The most famous of the theories that have been found in the Tractatus is the “picture theory” of meaning. According to this theory propositions are meaningful insofar as they picture states of affairs or matters of empirical fact. Anything normative, supernatural or (one might say) metaphysical must, it therefore seems, be nonsense. This has been an influential reading of parts of the Tractatus. Unfortunately, this reading leads to serious problems since by its own lights the Tractatus’ use of words such as “object,” “reality” and “world” is illegitimate. These concepts are purely formal or a priori. A statement such as “There are objects in the world” does not picture a state of affairs. Rather it is, as it were, presupposed by the notion of a state of affairs. The “picture theory” therefore apparently denies sense to just the kind of statements of which the Tractatus is composed, to the framework supporting the picture theory itself. In this way the Tractatus pulls the rug out from under its own feet.In contrast to the idea that words have meaning in virtue of their picturing or representing states of affairs in the world, Sect. 43 of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations says that: “For a large class of cases of the employment of the word “meaning” – though not for all – this word can be explained in this way: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.”It is quite clear that here Wittgenstein is not offering the general theory that “meaning is use,” as he is sometimes interpreted as doing. The main rival views that Wittgenstein warns against are that the meaning of a word is some object that it names–in which case the meaning of a word could be destroyed, stolen or locked away, which is nonsense–and that the meaning of a word is some psychological feeling–in which case each user of a word could mean something different by it, having a different feeling, and communication would be difficult if not impossible.Knowing the meaning of a word can involve knowing many things: to what objects the word refers (if any), whether it is slang or not, what part of speech it is, whether it carries overtones, and if so what kind they are, and so on. To know all this, or to know enough to get by, is to know the use. And generally knowing the use means knowing the meaning. Philosophical questions about consciousness, for example, then, should be responded to by looking at the various uses we make of the word “consciousness.” Scientific investigations into the brain are not directly relevant to this inquiry (although they might be indirectly relevant if scientific discoveries led us to change our use of such words). The meaning of any word is a matter of what we do with our language, not something hidden inside anyone’s mind or brain. This is not an attack on neuroscience. It is merely distinguishing philosophy (which, as Wittgenstein understands it, is properly concerned with linguistic or conceptual analysis) from science (which is concerned with discovering facts).One exception to the meaning-is-use rule of thumb is given in Philosophical Investigations Sect.561, where Wittgenstein says that “the word “is” is used with two different meanings (as copula and as sign of equality)” but that its meaning is not its use. That is to say, “is” has not one complex use (including both “Water is clear” and “Water is H2O”) and therefore one complex meaning, but two quite distinct uses and meanings. It is an accident that the same word has these two uses. It is not an accident that we use the word “car” to refer to both Fords and Hondas. But what is accidental and what is essential to a concept depends on us, on how we use it. This in turn depends on our purposes and interests.It is not completely arbitrary, however. Depending on one’s environment, one’s physical needs and desires, one’s emotions, one’s sensory capacities, and so on, different concepts will be more natural or useful to one. This is why “forms of life” are so important to Wittgenstein. What matters to you depends on how you live (and vice versa), and this shapes your experience. So if a lion could speak, Wittgenstein says, we would not be able to understand it. We might realize that “roar” meant zebra, or that “roar roar” meant lame zebra, but we would not understand lion ethics, politics, aesthetic taste, religion, humor and such like, if lions have these things. We could not honestly say “I know what you mean” to a lion. Understanding another involves empathy, which requires the kind of similarity that we just do not have with lions, and that many people do not have with some other human beings.When a person says something what he or she means depends not only on what is said but also on the context in which it is said. Importance, point, meaning are given by the surroundings. Words, gestures, expressions come alive, as it were, only within a language game, a culture, a form of life. If a picture, say, means something then it means so to somebody. Its meaning is not an objective property of the picture in the way that its size and shape are. The same goes of any mental picture. Hence Wittgenstein’s remark that “If God had looked into our minds he would not have been able to see there whom we were speaking of.” Any internal image would need interpretation. If I interpret my thought as one of Hitler and God sees it as Charlie Chaplin, who is right? Which of the two famous contemporaries of Wittgenstein’s I mean shows itself in the way that I behave, the things I do and say. It is in this that the use, the meaning, of my thought or mental picture lies.
Thursday, December 15, 2011
Here's a draft of the section on meaning for the IEP article: