Ludwig Wittgenstein on Errors Made in Economic Language
You may be wondering why a philosopher like Ludwig Wittgenstein is so important in economics. We know how vital the ideas of Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Francis Bacon, David Hume, Karl Marx, Keynes, Mises and Samuelson were in the history of the economic field and a name such as Wittgenstein seems uncommon. Yet, we have to admit that Wittgenstein was a philosopher who dedicated his entire life to shape the perfect arguments on the basis of pure logic. Moreover, a state of fact which is correctly observed is linked to logic. When it comes to the power of decisions, the truth is found in actions and is the only way which enforces the reasoning capacity of human beings.
In order to understand the premises of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s views, we should start with the fact that the limits of someone’s language are the limits of that person’s world. The value of the sentence stays in that person’s perception and verbs or nouns become mental representations. The language is compared to an aggregate, to a sum of ideas, emotions and impressions. As a result, we cannot say to a language that it is good or bad. In return, given real experience, we are capable of appreciating whether a language is appropriate or inappropriate.
In economics, the language used indicates an ideology, a paradigm which gained its popularity over decades or centuries. Of course, language can be an obstacle as well, especially when it comes to business, because a single word may have different and opposite meanings to people. I feel that the expression of ideas represents a key factor in grasping the work of Wittgenstein, who was deeply preoccupied in finding a common ground concerning the essence of notions. For this philosopher, language and mathematics are based on the same system and the main cause of error is not found in the nature of the human being, which has always had a tendency to organize his or her internal or external world so that happiness and peace would be achieved inside a community.
I should underscore that one of the greatest mistakes made in the commercial world is found in the expression: “to have a spirit which is well oriented to business”. Firstly, the spirit is immaterial, eternal (as part of the human being’s immortality) whereas running a business is something temporal, concrete, useful for the society so that the needs of consumer would be met in a satisfactory manner. In addition to this, a business depends on time, space, political climate, human and financial resources. Starting with the globalization of the language, the economy has turned out to be a solitary, not a solidary human science since everyone acts as if his or her goal or interest is bound to a compromise.
Even economics has its own limits, as Adam Smith firstly underlined. If someone broke this barrier, the level of utility of consumption would be zero because there would be no needs or desires to be satisfied in cosmos since that space is characterized by emptiness. So, applying Wittgenstein’s method, it is useless to think of an economy that will conquer another planet or another global system. As a result, the limits of an international economy are equivalent to the complex process of globalization. From Wittgenstein’s point of view, a name has to be a summary of the most striking ideas which are ruled by the way in which the language is perceived.
Another contribution of the Austrian philosopher is that the language is the leader of our actions and decisions because it expresses the meaning of plain words or complex sentences. The connections between notions are vital because they establish the level of coherence of a person’s speech. In order to systematize an entire economy, you have to systematize the language following logical principles (which are the only proper principles to be called so). Not only rules (in business and language too) mean prohibition, but also awareness of what is accepted by a community. The international economy is a universe ruled by commercial (quantitative and qualitative) standards and reaching for a common language has become a more challenging task, rather than simpler.
To put it in a nutshell, language represents the source of the descriptions of economic phenomena, and has the power to innovate itself regardless of its age or the age of its writing system. Above all, language is the most functional art that exists in the world: through sentences, imagination turns towards a technical area where only a single person has full access. Never forget that language is like a chameleon and it can reveal of obfuscate the truth.
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Ludwig Wittgenstein – Philosophical Grammar, Oxford: Blackwell, 1980.
Ludwig Wittgenstein – Blue and Brown Books, New York: Harper and Row, 1958.
Ludwig Wittgenstein – Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuinness, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972.
Will Buckingham, Douglas Burnham, Clive Hill, Peter J. King, John Marenbon, Marcus Weeks – The Philosophy Book, ed. DK London, UK, 2011