Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Wittgenstein, Names, Meaning and Use

The first 45 sections of the Investigations touch upon a wide range of topics, but their central concern is to combat the picture of language suggested by the quote from Augustine in §1: “the words in language name objects [….] Every word has a meaning. This meaning is correlated with the word. It is the object for which the word stands.”

Wittgenstein’s first criticism of this account is that words do far more than simply name objects. The language-game he outlines in §2 (where a builder calls out “slab”, “block”, etc, and his assistant brings the appropriate objects) demonstrates this by its very primitiveness. Since our language goes way beyond the basic functions allowed for in Augustine’s description, his version clearly doesn’t capture the whole picture (a point Wittgenstein makes explicitly at §3-4).

In §8 Wittgenstein extends the building language-game to include number-words, colour samples and the words “this” and “there” – ie, examples of the sorts of features left out of Augustine’s account – and then (at §10) makes the following remark:  
Now what do the words of this language signify? – How is what they signify supposed to come out other than in the kind of use they have? And we have already described that.
The terminology here moves from “name” to “signify” – and the italics show that this is not meant to escape our notice. Why introduce this new term? Well, “signify” is akin to, but not identical with, “name”; it is broader, more diffuse – we can either say, for example, that the word “ring” names or signifies the object I put on someone’s finger; but while that ring can signify my love, it cannot name it. So (the thought goes) although we may concede that words do more than name, perhaps we can still show that something similar is going on by adopting “signify”.

Wittgenstein’s response to this rejects such a move. In fact, he seems to consider it an example of what he elsewhere (§254) calls a “typical expedient in philosophy” – in this case, using a flexible term (or form of words) to shoe-horn different activities into the same category. Thus, although it is possible to say both “’X’ signifies the number…” and “’Y’ signifies the colour…” this does not make the use of number-words and the use of colour samples the same any more than the word “ring” signifying a ring is the same as a ring signifying undying love. In a specific context “’X’ signifies the number…” could be useful – ie, it could remove a particular misunderstanding – but here it is part of an inappropriate imitation of scientific reductionism, blurring the facts rather than revealing an underlying connection. Indeed the fact that it is possible to represent markedly different activities using the same basic sentence-structure is one of the linguistic features that tempts us to assume there is such a thing as the “ultimate essence” of language. For me, Wittgenstein debunks this spurious type of assimilation rather effectively when he says (§22):
We might very well also write every assertion in the form of a question followed by an affirmative expression; for instance, “Is it raining? Yes!” Would this show that every assertion contained a question?
Notice also how Wittgenstein’s immediate response to the question at §10 is to bring things back to the matter of use. This is a recurrent pattern in the Investigations: a particular notion (or theory) of meaning leads to puzzlement at which point we are urged to consider how the relevant word or phrase is actually used in various situations.

Why does this help? Because words are like tools (§11) and language is what we do with those tools. And so “what does this word mean?” is akin to “what is this tool for?” or “how is it used?” And, as with tools, the answer may not be as straightforward as you think. Consider a hammer: I can use it to knock in a nail, or pull a nail out, or smash away an obstruction or stop my instructions blowing away in the wind, or even as an ornament (but I can’t use it to glue a tile to the wall – not everything is “up for grabs” and it is significant that there are limits to the flexibility of language as well as hammers).

It follows from this that explaining meaning is not a matter of forming a reductive hypothesis but of painstakingly describing what we already know: how words are used. This insight will form the basis of Wittgenstein’s whole approach to philosophy.

The importance of use is glanced upon at various points in the Investigations’ opening sections until, at §43, he more or less lays his cards on the table:
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.

And the meaning of a name is sometimes explained by pointing to its bearer.
I must admit, I have always found this crucial passage troubling. In fact, thinking about it often produces precisely the sort of “mental cramp” Wittgenstein mentions in relation to such questions as “What is meaning?” (The Blue Book, page 1).

I shall describe my confusion not simply to highlight my own dimness – though that’s always worth bearing in mind – but as an example of how infuriatingly difficult it is to break free of the misleading conceptions of language “which send us in pursuit of chimeras” (§94). Academic commentators such as (the excellent) Peter Hacker tend to make it look dauntingly easy: this is why the Augustinian picture of language doesn’t work, and this is the Wittgensteinian version we should replace it with. Job done. All I can say is that I’ve been studying Wittgenstein on and off for over twenty years and I still sometimes find myself falling into the same old traps. It is a comfort, however, to realise that Wittgenstein himself seems to have had a similar problem. Again and again in his later works he complains about how hard it is “to keep our heads above water” (§106) and only days before his death he commented “I do philosophy now like an old woman who is always mislaying something and having to look for it again; now her spectacles, now her keys” (On Certainty, §532).

Anyway, on with the philosophy. I have no difficulty with the general message of §43 (that meaning is use), but there is a further aspect to it which often sends my mind reeling, namely: what sorts of words does its caveat (“though not for all”) refer to? Take a moment to read the passage again, consider it, and see what you think.

It is all too easy to suppose that Wittgenstein is saying there are some types of words whose meaning is somehow “untainted” by any particular use. Such words would, so to speak, “carry their meaning with them” from situation to situation. It should go without saying that this is a startlingly un-Wittgensteinian conception (and that alone ought to alert us to the possibility that we’ve taken a wrong turn).

All the same, this reading seems to be confirmed by the final sentence of §43. Isn’t Wittgenstein here saying that in the case of proper names (eg, “Jones”) the bearer is the meaning of the name? That would at least provide an example of a word which carried its meaning with it, but it would also directly contradict a point Wittgenstein has emphatically made just three sections earlier:
It is important to note that it is a solecism to use the word “meaning” to signify the thing that ‘corresponds’ to a word. That is to confound the meaning of a name with the bearer of the name.
Philosophical Investigations §40
Either we conclude that Wittgenstein has made a remarkable blunder and started arguing against himself, or we go back and think more carefully about what he’s actually saying in §43. So which is it?

Well, after a lot of thought, I realised this: §43 is simply about the different ways we explain the term “meaning”. It says we do not always explain meaning in terms of use. It does not say that there are some words whose meaning is totally independent of their use. One might reword it as follows:

“In most cases the employment of ‘meaning’ can be explained as a reference to the use of the word in question. A description of use is what we mean by ‘meaning’ in such cases. But even when it is not done this way – eg, where a name’s meaning is explained by pointing at the bearer – it is still not the case that the bearer is the meaning.”

Or, to put it in the form of a dialogue:

A: What is meant by “meaning”?

B: Most of the time the meaning of a word is its use in the language. But in this case I explain the meaning of “Jones” by pointing to him, thus →.

A: So he → is the meaning of “Jones”?

B: No! He is a human being. How can a human being be a meaning? No object can be a meaning because meaning is not a thing. He → is the bearer of the name “Jones” – in other words, he is the person I want you to bring when I say “fetch me Jones”.

Or, finally, to express it as a grammatical distinction: One does not say, “Hello, I am the meaning of the word ‘Jones’.” One says, “Hello, I am Jones.”

Even as I typed them out, I could feel my grasp of the above points squirming to get away from me. There is something eerie about how difficult it is to keep these (seemly simple) conceptual distinctions in focus. Again, this was something Wittgenstein often remarked upon:
 [Philosophical problems] are solved through an insight into the workings of our language, and that in such a way that these workings are recognized - despite an urge to misunderstand them. [...] Philosophy is a struggle against the bewitchment of our understanding by the resources of our language.
Philosophical Investigations §109

Friday, 26 August 2011

Some Remarks on St Augustine

Philosophical Investigations opens with a quote from St Augustine describing how he first learnt to understand language: “When grown-ups named some object and at the same time turned towards it, I perceived this, and I grasped that the thing was signified by the sound they uttered, since they meant to point it out.” (Confessions, 1.8)

This choice of quote has always struck me as strange. Why Augustine? Wittgenstein could have chosen from numerous actual philosophers whose views on meaning exemplified the position he wanted to attack. Why not Locke, for example, or something from his own earlier work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus? When I read (in Ray Monk’s biography) that Wittgenstein had chosen St Augustine precisely because he wasn’t a philosopher, my puzzlement only grew. I think, however, that I’m finally starting to see what he was getting at.

The quote from the Confessions represents the voice of the intelligent layperson rather than the professional philosopher. It shows how we all engage with philosophical issues at times – often without realising we’re doing it. And when this happens we reveal something about our fundamental background assumptions; however crudely, we take up a particular philosophical position on things (and, again, we typically don’t realise this – we consider our views to be “plain facts” or “common sense”). Of course, being “amateurs” we probably don’t fully work through the implications of this position, but we are certainly facing in a particular direction, whether or not we choose to march on down that road.

Here’s Wittgenstein’s comment on Augustine’s account:

These words, it seems to me, give us a particular picture of the essence of human language. It is this: the words in language name objects – sentences are combinations of such names. – In this picture of language we find the roots of the following idea: Every word has a meaning. This meaning is correlated with the word. It is the object for which the word stands.
Philosophical Investigations §1
Notice how Wittgenstein doesn’t attribute the last part of his description to Augustine directly. Augustine (he says) merely considers that words name objects. He goes on to criticise this picture on the relatively trivial grounds that it mistakes a tiny part of language for the whole (see §3, though also §32, which suggests a more subtle error). Moreover, the fact that someone like Augustine (whom Wittgenstein admired) felt it natural to represent the workings of language in this way showed that there was something tempting – perhaps even compelling – about the picture he painted. It was the sort of view that many intelligent, thoughtful people might find attractive. So if Augustine was making a mistake, he wasn’t making a stupid mistake (cf §340).

However, as Wittgenstein makes clear, the Augustinian picture does lay a sort of trap for the philosophically minded: they may be tempted to go on and conclude that every word has a meaning, which is the object for which the word stands. In other words, they may use Augustine's relatively innocent picture as the basis for a full-blown theory about how language achieves meaning. I think Wittgenstein considered this to be a more fundamental error – and one which lay at the very heart of his own earlier philosophy.

One final thought: the choice of Augustine suggests to me something about the audience Wittgenstein might’ve been writing for. Reading the Investigations, with its (deceptively) simple style and constant dialogues between the author and a bright but bewildered interlocutor, its tone is not like anything to be found in the pages of the Journal of Philosophy. Does it read to you like he’s holding an imaginary debate with Russell or Frege or Ramsey? It doesn’t to me, and at the very least I doubt that Wittgenstein intended his book to be exclusively for academic philosophers or even undergraduates. I think he left the academics to take care of themselves and turned his attention to intelligent laypeople who, like St Augustine 1500 years before, were at risk (by virtue of their very intelligence) of finding themselves in the grip of philosophical confusion.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Five Red Apples

Now think of the following use of language: I send someone shopping. I give him a slip of paper marked "five red apples". He takes the slip to the shopkeeper, who opens the drawer marked "apples"; then he looks up the word "red" in a chart and finds a colour sample next to it; then he says the series of elementary number-words - I assume that he knows them by heart - up to the word "five", and for each number-word he takes an apple of the same colour as the sample out of the drawer. -- It is in this and similar ways that one operates with words. -- "But how does he know where and how he is to look up the word 'red' and what he is to do with the word 'five'?" -- Well, I assume that he acts as I have described. Explanations come to an end somewhere. - But what is the meaning of the word "five"? - No such thing was in question here, only how the word "five" is used.

This passage, from §1 of the book, has always charmed me. The situation presented is a beguiling mix of the mundane and the strange – what could be more prosaic than buying apples? And yet no grocer’s store in the world has ever operated quite like this. Doubtless, this was intentional on Wittgenstein’s part; it helps us to see a simple use of language with fresh eyes. And for all its apparent whimsy, the scene’s “action” has clearly been chosen with great care: it quietly introduces a remarkable number of the book’s major themes.

First, it is an example of a “language-game” (although this term is not introduced until §7) – an intentionally basic situation designed to focus attention on language in use rather than any abstract account of its “essence”.

Then there are the specific words involved: five red apples. A number, a colour and a physical object. Together with the shopkeeper’s responses, they draw attention to the variety of uses words can have. In particular, they undermine the notion that the basic function of words is to name objects. Apples, of course, are objects, but what about “red” or “five”? In this situation it seems clear that no objects are involved (but compare it to, say, “Red is more vivid than brown” or “five is a prime number”).

The end of the passage then introduces two striking features of the Investigations: the impatient interjection of questions by an imagined interlocutor, and Wittgenstein’s adroit side-stepping of those questions. The interlocutor reappears throughout the book – in fact at times the Investigations resembles a loosely-structured dialogue. This is linked (I think) to Wittgenstein’s conception of his philosophy as a sort of therapy – a careful untangling of the linguistic knots which lead to philosophical bewilderment (for example, the notion that the essence of words is to name objects). And so the book often reads like a very strange session on a psychiatrist’s couch.

As for Wittgenstein’s response to the interlocutor’s questions, it is not so much that he doesn’t answer them (though he doesn’t) – it is more that he rejects their very validity. It is symptomatic of the depth of Wittgenstein’s attack on “traditional” philosophy (the philosophy of Descartes, Hume and his own earlier work) that he does not seek to provide solutions to its problems but to reject the basic assumptions upon which it is founded – misguided assumptions that, he believes, give rise to the problems in the first place.

Finally, we get the first example of a cryptic aphorism in the almost throw-away remark “Explanations come to an end somewhere”. This obliquely draws attention to the role of explanations in language. As Wittgenstein later points out (eg, §10), they are given to correct (or prevent) particular types of misunderstanding in particular contexts. So long as they do that job (in other words, so long as people act in the required way) no further explanation is necessary. They come to rest in behaviour, not in an “ultimate” or “foundational” explanation which somehow prevents any possible misunderstanding. And yet it is precisely such “ultimate” explanations that philosophy so often seeks to provide.