Meaning is use: Wittgenstein on the limits of language

LudwigWittgensteinLudwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951) was one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century. Wittgenstein made a major contribution to conversations on language, logic and metaphysics, but also ethics, the way that we should live in the world. He published two important books: the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus (1921) and the Philosophical Investigations (1953), for which he is best known. These were major contributions to twenty century philosophy of language.

Wittgenstein was a difficult character. Those who knew him assumed he was either a madman or a genius. He was known for working himself up into fits of frustration, pacing about the room decrying his own stupidity, and lambasting philosophers for their habit of tying themselves in semantic knots. In his favour, Wittgenstein was not afraid to admit his own mistakes. He once said: ‘If people never did anything stupid, nothing intelligent would ever get done’. He also said: ‘I don’t know why we are here, but I’m pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves’. Students approached his classes at Cambridge University with due trepidation, never sure if they were about to witness a brilliant act of logical deconstruction or the implosion of a tortured mind.

Sometimes a crisis can be productive. Wittgenstein, who was constantly in the grip of some kind of intellectual cataclysm, tended to advance his thinking by debunking what he had previous thought to be true. The best example is his celebrated about turn on the nature of language. In the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, Wittgenstein argued for a representational theory of language. He described this as a ‘picture theory’ of language: reality (‘the world’) is a vast collection of facts that we can picture in language, assuming that our language has an adequate logical form. ‘The world is the totality of facts, not of things’, Wittgenstein claimed, and these facts are structured in a logical way. The goal of philosophy, for early Wittgenstein, was to pare language back to its logical form, the better to picture the logical form of the world.

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Be human: Heidegger and online authenticity

Bay-Holiday-Display-Blue-WomenThis is the second post in a series on online authenticity. The first post, Beyond ‘brand you’: reflections on social authenticity, points out a challenge for anyone who seeks to brand themselves on social media. It is easy to fall into the trap of defining oneself through shares and retweets. This sets up a shiny wall of themes and memes surrounding your brand, but it can make it impossible for friends and followers to access the real you. To define an authentic presence on social media, you need to tap into the unique person that you are offline. An authentic presence requires that you creatively represent the best version of who you are.

What do you have to give to the world? Take the best version of who you are and give it to the crowd. I call this: creative self-affirmation. Creative self-affirmation is authentic self-expression.

US management guru Tom Peters has an uncompromising view of creative self-affirmation. The key to self-branding online, Peters claims, is to become ‘extraordinarily/noticeably good at something of use/significance’ in the real world and brand that. This is easy enough for a management guru to do – but what about the rest of us? This post dips into the philosophy of Martin Heidegger to define a reflective approach to personal authenticity online that is both easier and more natural than the path Peters suggests.

Authenticity shouldn’t be a chore. Being authentic is simply being human.

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What does it mean to be you – the real you – online? Is it possible or desirable to express your real thoughts and feelings if you are developing a commercial image, or brand? Many people argue that, when it comes to online branding, commercial imperatives trump authenticity every time. The watchword of social media PR is caution: stay on message, avoid equivocal turns of phrase, keep the brand strategy in mind at all times. The upshot is that branded social media content often lacks a human voice. Like manikins in a store front window, branded content strikes a pose that reminds us of authenticity, but is incapable of offering up the real thing.

What about self-branding online? If cultivating a personal brand is subject to the same market imperatives as corporate PR, we should expect social media to be full of plastic people robotically spouting on point messaging. Some commentators argue that this is the way that things are headed. Geoff Livingstone, for instance, argues that ‘[t]he commercialization of the social web has reduced most communications to simply corporate or marketing initiatives’. Perhaps genuine authenticity is an outmoded virtue, as quaint as chivalry and just as absurd.

I don’t buy it. Every brand benefits from a human touch, no matter what product it’s selling. My thesis is that the best branded content online speaks of human values and experiences. It speaks of a human world, or set of worlds, and it makes us want to inhabit them.

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To be or not to be? E-Prime and the rules of language

E-Prime (short for English-Prime) is an experiment in the English language. It was founded as a research project in the mid-nineteen sixties by David Bourland, Jr. (1928–2000), who had studied under Alfred Korzybski (pictured) (1879–1950), the father of General Semantics. Bourland argued that we should eliminate all forms of the verb ‘to be’ from the English language. E-Prime does not allow conjugations of ‘to be’ (am, are, is, was, were, be, been, being), archaic forms (e.g. art, wast, wert), or contractions (‘s, ‘m, ‘re)’ (E-Prime, Wikipedia 23/08/12). Eliminating the verbal form ‘to be’ from language is a significant step. It is not just like choosing to avoid certain topics, names and nouns – it places limits on what can be said. I can exist in E-Prime, and so can you, but neither of us can be anything.

Imagine a world without being. This is the world that we enter when we talk in E-Prime.

E-Prime was developed to reduce the occurrence of dogmatic thinking in conversations. Korzybski argued that the ambiguity of the form ‘to be’ creates unnecessary confusion in language. In everyday conversations, this confusion produces arguments and disagreements, and the withdrawal of parties into dogmatically-held positions. Bourland’s studies supported Korzybski’s claim that people who rely heavily on ‘to be’ (‘I am’, ‘you are’, and ‘we are’) tend to be more dogmatic in their thinking than people who don’t. Taking ‘to be’ out of the conversation defuses the possibility for voicing strong personal opinions and opens up a shared space for negotiation. [Read more…]