Wittgenstein, Ludwig Josef Johann (1889–1951)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD072-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 21, 2024, from

11. The later picture of meaning

The Tractatus view offers us a world articulated of its own nature into value-free facts which are the subject matter of the natural sciences together with a mind confronting that world and attempting to mirror it in its thoughts. It also tells us that there is only one self and that it is an item at the limit of the world which cannot act responsibly in the world.

However attractive the first element here, everyone would agree that there is something seriously wrong with the solipsism of the second. So one essential move in amendment is to make the self responsibly active, to bring it in from the limit and to locate it firmly in the world, together with other selves. We may do this while leaving in place the idea of the world as the totality of value-free facts. Then the self which appears in the world must be some subset of such facts. This yields an extremely powerful and attractive overall picture. But it also generates many philosophical puzzles, those to do, for example, with giving naturalistic accounts of consciousness, free will, rationality and so on.

This overall picture cannot be Wittgenstein’s, however, if §10 is right in its reading of the rule-following considerations. The idea of an independently articulated world is not acceptable to him. We cannot understand our concepts by pointing to simples in the world which force them on us. To understand meaning we must look to use, at how our actions and concepts are interwoven. The fact that makes a sentence true is grasped through seeing when the sentence is correctly used, and that in turn is grasped only by seeing the full shape of the language games in which it is used. For a concept to be truly applicable to the world, and so for its corresponding property to have instances, is not for it to pick out some simple which is among the timelessly given building-blocks of all worlds. Rather it is for the life of which use of that concept is a part to be liveable in this world. Wittgenstein thus moves from a bold and simple form of the correspondence theory of truth in the Tractatus to a redundancy theory in the Investigations.

The self need not, on this view, be an assemblage of value-free facts. It is rather a locus of abilities, a person who can be trained to follow rules, to use and respond to language, in the way normal humans can. And since concepts are aspects of our way of life rather than items forced on us by the world, understanding what it is to have a particular concept involves ‘assembling reminders’ about how it works for us and how our various activities and ways of talking build together into our way of life.

If it is correct to conceive of understanding as an ability, then the exercise of this ability in everyday situations will often be just some confident, spontaneous action or utterance, which the subject will not be able to justify by pointing to something, other than the situation or words responded to, which guided them.

‘How am I able to obey a rule?’ – if this is not a question about causes, then it is about the justification for my following the rule in the way I do. If I have exhausted the justification I have reached bedrock and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: ‘This is simply what I do’.

(1953: §217)

But this need not worry us. ‘To use a word without justification does not mean to use it without right’ (1953: §289). The fact is that we do find such confident and unhesitating responses in ourselves. Also we (usually) agree with others; and where we do not we (usually) agree on how to settle the dispute. So we have no reason to doubt that in general we do indeed mean what we take ourselves to mean.

Indeed we can put things more strongly than this. It is not just that it is sensible, practically speaking, for me to make a leap of faith and decide to carry on as if I and others mean what it seems we mean. We have no more choice about this than we do about taking ‘Eight’ to be the right response to ‘Add two to six’. The language game of ascribing meanings to the remarks of ourselves and others is as central and indispensable to a recognizably human life as anything in our linguistic repertoire. Moreover the rich and complex social world in which we find ourselves sustains our practice of so doing. So we and our meanings are just as much part of the world as the stars, rocks and trees around us. And since we are no longer committed to the idea of one totality of facts, those of value-free natural science, this recognition does not now produce cramps or pressures to reductive manoeuvres (see Private states and language §4).

Citing this article:
Heal, Jane. The later picture of meaning. Wittgenstein, Ludwig Josef Johann (1889–1951), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD072-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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