Meaning and rule-following

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-U021-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from

1. Meaning and rules

Words are meaningful only if there is such a thing as using them correctly or incorrectly. To have determinate meanings they must have application in some situations and not others. Words that had application to just anything would be robbed of meaning and could not be distinguished from one another. But what gives a word meaning? And how does this determine what uses do and do not comply with it? Answers to these questions must be compatible with a credible epistemology of meaning: when we understand a word we must be able to use it in accordance with its meaning. If something were to settle the right or wrong use of a term, we must be able to take cognizance of this. The objectivity of meaning and linguistic judgment depends on this. We have to secure both of these simultaneously.

In his later writings, Wittgenstein rejects the idea of meanings as mental or abstract entities to be associated with particular signs. Instead he takes the meaning of a sign, or word, to be its use in a language. However, in equating meaning with use he does not assume that every way of using a sign can contribute to its meaning. To have a meaning there must be some particular range of application that counts as using a word correctly. But what does the correct use of a word consist in? Wittgenstein explores the claim that a word is used correctly when it is used in accordance with a rule. If there are rules governing the use of words, then there are standards speakers have to meet to deploy words competently. Competence requires speakers to know what counts as applying the word correctly or incorrectly on any occasion. The appeal to rules is also thought to guarantee the range of things a word applies to: the rule can be thought of as settling the application of a term not only to cases considered so far, but also to hitherto undiscovered cases.

These features of rules bring out the normative element in meaning. Given that words have meanings there is something that counts as using them in accordance with these meanings: this is how words should be used. When meanings are given by rules of use, competent speakers are required to conform to these rules: a rule does not just describe the use we make of an expression, it says how we ought to use it.

To satisfy ourselves that there is some substance to the notion of meaning, we need to account for the nature of these rules and the requirements they impose on our correct use of words. We also need an account of how speakers succeed, if they do, in following these rules. The issues are connected. If no account can be given of what it takes to heed the requirements of a rule, it is hard to credit those rules with any normative force in determining the meanings of words in our language. On the other hand, the idea of us conforming our linguistic practice to the requirements of rules cannot be maintained if we can give no substance to the idea of there being rules to be followed in the first place.

Citing this article:
Smith, Barry C.. Meaning and rules. Meaning and rule-following, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-U021-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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