Ludwig Wittgenstein and Constructed Languages: Wittgenstein, Esperanto

by T. Peter Park

July 23, 2009

With his deep philosophical interest in language (as in Philosophical Invesigations), and in language and logic (as in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus), we might expect the Austro-English philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) to have been enthusiastically interested in the observations of anthropological linguists like Franz Boas, Edward Sapir, and Benjamin Lee Whorf on the relationship of language and culture. We might likewise expect him to have been passionately interested in constructed international languages like Esperanto and Volapuk, and in the attempts of 17th century thinkers like Wilkins, Dalgarno, and Leibniz to construct a perfectly logical language or characteristica universalis. However, as far as I know, we seem to find none of this in Wittgenstein. He never, as far as I recall, mentioned the work of linguists like Boas, Whorf, or Sapir, nor referred to the grammars of languages like Hopi, Shawnee, Nootka, or Aymará, or even of Chinese, Japanese, or Arabic. He never discussed 17th century thinkers like Wilkins, Dalgarno, and Leibniz. And, as for Esperanto, the most popular and widely publicized artificial language of Wittgenstein’s own time, his attitude was very unsympathetic, even hostile. In a 1946 entry in his notebooks, posthumously published as Culture and Value, he wrote:

«Esperanto. The feeling of disgust we get if we utter an invented word with invented derivative syllables. The word is cold, lacking in associations, and yet it plays at being 'language'. A system of purely written signs would not disgust us so much.» [Ludwig Wittgenstein,  Culture and Value, ed. G.H. von Wright, tr. Peter Winch (University of Chicago Press, 1980, 1984), 1946 notes,  p. 52e]

Wittgenstein wrote this in 1946, but he had held this view for at least the previous two decades, since his involvement with the Logical Positivist “Vienna Circle” in the 1920’s. Most of the Vienna Circle’s members—Moritz Schlick (1882-1936), Rudolf Carnap (1891-1970), etc.—were “hard-nosed scientists, dismissive of metaphysics, moralizing, and spirituality,” who “initially believed that such rejection was also the message of the Tractatus.” It was perhaps inevitable that “misunderstandings and tensions” soon arose between Wittgenstein and the “Circle coterie…bringing divisions in their wake.” In particular, there was “a basic clash of personality” with the “serene, composed Carnap,” who “believed in the desirability of an ideal language,” and “turned out to be an advocate of the artificial language Esperanto.” This “innocuous enthusiasm drove Wittgenstein into a rage.” Language, Wittgenstein “insisted, must be organic” [David Edmonds & John Eidinow, Wittgenstein’s Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 159]

As Carnap himself recalled in his “Intellectual Autobiography,” describing his and Moritz Schlick's meetings with Wittgenstein in 1927:

«Thus there was a striking difference between Wittgenstein's attitude toward philosophical problems and that of Schlick and myself. Our attitude toward philosophical problems was not very different from that which scientists have toward their problems. For us the discussion of doubts and objections of others seemed the best way of testing a new idea in the field of philosophy just as much as in the fields of science; Wittgenstein, on the other hand, tolerated no critical examination by others, once the insight had been gained by an act of inspiration. I sometimes had the impression that the deliberately rational and unemotional attitude of the scientist and likewise any ideas which had the flavor of "enlightenment" were repugnant to Wittgenstein. At our very first meeting with Wittgenstein, Schlick unfortunately mentioned that I was interested in the problem of an international language like Esperanto. As I had expected, Wittgenstein was definitely opposed to this idea. But I was surprised by the vehemence of his emotions. A language which had not "grown organically" seemed to him not only useless but despicable.» [Rudolf Carnap, "Intellectual Autobiography," in: The Philosophy of Rudolf Carnap, ed. Paul Arthur Schilpp (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1963; 3-84), p. 26.]

Carnap’s “impression” about the deliberately rational and unemotional attitude of the scientist and likewise any ideas which had the flavor of ‘enlightenment’” being “repugnant” to Wittgenstein gets to the heart of Wittgenstein’s antipathy toward constructed languages like Esperanto—which he would almost certainly have extended also to Esperanto’s forerunners like the 17th century creations of Wilkins, Dalgarno, and Leibniz, its own contemporary rival Volapuk, and to more recent “conlangs” (constructed languages) like Loglan and Lojban in our own time. Perhaps because had come close to succumbing to it himself in his Tractatus phase, Wittgenstein in his later years passionately abhorred what we might call “scientism” or “Wellsianism.” He detested the outlook of naively optimistic secular intellectuals like Carnap, Bertrand Russell, H.G. Wells, Albert Einstein, and John Dewey who made scientific rationality the chief criterion of truth, morality, or intellectual and cultural worth, and hopefully dreamed of re-making society along a preconceived rational blueprint through science, technology, and good will.  This optimistic science-worshipping liberal humanism struck Wittgenstein as the chief evil of our modern age, profoundly offending his deep-rooted pessimism about politics and human affairs [see Michael Hymers, “Wittgenstein, Pessimism and Politics,” The Dalhousie Review, v. 80 no. 2 (2001), excerpt in]. He was at times even willing to welcome atomic warfare as a possible way of ending our present degenerate “scientistic” civilization. Thus, again in 1946, he wrote:

«The hysterical fear over the atom bomb now being experienced, or at any rate expressed, by the public almost suggests that at last something really salutary has been invented. The fright at least gives the impression of a really effective bitter medicine. I can’t help thinking: if this didn’t have something good about it the philistines wouldn’t be making an outcry. But perhaps this too is a childish idea. Because really all I can mean is that the bomb offers a prospect of the end, the destruction, of an evil, – our disgusting soapy water science. And certainly that’s not an unpleasant thought; but who is to say what would come after such a destruction? The people now making speeches against the production of the bomb are undoubtedly the scum of the intellectuals, but even that does not prove beyond question that what they abominate is to be welcomed. » [Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, pp. 48e-49e]

In 1947, he wrote in a rather similar vein:

«The truly apocalyptic view of the world is that things do not repeat themselves. It isn’t absurd, e.g., to believe that the age of science and technology is the beginning of the end for humanity; that the idea of great progress is a delusion, along with the idea that the truth will ultimately be known; that there is nothing good or desirable about scientific knowledge and that mankind, in seeking it, is falling into a trap. It is by no means obvious that this is not how things are» [Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, p. 56e]

Note: This is a post lifted from the moribund IALlist Yahoo Group. The link given to Michael Hymers is no longer accurate; he can be located at the Dept. of Philosophy, Dalhousie University.

Wittgenstein on Esperanto

Carnap on Wittgenstein & Esperanto/ Carnap pri Wittgenstein & Esperanto

"Lingvoplanado" (Language Planning) de Rudolf Carnap

Esperanto Study Guide / Esperanto-Gvidilo

Wittgenstein, Marxism, Sociology: An Annotated Bibliography

Vienna Circle, Karl Popper, Frankfurt School, Marxism, McCarthyism & American Philosophy: Selected Bibliography

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Home Page | Site Map | What's New | Coming Attractions | Book News
Bibliography | Mini-Bibliographies | Study Guides | Special Sections
My Writings | Other Authors' Texts | Philosophical Quotations
Blogs | Images & Sounds | External Links

CONTACT Ralph Dumain

Uploaded 7 August 2010

Site ©1999-2010 Ralph Dumain