Wittgenstein’s Blue Book

In this, our first encounter, I ask you to question everything that I am going to say. To do that, please imagine yourself as bodyless, odorless, timeless, and just be explanandum. We will establish a long definition, that will seem like a discussion, but truthfully we will only be parts of the phenomena. Now that you are explanandum, I shall become explanans.

The idea is to talk about language in a way that we can question ourselves the very meaning of the words we use to “talk about language”. We need a question. Anyone? You, the one at the back, tell us, yes exactly, what is language? A good start, and we could go for hours talking about the nature of language, in the same manner that we could talk about the nature of Descartes’ soul, Leibnitz’s Monads, Hume’s impressions, Lockes’s ideas & sensations, Kant’s trascendental unity of apperception, or Hull’s drives, and many many more (we could study Nietzsche’s historical account of human morality, or even seek to understand Schopenhauer’s representations). But we would be explaining a construct using more constructs, which would leave us with a mental cramp and null understanding.

Most philosophical theories, until Wittgenstein, tried to advance answers to questions about the nature of humans beings. L. Wittgenstein did not follow this tradition, instead he advocated the descriptive nature of philosophy while abandoning the endeavor to explain phenomena (by ascribing philosophy as a discipline of description, and casting the explanation of phenomena to psychological inquiries). And instead of attempting to understand anything, he first tried to identify how he would know if he understood anything at all. In other words, instead of asking the meaning of words, he began by asking how to recognize a meaning of a word?

How we would recognize the meaning of language in this discussion? To do that, there are two ways in which an explanation of anything is understood: by a verbal definition, or by an ostensive definition. A verbal definition is a kind of verbal expression, which needs also to be understood, leading itself to a subsequent elaboration, which would be another verbal expression, and this process would go ad infinitum if you are the kind of person that likes to ask questions, and since you voluntarily sat down to have this discussion, this must be the case. For instance, trying to define human language, we could elaborate a verbal expression as such: is not only the individual’s observable acts, but also the perception and experience of the individual in the world while performing such acts. A quaint definition, but meaningless. What is the matter with that definition? Anyone?, Yes, exactly, person, it leads us to more questions. While an ostensive definition would seek to define the thing or word by using examples, thus bringing us closer to know what a definition would look like. Language for instance would be better understood through its uses rather than through its assumed mechanisms. As we shall see.

But first, pay attention to what happens when I ask you to identify the meaning of language. Yes, do not be shy earthling, say what you mean. You say that we interpret words and then respond. So when I ask you for a cup of coffee, you take my words, translate them into an image of ‘a cup of coffee’ using your mind, and then go about, look for some coffee similar to what in your mind you imagined coffee looks and smells like, prepare it as you recall using your memories, and serve it in a cup that you managed to identify among other objects because of the similarity with the mental picture that you have of a generic cup, and then you bring it to me. But I gave you just words, or did I also gave you all that mental crap that you just bought was actually part of the interaction? You say interpretation of experiences must occur, before a person acts or speaks (i.e., uses language). Wittgenstein says that is not always the case. Simple enough: imagine a red dot. With what did you just compare that to? Did you need to remember a red dot, then imagine a different red dot, then compare it to the previous one that you remembered and see if they match? Or did you just imagine a red dot?

Is there a process involved in language? Or is it a process in itself? And if any of those are true, what is the nature of such process? These questions result from verbal definitions of the notion of language. And the more we try to answer them, the more questions arise, and the more mental cramps you have. Wittgenstein’s alternative is to stop using mechanisms to understand language, and by the same means, reject the notion of language as a process. When we eliminate all the mental steps of making a cup of coffee that I previously described, what we are left with are the words in my request and your action of going about and making a cup of coffee. The process in-between, although logically construed (i.e. with a causal procedure), is superfluous to understand the use that we gave to the words (symbols) that enabled that particular interaction of asking/receiving a cup of coffee. It is now manifest the superficiality of “mental mechanisms”, and Wittgenstein’s alternative is to stop calling them mechanisms and start referring to them as actions (e.g., to “imagine an object”, becomes to see, talk about, and interact with an object).

The implications of Wittgenstein’s propositions are devastating for the mental approach to language. If mental mechanisms are irrelevant to explain language, then a symbol’s meaning is not given by a signifying apparatus, but rather by its use. And when we say that language acquires its meaning through its use, we do not ask to look something that correlates to “its use”, as there is nothing to look for. To describe is to signify. Therefore, symbols acquire their meaning from other symbols in language. Without trying to refute the existence of the mind apparatus, Wittgenstein proves how useless mental words are to describe human phenomena.

Language is not an internal process, is an interaction between an individual’s actions and a community of listeners. An individual uses language when she operates (acts) using symbols in an interactional environment. Now, we must make a mindful deep breath, to overview all information until now. Think about this: we do not “possess language”, as we do not “possess” anything unique or special as human beings. In essence, there is no difference between us and rats, us and monkeys, us and ants. What makes us different from these and any other species are not special substances or entities, but how we act upon the world. Humans are not mechanical beings with internal ongoing processes, but rather organisms constantly acting (thinking, listening, describing). Now you are free from divine grace, take your place among the other species.

Now, to continue through the main line of our discussion, the notion of language seems to be intrinsically related to the notion of symbol. Wittgenstein refers to “language-games” to describe what a symbol might be. People constantly rely on language-games to use words in a context. Wittgenstein uses this term to refer to a social practice, however, he does not describe its nature. Instead, he clarifies that psychological phenomena ought not to be explained by philosophy but by psychology (we could talk about the concept of “derived relations” in Relational-Frame Theory, but that would lead us to another discussion).

If you are confident that Wittgenstein’s position is not the case and that it has not changed your thinking, I must continue. There is a paradox here. How can we conceive (think, or expect) a definition of language that is not the case? How is it possible to think in such a manner? Anyone? Alright, let me paraphrase you to see if I understood your answer. When we expect something, either a person or a fact, we are imagining a sort of shadow of that thing, but never the thing itself, so that is why we can think of impossible facts. Yes? Good. So what image (shadow) are we looking for when we imagine a loved-one’s face? Is it not exactly that face we are trying to find? How can faces or facts enter our thoughts?

As Wittgenstein puts it, it is not possible to separate thinking from saying. There is no hidden entity in charge of imagine things. If it were, we could imagine our thoughts without using words. Try it. It would be like humming a song without the lyrics. How we formulate the question is what creates this sort of paradox. And so we need another question.



[I] Wittgenstein, Ludwig. El Libro Azul ·The Blue Book. Bilingual edition. Translated by Ivo Hernández , BID & CO, 2011.

[II] Chiesa, Mecca. Radical Behaviorism: The Philosophy and the Science. Authors Cooperative, 1994.

[III] Ribes-Iñesta, Emilio. Behavior is Abstraction, not Ostention: Conceptual and Historical Remarks on the Nature of Pyschology. Vol. 32, Behavior and Philosophy, 2004, 55-68.

[IV] Ribes-Iñesta, Emilio. Human Behavior as Language: Some Thoughts on Wittgenstein. Vol. 34, Behavior and Philosophy, 2006, 109-121.


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