Monday, 4 March 2013

Meaning is Use Part 3: Questions and Answers

I ended Meaning is Use Part 1 with the following questions about §43:

  1. Why […] has Wittgenstein suddenly moved from what meaning is (or isn’t) to how the word “meaning” is explained?

  1. What is the implication of the caveat “though not for all”?

  1. What are we supposed to make of the second paragraph (§43b)?

  1. In what sense (if any) does Wittgenstein actually say that meaning is use?

I dealt with (2) as best as I could in Meaning is Use Part 2. Here I’ll take (1) and (4) together, as I think they’re connected. But I’ll start with (3), if only to get it out of the way.

3. What are we supposed to make of the second paragraph of §43?

§43b states that “[…] the meaning of a name is sometimes explained by pointing to its bearer”. This is potentially troubling because in §40 Wittgenstein expressly warns us against confusing the meaning of a name with its bearer. Explaining the former by pointing to the latter might seem to go against this warning. After all, when we point to someone and say “This is Jones” surely we are explaining who the bearer of “Jones” is rather than the meaning of the word “Jones”?

This is correct so far as it goes, but there are three points worth considering. First, meaning is use and pointing to the bearer does sometimes provide information on how to use a name. Suppose for example I’ve been describing Jones to someone who’s never met him. Now Jones walks in and I say, “This âis Jones“. Previously, the other person could use the name up to a point; he could list the qualities I’d mentioned, say that he’d been told about Jones, etc. Now, however, he can also use “Jones” in a range of new ways: he can call to him, point him out to other people, etc, etc.

Still, it’s tempting to argue that I haven’t really explained the meaning of “Jones”; I’ve simply pointed out who Jones is. I’d agree that this is not a typical example of explaining meaning – but isn’t that blinding us to how things work in this type of case? It’s true that if I talk about my car and later, in the driveway, say “that’s my car” this wouldn’t be taken as an explanation of the word “car”. But such words do not function like proper nouns. I can define “car” by pointing to various examples and then, hopefully, my pupil will be able to identify further examples on sight. But I cannot point to a number of people called Jones and now expect my pupil to recognise anyone else with that name. The meaning of “Jones” as a proper noun entails specific definitions as well as the more general one that most readily comes to mind when we think of explaining meaning.

There’s a clear similarity here with the ostensive definition of objects discussed previously, and this leads to the second point: it’s not obvious that “name” in §43 exclusively refers to proper names. We often talk of naming objects (“can you name the different instruments in the woodwind section?”) and in §15 Wittgenstein points out that “naming something is rather like attaching a name tag to a thing”. If “name” in §43b is being used in this more general sense then Wittgenstein is simply reminding us of the function of ostensive definition in explaining use.

Thirdly, there are occasions when we explain ostensively that a word is a proper name. For example, I tell someone “Fetch me Kleb”. My friend looks puzzled and asks what on earth “kleb” is. I point to someone on the other side of the room saying “Him â! Kleb!” Here we have a two-fold instruction in the use of the word: (a) it is to be used as a proper name rather than the name of a thing; and (b) it is to be used as such in connection with a particular person who has been identified as its bearer.

I think I’ll leave this question now. It’s not of primary importance, but it does highlight the variety of practices which might be classified as explaining meaning (and the fact that it’s not always easy to decide if a particular practice falls under this heading is itself a rather Wittgensteinian observation). Indeed, surely Wittgenstein’s point in §43b is to draw our attention to this variety. As ever we should avoid thinking dogmatically – look and see!

1. Why has Wittgenstein suddenly moved from what meaning is (or isn’t) to how the word “meaning” is explained?

4. In what sense (if any) does Wittgenstein actually say that meaning is use?

Until §43, Wittgenstein’s argument has mainly been negative. He’s analysed potential candidates for meaning – in particular the claim that meaning is the object signified – and pointed out the incoherence of such ideas. But just when we might expect him to produce his own candidate he shifts the debate away from identity and focuses instead upon how meaning is explained (ie, how the word “meaning” is used). This is not, however, some kind of dodge. Rather, Wittgenstein is suggesting that the very search for a candidate is itself misconceived. He sets out this idea clearly at the beginning of The Blue Book:

The question "What is length?", "What is meaning?", "What is the number one?" etc., produce in us a mental cramp. We feel that we can't point to anything in reply to them and yet ought to point to something. (We are up against one of the great sources of philosophical bewilderment: a substantive makes us look for a thing that corresponds to it.)

Asking first "What is an explanation of meaning?" has two advantages. You in a sense bring the question "what is meaning" down to earth. For, surely, to understand the meaning of "meaning" you ought also to understand the meaning of "explanation of meaning". Roughly: "let's ask what the explanation of meaning is, for whatever that explains will be the meaning." Studying the grammar of the expression "expression of meaning" will teach you something about the grammar of the word "meaning" and will cure you of the temptation to look about you for some object which you might call "the meaning".

It is worth dwelling for a moment on the temptation Wittgenstein mentions here, for it is an important source not just of “philosophical bewilderment” but also of philosophical theories. The search for substantives is the search for metaphysical essence. It lies behind the notion of Platonic forms; Cartesian dualism; the mind/brain identity of reductionists such as Putnam; and Kripke’s theory of natural kinds, rigid-designators, etc. But all of this is, according to Wittgenstein, deeply misguided. Yet it is also extremely tempting. The very question “what is the meaning of a word?” suggests that there is some thing which is the meaning. The form of the question locks us into a particular way of considering the issue. Moreover, we feel we ought to be able to answer it (after all, surely we know what meaning is, don’t we?) and so we bethink ourselves. We attempt to use reason to discover how things must be. In other words, we search for a metaphysical theory. But this, for Wittgenstein, is tantamount to guessing how the word “meaning” works. And as he later remarks, “One cannot guess how a word functions. One has to look at its application and learn from that” (§340).

And it is precisely this looking which informs Wittgenstein’s shift of emphasis in §43. Instead of producing a theory he concentrates on how “meaning” is explained. To put it another way, he describes how the word “meaning” is used and sums things up with the general observation that the explanation of meaning (usually) involves explaining the use of the word whose meaning is unclear. Explaining the meaning of (eg) “apple” or “chair” might well involve pointing to actual apples or chairs as typical examples of the word under consideration (though it need not). But that doesn’t happen when explaining the meaning of “meaning” because, unlike “apple” or “chair” the word doesn’t name a substantive – not a physical one, nor a mental one, nor an ideal one. That’s why Wittgenstein doesn’t produce his own candidate for meaning. In this sense, there is nothing that meaning “is”. It is a word we use in particular ways in certain contexts. And that’s the end of it.

This, of course, is an example of Wittgenstein’s descriptive method of philosophy. Sixty-six sections before he announces “we may not advance any kind of theory [….] All explanation must disappear and description alone must take its place” (§109) he has already provided a practical demonstration of why he considered philosophical theorising to be barren and how, instead, a careful description of the relevant terms could bring things “down to earth” and release us from our mental cramp – not by solving the problem which troubled us, but by revealing it to be an illusion.

This is not the last time meaning will be discussed on this blog. I’m aware that so far I’ve hardly touched upon a hugely important and intuitively persuasive notion connected with the topic. Some of you may be impatiently asking yourselves “But what about the mind?” Isn’t saying a word with meaning (as opposed to just uttering inarticulate noises) a mental act? Indeed, doesn’t meaning itself consist of mental images (or ideas) put into words?

For Wittgenstein the answer is no and no. But discussion of the issue comes later.


  1. "the meaning of a name is sometimes explained by pointing to its bearer”

    I've been struggling with this issue (yet again) and your post for several days and have composed several comments, only to discard them since each seemed to miss the point. But I may finally have a (tenuous) handle on the issue. See what you think.

    I look at the quote as addressing the way meaning "flows" between a name and its bearer, in particular under what circumstances the flow can be from the latter to the former. I find it helpful to address this question using the chess theme of §31. So, consider a chess player who knows the names of the pieces and the rules governing their use in a game. Knowing how the piece named "king" can be used in a game is knowing how to use that word in a chess context. The player can say things like "the king can move in such-and-such a way", "castling involves simultaneously moving the king and a rook", "a game ends when the king is checkmated". Now imagine that the player is confronted with a set comprising unconventionally shaped objects and can't determine which object corresponds to which chess piece. Someone helpfully points to each object in the set and says the name of the corresponding chess piece, eg, "that's the king". That amounts to putting a name tag on each object in the set, ie, specifying how it is used in a game. In that sense, the meaning of each piece name flows from the name to the object pointed at.

    I see your "my car" and "Jones" examples as being variants on this scenario. In each, you talk about the absent bearer of a name (ie, demonstrate use the name) and later identify a present object as being the bearer of the name. Again, the flow of meaning is from name to bearer.

    But none of those scenarios applies to the quote, which addresses the flow of meaning in the opposite direction. So, let's consider a modification of another scenario in §31. A chess player has learned to play chess just by watching other players and inferring how the various (visually distinguishable) pieces can be moved. Assume the player hasn't previously learned the names of the pieces but is now told "that [pointing] is the 'king'". The player can subsequently use the word "king" in describing various aspects of the game: the king's initial position, how the king can move, the objective of the game, etc. In this scenario, the meaning of a name has flowed in the right direction, having been explained by pointing to its bearer.

    This seems to apply to any scenario in which one observes the use of a tool, machine, piece of sports equipment, etc. and only subsequently learns its name - ie, any situation in which "the place for it was already prepared".

    I don't see any conflict between W's warning in §40 and the quote from §43. The former apparently addresses the technical issue of whether a name can "refer" to a non-existent entity and warns against concluding that the non-existence of a bearer for a name precludes the name's having a meaning. In those terms, the quote from §43 just says that if a name's referent exists and is present, there are scenarios in which pointing at the referent provides the information necessary to determine the name's meaning. And I've suggested examples of such scenarios.

  2. I agree with what you say and that there's no real discrepancy between §40 and §43b. But §43b is the sort of comment which (it seems to me) can easily be taken the wrong way. I just wanted to examine that "wrong way" and show it to be empty.

  3. Great. For a long time I didn't even take it the wrong way, I didn't get it at all. So, your posts have helped a lot. Thanks.