatar

@ragingloli You had a good point until you ruined it with a slam at creationists. It was wise and insightful and I was excited and then… then the insult came.

There’s a time and a place where stating your observations about a subject you haven’t studied is certainly acceptable… like in a group of reasonable people who enjoy conversation.

Of course, I wouldn’t amble into a rocket science convention and start screaming “you’re all rubbish, rockets are made of cheese and are powered by fish-sticks!”.

Then again, what do I know?.. I haven’t written a children’s dictionary or punched kids who were trying to learn math.

ragingloli's avatar

@digitalimpression
Why does that upset you? It is a valid example.
Whenever creationists (or “intelligent design proponents/proponentsists” as some of them call themselves.) try to discredit or “disprove” evolution, they almost immediately expose their complete lack of any sort of understanding of the theory of evolution, and in many cases even basic science.

LostInParadise's avatar

@wundayatta , If it helps to secure social bonds, there is nothing wrong with speaking nonsense, as long as people do not try to pass it off as profundity. It is one thing when Medieval churchmen talked among themselves about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin and something else when they try to convince the public that they are discussing something substantial.

josie's avatar

Have you read any of Armstrong’s books. Considering she spent several years as a nun, they are pretty objective.
By the way, I do not agree with Wittgenstein.
People who hold objectively incorrect opinions or are simply crazy, should speak up, so we know who they are.

digitalimpression's avatar

@ragingloli A more appropriate term would be “disappointed”. You could have said atheists, Jewish people, or pickles.. it makes no difference. My point was that the insult was unnecessary. As far as your position on creationism.. well.. it would be a bit off-topic to respond here… not to mention it has been done to death.

Not for nothing, but when someone isn’t knowledgeable on a subject they might learn something by speaking with those that do. It is the manner in which said person approaches such a conversation that should have been the subject of this quote.. not advice to avoid it entirely.

LostInParadise's avatar

@josie , I have read excerpts of Karen Armstrong’s books and I have heard interviews with her. In my opinion, she preaches a kind of religion lite that is indistinguishable from atheism. Her god, who is beyond words, does not do anything.

I am no religious scholar, but her statement that fundamentalism is a recent development does not seem right to me. I can’t believe, for example, that Jews in the distant past interpreted the Bible metaphorically.

Dr_Lawrence's avatar

Since I know nothing about Karen Armstrong, I will withhold comment. If however I were interested in knowing more, I would be a fool to withhold good questions.

Just shutting up is no way to learn. Wittgenstein’s statement, narrowly interpreted may comfort insular scholars who value the silence of others but it denies the value of intelligent inquiry.

We learn by listening, reading and discussing.

flutherother's avatar

“The purpose of a fish trap is to catch fish, and when the fish are caught the trap is forgotten. The purpose of a rabbit snare is to catch rabbits. When the rabbits are caught, the snare is forgotten. The purpose of the word is to convey ideas. When the ideas are grasped, the words are forgotten. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words? He is the one I would like to talk to.”

Chuang Tzu

LostInParadise's avatar

I like that. Unfortunately, when the words contain no ideas people tend to cling to the words.

thesparrow's avatar

Wittgenstein was all about language. He saw that language makes up everything; there is nothing outside of language. Umm.. that was pretty much all I’ve gathered about Wittgenstein ..

@cazzie They all were. Check out Nietzsche, Kant and Aristotle on women.

wundayatta's avatar

@LostInParadise if you think that all or even most of the content of talk is semantic, then I submit that you are missing out on an awful lot.

LostInParadise's avatar

Could you give an example of what you are talking about? It seems to me that most speech is still about something. Poems are examples of the incorporation of non-semantic elements of words to convey meaning, but they are still saying something.

The philosopher Daniel Dennett has come up with the term deepity to describe pious sounding nonsense. It reminds me of Steven Colbert’s word truthiness.

wundayatta's avatar

Most people think of it as body language. There’s a lot going on in any conversation that doesn’t happen with words or the meaning of words. There is also content that has to do with the sound of words, separate from any semantic content.

We could have a conversation filled with nonsense words, but the conversation would not necessarily be nonsense. You might think of it as a dance or a sound duet. We would be convening information about how we feel about each other, or our ability to work together, or directing each other’s attention to various places. We might be talking about movement, or, well, an awful lot of other things.

This is stuff that most people pick up without being aware they are even tuning into it. There is also presentation content: what we say by they way we present ourselves physically—the clothes we wear and the make-up we wear and our grooming. There are cultural cues that have to do with the way we use our eyes and hands, etc.

I don’t know how much information transfer is not necessarily contained in our manipulation of symbols, but I would be comfortable guessing that half of a conversation is non-verbal. Maybe someone has researched this and has another estimate. I find that people generally see a lot less going on than I do. But I have dance and musical training, so that might account for why I can get more out of it.

That nonverbal half happens whether the words mean anything or not. So conversations that most people would say are pointless or meaningless are generally far from meaningless for me. But I have a lot of experience in paying attention to these other things and in knowing how to bring them to conscious awareness and interpret them.

LostInParadise's avatar

The fact that you can draw inferences means that there is some meaning that is being conveyed, even if it is unintentional.

This is a really good review of one of Karen Armstrong’s books that may be in line with what you are saying. Personally, I think the review is much too polite.

wundayatta's avatar

Ick. Not sure how you relate Armstrong to what I’m talking about. I’m not talking about words that sound meaningful. I’m talking more about the ways we communicate without words. These are not magic. They may be a little tough to interpret, but I suspect we will eventually come to understand the mechanism in much greater detail.

LostInParadise's avatar

I agree with you that we can communicate without words and that we do so even when we use words. I don’t see how that relates to the fact that some people talk nonsense. This nonsense may tell us something about the state of their minds, but it is still nonsense. It is not even false, but is devoid of meaning. When a paranoid claims that he is being pursued, that is at least a testable idea. When Karen Armstrong says that God is beyond words, she is uttering gibberish. I don’t know how to make this any plainer.

wundayatta's avatar

Oh, I see. It’s a metaphor for what you think of the meaning of her words.

I think we’re talking past each other here, then. I’m just saying that whether someone is speaking literal gibberish or metaphorical gibberish, there is still other meaning being conveyed nonverbally.

But you’re making a political statement. One that I agree with. I mistook the point of this question. I thought you actually were concerned with meaning.

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