The wisdom of Wittgenstein: Why ‘linguistic violence’ is a good thing — and perhaps the best remedy to real, physical violence

‘Linguistic violence’, or the breaking of barriers concerning words with emotional consequences, may or may not have a foundation analogous to the foundation of physical violence, or the breaking of barriers concerning deeds with physical consequences.

But even if it does, that makes linguistic violence a good thing — as it diverts energy from physical destruction to production of ideas that might help us tame the destructive impulses in every human being.

Wittgenstein in 1950.

Therefore, I reaffirm my longstanding position — which has endured every change of political position (between positions of liberalism before university, Marxism at university, and a special kind of conservatism or radical republicanism more recently) — to free speech as a universally good thing. I condemn censorship as an eternal evil against which the free peoples of planet Earth must do battle in order to extinguish the lust for power at the heart of every censor.

Linguistic violence, if such a thing exists, is a good thing. Words do not cause evil. And words are not physical deeds. So the dictum ‘words are deeds’ has no bearing on my argument. Physical factors affect our emotions, from which our ideas derive. So to blame words for evil is like blaming the steam of a train engine. Do not blame the steam. Consider the engine! (Even blame of the system is an inappropriate response to the depth of our crisis — although it is better than blaming individuals and their words, or even their deeds.)

Marxism considers systems and their physical foundation. Conservatism considers individuals and their physical deeds. Liberalism is solely concerned with the conscience of individuals and the linguistic expression of their ideas in the form of words. If conservatism is Heideggerian, liberalism is Wittgensteinian. Marxism is a middle way through this morass.

I am not here defending Marxist politics — simply the Marxist theory of history, which states that conditions determine our ideas, more than vice versa. I think Wittgenstein himself was right to point to the role of words as the cultural equivalent to the embodied beings in Heidegger’s world of things, presided over by human beings, or Dasein. But Heidegger ended up capitulating to the Nazi dictatorship out of his misled belief that ‘only a god can save us’. Wittgenstein was an Austrian Jew by descent and went to school with Hitler — apparently, they never met; Hitler was a layabout, and Wittgenstein was in the class of his yeargroup (both were born in 1889, but Hitler was two years behind at school). It remains a quandary of philosophy of how to critique totalitarianism by understanding it without endorsing any of it. I think Wittgenstein, despite being nominally apolitical, really hit the nail on the head with a Nietzschean hammer (Wittgenstein had heard of Schopenhauer in his family home — and through Schopenhauer some of Kant, Marx, and Nietzsche may have slipped into his philosophical imagination).

For Wittgenstein, language is fundamentally empty of non-linguistic content. It is a game. And each ‘language game’ can be compared by analogy to each other game. But it is not ruled by any external forces. It is hermetically sealed. This is wrong.

But Wittgenstein’s account remains entrancing. The spell of language is a powerful one, and the rule of logic over language since Aristotle has clearly trampled over idiosyncrasies which matter. Unlike Fichte, who ascribes language to the nation-state, Wittgenstein sees clearly that language does not belong to any individual or institution. Language is not a Platonic ideal, either. It is a social construct. Language is a fantasy we make up to live with each other. But it is also the primary means by which we construct ourselves. For Wittgenstein, the limits of language are the limits of our world. The old Hegelian distinction between ‘word’ and ‘world’ is collapsed.

You can see how ‘linguistic violence’ may follow from this account. If words are deeds, and the physical and the conceptual are inseparable, then why must we not see language as a kind of weapon, like any other? I think Wittgenstein does see language in this way. His demeanour is the opposite of Kant’s. While Kant, a Pietist by education and a liberal by philosophical inclination, was orderly and structured, Wittgenstein was much more chaotic and, one might say, violent in his demeanour. If it weren’t for Cambridge philosopher Bertrand Russell’s clear love for Ludwig, would Cambridge have tolerated Wittgenstein?

I think the real danger of our age is forgetting the merits of Wittgenstein’s approach, and turning Wittgenstein’s philosophy into a weapon to censor language. For French philosopher Foucault, an inspiration for today’s identity-driven left, society exists to ‘discipline and punish’ individuals into submission to the modern quasi-religious ideals of medical science and psychoanalysis. Instead of freeing the body from the soul, the modern age remains a cage on the expression of individuality. But the modern age does this to contain the horror of violence. Every good idea, however, can be taken to an extreme. Once existing to contain violence, the modern state is stepping into the linguistic sphere, as right and left demand censorship of unacceptable ideas and words. I think this is wrong.

Marx and Wittgenstein showed that words, whether they are deeds or no, are not the kind of war that we should avoid. Indeed, a war of words is the best remedy to a war of deeds. Instead of fighting each other in combat, we talk — sometimes aggressively, even offensively. Is that wrong? It is an enduring idea that offensive words entail offensive deeds. But the cause of both words and deeds lies in an altogether different sphere: intentions.

A good friend once made the argument: words reveal intentions only imperfectly, while deeds demonstrate intentions much more clearly. A harsh word could be an act of love. A harsh deed is much more difficult to reconcile with an ethic of universal love. Of course for Wittgenstein there is no real separation; but as he himself admits, the fantasy matters. If we lift the veil entirely and become, in contemporary terms, ‘woke’, as end up not in reality but in a darker fantasy than the one we were previously in — a ‘blame game’ without end.

We must avoid these bad language games. But we must also tolerate them. We must accept that we will always, so long as we are human, be playing games with communication. For Thomas Hobbes, language derives from the commutation of motion from one person to another — such as through the vibration of air to affect one person’s mind with the ideas of another, albeit imperfectly and derivatively. Far from the physical ‘war of every man, against every man’ that Hobbes describes as natural to humankind in our beastly form, language can unite us around ideas that render us more akin to gods and angels than beasts and demons. Language is a bridge between worlds. It can be crossed either way.

I do not wish to dogmatically insist on one position over another. Enough of us, including myself, do that enough. But I do wish to ask for mercy: mercy for the outcasts, mercy for the villains, mercy for the broken, and mercy for the victims of violence. Hate the sin, not the sinner. But also: consider whether sin really extends beyond the Catholic emphasis on deeds to the Protestant emphasis on ‘faith alone’. For if evil really is a thing of this world, then language is not our condemnation. It is our deliverance.

We must have faith in words, as deeds, delivering us from an eternity of slavery to physical impulse. But we must not condemn the physical either — for Wittgenstein, impulse behaviour is a good thing, as it is truthful to our nature. Ultimately, there must be more to our nature, which is violent in a banal and brutal sense. Language echoes that natural violence of the animal kingdom. But it is also the promise of something more. Do not cast it into the fire so easily. Do not treat it too seriously, either. This cautious optimism should lead us to the unnatural but perhaps more moral position that ‘linguistic violence’ is not the evil it is taken to be. It may, actually, be the remedy to the real evils that afflict so many around the world right now.

We should rise to the moment, lest we fall from it again, and darken this fantasy which afflicts our mortal plain of existence. Above all, we must return to the truth at the heart of all longing: we are one. We should be just to one another. True words and kind deeds are surely one remedy to false words and cruel deeds. But perhaps I am too ‘logical’ for this language game …

Disclaimer: Any similarity between names mentioned and actual individuals is purely accidental and largely theoretical. These are fun ideas to entertain but, as always, I may be mistaken. After all, what do I know?

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