In 1931 Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote the following note:
“We are struggling with language. We are engaged in a struggle with language.”
It is tempting to, and I originally did, treat this note as straightforward and redundant. But given Wittgentein’s obsession with the clarification of meaning, I decided to take another look. In the second sentence, “engaged in a struggle” seems to re-word “struggling”, perhaps to emphasize the original point. But if we look closer at the associations between the words, we see that these two sentences form a meta-note, revealing the struggle with language the moment they declare its existence.
Each sentence has two possible meanings, which points to the struggle with the ambiguity of language, but I think Wittgenstein wants us to notice the less apparent meaning. In the second sentence, we are lured into making “language” the object of the struggle, but if we make it the object of “engaged”, the larger predicament opens up. We are struggling with language, indeed, but language is at once the object and means of the struggle.
This note also serves as an illustrative example of another of Wittgenstein’s observations:
“Language sets everyone the same traps; it is an immense network of easily accesible wront turnings. And so we watch one man after another walking down the same paths and we know in advance where he will branch off, where walk straight on without noticing the side turning…” This note above is an invitation to understand how we could miss this side turning.