Keith Boyea's Blog

Notes & Commentary on National Security, Current Affairs and Bourbon

Wittgenstein & Talking About War

Thesis: It might be impossible to talk about war.

I stumbled across this blog today, and more generally, I notice that a lot of people who go to war struggle to describe it.  It fit into my experience too–describing war to people who have not experienced it is a tough thing for me to do.  Alex Horton touched on the idea as well–he simply refused to talk about his experience at all, lest people get the wrong idea about him.

I have an odd obsession with the analytic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.  I don’t claim to understand some (most? any?) of his writing–though he wrote in direct prose, his meaning can be cryptic.  I have not had any formal instruction on Wittgenstein, so take this for what its worth.

One of Wittgenstein’s most famous ideas was that we use mental pictures to model reality, then we describe that reality with language.  He thought we could make sense of facts in the world by describing the pictures in our heads.  Everything else was “non-sense.”  If that sounds weird, it is (to me, at least).  It labels a lot of what philosophers deal with everyday–ethics, morality, values, etc.–as “nonsense.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes it this way, “Beyond the bounds of language lies nonsense—propositions which cannot picture anything—and Wittgenstein bans traditional metaphysics to that area.”

So is war nonsense and thus outside the bounds of language?  We can picture war in our heads and maybe describe it, but war brings together a lot of things that are specifically labeled as nonsense: ethics, morality, politics, courage and probably a thousand other things.  But, at least in this case, Wittgenstein’s idea seems to fit our experience.  We struggle to talk or write about war.  We struggle to integrate it into our larger experience in a healthy way.  When the latest, most popular portrayal of war, The Hurt Locker, was released, veterans disliked it because it wasn’t accurate.*  In Wittgenstein’s mind that might have been because war can’t be described at all.

The last line of Wittgenstein’s major work, Tractatus Logico-Philosphicus, says, “Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.” I think that means that nothing can be said of nonsense.  Given the broad range of “nonsense,” that is a powerful claim, and one I don’t really agree with.**  But I do think there are parallels between what Wittgenstein wrote and what we experience when it comes to talking about war.

* I’m  not defending The Hurt Locker; I’m just connecting some ideas here.

**This is most definitely not an argument to stop trying to talk about war, but simply an inquiry into why it is so hard to do.


Written by keithboyea

August 17, 2011 at 5:45 pm

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  1. “When the latest, most popular portrayal of war, The Hurt Locker, was released, veterans disliked it because it wasn’t accurate.”

    As I recall, in “Achilles in Vietnam,” (highly recommended) Jonathan Shays cited a survey of Vietnam Vets on war movies. Platoon got the most votes for both “most realistic” and “least realistic.” I think this speaks directly to the intensely personal nature of war, and the abstraction that it becomes for those who have been there. It strikes me that it is about as hard to describe what war is like as it is to describe what being in love is like. Each is the description of an experience, a feeling, a concept almost, not a thing.

    Sean Nelson

    September 23, 2011 at 2:15 am

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