The Cybernetics of the Two Wittgensteins:

In today’s post, I am looking at Wittgenstein and parallels between his ideas and Cybernetics. Wittgenstein is often regarded as one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century. His famous works include Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (referred to as TLP in this article) and Philosophical Investigations (referred to as PI in this article). TLP is one of the most intriguing books I have read and reread in philosophy. His style of writing is poetic and the body of the book is split into sections and sub-sections. Wittgenstein is one of the few philosophers who has written two influential books that held opposing views in linguistic philosophy.

The Early Wittgenstein:

Wittgenstein was very much influenced by Bertrand Russel’s logical representation of mathematics. Wittgenstein came to the conclusion that language also resides in a logical space. He realized that the problems in philosophy are due to a lack of understanding how language works. He opens TLP with the succinct declaration – “The world is all that is the case.” He followed this up with – “What is the case – a fact – is the existence of states of affairs.

Wittgenstein is saying that the world is not made up of things, but that the world is the totality of facts. For example, if we take the example of a house, we cannot simply point to the table, the chairs, the rooms and identify a house from the different things. Instead, we have to say that there is a brown dining table in the dining room, and there are six chairs around it. This statement is a representation of a fact. The fact contains objects depicted in a relation between them. The objects by themselves lack the complexity to denote the world. The statement is a state of affairs between the objects, and the state of affairs is a combination of objects in a specific configuration.

Let’s bring up the famous idea of “picture theory” here. The story goes that Wittgenstein read about a judiciary proceeding in France where a road accident was depicted using a model of the road with the cars, buildings, pedestrians etc. This gave him the idea of the picture theory. The picture theory is simply a model or a representation of a state of affairs that corresponds to the specific configuration of the objects in the world. The picture is a model of reality. If we say that there is a cat on the mat, then we can picture this as a cat being on the mat. There are other possible configurations possible such as the cat being on the side of the mat or the mat being on top of the cat. However, in this particular case, the picture of the cat on the mat depicts to the reality of the object “cat” being on top of the object “mat”. The relationship between the two objects is that the cat is on top of the mat. What we talk about using language can be represented by the model with the different objects in the statement having a specific relation between the objects.

Wittgenstein’s main idea was that the use of language is to represent the states of affairs in the world. We can make propositions or statements in language that are pictures of reality. These statements are true if and only if the pictures map onto a corresponding reality in the world. Whatever we can speak of using language are senseful only if they talk about states of affairs in the world. If we talk about supernatural things, then they are not depicting a state of affairs in the real world, and thus are senseless or nonsense. Wittgenstein then used this approach with thoughts by seeing a logical picture of facts as a thought. A thought thus becomes a proposition with sense. With this approach, Wittgenstein showed that the problems of philosophy arise from a poor understanding of knowing how language works. We can solve these problems only when we understand the logic of language. Wittgenstein said that everything that can be thought can be thought clearly, and everything that can be put into words can be put clearly. Everything else is nonsense. Wittgenstein famously stated that the limits of my language mean the limits of my world. Wittgenstein ended TLP with the following – What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.

The Later Wittgenstein:

In PI, Wittgenstein came to the realization that his earlier views were dogmatic. Instead of using the idea of picture theory where language corresponded to the world, the later Wittgenstein concluded that the meaning of a word is in its use. He realized that we should not provide definitions of words, but instead provide descriptions of use. Instead of picture theory, Wittgenstein introduced the idea of language games. We are all engaged in language games when we interact with one another. Wittgenstein never gave a definition for language games but, he gave several examples. Loosely put, we engage in a language game when we converse with each other. We follow certain rules; we act and counteract based on these rules. Things make sense only when we follow these rules. Wittgenstein viewed language as a tool box with all kinds of different tools, and each tool has multiple uses depending on the context. Let’s take the example of a surgeon performing a surgery. The surgeon at times might say “scalpel” or at times simply gesture. The assisting nurse or doctor understands exactly what the surgeon is asking for without the surgeon making a clear statement about the state of affairs. They are all engaged in a language game where the word “scalpel” or the simple gesture of an open hand has a specific meaning unique to that context. If the surgeon is in a restaurant and gestures with an open hand, he might be given a breadstick instead of a scalpel.

One of the other ideas that Wittgenstein brought up in PI that requires our attention is that of private language. Wittgenstein concluded that a private language is not possible. Language has to be public. To provide a simple explanation, we need an external reference to calibrate meanings to our words. If you are experiencing pain, all you can say is that you experience pain. While the experience of pain is private, all we have is a public language to explain it in. For example, if we experience a severe pain on Monday and decided to call it “X”. A week from that day, if you have some pain and you decide to call it “Y”, one cannot be sure if “X” was the same as “Y”. Wittgenstein used the example of a beetle in the box to explain this.

Suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a ‘beetle’. No one can look into anyone else’s box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is by looking at his beetle. Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something different in his box. One might even imagine such a thing constantly changing. But suppose the word ‘beetle’ had a use in these people’s language? If so, it would not be used as the name of a thing. The thing in the box has no place in the language-game at all; not even as a something: for the box might even be empty. No one can ‘divide through’ by the thing in the box; it cancels out, whatever it is.

The beetle in the box is a thought experiment to show that private language is not possible. The beetle in my box is visible to only me, and I cannot see the beetle in anybody else’s box. All I can see is the box. The way that I understand the beetle or the word “beetle” is by interacting with others. I learn about the meaning only through the use of the word in conversations with others and how others use that word. This is true, even if they cannot see my beetle or if I cannot see their beetle. I can never experience and thus know their pain or any other private sensations. But we all use the same words to explain how each of us experience the world. The word beetle becomes whatever is in the box, even if the beetles are of different colors, sizes, types etc. Sometimes, the beetles could even be absent. The box in this case is the public language we use to explain the beetle which is the private experience. The meaning of the word beetle then is not what it refers to, but the meaning is determined by how it is used by all of us. It is an emergent phenomenon. And sometimes, the meaning itself changes over time. There is no way for me to know what your beetle looks like. The box comes to represent the beetle.

With these introductions, I will now try to draw parallels between Wittgenstein’s ideas and Cybernetics.

First Order Cybernetics and Early Wittgenstein:

When I look at the ideas of early Wittgenstein, I am seeing a lot of parallels to first order cybernetics. First order cybernetics is described of study of observed systems. Here the observer is independent of the observed system, and can make a model of how the observed system works and try to control it. The observer creates a model by looking at how the system works. Here the “system” refers to a selection of variables of interest with relation to a phenomenon chosen by the observer. One can see how this corresponds to the picture theory, where the picture is a model of reality depicting relations between objects.

Additionally for Wittgenstein, the logical space contains all possible combinations of the objects. Wittgenstein noted:

If all objects are given, then at the same time all possible states of affairs are also given.

Each thing is, as it were, in a space of possible states of affairs. This space I can imagine empty, but I cannot imagine the thing without the space.

In Cybernetics, this set of all possible combinations is viewed as the variety of the system. ‘The limits of my language are the limits of my world’ is a statement about my variety. ‘What we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence’ is Wittgenstein’s advice to cut down on the extraneous variety. This can be viewed as the application of Ashby’s “Law of Requisite Variety”. Ashby explained this law as – only variety can absorb variety. The external variety is always greater than our internal variety. Therefore, to manage external variety thrown at us, we have to cut down the external variety coming our way so that we can focus and manage our abilities to cope with the world. For example, our brains have evolved so that we do not pay attention to every minute detail of the world around us.

We manage the world around us by making models of the world, and by interacting with the world through these models. We are able to sustain our viability by managing variety.

Second Order Cybernetics and Later Wittgenstein:

With the later ideas, I am seeing correlations to the ideas in Second order cybernetics. Second order cybernetics is the study of observing systems. Here the observer is not seen as independent of the observed system, rather the observer is part of the observed system. The idea of meaning as use brings in the need to look at the context. The context of an observed system is the observer doing the observation. The observer is doing the observation with a specific purpose in mind. We cannot remove the observer out of the observation. To be aware of our biases and preconceived notions is important. We need to also be mindful about the other observers in the social realm. We need to see how they view the system. A second order cybernetician is aware of the potential blind spots in our observations.

The second idea that resonated with me is the idea of language games. Language games imply that there is more than one player. We are in a social realm and our reality is a stable representation derived from the ongoing interactions with other participants in the social realm. The reality is formed from the specific rules of the game we engage in. Language games require practice just like any other game.

Third Order Cybernetics?

Wittgenstein viewed philosophy as therapy and I welcome Wittgenstein’s view of philosophy as a therapy. To me, it is a second-order activity. I make sense of the world by describing it and therefore the limits of my understanding are based on the limits of my language. This viewpoint is liberating. When I view philosophy as second order cybernetics, I can conclude that there is no need for third order cybernetics. There is no need for a philosophy of philosophy. Wittgenstein talked about whether second order philosophy is needed:

One might think: if philosophy speaks of the use of the word “philosophy” there must be a second-order philosophy. But it is not so: it is, rather, like the case of orthography, which deals with the word “orthography” among others without then being second-order.

Final words:

Wittgenstein saw philosophy as a process for coming up with descriptions instead of explanations. When we try to come up with explanations of things, most often we fall prey to the philosophical problems that Wittgenstein exposed. We come into the realm of nonsense and we try to make sense of things by providing explanations where none can suffice. Wittgenstein said – Don’t think but look. Cybernetics teaches us to look how the system behaves rather than trying to understand what the system is. We need to look at descriptions rather than explanations. I will finish with a great explanation from Marie McGinn:

What we are concerned with when we ask questions of the form ‘What is time?’, ‘What is meaning?’, ‘What is thought?’ is the nature of the phenomena which constitute our world. These phenomena constitute the form of the world which we inhabit, and in asking these questions we express a desire to understand them more clearly. Yet in the very act of framing these questions, we are tempted to adopt an attitude towards these phenomena which, Wittgenstein believes, makes us approach them in the wrong way, in a way which assumes that we have to uncover or explain something. When we ask ourselves these questions, we take up a stance towards these phenomena in which they seem suddenly bewilderingly mysterious, for as soon as we try to catch hold of them in the way that our questions seem to require, we find we cannot do it; we find that we ‘no longer know’. This leads us deeper and deeper into a state of frustration and philosophical confusion. We think that the fault lies in our explanations and that we need to construct ever more subtle and surprising accounts. Thus, we ‘go astray and imagine that we have to describe extreme subtleties, which in turn we are after all quite unable to describe with the means at our disposal. We feel as if we had to repair a torn spider’s web with our fingers’. The real fault, Wittgenstein believes, is not in our explanations, but in the very idea that the puzzlement we feel can be removed by means of a discovery. What we really need is to turn our whole enquiry round and concern ourselves, not with explanation or theory construction, but with description. The nature of the phenomena which constitute our world is not something that we discover by ‘digging’, but is something that is revealed in ‘the kind of statement we make about phenomena’, by the distinctive forms of linguistic usage which characterize the different regions of our language. The method we really need is one that ‘simply puts everything before us, and neither explains nor deduces anything. —Since everything lies open to view there is nothing to explain’. It is by attending to the characteristic structures of what already lies open to view in our use of language that we will overcome our sense of philosophical perplexity and achieve the understanding we seek; the difficulty lies only in the fact that we are so unwilling to undertake, and so unprepared for, this task of description: ‘The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something—because it is always before one’s eyes.)’

Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Please take vaccination, if able. Stay safe and Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Reality of Informationally Closed Entities:

9 thoughts on “The Cybernetics of the Two Wittgensteins:

  1. Thanks. Your contribution made me read Wittgenstein and his translation in Dutch again. The book has been translated by one of Netherlands’ most important writers, W.F. Hermans, and he added a few interesting – but as little as possible – comments.

    For instance: the German text has been translated in English by C.K. Ogden and has been authorized by Wittgenstein. Yet it was published together with the German text (as it is in his Dutch translation), because – as Wittgenstein wrote – there are solutions to translating, but no methods to translate a text. In that time German was still the standard.
    I suppose it’s the same with translating Wittgenstein into cybernetics: there are statements, propositions (to questions, problems), but no definitive methods. With cybernetics we produce models of reality as we think it is. However, cybernetics doesn’t produce methods; we do.

    Hermans also stated, that his ideas may be unclear or proven untrue. That’s not the issue. It’s about their usefulness.

    Wittgenstein denied we’re thinking in language. We’re thinking in psychic components, with the same relationships to reality as words. As in 4.01 “Der Satz ist ein model der Wirklichkeit, so wie wir sie uns denken”: The sentence is a model of reality as we think it is. So, I my view, the “systems” we’re thinking about are psychic components that relate to reality. Through structural coupling, these components prove their worth in their usefulness, but not necessarily in their truth. (yes, I’m also a pragmatist).

    I think it’s also important that in the Tractatus he limits (4.11) the totality of true propositions – logic – to (natural) science, excluding philosophy – which he considered comments on propositions -, epistemology and psychology. Interestingly, this also excludes mathematics – which can be considered as inventions of the human mind (think about 0, square root of 2, irrational numbers,…) , as opposed to discoveries (“cases”, things).

    The words “Fall”, “Tatsachen” and “Sachverhalten” – as “case”, “fact” and “state of affairs”. In his Dutch translation Hermans uses “geval” , which is closer with the German “Fall”, which has the connotation of “falling” and “happens to be”. Hermans comments that Wittgenstein considered sentences like: “the world exist” or “objects exist” as nonsense. He objected, as you cannot imagine not to exist the world or objects, and wouldn’t exist, if the world isn’t the case.

    The German word “Tat-sachen”, also suggests “act-thing”, Tat being “deed”, and that a fact – like the Latin word seems to suggest too – is indeed – pun intentional – “made”. A fact exists as relationships with other facts (so, like my spouse always says, “relationship is a verb”). .
    The German “verhalten” – a noun or a verb – can imply behaviour and also the way one relates to “facts”. Hermans uses the Dutch “connectie” for Sachverhalten, or connection in English. I would have preferred “relationships” as a translation too. More useful.

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      • You’re welcome.
        Your contribution also made me read the book “Wittgenstein” by WF Hermans. As one of the best writers in The Netherlands, they’re well written and documented comments on Wittgenstein’s writing.

        Hermans found evidence that Wittgenstein also developed a second “book”. Which he couldn’t publish, because it’s about “what one cannot say”. One of the things one cannot speak about is “ethics”, because you can only behave ethical. And it’s unethical to order somebody to live ethically.

        One can only live ethical, so he gave away his inheritted fortune, to his siblings, because only rich people know how how to deal with large sums of money. He became a teacher in a small, local school, in which he failed, as he couldn’t stand gigling girls, stuborn parents and his fellow teachers. He insisted on paying for his own travel expenses, for meeting Russell in The Hague – this lead to the publication of Tractatus, as Russell offered to write a foreword -, he sold his furniture from Cambrigde, staying in the vegeterian hotel Pomona. He also had to find work to pay for a return ticket from a vacation stay on Norway to Austria … . In the end, he did return to writing.


        Hermans, by the way, is also known for his clever word games. One of his hardest – and most (in)famous – book he entitled, “De God Denkbaar, Denkbaar de God”, “The God Thinkable, Thinkable the God”. Off course, one should not speak about God (Wovon man nicht sprechen can…). A close reader discovered he had hidden – like a game of hide and seek -, his message in chapter 4 (the book has 16 chapters and 4 is the root of 16), which litteraly reads “strike out: which does not apply”. The reader concluded that one should strike out “which does not apply”, as it doesn’t apply, leaving one with “strike out”. So one should strike out, leaving “empty set”. Hermans never acknowledged this intended “meaning”.

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  2. And he was of course von Foerster’s uncle and by all accounts a huge influence on the young (hard to conceive) man.
    Or, googling now (and resisting that rabbit-hole!) he may have just been a close family friend to whom he referred to as ‘uncle Wittgenstein’

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  3. A smart idea to put the construction of an early Wittgenstein and the construction of a late Wittgenstein in the relation of first and second order observations.
    However, in my opinion it leads to bending said constructions in such a way that they fit the smart idea.
    The idea, for example, that one must pay attention to the use of the sign if one wants to know what it means, already comes from TLP (3.326), indeed, the famous paragraph 43 of PI is a qualification against it (for in this I agree with your observation about, TLP is dogmatic, PI is not):

    “Man kann für eine große Klasse von Fällen der Benützung des Wortes ‘Bedeutung’ – wenn auch nicht für alle Fälle seiner Benützung – dieses Wort so erklären: Die Bedeutung eines Wortes ist sein Gebrauch in der Sprache.”

    PU 43 is in fact not a short version of a theory of use of meaning, but a remark on the semantics of the word meaning: words, according to Wittgenstein, do not carry meaning around like a lady’s handbag, but we first give meaning to words in the language game “asking for meaning”, and the meaning is explained by giving examples of use – so we play the language game with the word meaning.

    (One more small remark to TLP: the “simple objects” of the Tractatus are not enumerable things of our macrophysical world, thus certainly not tables chairs or floor lamps; but probably rather something like sense data, philosophically perhaps comparable to “pre-predicative experience” in Husserl.)

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