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Does Wittgenstein have a Philosophy of Language?

From which point of view is Wittgenstein concerned with language, because it is possible to be interested in a phenomenon from various points of view (PI § 108)?

Wittgenstein' interest in language was from the point of view of logic of language meaning = a way of distinguishing (making the distinction) between language with meaning and nonsense in philosophy.

Wittgenstein's logic of language makes a distinction that is verifiable and therefore objective. And therefore whether language has or hasn't meaning isn't a question of whatever seems right (ibid. § 258) to the individual. Without this distinction, philosophy is idle. That is why logic's first question is philosophy's foundation.

Philosophy of Language

Now, what do we mean by a 'philosophy of language'? An answer to the question of what (the nature of) language is? The word 'nature' is very vague. One possible meaning I heard at school is: "An answer to the question of how the ideas in one mind are communicated to another mind by means of language." That answer would be a theory of language meaning. But the word 'theory', as we normally use that word, has many meanings. Sometimes in philosophy it means 'metaphysical speculation', but not always.

M. O'C. Drury said, as Galileo had said, that every useful theory is based on a judicious selection of facts (DW p. 102). And so there are many meanings of the word 'meaning': Wittgenstein chose one for his work in philosophy -- one, not the only possible one. Description of the facts in plain view replaces speculation (explanation of concept-formation) in the later philosophy of Wittgenstein.

What Drury did not mean by the word 'theory' is 'a statement of what something really is (metaphysics)', but, rather, by 'theory' he meant: an organizing principle, a reference point, one way of looking at things, not the only way: all theory is facts plus imagination.

Whether or not Wittgenstein has a philosophy of language will depend on how we define 'philosophy of language' as well as how we define the word 'theory'. The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is a metaphysical theory of language meaning. The Philosophical Investigations is not. When Wittgenstein says that "for a large class of cases where we use the word 'meaning', the meaning of a word is its use in the language" (PI § 43), he is describing how we use the word 'meaning', not saying how he is choosing to use that word (nor is he speculating about what that word's "true meaning" is).

The question is: if we say that Wittgenstein has a philosophy of language = theory of language meaning, then what is the word 'theory' going to mean?

Many questions evaporate when it becomes apparent that they have no clear meaning.

Topics on this page ...

It "is possible to be interested in a phenomenon in a variety of ways" (PI § 108), e.g. in the phenomenon of language

Philosophy of Language versus Logic of Language

"A contradiction is necessarily false." No, that is not correct if the contradiction is in the form only. For the contradiction to be false the contradiction must be in the meaning.

A philosophical thesis is refuted in Socratic cross-questioning by discovering a contradiction in the thesis. But which kind of contradiction? 'The proposition is true, and the proposition is not true' is a contradiction in the form, but if two different propositions are being referred to, then it is not a contradiction in the meaning, and it may be true or false.

A meaningless contradiction is not false, and a contradiction with a use in the language may be true or false. A proposition may have the form (p AND NOT-p) but the meaning (p AND q). We have to look and see.

Did Wittgenstein have a theory of grammar?

Did Wittgenstein have a theory of meaning? If by 'theory' we mean 'metaphysical speculation', then he did not. Wittgenstein did not speculate about what "the true meaning" of language is. It was not a question of denying that there are other meanings of the word 'meaning', but of selecting one meaning rather than the others for his logic of language.

There are many meanings of the word 'meaning' in our language; Wittgenstein chose one. The other meanings of 'meaning' did not interest him because they do not make an objective distinction between sense and nonsense.

But did Wittgenstein have a theory of grammar if by 'theory' we mean an hypothesis that can be true or false? If schoolbook grammar is regarded as such a theory, e.g. "A noun is the name of a person, place or thing", then didn't Wittgenstein revise that theory to account for anomalies? For example, wouldn't the word 'elf' be an anomaly -- for is it correct to say that the word 'elf' is "the name of a person, place or thing"?

The schoolbook grammar's definition of 'noun' is not a theory -- because of the word 'thing' in the definition: this excludes any possibility of anomalies, because anything and everything can be placed in the category 'thing'. Wittgenstein's revision was a redefinition of the word 'grammar', a new system of classification, based not on form (syntax) but on meaning (use of the form in the language). A system of classification is neither true nor false, although items may be truly or falsely classified.

Did Wittgenstein have a philosophy of language?

Wittgenstein was not a philologist (He wrote nothing about syntax) or a semanticist. He was interested in language only because of the role of language in philosophy -- and because philosophy is discourse of reason its role is fundamental: "... so we have to talk about language, but that doesn't mean that language is what interests us. Philosophy isn't "talk about language"; you couldn't define philosophy as talk about language" either in Wittgenstein or in Socrates.

[In the Tractatus language is conceived as a concatenation of names of objects. That words are names of simple objects is that book's presumption about language. The Tractatus is a metaphysical theory about the true meaning of language: all propositions that are not nonsense are pictures of sensible facts and have the form: This is how things stand.]

The title "Wittgenstein and the Language of X" expresses a fundamental misunderstanding. Because it should be "Wittgenstein and the Philosophy of X". The philosophy of X might look at X from the point of view of the "logic of language" (but Wittgenstein did not approach aesthetics or religion that way), but it would not be a philosophy of language. Because Wittgenstein looked at language from one point of view only ("what happens compared to a game" -- "Let's only bother about what's called the explanation of meaning, and let's not bother about meaning in any other sense").

The Philosophy of Language does not does not limit itself that way. There are many meanings of the word 'meaning'; Wittgenstein chose one. But the Philosophy of Language gives an account of all of these meanings -- and that account is given for its own sake, not in order to throw light on philosophical problems.

Language has many features, and one of those is meaning; the broad study of this feature is commonly called 'semantics'. But there are countless more meanings of the word 'meaning' than the one Wittgenstein used. One can be interested in language from various points of view, but Wittgenstein was only interested in it from the point of view of its role in philosophical problems.

Also Wittgenstein did not simply describe the rules of the game; he often imagined different rules, or gave exact rules (definitions) for using words that are commonly used according to rules that are absent or quite vague. Philosophical problems are solved by "looking into the workings of our language" -- but this looking "gets its light, that is to say its purpose, from the philosophical problems" (PI § 109). Language is only important because philosophy is important. That is not Philosophy of Language; that is Philosophy.

Wittgenstein's Break with the Speculative Tradition in Philosophy

To speak of "Wittgenstein's Philosophy of Language" is to look at Wittgenstein from a point of view that is foreign to his philosophy. It is, like Bertrand Russell, failing to see what is radically different about Wittgenstein's conception of philosophy: that it is a complete break with the post-Socratic -- for, according to my account of his thought, the historical Socrates had a logic of language meaning rather than a theory of language meaning -- philosophical tradition of theory-formation.

In the works of Plato and Aristotle, 'theory' means a 'statement of what something really is in itself', but Wittgenstein's work consists only of definitions, metaphors and methods -- i.e. Wittgenstein defined a way of looking at things (that is, from the point of view of grammar and sense and nonsense) and of asking questions from that point of view; he did not invent speculative theories about how things, e.g. language, "really" are. After the Tractatus, the traditional yardstick no longer has any application to his work. Wittgenstein: "My new method in philosophy leaves aside the question of truth and asks about meaning instead" (CV (1998 rev. ed.) [MS 105 46 c: 1929]); that is the opposite method of the speculative tradition.

"There are theories, and there are theories"

Wittgenstein did not have a "theory of language games". Rather he made a comparison between using word and playing games according to ruled. But he did not claim that using language "really is" playing games. What Wittgenstein invented was a method of language games, one that is not useful everywhere in philosophy, for language is not always the principal source of perplexity in philosophy, nor are rules.

On the other hand, Wittgenstein's comparison might be called a theory as "primitive language games" are models and we sometimes call models theories. There is an expression that a theory won't work in practice: is Wittgenstein's comparison true -- are language use and game-playing alike in that both are activities governed by rules?

We use the word 'theory' many different ways. Before we try to answer whether or not anything is a theory, we need to be clear about what question we are answering -- i.e. which sense of 'theory' is being asked about.

Meaning in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus versus Meaning in the Philosophical Investigations

The Tractatus is a "theory of meaning", not a selected definition of the word 'meaning' like that found in Wittgenstein's later work. Otherwise we could say of the TLP: its "nonsense" is only nonsense in the sense of the word 'nonsense' that Wittgenstein chose. But the TLP claims that its meaning of 'meaning' is given by nature rather than by convention, i.e. that it is the true and only meaning of language.

The TLP is thorough-going metaphysical speculation; it is not (what is called in my jargon) a logic of language. In contrast, the Philosophical Investigations is a logic of language, and that means that one can reject Wittgenstein's later logic in favor of an alternative logic of language -- without having to replace one theory of reality with an alternative theory; the Philosophical Investigations offers only a conventional definition of 'meaning', one chosen for the purpose of Wittgenstein's work of clarification, one definition selected from among the countless definitions there are of the word 'meaning', for we call many, many different things 'the meaning'.

Wittgenstein's changed perspective (point of view) is shown by his later acceptance of Sraffa's criticism of the TLP: "nonsense" that can convey meaning is after all not nonsense, not as we normally use the word 'nonsense'.

[There are related comments about the meaning of the word 'nonsense' in the TLP, and about the rediscovery of philosophy.]

The following search query found in my site's referrer logs (That is what "Query:" indicates in these pages) suggests another important insight into the difference between Wittgenstein's two books:

Query: Wittgenstein "language as calculus", Tractatus.

By 'calculus' here I think is meant 'a game played according to strict rules', as arithmetic is. And in the Tractatus, that would be the meaning of 'what can be put into words can be put clearly': because the rules (for using a word) would be strict (according to the TLP's account of the logic of our language): there would be no ambiguity in the ideal language -- just as there is no ambiguity in chess, for example. [More about the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and games]

In the Philosophical Investigations, however, it is argued that in most cases we do not use words according to strict rules (BB p. 25). At most we can make comparisons between a calculus and actual use, noting similarities and dissimilarities (PI § 81).

Just as important is that the Tractatus has, so to speak, a "nominalist" view of meaning: nouns are names and the meaning of a name is the object the name stands for. Whereas in the Philosophical Investigations it is recognized that most nouns are not names of objects -- and that most problems in philosophy concern those nouns that are not.

Contrast to J. L. Austin

If language were, as Bertrand Russell once believed, the transparent clothing of thought [G.E. Moore wrote in his diary (30.8-2.9.1909) that Russell was "too confident of insufficient explanations as to meaning of words ..."], then "looking into its workings" would not be philosophy. There is the example of J.L. Austin's How to Do Things with Words: "I don't know if it's philosophy, but it is interesting," Austin said, and what he wrote in his lectures indeed belongs to the Philosophy of Language. But Wittgenstein would not have said that about his own work.

One of J. L. Austin's students wrote that Austin:

was far more unlike Wittgenstein than is sometimes recognized. For Wittgenstein an understanding of ordinary language was important because he believed that the traditional problems of philosophy arose from misunderstandings of it, but Wittgenstein had in mind gross category mistakes, and he wished to study ordinary language only so far as was essential for eliminating these. Austin was interested in fine distinctions for their own sake ... (Urmson, Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1967), Volume 1, p. 215)

Whatever the merit of Urmson's characterization of Wittgenstein ("gross category mistakes"), the difference between an interest in meaning in Philosophy of Language and meaning in Philosophy is pointed out. In his lecture notes G.E. Moore wrote:

[Wittgenstein] did discuss at very great length ... certain very general questions about language; but he said, more than once, that he did not discuss these questions because he thought that language was the subject-matter of philosophy. He did not think that it was. He discussed it only because he thought that particular philosophical errors or "troubles in our thought" were due to false analogies suggested by our actual use of expressions; and he emphasized that it was only necessary for him to discuss those points about language which, as he thought, led to these particular errors or "troubles".

[About his work in philosophy, Wittgenstein said that although it] must say a great deal about language, it was only necessary for it to deal with those points about language which have led, or are likely to lead, to definite philosophical puzzles or errors. I think he certainly thought that some philosophers nowadays have been misled into dealing with linguistic points which have no such bearing, and the discussion of which therefore, in his view, forms no part of the proper business of a philosopher. (PP p. 323-324, 257)

Again, language is important only because philosophy is important ("we are discussing no small matter, but how to think clearly"), and of importance are only those parts of language that lead to "puzzles or errors" in philosophy.

The anthropologist's view of language: Wittgenstein imposed his game simile on what he observed

Wittgenstein wanted what anthropology calls an "outsider's view" -- the anthropologist's own view -- of language. That view contrasts with the "insider's view", or, what the users of the language suppose they are doing (CV p. 37 [MS 162b 67r: 2.7.1940 § 2]). Wittgenstein looked -- i.e. he imposed this metaphor -- at our language from one point of view only: what happens looked at as if it were a game, where what defines a game is its rules, which are public and can be fully described by an outsider [outside observer].

Query: anthropology is a branch of philosophy.

Or quite the contrary: maybe with respect to Wittgenstein II (Russell's title for the post-TLP or later Wittgenstein), philosophy is a branch of anthropology? No, it is one thing to say that philosophy and language-as-used-in-philosophy are anthropological phenomena (cf. RFM vii § 33, p. 399), quite another to say that the interest in philosophy of one who philosophizes is an interest in philosophy as an anthropological phenomenon. (This is related to Wittgenstein not seeking a philosophy of language, because a non-theoretical (i.e. a descriptive rather than an explanatory) philosophy of language might well be anthropology, whereas saying that his interest in language gets its purpose from philosophical problems (PI § 109) is not.)

Maybe it seems that the description of language-as-used-in-philosophy is, in Wittgenstein's logic of language, a branch of anthropology. But logic of language also invents fictitious language games in order to make the nature of philosophical problems clearer: "... we are not doing ... natural history -- since we can also invent fictitious natural history for our purposes" (PI II, xii, p. 230). Wittgenstein's overall purpose is conceptual clarity (and to that end I counterfactually described the concept 'I know'.)

[Philosophy can be looked at from an anthropological point of view, as can any human activity (and so there is even an anthropology of anthropology), but that is not the philosophizer's interest in philosophy, which is an interest in understanding existence: What is real, How to reason, How to live (metaphysics, logic, ethics). That man asks these eternal questions is an anthropological fact, but the answers he seeks from those questions are not given by anthropology (Philosophy is not merely man looking into the mirror, but man's seeking the truth behind and beyond himself).]

More Features of Games

"What is badminton [What is the meaning of the word 'badminton']?" -- "Here are the rules of the game." But we might look at badminton from many other points of view: the origins and history of the game e.g., the places around the world where people play the game, its role in society [What does the winner win -- other than the game itself? A people might be imagined who choose their rulers this way], the cost of the game's equipment, and so on.

In my account of Wittgenstein's "family resemblances", which compares various games -- i.e. points out likenesses and un-likenesses among some of the things we call 'games' -- I might have included time rules, for some games can be continued on another day, e.g. chess by correspondence, others must be finished in a non-stop go); and place rules: some games are played in a particular place, e.g. some require a "court" (that markings be placed on the earth) such as tennis does, while other games may be played anywhere, or begun in one place and finished in another, as with a long distance race or a bridge-match begun on an ocean liner and finished on a railway train. Some games can -- i.e. are allowed by their rules to -- end in a tie.

Suppose someone said, "But if there doesn't have to be a winner and a loser, then you're not really playing a game." Someone might want to say that, but it is not a rule that belongs to the held-in-common or normal "grammar" of our language. And that rule would be a false account, because in some instances of what everyone calls 'games' it is not always logically possible for the game to end in anything other than a tie; e.g. a particular combination of chess men is required for checkmate in chess, and if those men are lost by both players then the game must end in a draw. And court cases are won and lost; they are fought to the bitter end, but they are not games. And there is no contest at all in solitaire (patience), but it is a game. ("You play against fate." -- That is an example of how tautologies are made.)

Besides winning, losing or drawing against an opponent, another possible defining characteristic (or feature) of games (i.e. account of the grammar of 'game') could be "winning something", a prize of some kind. But when my mother's father, Giovanni Valente, used to play solitaire while he was waiting to go to work and the game turned out, he would say, "I won. So tell me what did I win?" ("You feel pleased that you have played well." -- That is another example of how tautologies are made.)

"Language is nothing but names of things"

Grammatical Myths (such as Augustine's account of language meaning):

... the individual 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 [which] is the object for which the word stands. (PI § 1; that is the TLP's picture of language. Compare: are "words about whose meaning we are at variance" (Plato, Phaedrus 263a-b) the names of abstract objects whose nature is not clear to us?, because that is the presumption of metaphysics.)

Definition of 'noun'

Maybe "A noun is the name of a person, place, or thing" should be rewritten as "A noun is the name of a person, place, or (every)thing (else)" -- or more simply: "A noun is the name of anything", because persons and places are themselves things. That is very lazy category-making: {person, place, all other things}. Here is a class without limits, the class of all classes: {things}. Everything that exists, and everything that doesn't exist as well; everything that has a name (Even things that don't have names: "What is't you do?" -- "A deed without a name." (Macbeth iv, 1)) are members of that class. (One meaning Wittgenstein gave to his expression 'language game' is "parts of speech"; how serviceable as a part of speech is the class of all nouns?)

A grammar like that would be as useful for learning English as a book about chess that ended with the initial set-up of the board would be for learning chess: the Queen always goes here in the sentence. But what is the Queen? -- The Queen is a chess piece. -- But all the pieces are chess pieces (regardless of their shape and use). -- "And all words are words (regardless of their shape and use), just as in the dictionary."

There is a syntactic justification for placing all these words (nouns) in the same class, although there is no semantic justification for it. Wittgenstein wrote nothing about syntax -- why would he have done, for meaning is not a matter form but of use, and it is the meaning of the language of philosophical problems that matters to philosophy. And so also from this point of view, it could not be said that Wittgenstein had a philosophy of language, for the Philosophy of Language certainly must include the subject of syntax.


Note: this continues the discussion in the concluding remarks of the Synopsis of Wittgenstein's Logic of Language, and is continued in the discussion Wittgenstein as "the last word" in philosophy.

The philosopher is not a member of any community of ideas. That is what makes him into a philosopher. (Z § 455)

The following (here slightly revised) is what I wrote earlier:

Ought anyone to adopt Wittgenstein's "grammar" for the word 'grammar' -- ought anyone to use his logic of language for thinking in philosophy? I don't know. The reason for not adopting his jargon that should concern students of philosophy most is that his jargon may be poorly understood and thoughtlessly applied. (The answer to the question "Am I an Aristotlean?" or a "Cartesian" or "Kantian" or "Logical Positivist" or "Wittgensteinian" and so on should be No. And if not, then time and thought will change that. There is no royal road to philosophy ...)

Wittgenstein's jargon, like all philosophical jargon, must be used in the spirit of philosophy. Religions have disciples, and their leader is addressed as 'Lord', which means 'Master' or 'Ruler'. Philosophers do not have disciples. Originally the word 'disciple' simply meant 'student', but now if is applied to a student of philosophy, it is used contemptuously. That was the way Bertrand Russell meant the word when he said about Wittgenstein: "I doubt whether his disciples know what manner of man he was."

No philosopher is a lord, master or ruler. Every philosopher wants his ideas to be freely questioned, openly discussed, and if possible refuted. That was the spirit of philosophy expressed by Kant: Dare to know!, i.e. to doubt all authority.

It is remarkable that, so far as I know, there is none of Immanuel Kant's jargon to be found in the writings of Albert Schweitzer, although Schweitzer had been a scholar of Kant. I would like my own writings to be free of Wittgenstein's jargon, but (1) even without using his jargon, Wittgenstein's view of logic -- i.e. what in my jargon is called his "logic of language" -- would still be there (I could simply use the word 'logic' rather than the word 'grammar', and instead of "language games" I could simply talk about "definitions of words" and "a use of language governed by rules" or "an activity governed by rules" as bureaucracy is -- but the ideas would nonetheless still be Wittgenstein's), and (2) I wonder if my desire isn't simply a vain desire to appear original regardless of whether I am, rather than a desire to speak simply and clearly.

Was Wittgenstein "the Final Word in Philosophy"? Many thought that about Aristotle, about Descartes, about Logical Positivism; many still do. For others the philosophers of the past are part of the fossil record. But that record is still being created.

Variation. The Synopsis has concerned itself with reasons for adopting Wittgenstein's logic of language (concept 'grammar'). But what are the reasons for not adopting "the attraction of Wittgenstein's philosophy, a philosophy that solves not a single philosophical problem, a philosophy with the limited view of reality of Wittgenstein's later work"?

Presentation of the Elements

I do not think that Wittgenstein's presentation of his ideas need have been as disorderly as it appears to be. Wittgenstein blamed the disorder on his subject matter -- "the ancient city of language" (PI § 18). But as it says in the Preface, Wittgenstein's basic principles are not amorphous. There is indeed confusion in natural language -- The "ancient city" metaphor shows the path that Wittgenstein believed his philosophical investigations had to follow -- but that confusion need not be mirrored in a presentation of the elements of what I have called "Wittgenstein's logic of language".

Jargon and Wittgenstein

In Wittgenstein's logic, the combination of words 'semantic grammar' is, like 'semantic logic', a pleonasm.

The combination of words 'semantic syntax' might be used to mean: definitions of syntactic elements (e.g. noun, adjective, verb, adverb) based not only on their position in common propositions (e.g. article + adjective + noun + verb + adverb), but also on their meaning, as in "A noun is the name of a person, place or thing", "An adjective modifies a noun", and so on.

Is there a way to avoid using Wittgenstein's jargon, specifically his redefinition of 'grammar' and his limited sense of 'meaning'? With respect to 'meaning', Wittgenstein did not of course invent the concept 'conventional meaning', i.e. 'meaning' defined as: rules or conventions for using words, phrases, sentences -- i.e. the signs of our language: spoken sounds, ink marks (the physical aspect, the artifact of language). But his comparison of the rules of language use to the rules of playing a game ("language game") belongs to Wittgenstein's concept 'grammar', so that what I wrote in the Preface is correct:

The Synopsis describes the tools that Wittgenstein assumed the readers of his works to be already familiar with -- even though Wittgenstein, if he did not invent them all, so redefined them that they could only be gotten from him. (The word 'redefinition' is synonymous with 'conceptual revision', as in Wittgenstein's revision of the concept 'grammar'.)

The difficulty. Whether we use Wittgenstein's jargon or not, a tremendous lot of background (that "Wittgenstein assumed the readers of his works to be already familiar with") is needed to understand. Even if one could separate Wittgenstein's philosophy from his jargon, we cannot separate Wittgenstein's philosophy from his ideas ("redefinitions", "conceptual revisions", "metaphors"). That is, if you want to be understood, you will need to make reference to Wittgenstein -- that is, unless you want to follow Wittgenstein and confuse everyone by assuming this background and using words like 'grammar' without telling anyone that they belong to your jargon, expecting students to just "catch on" and then say that they cannot be educated if they don't.

Which is why Wittgenstein wrote as he did both to Russell (about The Blue Book, that it was something for students "to carry home in their hands if not in their heads"), and to G.E. Moore: "I don't really know if it's worth saving my strength for teaching people most of whom can't learn anything anyway" (Letter, Cambridge, 18 February 1947). His sister Hermine said that Wittgenstein did not have the patience to be a teacher.

Well, very well, too much can be made of Wittgenstein's impatience with his students. But recall that even Cambridge University professor G.E. Moore had to ask Wittgenstein to make clear what Wittgenstein meant when he used the word 'grammar' in the lectures Moore attended in 1930-1933. So it wasn't only his students he confused when he assumed a background that he had not provided them with.

"When you are playing ping-pong, you mustn't use a tennis racket"

But a different aspect of the nature of Wittgenstein's humanity is shown by his reproach of M. O'C. Drury. Wittgenstein was gently discussing a philosophical question with a patient of Drury's, a man suffering from mental illness, Drury tried to add something to the discussion and Wittgenstein told him to "shut up". After they had left the patient he said to Drury: "When you are playing ping-pong, you mustn't use a tennis racket" (Recollections p. 140, from 1938). Several years later he told Drury:

Bach's dedication of his work, and Wittgenstein

Bach wrote on the title page of his Orgelbuchlein, "To the glory of the most high God, and that my neighbor may be benefited thereby." That is what I would have liked to say about my work. (ibid. p. 168, from 1949. Cf. the Foreword to Philosophical Remarks from November 1930: "I would like to say 'This book is written to the glory of God'.")

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