Wittgenstein, Culture, and Value: The Disappearance of a Culture

One of Wittgenstein’s personal notes, taken from the book Culture and Value, states:

I realize then that the disappearance of a culture does not signify the disappearance of human value, but simply of certain means of expressing this value, yet the fact remains that I have no sympathy for the current of European civilization and do not understand its goals, if it has any. So I am really writing for friends who are scattered throughout the corners of the globe.

What I would like to focus is the first half of the quote above. Because Wittgenstein, with an effort in trying to understand human language and expression, presents a great insight about the role of culture in substituting language. Firstly, let me further elaborate on what I mean by saying ‘substituting language’.

In my last writing, I touched upon Wittgenstein’s quote “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must keep silent”. To me, by saying this, Wittgenstein implied how other forms of expression take over when language fails to deliver certain experiences, ideas, and feelings. And since culture is the transmission and expression of human values through certain rituals and symbols, it is cultural practices which “show” rather than “tell”; it is cultural practices which bring together people that share similar ways of experiencing life and seeing the world, without explicitly reducing their feelings to words.

Funerals can serve as a simple example to this. Although the practices may differ from culture to culture, the way people dress, the way some are expected to grief or contain their sorrow, and the objects that are involved such as flowers, gravestones, coffin etc. all signify certain values and ways of perceiving reality and death. Perhaps the family members of the deceased are expected to wear black but not cry as a way of recognising the sadness of losing a loved one but not grieving by grasping death as simply a point in time in one’s eternal spiritual journey. Or, perhaps, choosing certain people to carry the casket (pallbearer) could be revealing about the hierarchies the deceased person had in his/her social network. Hence, all these rituals conveniently hold and express a dense set of feelings and values, which would otherwise not be possible by words. It is for this reason anthropologists immerse themselves in the lives of others, in addition to hearing what they have to say — as understanding the experiences, feelings, and ideas of a person requires one to engage in that person’s forms of expressing his/her values.

Going back to Wittgenstein’s quote, he also states that since cultures are ways of expressing human values, but not values themselves, the disappearance of a culture leads to having lesser amounts of tools in expressing our values. Even though concepts of ‘human’ and ‘culture’ are inseparable and although where there is human, there always is culture, eradicating some long established cultural practices and traditions may result in our inability to communicate some of our values that were mostly embedded in such disappeared cultural practices and traditions — especially in a time in which modernism labels many practices, ideas, and traditions, as ‘superstitious’ and thus ‘backward’. As an example, if rituals in marriages and weddings signified certain filial values intrinsic to a certain society, then reducing marriage to merely a formal contract and disregarding all the traditions that were attached to a social event such as a marriage would eventually lead to the suppression of certain meanings that people shared.

Perhaps, Wittgenstein’s disdain for the European civilisation of his time, which is apparent in the latter half of the quote, was due to the emerging fundamental and blind faith in “progress” which led to many people becoming cogs in the industrial production; whereas values Wittgenstein attached importance to were left unrepresented yet existent in such people’s personhood.

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