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Wittgenstein and Trump: the politics of grammar

In Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus”, language has an unassailable grip on reality. It pictures the world but cannot say how it mirrors reality because we cannot get outside of language to see this mirroring. In his late philosophy, we find the antipode: language has no essence; language-games have different rules and different grammars.


Sean Sheehan


The change in Wittgenstein’s thinking took place gradually. This middle period is the subject of the essays in “Wittgenstein in the 1930s: between the tractatus and the investigations” and it is the shifting ground where the linguistics of Trump can be located.

Wittgenstein speaks of the ‘logical scaffolding’ of a sentence that can represent a state of affairs in the non-linguistic world.

The populist language of Trump’s tweets and speeches, cannily echoing the thought patterns of his supporters, takes this to a new level.

Thus, the phrase ‘Make America Great Again’ is more than an aspiration: it incarnates how the world was once and how it will be once again. It cannot be weakened by his critics because the language enshrines the truth.

In the early 1930s, Wittgenstein says how ‘grammar fixes [the] place of a word in logical space: & [the] place of a word in logical space is its meaning’.

Language users are like cogwheels in a linguistic environment and the meshing of cogs is grammar at work.

Ludwig Wittgenstein 2
Christiaan Tonnis ~ Ludwig Wittgenstein 2 / Approx. 55.1 x 70.9 inches / Oil on canvas / 1987. Flickr. License Creative Commons

Wittgenstein comes to see language as performative and Trump’s rhetoric thrives on speech acts. Avowals of a non-factual kind can use the grammar of factual language to make them seem to be true.

And although the number of lies that Trump tells is legendary and clinically tracked every week, such reckonings are immaterial for his supporters who dismiss them as ‘fake news’. Grammar is governed by rules and, like those of chess, they decide what can and cannot be allowed. Fact-checking doesn’t come into it.

Conventional grammar does not allow us to say ‘those two are identical but these two are more identical’ but the rule that ‘more identical’ cannot be used is not because of some reality outside of language.

There is no bit of reality, that says ‘more identical’ is not grammatical.

Someone cannot be ‘partly pregnant’ without changing the meaning of the word. By repeatedly using words like ‘invasion’, ‘alien’, ‘animal’ and ‘criminal’, Trump, like the Brexit brigade, is changing the meaning of the word ‘immigrant’.

Trump’s claim that ‘my rhetoric …brings people together’ is true for his supporters but a lie for everyone else.

He and his audience share a grammar with a new set of rules that can turn opinion into facts, lies into truth.

Photo: Pixabay

As Wittgenstein comes to realise, words are often mistakenly taken ‘to stand for a thing or substance’ when this is not how they are being used. Trump’s language may reflect his unruly mind but this cannot explain its effectiveness in connecting with his audience.

Wittgenstein’s later philosophy lays a basis for understanding how inarticulateness can be highly articulate.

Wittgenstein in the 1930s: between the tractatus and the investigations”, edited by David G. Stern, is published by Cambridge University Press








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