Words That Matter: Wittgenstein and Senge on the Power of Language in Critical Thinking


Language, like the culture it derives from, plays a subtle but powerful role in how we interact with others. Yet we are so completely immersed in it, we scarcely give it a second thought.

Early in the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein brought focus to the critical importance of language in the context of knowledge, philosophy, and science. One of the more powerful and accessible claims he framed was this one:

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Wittgenstein, Tractatus, 5.6 (1921).

It may seem overstated at first glance, but let’s unpack it.

If we reflect on how we think about, evaluate, and come to understand virtually anything, we realize that the running voice of our conscious thought sets practical boundaries. We can contemplate problems and solutions in our mind only to the extent we have words to describe them. Our vocabulary either limits or unlocks our ability to describe what we see. Our command of grammar and ability to construct descriptions of abstract concepts works the same way.

Our command of semantics is a central to critical thinking.

Language literally bounds our possibilities.

Wittgenstein thus underscores a compelling argument for mastery of the original liberal arts of grammar, rhetoric, and logic – skills that we might better grasp today in the modern context of reading and writing – but his message is clear: the tools of language are essential to the thinking person.

Now let’s apply those ideas in the social and collective contexts.

What happens in a team setting?

Carefully articulating a new idea for ourselves is only half the battle. As collaborators we face the more difficult but critically essential task of explaining this idea to others. What words do we use? What language will our audience understand? And if we’ve followed good practice by ensuring a diverse group of collaborative stakeholders, the bar has been raised even further: what subset of our shared language will be most effective to ensure common understanding across a diverse team?

From my experience, the most common failure in team settings is mis-communication of ideas, most readily observed when group members freely, often unwittingly, talk past each other. In a fervent effort to make a point, we default to arguments grounded in our semantics of origin. So what happens? IT folks will talk technology. Accounting will talk about margins. Sales will talk about customer problems. Educators will talk about pedagogy. Academics will talk about epistemologies. With heightened energy, the vocabulary grows increasingly parochial and inaccessible, and the steeper the organization’s silo walls, the more entrenched the participants tend to be, and the more difficult language barriers are to cross.

No wonder finding common ground can seem like a pipe dream.

So intentional collaboration places clear demands on semantic foundations. Defining key terms often helps. Project glossaries can go a long way.

Another strong approach (referenced previously in this blog, and elsewhere) is that of a solution language. The idea is to create common ground on the output side. We can define terms for the proposed solution set(s) that are literally grounded in a new language that is embraced by all. It is an extraction from the contributors’ source languages, an amalgamation of pieces and parts to create a viable whole. As the solution language is built, common ground is established in the process. In so doing, collaborators become more aware of their context of origin, better described as their comfort zone. With time and energy, many will see how cultural and linguistic boundaries can impact their collaborative engagement.

Peter Senge in the 5th Discipline, observes:

In dialog, people become observers of their own thinking.

then cites the work of the late physicist David Bohm, who researched collective learning among scientists. Bohm believed that we, as individuals engaged in collaborative dialog, can:

“… begin to correct incoherence in our own thinking. A kind of sensitivity develops that goes beyond what is familiar … (exposing) subtle meanings that lie at the root of real intelligence.”

Senge and Bohm share a deep sense for the requirements for team-based learning. Senge himself devotes many pages to language, and the evolutionary steps through which individuals must navigate to achieve value from a shared, collective learning model. Often, it means suspending bias inherent from professional education and what is often years working within a given specialty.

Thomas Kuhn’s thinking on the challenges and demands of paradigm shifts peers from these lines.

Wittgenstein’s foundational messages ring true throughout.

It’s easy to imagine ourselves standing before the locked door of critical thinking. We hold the keys in our hands, but remain dumbfounded about how to use them. When we attempt to collaborate, we stand before the same door with others, but we’re still at a loss; perhaps it’s even worse, arguing the course of action.

Language, like culture, is a profoundly rich, integral aspect of our social existence. I’ll summarize it like this:

Language is the master key to unlocking effective collaboration, opening the door to possibilities of what we can accomplish via intentional, purposeful dialog with others.

We can cast all this aside, broadcasting our views to the world at will. We can choose empty words with casual intent to impress, or use caustic words that serve only to bully, blame and obscure.

People do it every day.

The price? It’s a fundamental failure to be understood, preempting an exchange of ideas that could have emerged into something more. That spells disaster for progress in any language.

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14 thoughts on “Words That Matter: Wittgenstein and Senge on the Power of Language in Critical Thinking

  1. Chris,
    As always you are a great provoker. I was stuck by Franz Kafka who said, “Poetry should hit you like an ice-ax.” I took from it , we should be strartled by what we read. It should wake us up. Agreeing or disagreeing is not the issue. This issue is, does it provoke passion and a pulse. So many intellligent people I know are smart but not discerning. I am so thankful you are making this theme a core part of your practice and delighted to be included in the depth & dialogue. I very much alse enjoy the work of +José António Baldaia @jbaldaia and here is a sample of his work
    http://bit.ly/gXglsV on this topic.
    We as adults need to model better “weighing and considering” & curiosity & passion. Intelligence will not save us, but critical thinking sure might.
    Cheers!
    Jenn

  2. The theme of language, or semantics here is quite intriguing. And I agree, it is key. I think as long as there is man there will be a challenge relating through a common language. Your comment on the subjective view falls true to our professional roles but also our cultural experiences and our personal experiences play a role in how we perceive and respond to stimuli and information. It is a myriad of thoughts birthed from not only critical thinking, or intelligence, but emotional intelligence as well. But what do I know, I am just an amateur. ((smiles))

    • Jenn – Thanks for sharing Jose’s insights here, love his perspectives on aggressive questioning (a la Socrates!) and bringing an open mind. Maybe he’ll weigh in here as well. Agree ‘discernment’ is a great concept. Also can tee up as ‘challenging the status quo’ and ‘looking beneath the surface’. Some good metaphors to tap. In fact, we’ll be exploring metaphor in the next post, as an extension of this one. As always, appreciate your thoughts & feedback.

      Janet – Clearly you are no amateur! You are so right about the emotional intelligence aspect. The human mind is a very complex place, as we’ve discussed. Many, many forces at work – emotions, effects of culture, the words we use, even our personal values – there’s so much that we tend to take for granted when we go to make a decision or solve a problem. If we’re going to get better at solving the most difficult ones (education, say, or environmental sustainability), we need to be aware of all of those dynamics. Thanks so much for posting :)

  3. Hi Chris,

    great post and i must applaud you on your own command of the written language and semantics. Your argument is clear and the meaning to anyone whose role it is to communicate with others professionally is, in your own words, subtle, but powerful.

    I have explored this subject from another direction using cognitive psychology, specifically the murky depths of the adaptive unconscious, and agree with your may points. One of the most important tasks we as communicators need to focus on is our own awareness of our language; not just the words we use, but how we use them.

    As large organizations seek to employ more and more people from the enterprise to engage socially with customers, partners and internally to the organization, there is a growing risk of being misunderstood en masse.

    Thanks for such a great piece of critical writing. A joy to read.

    Jeff – Sensei

    • Super feedback, Jeff, so glad the post resonated with you. Would love to delve more into the cognitive dimension. Have nibbled around the fringes but have not yet done a deep dive.

      I do have plans to look into mental heuristics, if that’s an area of interest?

      Looking forward – !

  4. Hi Chris,

    Great post on a big topic close to my heart! There are so many aspects to the impact of language, on relationships, productivity, leadership, mental models… My background is in communications and leadership and my major project for my MA in Leadership is looking into leadership in internal social networks, which has led me in many different/new directions to explore the impact of language, especially when it stands alone (online), and how language shapes offline relationships and motivation.

    An intriguing point of view, or perhaps philosophy, that relates to your thoughts (and Wittgenstein’s) of language being central to critical thinking, and the benefits of having mastery of it, is the role of language and dialogue as not just an act, but an outcome; that it’s not just about what it says, but what it does. Bolman & Deal talk about this in Reframing Organizations as the symbolic frame (the importance of using symbols to create meaning). Deming focuses on the use of stories to create meaning, memory and action. And there’s a breadth of literature on the use of metaphors (I’m including a link here on work being done to explore how metaphors vary across cultures – fascinating – http://bit.ly/rs8O97). Often we don’t remember exactly what was said, but if it resonated, we remember the feeling we had, and the core of the message, and associations we (or the person we heard it from) create to return to it.

    While language can bound our possibilities, when we break out of the paradigm of language as words and grammar, to language as images, connectors, action, outcome – I think then we see its impact as the master key to possibilities. It does take openness and acquired skill to using it in different ways, for different purposes, for different people – but as you point out, that’s the critical thinking part :) and I also think it’s the people part, in recognizing we are all different, and listen/hear in different ways.

    • Hey Kim,

      So many ideas emerging, now –

      Would love for you to amplify the leadership dimension, it has huge implications in my broader collaboration research, especially on the “culture” and “change” vectors. Feel free to share more on the language and communication of leaders, as time allows –

      You and Janet both touched on the relationship/emotional dimension, which is clearly an area where communication & language are critically important and so often a problem. Have read Goleman re: EI & Primal Leadership. Next I really need to tackle “Social Intelligence” (on my shelf “to be read”) –

      Framing Knowledge (“KM”) vs. Ideas. I like the many communication extensions you mentioned – symbols, stories, metaphors, associations, connectors, images, outcomes – so many ways to shape our perceptions of things, whether via simple messages from an individual, or importantly, as a means to frame ideas themselves. When accumulated, it represents knowledge, but there, things start getting heavy and abstract. There’s the whole practice of Knowledge Management (“KM”) to consider, but that is often not accessible to people, even us so called knowledge workers.

      Collaboration. So when talking about knowledge I will often switch to talking about the exchange, creation and/or expansion of ideas. Too most, knowledge is off in the mind of some scientist (tacit) or on a wikipedia page (explicit). What I have in my own simple, working class mind are more readily framed as ideas. Senge said KM and collaboration are really two sides of the same coin, and that you really can’t separate the two. I think he’s spot on.

      So I guess there’s an example of solution language, in action. Walking the talk, so to speak :)

      And when semantics falls over?

      The Problem with “Social” Media. A good example of semantics gone wrong from a prior post (link) is ‘Social Media’ itself, a name that for many in commercial and government sectors brings to mind parties and Facebook; time and again, this creates a mental block for c-level executives that hinders broader commercial adoption of useful technology.

      Love the cross-pollination going on here. Learning at every turn.

      Thanks again for the insights – keep them coming.

      Chris

    • It’s a deal, Toby, thanks for the kind words. Just read your excellent post on Kant. I agree with your concerns on the economics of higher ed, the slippery slope of utilitarianism, and a return to a focus on Kant. But don’t forget Aristotle (left you a comment) –

      I’ve learned philosophy speaks to many critical thinking fundamentals –

      I’m sensing many great conversations ahead. Let’s stay in touch, and I’m with you: let’s keep posting!

  5. Chris, Folks might find it helpful to take the frame one step up from semantics towards the semiotic language. Helps capture a fuller articulation of “communication”. It allows one to see human communication is merely one aspect of a much larger and sometimes helpful way to look at it.

    Helps makes sense of what the scientists are pointing at with “Everything is Information.” string of words.

    From wikipedia:

    Semantics: Relation between signs and the things to which they refer; their denotata, or meaning

    Syntactics: Relations among signs in formal structures

    Pragmatics: Relation between signs and the effects they have on the people who use them

    Semiotics is frequently seen as having important anthropological dimensions; for example, Umberto Eco proposes that every cultural phenomenon can be studied as communication.[citation needed]

    However, some semioticians focus on the logical dimensions of the science. They examine areas belonging also to the natural sciences – such as how organisms make predictions about, and adapt to, their semiotic niche in the world (see semiosis).

    In general, semiotic theories take signs or sign systems as their object of study: the communication of information in living organisms is covered in biosemiotics or zoosemiosis.

  6. I’ve never heard a C-Suite person suggest the modifier “social” is what keeps them from embracing social media. Instead they almost universally refer to the content of those conversations as being personal, irrelevant, or inane. It’s the party messages they reject.

    • Yes, Jeffrey, each exec will react in their own way, based on their perceptions, education, and cultural orientation.

      So let’s explore the ‘social’ technology case –

      Early in any tech adoption curve, as folks try to learn how to use a tool, there will be some trial and error. Logic might predict tools that can be used in the public domain for chit chat (eg., Facebook and Twitter) might serve similar purposes inside the firewall. I’ve seen those conclusions drawn, and I’ve seen those behaviors ensue. No harm, no foul. But early adopters may not see the full picture.

      It takes time, experience, and some critical thought to challenge the default thinking and to introduce an alternate use case – one that might prove to be very useful in other ways. But that’s another thread.

      Moral of the story: semantics can trigger counter-productive mindsets.

      All that said, I’ve personally been in senior level debates based solely on semantics, not content. So consider yourself lucky, you’ve been spared!

      Thanks for responding.

  7. Pingback: Gratitude into Action « the magic of language blog: partnering with reality – by JR Fibonacci

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