Wittgenstein's Logic of Language | Bibliography

When is nonsense not nonsense?

The riddle of existence cannot both exist and not exist. Categories, classification, and there are many ways to slice a pie.

Topics on this page ...

Context: If no objective distinction is made between sense (i.e. language with meaning) and nonsense (language without meaning), then philosophy risks being mere babble of words. Sense and nonsense is the topic of "logic of language", which is my jargon but Wittgenstein's form of expression.

The Limit of Science

Note: this continues the discussion of the philosophy of science of M. O'C. Drury, of our concepts 'fact' and 'percepts and concepts'.

The limit of science is not simply concept-formation (Logical possibility is instead the limit of science fiction). The limit of science is verifiable-falsifiable hypothesis-formation. And that is concept-formation, but only a sub-class.

A limit of science is the logically possible, i.e. the "what can be described", the "conceivable". But what 'can' be described is what is described, and we wouldn't presume to set limits to what may be described some day, although we may believe that nothing unforeseen can be described using particular words as they are now defined.

But those particular concepts may be revised (Tools may be readapted, as e.g. Wittgenstein's 'grammar' = 'logic of the language'), and that revision seems the only limit to concept-formation, even using our present vocabulary.

"The limit of science -- is concept formation." -- But [clearly] by 'concepts' I cannot mean here "pictures with no corresponding reality". That is not physics but "metaphysics": pictures that float free of any empirical test [test of experience]; 'corresponding' = 'comparable -- i.e. by a defined method of comparison between the picture and what it pictures'. -- Not that type of concept formation. [cf. maybe "The map is not the territory".]

One can say, that is, one can utter [emit] the words 'travel at faster than the speed of light', but these are words [this combination of words] without application beyond pictures with no corresponding reality -- They are "concept formation" but they are not "hypothesis formation" --; they are instead "idle pictures" or "metaphysical pictures". Science fiction, indeed fairy tales, may in some cases give the impulse to [suggest to some mind] an hypothesis, but these fictions [tales], although examples of concept formation are not examples of hypothesis formation -- and it is hypothesis formation -- i.e. a picture that can (because a method has been defined) be tested -- that is a "limit of science".

"The limit of science -- is hypothesis formation." [Maybe that is slightly clearer, but on the other hand it does not seem to go as far as I want to go. But maybe all I have the right to say is: The limit of thought -- is concept formation ... if percepts (real or imagined) really are "blind" without concepts. (What do we mean by 'blind' here [in this particular case]?) But would we really want to say that the precepts of a dog -- or any other human-like creature (PI § 360) are blind?]

Wittgenstein had written: "The limit of the empirical -- is concept-formation" (RFM iv § 29, p. 237), which may be related to the relation of percepts [the empirical] to concepts [its limit, so to speak]. But it seems to me clearer to say that: The limit of science is not simply concept-formation -- but conceiving new methods of verification in science.

Categories of Meaning {Classification}

Another sense of the word 'meaning'. My teacher Professor Trudinger gave us four words, which he pronounced as he wrote them down on the blackboard: 'trout', 'rocks', 'carp', and 'bass' [rhyming with 'mass', 'crass' and 'lass'], and he asked us to group them together. And being well-trained from school, we students all said {'trout', 'bass', 'carp'} and set the word {'rocks'} aside, because the first three words are names of fishes but the last word is not. Trudinger, on the other hand, said he categorized them this way: {'rocks', 'bass'} and set the other two words aside. Why was this? Because there was a limerick that he shared with his young son; it concerned fishing for bass and ended, "we'd climb upon the slippery rocks, and slide down on our -- hands and knees".

His point was that there is no one correct way to categorize things, and that categories about which we know nothing may exist in a community that is foreign to us; and so we have to be careful about assuming that we know how the members of that community understand things.

My restatement of his point about categorization is this: that there are many ways to slice a pie, to divide a whole into parts. There is no absolutely correct way to do this, although some ways may be more useful for a given purpose than others. Categories are tools.

If the following were divided into two categories what might they be? {man, ape, monkey, dog, cat, pig} Biologists have their reasons for placing man in the same category as apes and monkeys. But I would place man in the same category with dogs, cats and pigs, because all these have the capacity for mutual empathy, for friendship. {ape, monkey} {man, dog, cat, pig}

Query: Wittgenstein: language as an organizing "net".

Language enables, but it also limits [sets limits], but those limits can be altered by a thoughtful philosophy ... although maybe not in all cases, e.g. just try banishing the concepts 'object', 'space', 'motion', 'idea' from your thinking. (There is a related discussion of this topic: Wittgenstein net over language.)

Query: why are there so many branches of philosophy?

Because there are so many ways to classify, so many categories which we might choose, so many ways we might slice the pie named 'Philosophy'. Cf. Why are there so many eternal questions without answers? Because that is our life: "Concepts are the expression of our interests" (PI § 570). But, remember, Plato never called his work anything other than 'philosophy' (Phaedrus 278c-d); what he did speak of was "philosophers", among whom he was willing to classify the eristics ("wrestlers in words"), although they were hardly what we call "lovers of wisdom". Wittgenstein in 1947 wrote that his own "researches since 1929 (unpublished) bear chiefly on the philosophy of psychology and mathematics", but I never classify his work as anything other than Logic of Language studies.

Event versus Event-meaning

Related to that is the distinction between an event and the event's meaning ["event" versus "event-meaning"]. Trudinger gave this example: 'A man kicked a ball into a net' versus 'Pelé scored a goal'. Thus, "kicking a ball into a net" is an event, and "scoring a goal" is an event-meaning, i.e. the meaning that event has within a particular community. (Cf. "communities of ideas".)

In anthropology there is the insider's view (the tribe member's view) versus the outsider's view (i.e. the anthropologist's), and the outsider may be very mistaken in his understanding of what he sees and hears. Not that the insider may not have very little understanding as well -- but the insider does know the rules of the game (the "cognitive map" to navigate within his own tribe), even if he cannot state the rules for the anthropologist.

[See also the preface to my History Outline for another example of these distinctions.]

Poor in Categories

Another aspect of classification is being "poor in categories". Nietzsche (in Beyond Good and Evil § 58) writes about human beings who divide everything into the categories business and pleasure, and find themselves perplexed when confronted with religion: Now which is it -- a new business or a new pleasure? That is being poor in categories.

Poor in categories. A child's peg board with only square and round holes -- but then what is the child to do with triangles and stars and so on? into which holes = categories are those to be fitted? Well, but they can't be so-fitted without distortion, i.e. misunderstanding.

[Closely related to this is: the limiting nature points of reference have on thinking. For example, music, literature, events, the arts -- Points within these categories belong to an individual's thought-world, referred to these when discussing things with oneself or with others, and these points are extremely varied, ranging from high to low culture, and from individual to individual.]

Just as there are many viewpoints from which to categorize objects and events, there are also many different possible collections of categories.

Categorizing is a form of using existing tools, but also of revising old tools or of creating new tools. (Cf. Drury and Wittgenstein about Kierkegaard and new categories. Kierkegaard wrote that the task of the philosopher is to revise the concepts that are common currency. That is what Wittgenstein did with the concepts 'logic' and 'grammar'.)

The only limit to the creation of categories -- is concept-formation, i.e. the invention of rules for "operating with signs" (spoken sounds, marks on paper, the physical aspect only of language in contrast to its meaning). In other words 'logical possibility' defined as: whatever can be stated in rules of grammar applicable either to the real world or in imagined possible worlds.

Poverty in categories is one source for misunderstanding the logic of our language, as when our thinking is limited to particular categories, e.g. 'noun' defined as 'the name of a person, place, or thing', with the picture it suggests that "the meaning of a name is that thing the name stands for, whether that thing is tangible or abstract", resulting in a fantasy reality populated by ghosts ["abstract objects"] of our own imagination's conjuring. From the model of 'books' and 'sheep' to analogous 'minds' and 'elves'. And so "to heal the wounded understanding" Wittgenstein invented new categories of grammar to use in the fight against self-mystification (PI § 109) by setting a standard by which to distinguish between sense and nonsense in language in philosophy.

We could invent the category sensation-word as a response to the principle Either a thing is real, or it isn't real. Either it is something or nothing. But what of pain, Wittgenstein asked: Now which is that -- a something or a nothing? Surely pain is real -- and therefore a something? But, no, pain "is not a something, but not a nothing either ... We have only rejected the grammar that tries to force itself on us here" (PI § 304), namely the part of speech 'name-of-object'. Parts of speech are categories of language meaning = use in the language.

If someone isn't able to understand how a thoughtful man can use the word 'God' seriously, Wittgenstein asked, is that person suffering from "concept blindness" (RPP i § 213)? And if the human beings in Nietzsche's writing did not understand Wittgenstein's allusion to "what is higher", that can be called 'category blindness'.

A third conception of the essence of the good

Note: this supplements the discussion "The good is whatsoever God commands" (Philosophy of Religion).

Wittgenstein told Waismann (17 December 1930):

Schlick says that in theological ethics there used to be two conceptions of the essence of the good: according to the shallower interpretation the good is good because it is what God wants; according to the profounder interpretation God wants the good because it is good. I think that the first interpretation is the profounder one: what God commands, that is good. For it cuts off the way to any explanation "why" it is good, while the second interpretation is the shallow, rationalist one, which proceeds "as if" you could give reasons for what is good.

The first conception says clearly that the essence of the good has nothing to do with facts and hence cannot be explained by any proposition. If there is any proposition expressing precisely what I think, it is the proposition "What God commands, that is good." (WWK tr. Schulte, McGuinness, p. 115; there is also a translation by Max Black.)

Questions: There are many questions here, of which I will ask a few. First, was this statement an example of "just the sort of stupid remark I would have made in those day" (Wittgenstein had once told Drury that there was no such subject as theology; Recollections p. 98)? I don't know, but I don't think so; which doesn't necessarily mean that I understand what he meant by Wittgenstein meant by it either. Second, how is 'God' defined here? Does it mean the Old Testament's Yahweh? If so, doesn't this do violence to our normal concept (i.e. applications of the word) 'good' -- because who would call the all the actions of that capricious, xenophobic, genocidal god good? Third, why is the combination of words 'What God commands, that is good' called a "proposition" here (for it is not one according to Russell's definition, because it is neither true nor false; although it is according to Wittgenstein's definition: "a proposition is what can be significantly negated", e.g. "The good is not just anything a god commands").

Comment: I think the Greek view (Socrates, Plato) is the deepest: that the good and God are identical, and therefore that much of what is said about the gods is falsehoods. That view does not say "why" the good is good either, but it does absolve one from having to believe in monstrous gods. Maybe Wittgenstein would not have disagreed with that from the TLP's point of view; however, that Greek view was decidedly not Wittgenstein's own religion.

When is nonsense not nonsense?

Note: this continues the discussion The riddle does exist: "Life is Problematic".

There is something problematical about [the world], which we call its meaning. (Wittgenstein, Notebooks 1914-1916, tr. Anscombe (Oxford, 1961), p. 73 [11.6.16])

One might look at it this way: what is important is not answering man's eternal questions, but asking them.

But don't we have the feeling that someone who sees no problem in life is blind to something important, even to the most important thing of all? (CV p. 27)

Yes, we feel that way, but what gives us the right to ask about the riddle of existence, when 'riddle' does not here contrast with 'solution' -- and therefore is nonsense? Piero Sraffa's point (I think): nonsense that can convey meaning is after all not nonsense. But if "the riddle of existence" is not nonsense, then what is its meaning? I fall back again on Wittgenstein's remarks about religious pictures: if we keep them before us, they guide the way we live. They are not hypotheses, nor more or less probable statements of fact: there is nothing (no reality) to compare these pictures to [But they are not like Hayakawa's teacher's "maps" to which there are no corresponding territories].

Asking why these particular "questions without answers" are important is like asking why Socrates' "examined life" is important or why ethics is important, or why life and death is important. Some people are drawn to philosophy, just as others are drawn to religion, and others are drawn to neither (William James: many resolve "the question of God" by becoming atheists). If it makes anything clearer -- and I am doubtful that it does -- one can simply note that there are many "forms of human life". Malcolm speaks of "the capacity for religion"; is every human being capable of religion? (Wittgenstein: imagine people who were concept blind, just as there are people who are color-blind. Would we say that some human beings are blind to the forms of life of religion (and perhaps that others are blind to the form of life of disbelief)?)

Obviously, to define 'nonsense' as any linguistic expression that is not a statement of fact (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 6.53) is to invent jargon -- jargon which is a gross distortion of acceptation (our common usage) --, and which has the effect that much of what is normally classified as meaningful speech becomes "nonsense".

Note: words marked "Query" on this page are Internet searches from the server logs of this site, which have suggested thoughts to me.

"Language that conveys meaning ..." But what does that mean -- "conveys"?

Query: pictures without words have no meaning.

And "words without pictures have no meaning" -- i.e. what does the query mean by 'meaning'? If the meaning is the use in the language, then a language consisting of pictures (e.g. ancient Egyptian) is not meaningless: there are conventions for the pictures' use. When I wrote: "Language that conveys meaning is not nonsense", what did I mean by 'language that conveys'? Language (i.e. marks on paper, sounds) with rules for its use?

Contrary to the TLP's account of meaning and nonsense, countless language-signs (i.e. marks on paper, spoken sounds) "convey meaning" because they are used by following rules rather than by pointing out objects; the meaning of these words is not an object; they are not name-of-object words; that is not their grammatical part of speech: their meaning is not explained by pointing to the bearers of names.

Rather, they "convey meaning" by means of conventions [-- i.e. the held-in-common rules of our language, or, in other words, these language-signs belong to language; language -- i.e. what Wittgenstein is calling 'language' -- is essentially public, if it has meaning -- i.e. what we are calling 'meaning' (or, 'an objective distinction between sense and nonsense') --], other kinds of rules, non object-derived rules. Meaning is conveyed ["carried by language from one person to another"?] because of conventions. There are conventions for talking about objects, and there are conventions for language used to do other things (words are compared to tools). To convey is to conform to a convention, i.e. meaning is conveyed by means of rules.

Query: can nonsense be used to say something, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche?

But is "nonsense" that can be used to say something -- nonsense? That -- and this is the point -- asks for a definition of the word 'nonsense'. The answer is prosaic: but don't try to answer a question before you ask whether the question has any clear meaning. But one instead assumes that one knows "what nonsense is" and what "to say something" is [-- because we have somehow "abstracted" their meanings (although we cannot state what those meanings are) --], and so we wander blindly about in a cloud of our own invention.

There is no essence of nonsense, no more than there is an essence of meaning. Those words have many distinct senses, although they are logically ["grammatically"] necessary antitheses (BB p. 46). Those senses are related; like the tools in toolbox: it is not by chance that they have been put together; although they have no common nature (LC p. 1), no more than games have a common nature, there are family likenesses.

Suppose one said, "Wittgenstein's use of the word 'grammar' is nonsense because it is at variance with common usage." Then one could say: "Jargon is nonsense that can be used to say something." It will depend on how the word 'nonsense' is defined -- or, what amounts to the same thing, on how the word 'meaning' is defined --, e.g. if we want to call anything that diverges [differs] from acceptation nonsense.

[See the Introduction: There are many meanings of the word 'meaning' -- Wittgenstein chose one; but "grammar" in Wittgenstein's jargon is not the only thing we call 'meaning'.]

No word or phrase, expression or sentence [i.e. "sign"] is inherently meaningful or meaningless. A child may well know how to bounce a ball without knowing how to bounce a check. In one context it knows the meaning of the word 'bounce'; in another it does not. And it is that way with most words. There is Wittgenstein's example of measuring cloth with a ruler versus measuring time: there is no essence of measuring -- [or if anyone claims that all measuring has a common nature, I would like to know what that nature is (if there were such a nature, then anyone who knew how to measure cloth with a ruler would also know, without further instruction, how to measure time)] -- and there is no essence of bouncing ("Things come back to you ..." but a check does not come back from the bank the way a ball comes back from the floor).

"A simile of one word"

The general definition of the word 'simile' is not the rule [i.e. usual case] but the exception [unusual case]. And even in the case of the essential definition "A simile is a comparison using the words 'like' or 'as'", is it inconceivable [logically impossible] that one would ever not know whether to call something a simile or not?

Query: 'ghostlike' - is it a simile?

Why don't I know? Does the word 'ghostlike' make a comparison? using the words 'like' or 'as'? "Her ghostlike appearance ..." Is there any reason not to call/classify the word 'ghostlike' a simile? Can an individual word be a simile, or can only a sentence state a simile?

Wittgenstein: "the problem of life vanishes"

Query: Wittgenstein, that the meaning of life is to be found in the vanishing of the problem.

Isn't that [6.521] another way of saying that the problem (the riddle [of existence]) does not exist -- i.e. doesn't 'meaning of life' = 'riddle'? (TLP 6.5) (But how can what does not exist vanish? Well, how does a mirage vanish.) "The meaning of life doesn't exist." Well, very well, but then what? What then shall we do? How shall we live? Because even if the riddle (or meaning) vanishes, our life is still there (OC § 559). Is not how we should live a riddle [problem] we must face?

"The question of the meaning of life vanishes." -- What can this mean other than that the question is nonsense [i.e. an undefined combination of words]? Is this a case of trying to ask about the whole what can only be [because that is all that has been defined] asked about the part: "What should we do to accomplish this or that particular end?" but not "What should we do in general?" The combination of words 'the meaning of life' is nonsense (a combination of words without a sense, meaning, defined use). And yet the question "How should we live?" remains.

Parak: ... filosofava ancora, quindi: the riddle never vanished for Wittgenstein (or, at least, the problem of philosophy never did).

Query: sometimes the only answer is there is no answer.

Wittgenstein: only if there is also no question. If there is no answer, the only important question is why is there no answer? Is it because we ourselves have made the question unanswerable (cf. Z § 259) by the grammar we have given the question?

Most propositions and questions, that have been written about philosophical matters, are not false, but senseless. We cannot, therefore, answer questions of this kind at all, but only state their senselessness .... We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all. Of course there is then no question left, and just this is the answer .... the deepest problems are really no problems. (TLP, tr. Ogden, 4.003, 6.52, 4.003)

If by 'all scientific questions' Wittgenstein means 'all empirical questions' or 'questions of fact', then that is the opposite view from Socratic ethics: 'Know thyself' means 'Know the specific excellence that is proper to man', and what that excellence is is a question of facts.

In contrast, Albert Schweitzer wants to connect, in a quite different way (i.e. based on natural events) from the way of Socrates, the nature of the world (its how-ness) and ethics to form a world-view [Although Schweitzer does not base his ethics of Reverence for Life on this fact, altruism is as much a fact of nature as selfishness and therefore both must be accounted for. On the other hand, Schweitzer does found his ethics on compassion (solidarity with all life), indeed says that compassion is the foundation of all ethics -- but that would be a one-sided foundation since it takes in altruism but not selfishness as ethics' foundation, and ethics concerns not only care for others but also care for oneself -- which includes the question of selfish self-interest (which does not fit naturally into the category 'compassion')], but which he does not see a way to do with the Christian religion, because every rational faith has to choose between being an ethical religion or a religion that explains the world. If ethics cannot be given a foundation in a world-view or in religion, then what is there except wandering through life, a pilgrim to nowhere?

"The riddle doesn't exist": perhaps in the sense of "Why is there something rather than nothing?" it doesn't exist (i.e. is undefined language) and perhaps "What should we do with our life?" And yet at the end of his life Wittgenstein wrote that "our life is there". "There is no riddle" -- then why are we convinced -- far beyond unconvincing -- that there is? Why shouldn't there by an animal with just this instinct? -- And if it makes us dysfunctional, is nature after all no stranger to dysfunctionality.

[If again and again you bump your head against the same wall (PI § 119), maybe one of them will crack. (Maybe that is the philosophical instinct.)]

Logic and Meaning

Query: logic has to do with meaning.

That is precisely the "later Wittgenstein": the importance of language to philosophy is its meaning, not its form. However, to say that "logic has to do with meaning" is to define [delimit the meaning of] the word 'logic', not to say what the "essence of logic" is. Generally [i.e. as general [or, essential] definition, logic concerns [is] the study of rules; and in Wittgenstein's logic/philosophy, the rules of sense and nonsense, rather than the rules of syntax, are important to/in philosophy, and therefore Wittgenstein's "logic" is about ["has to do with"] meaning. ["Symbolic logic" is indifferent toward meaning; it amounts to: variables without values. What does it have to do with philosophy? Nothing at all: it is a calculus, like mathematics.]

Query: semantics: logic in language.

Precisely. The logic in language is to be found in the meaning of language, not in its form (syntax).

Query: logic as language.

No, I want to say: language as logic -- i.e. language looked at/seen from the point of view of rules: language compared to a game (where what defines a game is its rules). That is language in Wittgenstein's eyes, his "logic of language".

Query: chess, grammar, language.
Query: a meaning of "a word is like a piece in chess".

No, the word itself [i.e. the "sign", which in Wittgenstein's jargon means: ink marks on paper, spoken sounds, gestures, figures drawn in the sand, whatever is purely physical about language] is like a piece in chess, which is an object carved from wood or stone. It is the rules for moving a piece in chess that is like the meaning of a word: both are grammar: "Logic is the study of everything subject to rules" (TLP 6.3), and the rules of sense and nonsense are called "grammar" in Wittgenstein's jargon. Wittgenstein was making logical-"grammatical" investigations when he examined philosophical problems.

Query: relation between form and meaning in language.

There is at least this relation between syntax and semantics: if you know that a word is a noun (or a verb or an adjective and so on), you already know something about its meaning (about what to expect), even if you know nothing more about the word. [Syntax versus meaning.] But the rules of syntax allow for the construction of nonsense ... but that is a very remarkable feature of our language -- a feature non-essential to language per se, but defining of our everyday language as it actually is. For example, an undefined combination of words may yet suggest some use or meaning for itself to you. [Cf. Kenneth Clark in his Civilisation (1969) quotes the words "How often has a difficult rhyme led me to a beautiful thought" (p. xviii), although he doesn't say where that quotation is from. I could say: How often the rewriting of a stupid paragraph that might simply have been discarded has led me to a worthwhile idea.] For example:

Query: Heraclitus, a man's character defines his faith.

The original is: "determines his fate". But the query is not an unsuggestive combination of words. I did once write elsewhere that "an arid man has no faith at all". Regardless of whether that is correct, it is not a foolish observation that whether or not and in what way an individual is religious may be determined by his temperament.

Geometry and ill-serving similes

Query: geometry, "a point suggests an idea".

That "idea" would of course be the "meaning" or at least "suggest the meaning". An abstract object by any other name would confuse as much; now we have an "idea" to float about [somewhere] in some unknown outer space or "in the mind". And what is an idea when it's at home: you cannot define a word (i.e. sign [definiendum: the word (or combination of words) being defined]) by using words whose meaning is less clear than the word you are defining: x = y but if y is less clear than x, this is not a definition (i.e. explanation of meaning [PI § 560]).

"What is the meaning of a word?" -- Yes, that is our master question in logic: how to distinguish between sense and nonsense. And, despite possible intimations of later skepticism (in On Certainty), Wittgenstein's reply was: the relation between [rules of] "grammar" (in Wittgenstein's jargon) and sense and nonsense. ('Grammar', 'logic', is the study of rules; that is the relationship to Wittgenstein's game simile, where a game is defined by its rules. Rules of grammar = (metaphorically) rules of the game.)

Locke: we all have ideas. Well, I suppose in some sense we do (but in which sense?), but our ideas are often misleading (however "clear and distinct" they may be). In any case, Wittgenstein's logic of language is only concerned with our public ideas.

Query: pictures of a point in geometry.

The following is a resume of the discussion Philosophy of Geometry: how is the word 'point' used in axiomatic geometry?

Pictures of a point in the sky, of a point on a map, of a point of view: the "grammar" [rules for using, or definition, or explanation of meaning] of the word 'point' in geometry is the same as the grammar of 'point' in those three examples; -- i.e. there is no object to picture: 'point' is not the name of an object in these instances.

The word 'point' is used differently when we use it to mean the same as the word 'dot' as e.g. in 'dotted line' or in Seurat's Pointilism: same "sign", but different grammars. We might not be mislead if we did not use the single word 'point' for both geometry and ink or paint dots, although on the other hand, that would not eliminate misleading metaphors. Using a single sign for both 'river bank' and 'savings bank' or as in 'Mr. White turned white' does not appear to mislead us. However, in the case of 'point' we are trained at school to imagine that the word 'point' has a sufficiently similar meaning when talking about ink dots and geometric points that the meaning of 'geometric point' can be explained by pointing at ink dots. Something similar might be tried with the word 'bank' using similes between rivers and savings: picture a canal and a vault (both contain things); so if you want to know what a savings bank is, just picture a river. But isn't a river the picture of a "spending bank": a river of money would float away? Isn't a bank more like a reservoir? But then we have lost the word 'bank'.

Children are trained to be confused by geometry. "A geometric point is like a pin hole." In exactly what way is it like a pin hole -- because anything can be compared to anything else in some way or another? Well, can't you use a dot to indicate a point on a map? Yes, and you can also use the tip of your finger. "A geometric point is like the tip of your finger."

It isn't a single hammer blow that frees one from the grips of the picture of a geometric point as an object -- i.e. of 'geometric point' as the name of an object --, but dozens of smaller blows. "Where our language suggests a body and there is none: there, we would like to say, is a spirit" (PI § 36). As long as children are mis-trained in geometry, the picture of the word 'point' as the name of a spirit will persist.

The picture of a geometric point as an invisible dot-like object both mis-represents and misleads us about what is meant by 'point' in geometry. (cf. PI § 305; and Malcolm's Ludwig Wittgenstein: a Memoir, 2nd ed. (1984), p. 46, about pictures which do not mis-represent but which nonetheless also mislead.)

Query: nature of the geometric point.

No, it is not the nature of points, but rather the rules for using the expression 'geometric point'. A geometric point is not a cow: we don't go into the pasture to investigate its nature; instead what we need to understand its meaning -- i.e. the meaning of the word 'point' as it is used in geometry -- is to ask for the rules governing its use. In the case of geometry the rules are very strict, and so actually the word 'point' is not difficult to use, for those possessed of "the spirit of geometry" (Pascal). In this case, Wittgenstein's method, which has become a catchword, is to ask for "the use" -- i.e. for this specific meaning of 'meaning' -- rather than the "meaning" -- the "meaning" being the object the name 'point' stands for. -- But there is no such "meaning" of the word 'point' in geometry; although the expression 'ink dot' has the grammar of a name-of-object, 'geometric point' has not.

"Ask for the common nature rather than the use" -- i.e. what is the essence of the thing (e.g. shapes), not just an enumeration of the things called by that name -- might be called Plato's method in philosophy.

"Natural Signs"

Query: word sounds like its meaning.
Query: natural signs, language logic examples.

"Natural sign" -- what's that when it's at home? E.g. the barking of a dog is not a sign (or word: it is noise, but it is not [a sound that is] what Wittgenstein calls 'language': -- i.e. it is not a sign with public rules for its use, or in other words, a held-in-common "grammar" [usage, acceptation]. Onomatopia (echoism). If wolves are called "wolf" after the sound they make, is that an example of a "natural sign" (I am of course asking for a definition)? And then are Italian speakers mistaken, or making a false statement, when they call the wolf 'lupo'?

Suppose all language were like the word 'wolf'; suppose there were no "conventional language" but only "natural language". -- Imagine a tribe which had no notion of conventions: someone says to them: You call it a 'wolf' but you might as well call it a 'foll'. They would say that 'foll' was a meaningless sound. We would, then, say: the sign 'foll' would have a use, but not a "meaning" (in their sense of the word 'meaning').

That is not the only thing called a 'natural sign', however [if indeed what I wrote above is the way anyone uses that expression; or by 'natural sign ... logic' might be meant the term logic of Aristotle as opposed to "symbolic logic" (variables without values)]. It is said that storm clouds (or cows lying down in the fields) are a "natural sign" of coming rain. But if you call that "the language of the sky/weather" [as you might say that crying is a "natural sign" of someone's being injured (or moved in some way) and call that the "language of human emotions"] -- that is a metaphor. But what is its application? Suppose someone said: "Natural signs" are like linguistic signs in that both communicate things to us? Maybe that is not a false comparison; maybe it is not a misleading one either -- if the limit of its application is not forgotten (and the danger of this equivocal use of the word 'sign' is that this limit may easily be forgotten [overlooked]). Is the notion of a "natural sign" (as opposed to a "conventional sign" -- i.e. a 'sign' in Wittgenstein's jargon) of any use to logic -- i.e. does it make anything clearer?

If we say: "Different general facts of nature; therefore, different concept formation", does that imply that the meanings of the signs we have are "in some sense" natural -- but not in the sense of 'natural' that 'wolf' is an "natural (i.e. onomatopoeic) sign".

If we speak of the natural meaning of storm clouds, then, -- treating language as a natural phenomenon --, what is the natural meaning of the word 'lupo' -- is it that wolves exist? But elves do not; is the word 'elf' to be called a an un-natural sign? That would be yet another meaning of 'meaning'.

Query: the real nature of things gives words their meaning with its own set of rules.

We don't learn to use the word 'cow' in the way the query describes. When we define the word 'cow' we do not include in our definition an hypothesis about what the nature of cows is. ('That [pointing] is a cow': would Hanson say that seeing a cow is theory-laden? I said "no, rather, concept-laden", but is the fact that cows don't fly part of the definition of 'cow'? Is seeing a cow "knowledge-laden"? but knowledge of what exactly?)

Is the query's "the real nature of things gives words their meaning" what Plato would have said, when he began inventing his notion of "Forms"? (What is the meaning of a common name?) It is, in any case, "the real nature of things" that every metaphysician seeks, but the query expresses an extreme view (which I don't know how to paraphrase: is it that: Reality lies naked right in front of our eyes; it is laid bare before our very eyes: we have only to open them, for about reality nothing is hidden? I think Russell called that view "naive realism"). But what you cannot say is that there are not held-in-common-by-words parts of speech, such as name-of-object; the grammar ("set of rules") of the word 'cow', e.g., is not unique to cows. The query suggests that there are real definitions (or, "meanings") of words, I think (because, again, nothing is hidden from our view: reality is what we see when we open our eyes: "grass [in itself] really is green"). But, as always, there is the word 'thing' which might mean 'any thing at all' (never mind whether those "things" are minds, cats, elves, or ideas).

Suppose the legislators Plato speaks of in the Cratylus (408a-b) had written their names for objects on the objects themselves -- would we call those "natural signs"? You lift a stone and see the sign 'stone' written on it. Of course we would be no more obliged to use the legislators' names than to use 'wolf' rather than 'foll' (logically, that is, questions of impiety apart).

"All philosophy is a critique of language" (whether intentional or not)

Query: philosophy is criticism, Wittgenstein.

"All philosophy is a critique of language" (TLP 4.0031); which I take to mean that the way a philosopher writes [his method of thinking] shows what he takes to be the logic of language (or, what his "logic of language" is). "The logic of our language is misunderstood" [ibid. 4.003] -- That is criticism. Criticism is, as well, the Socratic tradition: our questions are posed in words; so we have to talk about words. (PI § 120)

I had revised Wittgenstein's definition to read: "Logic is the study of the rules of everything subject to rules." -- But I don't see that that form of expression makes anything clearer.

The TLP has "everything subject to law" (in the sense of "courts of law"). A law that fluctuated according to the whims of a king would not be what we call a law. cf. Humpty Dumpty's meaning of 'meaning' (his alternative "logic" of language [But why call something that is not objective -- i.e. governed by rules [independent of subjectivity] -- 'logic'?]):

"But 'glory' doesn't mean 'a nice knock-down argument'," Alice objected.

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said ... "it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more and nor less.... The question is ... which is to be master [-- me or the words]." (Through the Looking-Glass vi)

How does Alice know that 'glory' doesn't mean ...? It would be an answer to say: she has learned English (PI § 381); or what other type of answer would you expect? She has learned a skill, namely how to use a word (ibid. §§ 150, 199); her behavior demonstrates this, although she may not know in the Socrates' sense of 'know' -- i.e. of being able to state a general definition of 'glory'.

English is a language: it has a common "grammar" [held-in-common, shared by all speakers of the language, grammar]; this is why dictionaries, which report usage, can be compiled (and why we can turn to dictionaries as to an authority). Humpty Dumpty does not speak in a secret code; because a code can be broken, its grammar made available to anyone: a code is a language. Nor are Humpty Dumpty's whims a jargon; he does not in Alice's example redefine the sign 'glory': a definition as variable as the wind is no definition: a capricious grammar is no grammar at all.)

In a footnote to the Synopsis I changed "were 'meaning' not defined this way, it would not be what we call objective (or "outside the subject" so to speak)" to "were 'meaning' not defined this way, it would not be objective (independent of the subject)". The revision is correct, but it lacks the force of the original; but "outside the subject" suggests "outside the mind" ... but maybe that is what we mean [but not figuratively] by 'objective'? So I will revise my revision.

And I removed this from the end of the long string of quotations at the end of Chapter IV Wittgenstein's Meaning of 'Meaning' because it cannot stand alone without explanation:

[And now] ... we must investigate the particular case. (PG i § 24, p. 60; cf. BB p. 18: "You must not be contemptuous of the particular case" [cf. "It is our old mistake of not testing particular cases." (Z § 438)]; PI § 340: "You cannot guess how a word is used. You must look and see.")

Our craving for generality -- i.e. for the general statement that expresses an insight -- urges us against the need to study the particular case (BB p. 18). We feel that there must be a general definition. Also, long explanations (investigations) do not attract us: we find them inelegant; as if the truth had to be simple.

"... that there must be a general definition" (despite all evidence to the contrary) -- Is this due to our schooling, to our English teachers' far too simple picture of the way our language works, to their demand for common-nature definitions? (On trouve toujours plus de moines que de raison: our school teachers exhibited a monkish (and, no, I don't know that monks are more credulous than anyone else) certainty; they took for granted what they were taught, and thence taught us to take for granted what we should instead have subjected to questioning (raison). That is what I say at the very end of my synopsis of the elements of Wittgenstein's logic, but that is only part of it; there may be many other things behind our craving for a general definition -- e.g. our wanting certainty about what we are talking about, and thus the reply to Wittgenstein's account: "Yes, but if there is no general definition, then how do we ever know what we are talking about?" (Socrates was, according to Plato, seeking a standard in ethics; that was why he sought a common-nature [or, essential, or, universal, or, absolute, or, general] definition. It was Plato who extended Socrates' quest for such definitions beyond Ethics into Metaphysics, and Plato did this for Heraclitean reasons rather than for Socratic ones. It is Plato's metaphysical demand for common-nature definitions throughout the whole of language that is our English teachers' inheritance.)

Query: the meaning of the word 'meaning'.

There is no essence of meaning -- i.e. there is no meaning of the word 'meaning'. There are instead many meanings of that word. It is not as if the word 'meaning' were the name of an object, as in Wittgenstein's example 'Mr. White turned white'. Instead the word 'meaning' belongs to that class of words of which Wittgenstein said that their meaning is their use (PI § 43). But if you try to report the use we make of the word 'meaning' you will see that there is not one use but instead many uses: we call many different things "the meaning of language" -- and we also speak of the "meaning of events" e.g.

It may be objected to our method as follows: "If someone asks what time is, you ask in return, "How do we measure time?" But time and the measurement of time are two different things...." This objection conceives that we know what time is, and we know what measuring is, so we know what measuring time is. But this is not true. If I have taught you to measure lengths, and then say, "Now go ahead and measure time,' this will mean nothing. (Malcolm, Memoir (1984), p. 41; this was a note Malcolm recorded from memory of Wittgenstein's 1946 lectures at Cambridge)

The assumption of the objection is that the words 'time' and 'measurement' have essential meanings -- i.e. that everything we call 'time' has a common nature, and that everything we call 'measurement' has a common nature. From which it is deduced that although we cannot state a general definition for either the word 'time' or the word 'measurement', nonetheless those words, like all other words, must have essential meanings, and that when we learned those words we abstracted those meanings; and we now know what time and measurement are.

But what sense of the word 'know' is this? "And that which we know surely we must be able to tell?" Socrates said. But in this case, one does not mean something objective by the word 'know'; for if one did, one would be able to say what the common nature of time is, and what the common nature of measurement is. (An example of an essential definition: "A simile is a comparison using the words 'like' or 'as'." In this case you might say that you know what a simile is, because you can state a general definition of the word 'simile'.) What might someone who says 'I know what time is' mean? He might mean that we feel confident that he does; but such a conviction is not knowledge. So then why does Wittgenstein say that Augustine knows what time is? Because Augustine knows how to use the word 'time' in "the language-games that are its original home" -- i.e. in the normal course of life. By saying that Wittgenstein is giving a sense to the word 'know' here, which by Socrates' criterion has no meaning here (i.e. if you cannot "give an account", then you don't know).

Suppose we said that the essence of definitions (their defining characteristic) is that they make you able to use a word. But tapping you on the forehead might have that effect, but that tapping would not be a definition. Wittgenstein said in a lecture:

Not just anything that opens a door is a key. An explanation of meaning must be a public method/technique for using a word; it must show you -- anyone, everyone -- the way forward. (cf. Malcolm, Memoir (1984), p. 41)

That is of course a grammatical remark. We don't call anything just anything: our language is governed -- in some cases more, in some cases less, strictly -- by rules of sense and nonsense.

Site copyright © September 1998. Send Internet mail to Robert [Wesley] Angelo. Last revised: 19 July 2012 : 2012-07-19 (Original revision 21 May 2007)

The URL of this Web page:

Back to top of page

Wittgenstein's Logic of Language - Introduction and Table of Contents | Bibliography | Site Search | Site Map