No, Wittgenstein did not invent the emoji

I recently read this fun article on Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language: https://qz.com/1261293/ludwig-wittgenstein-was-the-great-philosopher-of-the-20th-century-he-also-invented-the-emoji/. It suggests that Wittgenstein invented the emoji and, using that claim as a kind of foil, explores his philosophy of language.

I wanted to focus on the narrow question of whether Wittgenstein invented the emoji. To me the answer seems to be an emphatic no. Wittgenstein did use sequences of characters to depict facial expressions. Here is the textual evidence from The Brown Book: IMG_20180506_0850038.jpg

Now this form of depiction—using a few marks to depict a face—was no doubt used by Wittgenstein. And the insight that this can be done likely has interesting consequences in linguistics and related studies. Indeed, we heard a terrific keynote talk on this point from Dr. Louise McNally at the 2017 Society for Exact Philosophy meeting!

On the other hand, what is an emoji? If we are talking about merely depicting faces with a few characters, this sort of depiction was not invented by Wittgenstein and indeed first occurs in the historical record long before Wittgenstein. Such depiction is at least as old as medieval manuscripts.

But if we are really talking about inventing emojis—small depictions made using a few characters that convey a wealth of meanings given their context and such as are suitable for digital communication—then invention of the emoji in the usual sense belongs to the Japanese artist Shigetaka Kurita. The text of The Brown Book does not show that Wittgenstein invented the emoji because, at minimum, the text does not show that Wittgenstein had conceived of such modern digital communication—and the notion of such modern digital communication is required to have invented the emoji in this sense.

The TL;DR version is this: Wittgenstein didn’t invent the emoji, even if his ideas about language have an interesting connection to emojis. For more about emojis and their history, see this piece.

Also, it is not lost on me that this article claims creation of the emoji is due to a dead white European, when in fact creation is due to a living Japanese artist. Could we please stop doing that? A good rule might be to avoid claiming dead person X invented Y when the notion of Y has changed dramatically over the course of time. The emoji is a case in point: it only took on its modern meaning with the explosion of digital communication.

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