Thursday, December 15, 2011

Wittgenstein: meaning

Here's a draft of the section on meaning for the IEP article:
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. 


  1. My take on §43.

    Also, it seems to me that "meaning is use" implies that an aspect of meaning is the effect the speaker intends to have on the hearer. (Recall "Slab!") But a complication seems to arise: I may use a word intending (and expecting) that a specific hearer will react "inappropriately" (ie, not in the way most hearers would). That makes my use - and hence, my meaning - context dependent, which is OK; but doesn't it also make it - in a sense - private?

  2. Context is certainly important, yes, but I don't think I quite see how this makes meaning private in any bad way. There's nothing inaccessible to others, or that can't be put in other words, is there?

  3. The genesis of this idea was observing that sometimes - especially in political speech - someone will say something that is strictly true but is meant to mislead certain hearers.

    A classic example was "He voted for it before he voted against it" in the 2008 presidential campaign. The Bush campaign operatives obviously knew that while strictly true, there was a perfectly reasonable explanation for that sequence. They also knew that many - probably most - hearers would not know that and so would take it to be (more) evidence of "flip-flopping". Assuming my interpretation of meaning, it was therefore known by the speakers, "understood" by the targeted hearers (ie, they reacted as intended), but recognized only by the better informed (and perhaps more cynical, eg, me) hearers. That's the sense in which meaning (per my interpretation) can arguably be (semi-)private.

  4. Oh yes, that's right. Sometimes words are very carefully chosen to be strictly true while hiding the truth as much as possible. This just seems cynical and manipulative to some, but can also be regarded as showing a laudable respect for the truth. See Michael Sandel's lecture on what Kant might say about Bill Clinton's "I did not have sex with that woman," where Clinton seems to have been wanting his audience to believe that he had no sexual contact with her but actually was using the verb "to have sex" for a specifically limited range of sexual behavior (that does not include oral sex). The video is here.

    Sorry to change examples from Bush to Clinton--I'm not trying to make a political point!

  5. "I'm not trying to make a political point!"

    Perhaps contrary to appearances, neither was I. It is simply history that the view of meaning as speaker-intended-hearer reaction came to me consequent to that event during the 2004 campaign. I am bi-partisan in my contempt for deceit in political rhetoric.

    BTW, while working through PI I have encountered several passages that suggest that although not necessarily explicitly stated, LW's view of use involved intended hearer reaction. Eg, in §6:

    Don't you understand the call "Slab!" if you act upon it in such-and-such a way?

    For "understand", substitute "get the speaker's meaning of" and assume an implicit trailer "as intended".

  6. That sounds right. And I didn't take you to be making a political point. I just didn't want to seem as though I was a tetchy Republican reacting to your example politically instead of philosophically. I may be tetchy, but I'm not a Republican.