Unit 3: Language


Ludwig Wittgenstein’s revolutionary approach to understanding the role of language in shaping thought is perhaps the most influential approach to human thought in the 20th century. “The limits of our language,” he writes, “mean the limits of our world.” Tractatus fictionalizes the origins of Wittgensteinian thought while capturing the spirit of the “language game.



Metaphors shape our understanding of the world, creating relationships between ideas that ultimately dominate how we think about something. In Visual Culture, our students juxtapose images and film techniques to create visual metaphors. Our students have created StoryCORE, a digitized library of oral histories, to represent themselves through these metaphors. In Fragments, Natasha discusses what it’s like to grow up living in two separate homes.

To view the 2012 StoryCORE Project, follow this link.


In his book Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein begins by looking at a traditional (and at the time, a common sense) view of language and the meaning of a word. He opens by examining St. Augustine’s discussion on the subject of how language is ostensibly learned by a person. St. Augustine writes that a person utters a word while pointing “towards something.” That utterance is then coupled with that thing, as indicated by their movement. When one hears the utterance (the word) coupled repeatedly with the thing, common sense seems to indicate we should couple the sound with the thing. It is in this way that we learn new words for new things. Wittgenstein criticizes the validity of St. Augustine’s observations, challenging this “common sense” approach to language acquisition.

According to Wittgenstein, St. Augustine assumes that all individual words name things. Every word thus has its own individual meaning that, once attached to it, stays with it. If this were true, the word “beetle” would always refer back to a beetle, and to refer to it any other way would be to misuse the word. St. Augustine further assumes that sentences, being made up of words, are combinations of such names. Wittgenstein concludes that St. Augustine would agree with the following: “In this picture of language we find the roots of the following idea: Every word has a meaning. This meaning is correlated with the word. It is the object for which the word stands.”

In the experiment film Words, the filmmaker critiques this common sense notion, demonstrating that it is not the sound utterance coupled with an object that determines the meaning of a word; rather, the meaning of a word exists in its use.