The Emoji

28 April

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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 receiving a text message from a good friend is better expressed through a sketch of a human face than through long words.

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.

Perhaps we should next week continue examining the mental power of pictures in a chat about mind-mapping?

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