July 6, 2005
Tractatus, Proposition 4.002
"4.002 Man possesses the capacity of constructing languages, in which every sense can be expressed, without having an idea how and what each word means--just as one speaks without knowing how the single sounds are produced.
Colloquial language is a part of the human organism and is not less complicated than it.
From it it is humanly impossible to gather immediately the logic of language.
Language disguises the thought; so that from the external form of the clothes one cannot infer the form of the thought they clothe, because the external form of the clothes is constructed with quite another object than to let the form of the body be recognized.
The silent adjustments to understand colloquial language are enormously complicated."
--from Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus*
The fourth sentence is particularly intriguing, as it makes an assertion that might be investigated empirically. Most of Wittgenstein's statements in the Tractatus are intended to be purely logical statements, and therefore exempt from such scrutiny. (Which is not to say that the purely logical statements escape scrutiny, but that, being a priori claims, they are subject to a different sort of test entirely.) Wittgenstein's attempt to define a relationship between thought and language, however, begins to tread the ground covered by the science of psychology.
There are two easily discernible positions here. Wittgenstein, in the above quote, considers language merely as the garb of thought--a relationship reminiscent of Plato's distinction between the real Forms and the merely phenomenal objects of perception. Thought is (logically) pure, and language is simply our best available method for transmitting it. Language serves as a sort of procrustean bed for our ideas; that is, when we attempt to express a thought, the vagaries of our particular language warp the ideas in a certain "enormously complicated" way.
The second position denies any logical purity to thought. Instead, language influences thought as it happens--thought is, in other words, determined by language. If one's language contains a number system incapable of describing numbers greater than 3, then one cannot think numbers greater than 3. Of course, there are varying degrees to which one might believe thought is influenced by language, but the positions may be grouped together in opposition to the aforementioned "pure thought" position. (Many readers will be familiar with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which is one variant of this position.)
There is an extent to which this is a metaphysical question. Certainly, it has metaphysical repercussions. If thought is logically pure, then attempts at developing a logically perfect language are definitely desirable; after all, only when such a language is developed could we perfectly express ourselves. Wittgenstein's Tractatus might be seen as a treatise on the construction of such a language. If, on the other hand, thought not only shapes but is shaped by language, the quest for linguistic perfection becomes nonsensical--the best language is not perfect and timeless, but adaptive, interactive, and natural.
The position of the linguistics and psychology communities varies according to their level of committment to these metaphysical statements about language.
(My actual familiarity with the intellectual histories of these communities is minimal, and I welcome comments by those who know the field with some depth; my statement is merely an observation about the assumptions/commitments of these fields.)
*Passage 4.002 is mislabelled as "4.022" in the linked text.