Christopher Caudwell on Wittgenstein & the nature of language

Science and art become practical, they enter into concrete real life, directly we knock away the mock world from any artistic construction and substitute a real world, or knock away the mock world from an artistic construction and substitute a real world, or knock away the mock impersonal ego from any scientific construction and substitute a real human being. In the first case we give a “unattached'” human desire a real materialisation; in the second we give a part of reality the shape of an answer to human desire. Thus, in entering into real concrete life, artist and scientific constructions become, as it were, blended or “impure,” special instead of general, concrete instead of abstract, and the language we use to make this possible belongs to the realm of persuasion – the ordinary language of daily life removed from the pure and “impractical” worlds of science and art. We must not regret this forced descent. Science and art were made for man, not man for science and art. But there is more to it than that. Science and art were made from man, not man from science and art. This issuing of science and art into real “impure” life-experience is what corrects, refines and develops them, so that they return to their heavens wiser, richer, still more abstract and pure as a result of their incarnation in life. And though so ethereal now, science and art in their infancy were as concrete as concrete living.

This phantasy, generated by association for economic production, is communicated by material symbols – gestures, sounds, drawings, touches. Because of the nature of man’s senses, sound which no longer made all men concerned at the same time with the environment, again restored advantages to sight and the sounds became visual symbols – writing. Language developed as the favoured tool for the communication of phantasy, superior to diagrams or “picture writing.” Ignorance of this concrete function of language and concentration on its anal aspects make many philosophers approach language in a strangely patronising way.

They find it “imperfect,” deviating from the ideal language, and illogical – rather as a biologist might study species and reproach them for their departure from some ideal animal. Such philosophers think consciousness is contemplation – a limpid image of reality. In the same way they think language exists to be a passive photograph of the universe. Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is entirely based on this assumption. This is the error of philistines who imagine that a painting must be exactly like the scene it portrays. They do not see that it is a silly task to make an exact copy of something we already have, and that the reaction of language and thought to reality is not a passive reflection but an active and tendencious reaction, and that it is this activity and tendenciousness which enables a mere reaction to become conscious and know. The mirror reflects accurately: it does not know. Each particle of the Universe reflects the rest of the Universe, but knowledge is only given to human beings as a result of an active and social relation to the rest of reality. Knowledge is an economic product.

Russell phrases the Wittgenstein conception thus: “The essential business of a language is to assert or deny facts.” But this is not a business at all. Facts assert or deny themselves: that is, they either exist or do not. A man sees them in external reality or does not. He remains dumb. The business of language, as an extension of life, is to decide what facts are worth asserting or denying: what facts exist for men and what do not. It is the business of language to be the best possible tool for siting facts in an ordered world-view, which can select or condense or classify them hierarchically; and into such a worldview the subject must enter. Society must appear twice, as ego and world, and in both cases dragging its material history after it. Russell’s view of language is like that of the gushing lady who said to Carlyle, “I accept the Universe.” But man does not accept the Universe, for the Universe does not accept him. He must change it under penalty of extinction. And he can only change it in association; therefore language reflects the relations of men as feeling men and perceiving men in association for economic production.

This historical function of language explains why existing languages are so far from the “perfect” language postulated by Wittgenstein. Such a perfect language would be perfectly useless. It would be a picture of the world, standing in the same relation to external reality as a mirror-image to the thing mirrored. But then it would be an inferior thing to the thing imaged, and would be a useless construct. It would have no hidden power over the world or the subject. It is precisely because language expresses feeling, is a judging as well as a picturing of parts of reality, that it is valuable. Language expresses not merely what reality is (what reality is stares man in the face) it expresses also what can be done with reality – its inner hidden laws, and what man wants to do with it – his own unconscious necessities. Language is a tool to express what reality is in relation to man – not abstract man but concrete human beings.

SOURCE: Caudwell, Christopher. Illusion and Reality: a Study of the Sources of Poetry (1937) (New York: International Publishers, 1967); Chapter IX: The Psyche and Phantasy.

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