Ludwig Wittgenstein was one of the great 20th-century philosophers. He also invented the emoji


Eighty years ago, philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein had a brainwave. No, not when he claimed he’d solved all great philosophical questions at just 29 years old (that was in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, completed in 1918 and published in 1921.) Nor was it when he realized the Tractatus was wrong, and professed to have re-solved philosophy all over again (in Philosophical Investigations, published posthumously in 1953).

No, it was in the summer of 1938, when, while lecturing on aesthetics at Cambridge University, Wittgenstein declared, “If I were a good draughtsman, I could convey an innumerable number of expressions by four strokes.” In other words, why say things in words when you could say them using emoji?

The text of Wittgenstein’s lecture series (in the collection Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief) depicts three simple faces: one with closed eyes and a half smile, one with a raised eyebrow, and one with open eyes and a full smile.

“Such words as ‘pompous’ and ‘stately’ could be expressed by faces,” said Wittgenstein. “Doing this, our descriptions would be much more flexible and various than they are as expressed by adjectives.” For example, the emotional experience of hearing a piece by Schubert is better expressed through a sketch of a human face than through the term “melancholic.”

Paul Horwich, a philosophy professor at New York University, notes that Wittgenstein’s comments are not simply offhand remarks, but relevant to his broader theories on language. In Wittgenstein’s earlier work in particular, he emphasized the impact of pictorial rather than linguistic communication. Wittgenstein believed that we represent reality to ourselves using language and so, in a sense, construct our sense of reality through language. The impact and interpretation of pictorial forms of communication then suggest we represent reality using pictorial as well as linguistic means.

“Someone might be tempted to think that whatever you can think or convey can be done in language. Some even think that that your thinking is done in language of some kind,” says Horwich. Sketching faces “recognizes a way of communicating which is not linguistic.”

Horwich notes that Wittgenstein wrote about the power of various forms of pictorial representation, such as maps, architectural designs, realistic pictures, and models. But Wittgenstein also focused on the power of faces in Brown Book, a collection of Wittgenstein’s lectures in 1934-35. When we see a face drawn with just a few dashes (a round circle, a line for a nose, and three small lines for two eyes and a mouth), we don’t just see dashes, said Wittgenstein, but a particular expression that “words can’t exactly describe.”

Philosopher Kristóf Nyíri, of the University of Pécs in Hungary, explains the significance of this phenomenon in an article on Wittgenstein’s philosophy of pictures:

One has an experience here, Wittgenstein implies, which cannot be conveyed by words; although it can be conveyed by pointing to a drawing. It appears our system of communication is incomplete, unless pictures play a part in it.

The contemporary uptake of emoji indeed suggests an intuitive appeal to pictorial communication. But there’s a difference between your smartphone’s emoji keyboard and Wittgenstein’s conception of pictorial communication. Horwich says Wittgenstein imagined everyone sketching individual faces to convey meaning, rather than relying on standardized faces as we do today. “I don’t think we get the variety and the flexibility unless you’re drawing them yourself,” says Horwich. “You’re shoveling ‘sad’ into one particular face. [Wittgenstein’s] idea was different degrees and shades of sadness come from ways of drawing it.”

Though emoji today aren’t as nuanced as the sketches envisaged by Wittgenstein, their immense popularity shows the philosopher was right about the impact of pictures. Sometimes, you can’t say it in words. Only an emoji will do. 🤓

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