Word and Object

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Wittgenstein Emoji Project

November 27th, 2016 by David Kronemyer · No Comments

I was a first-year student at U.C. Berkeley when I first encountered the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the most famous philosophers of the 20th century. He has two separate versions: 1.0 and 2.0. The former is noteworthy for his opaque work Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, the latter for the equally mysterious Philosophical Investigations. The house style at Berkeley when I was there was to dismiss the Tractatus out of hand, and to pay lip service to Philosophical Investigations as one of those things you probably should read when you get around to it, you might consider citing it once or twice to show that you read it, but on the whole it’s really not that important – more like an historical relic.

Fast forward to now, when I’m vitally engaged with the cognitive neuroscience of beliefs, emotions, mental images, language, and reality. One day it occurred to me that Wittgenstein – and in particular, Wittgenstein 1.0 – actually had a lot to say about these topics. Which inspired me to return to the Tractatus. Somewhere during this process I acquired the idea that it would be interesting to translate the Tractatus into the contemporary lingua franca of emoji.

One of the theories Wittgenstein advanced in the Tractatus is what came to be called the “picture theory of meaning.” What would happen if we took Wittgenstein at face value; what if the picture theory of meaning actually is true; what would language look like if there really were the kind of correspondence he hypothesizes between the world, language and thoughts? Given his eclecticism, he almost certainly would have approved of this initiative. It also presents him with an interesting problem, because he sharply distinguished between “saying” versus “showing.” Only empirical propositions (e.g., “the cat is on the mat”) can be “said” – verbalized, written down. Everything else, including metaphysical, religious, ethical and philosophical propositions, and logical connectives, only can be “shown” – displayed, but only imperfectly explained, if at all. What to do, then, with emoji – which purport to transcribe (i.e., say) propositions that might not be strictly empirical (i.e., they only can be shown) – but they also “show” (using pictures), even as they “say?” I recruited my daughter, Loren – who has more visual sense than I – to assist. The result is the Wittgenstein Emoji Project.

Here’s some background on how the connections are supposed to work. The world, said Wittgenstein, is made up of objects – things, including the imaginary, the nonexistent, and (probably) other people. Objects combine themselves into “states of affairs,” which is a fancy term for facts – “that which is the case”. Objects are identified by names – what we call them. Collections of names comprise propositions, which are statements about facts. Propositions are expressed using words and sentences, which assert the existence (or not) of their corresponding facts. “Reality” is all of the facts that either actually exist or could possibly exist. [His account is somewhat more complex, but these are the basic ideas.]

He continues that when you think about a fact, your thought “pictures” the fact, and words expressing propositions communicate the thought. So far, so good. But then he goes on to argue that propositions also are pictures of facts; and, there has to be a strict one-to-one correspondence between facts, propositions, and thoughts – they all share the same “logical form.” So, if there are three objects to a fact, then there must be three names in the proposition, three elements to the picture, and three thoughts about them – each specifically associated with its unique counterparts. They all have to match. He contends that this is the main way in which propositions expressed by words are given meaning and are understood.

His idea has puzzled commentators ever since – particularly what is involved in the relationship of “depicting.” We want to say that many pictures have something in common with that which they depict. It’s easy to see how representational pictures or photographs, for example, depict facts. One can even track them: this element of the picture depicts that object; this combination of elements depicts that combination of objects. Many pictures perform language-like functions, in that they also communicate a meaning. For example, Picasso’s Guernica delivers a message about the horrors of war; Magritte’s The Treachery of Images both announces and then contradicts itself in a paradoxical, playful way; Rembrandt’s The Night Watch illustrates the vigilant claustrophobia arising out of the Spanish-Dutch conflict; Velázquez’ Las Meninas uses confusing perspectives to remind the viewer that reality may not be all that it’s cracked up to be.

It’s easy to see how thoughts can resemble pictures – you create a mental image of the scene. It’s also easy to see how otherwise meaningless marks on a piece of paper – words and sentences – express propositions about facts. This is one of the awesome things that language does for us – it gives meaning to senseless symbols (different meanings, for each separate language).

What’s harder to see is how each proposition expressed by words or sentences corresponds to a specific part of the picture. We want to say that a picture of a fact should have something in common with that fact. But there are a lot more elements to most pictures, than there are propositions in the corresponding words and sentences. Our vocabulary of propositions is limited, but the aspectual shape of a picture can be vast (thus, “a picture is worth a thousand words;” conversely, in Ulysses, James Joyce used a thousand words to create a mental picture). Nonrepresentational pictures (impressionism, surrealism) can be described using words and sentences. Nonrepresentational words and sentences, however, can be difficult to translate into pictures (e.g. Chomsky’s example, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” performatives, much of what occurs during conversational discourse).

Here are a few more examples where language mirrors the structure of that which it’s about. “In this sentence the word ‘left’ is to the left of the word ‘right’” is a kind of picture of a fact, because of the way in which the words are arranged. A biography about the R&B singer James Brown might be printed using brown text, and a book about the history and geography of Greenland might be printed using green text. The vast majority of names, however, do not look like that to which they refer; for example, the word “car” does not look at all like one. A few might – for example, the word “bed” arguably looks like one – this is called “iconicity”.

There also have been noteworthy artistic treatments of words – efforts to make them “show” (make them look like facts), rather than “say” (look like words). The French surrealist poet Guillaume Apollinaire published a book of caligrams – e.g. a poem about the Eiffel Tower in the shape of the Eiffel Tower. E.E. Cumming’s “grasshopper” poem invites the reader to form an image of a grasshopper in flight. Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne is filled with interesting typographic quirks and unusual uses of white space. Another recent example is House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. Egyptian hieroglyphs and Sumerian cuneiform are logographic – they substitute pictures for words – as do Japanese kanji and contemporary Mandarin. Pictograms accomplish the same outcome – e.g., in Season 3, Episode 25 of the television show “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch,” she decodes a complex series of images, which translate that “Every member of the Spellman family is born with a twin.”

The Tractatus is organized like an outline. It has major propositions, then subordinate ones underneath each, and so forth. There are seven major propositions, as follows:

  1. The world is all that is the case.
  2. What is the case – a fact – is the existence of states of affairs.
  3. A logical picture of facts is a thought.
  4. A thought is a proposition with a sense.
  5. A proposition is a truth-function of elementary propositions (an elementary proposition is a truth function of itself).
  6. The general form of a truth function is . This is the general form of a proposition.
  7. What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.

Below is their emoji translation:


Our work continues, next with the second-order subordinate propositions. We conceive of this as a group effort. Anybody with a copy of the Tractatus is invited to participate. We invite and encourage public contributions. Please forward to: dkronemyer@gmail.com. We will update from time to time either on social media, or using some other likely space.