Wittgenstein, Orwell, Humpty Dumpty and Big Brother

Hailed by many as the greatest philosopher of the 20th century century, Ludwig Wittgenstein was deeply suspicious of the tautologies and contradictions of language that made metaphysical speculation senseless (sinlos) or absurd (without sinning).

He sums up his distrust of the verbal in the famous conclusion of his Tractatus Logico Philosophicus: “What we cannot talk about, we must be silent. As an afterword, in his Philosophical Investigations, he added the warning that “a language understandable by a single individual is incoherent”.

Perhaps he had in mind the exchange between Alice and Humpty Dumpty, who proclaimed “When I use a word, it means exactly what I choose it to mean – no more and no less.”

When Alice responded by asking if words can be made to mean so many different things, Humpty ended the discussion with the masterful statement: “The question is who should be master – that’s all .”

The German philosopher and Carroll’s anthropomorphic egg could have found material for debate in two recent events in India.

Around the same time the Home Secretary made his controversial statement urging his fellow citizens, regardless of their country of origin, to speak to each other in Hindi, Tomb of Sand, a Hindi novel by author Geetanjali Shree became the first book translated from an indigenous Indian language to win the international Booker Prize, casting global spotlight on the subcontinent’s rashtrabhasha.

The novel – which tells the story of an 80-year-old Indian widow who travels to Pakistan to exorcise the specter of trauma she suffered as a young girl during the Partition riots – has also been shortlisted for the 2021 French Emile Guimet Prize for Asian Literature. Literature.

The minister’s remark and the acclaimed novel reflect two opposing aspects of language: its use as a creative force that binds all of humanity, and its misuse as ideological propaganda that divides.

Language, all language, is an inseparable amalgam of the two primary elements that constitute what we call humanity: empathy and logic.

Empathy is the instinct that makes us feel an affinity with others, even those who may be strangers to us, see something of ourselves in them, and respond to them as we would like them to respond to us.

Logic designs the methods – through signs, or pictographs, or alphabets and words – by which we communicate this empathy, this unity with each other.

Language, all language, is logical empathy. Without empathy, we would have no desire to communicate with each other; without logic, we would be unable to formulate a common way to achieve this.

Language is the currency of logical empathy in everything we do, from texting to creative writing, from discussing the latest Bollywood movie to exploring the nuances of a complex emotional relationship.

But, like other currencies, language can also be counterfeited, turned into something false that undermines its own value. It is the misuse of language, converting it from a negotiable instrument of logical empathy into its opposite, a fake that seeks to divide rather than unite. When we seek to impose a language, any language, for political reasons or for any other ulterior motive, this creates barriers of resistance rather than bridges of communication.

In his Allegory of a Dystopian Society, modeled on Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany, 1984, George Orwell described how language can be used as a weapon of mass destruction aimed at both logic and empathy.

In Orwell’s fictional dictatorship in Oceania, residents are forced to chant Newspeak slogans like “War is Peace” and “Love is Hate”, a twist of language used to foment “doublethink”, a mass brainwashing monitored by the thought police under the command of an overlord known as Big Brother.

Orwell’s cautionary tale of the misuse of language to reinforce authoritarianism strikes a chord in today’s India where Hindi, a language with a rich cultural heritage, is sought by fiat for priority of the other 21 officially recognized national languages, in addition to hundreds of dialects, each of which represents the multilingual discourse of democracy, and each of which has the inalienable right to have its say in its own voice, its own way of saying “No” to a future Big Brother.

Or Humpty Dumpty.



The opinions expressed above are those of the author.


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