Mapping the Future

Communication – A way to create illustration in the minds

Published On : 22th April, 2021

We all know communication is very important. It is the face of a thought, an interface for a human, expression for a voice. Communication or lack thereof or improper understanding is a cause of much unhappiness. While it is a mode of stating what one wishes to say, it is also a mode of understanding what the other is saying.

A lot of unhappiness comes about in this world because we can’t let other people know what we mean. One of the brilliant philosophers whose writings can help us with our communication problems is Ludwig Wittgenstein. He was a recluse. He was born in Vienna in 1889. When he was young, he was interested in engineering. After studying at Cambridge, he started following Bertrand Russell and developed an affinity for the study of philosophy.

He published his book, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in 1921. It was a short, and beautiful work. The big question he asks is how do human beings managed to communicate ideas to one another? And he answers that language is a medium that works by triggering pictures of how things are in the world. The trigger came to him while reading a newspaper article about a Paris court case, in which in order to explain with greater efficacy, the details of an accident that had taken place at a road junction, the court had arranged for the accident to be reproduced visually using model cars and pedestrians. It was an eureka moment in Wittgenstein’s view.

He surmised; words enable us to make pictures of facts. Let’s say when we say palm tree, a picture of a sea shore would come to our mind. A rapid sketch will be painted in front of us depicting the object and the surroundings. However, the key issue is how do we manage to convey this picture which is in our mind to others. That was the very reason, the Paris court ordered to recreate visually the scene of the accident as it was unable to comprehend what was being conveyed to them.

Communication typically goes wrong because other people have, the wrong picture of what we’re intending to mean. It can take a lifetime for two people to realize divergences over quite basic things. Problems of communication, typically start because we don’t have a clear and accurate enough picture of what we mean in our own heads. We say quite meaningless or muddled or elaborate things, which go nowhere in the minds of others.

There’s another danger that we read more meaning into the words of others than they ever intended or than is warranted. You tell your partner that you had a chat with a very interesting person at the hotel reception. The picture in your mind is an innocent one, but your partner swiftly forms a very different impression. The Tractatus is a plea by very taciturn, silent and precise Austrian philosopher to speak more carefully and less impulsively as he famously put it for fun.

He thought Tractatus was the last work of philosophy that would ever need to be written. So, he turned to architecture and spent a couple of years designing a house for his sister in Vienna. In 1929, Wittgenstein suddenly returned to Cambridge and to philosophy because he realized he’d had some new things to say about language and communication.

And so, he began to write a second book. Instead of thinking that language is only just about pictures, he developed the idea that language is like a kind of tool that we use to play different games, which doesn’t mean games and more patterns of intentions. So, if a parent says to a frightened child, don’t worry, everything is going to be fine. They can’t know it really will be fine. They aren’t playing the rational prediction from the available facts. They’re playing another game. The words as  instrument of comfort.

All kinds of misunderstandings arise when we don’t see which kind of game someone is involved in, if one’s partner says you never helped me. You’re so unreliable. The natural inclination might be to hear this as a part of a stating the facts game, like saying the first battle of Panipat was fought in 1526.

So, one might respond by citing facts about how actually you got the gas cylinder ordered yesterday and you bought some vegetables in the morning for the house. In reality, this person is involved in separate language game. They’re using words not to capture facts; they’re playing the help and reassurance game.

So, in the language game they’re involved in, you never know help means, I want you to be more nurturing. Working out the game in question is the key. He wanted to draw attention to how much our own understanding depends on the words of others using languages that have developed publicly and commonly over many centuries long before we’re born. He professed that language can cause misunderstanding quite easily and could be misinterpreted due to lack of proper context. Each person views the world from their own lens. However, language is the only common tool to convey what they are seeing from their own lens thus creating illusion in the mind of the other.

Language is a public tool that is used for the understanding of private life. The richness of the language that we’re exposed to is therefore significant to our self-knowledge. Reading books gives us tools with which to help to know who we are.

In today’s world, where communication is driven by hashtags, short messages, whatsapp messages, it is often that true meaning is lost and what remains is just some whispers in the air which could mean either way. There is an inverse proportion of actual interactions and the short ones. Rich interactions, understanding of others, constructing clear, logical sentences referring to verifiable facts is the key. Good communication is about discipline and humility. It is equally important to remain silent when we are not able to form a concise thought, ripe enough to convey. Just having an opportunity to speak should not be taken lightly.

The task of philosophy says Wittgenstein is to show the fly the way out of the bottle. The particular bottle he was interested in was language. And before his death from cancer in 1951, he managed to let out for us a lot of word flies, useful for us all.