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Meaning and rule-following

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-U021-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 17, 2024, from

Article Summary

Wittgenstein’s discussion of rules and rule-following, and the recent responses to it, have been widely regarded as providing the deepest and most challenging issues surrounding the notions of meaning, understanding and intention – central notions in the philosophy of language and mind. The fundamental issue is what it is for words to have meaning, and for speakers to use words in accordance with their meanings. In Philosophical Investigations and Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, Wittgenstein explores the idea that what could give a word its meaning is a rule for its use, and that to be a competent speaker is to use words in accordance with these rules. His discussion of the nature of rules and rule-following has been highly influential, although there is no general agreement about his conclusions and final position. The view that there is no objectivity to an individual’s attempt to follow a rule in isolation provides one strand of Wittgenstein’s argument against the possibility of a private language.

To some commentators, Wittgenstein’s discussion only leads to the sceptical conclusion that there are no rules to be followed and so no facts about what words mean. Others have seen him as showing why certain models of what it takes for an individual to follow a rule are inadequate and must be replaced by an appeal to a communal linguistic practice.

Citing this article:
Smith, Barry C.. Meaning and rule-following, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-U021-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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