Wittgenstein – Meaning is use

Investigating Wittgenstein, part 2: Meaning is use

Language does not work the way that St Augustine (or Dawkins) think it does. Meaning doesn’t come in chunks, or slabs


Wittgenstein famously begins his Philosophical Investigations (PI) with an extended quotation from St Augustine’s Confessions on how children learn language from the pointing and naming behaviour of adults. Augustine’s apparently common sense description of what is going on in learning language was built upon a way of thinking about the way language works that shared common features with how Wittgenstein himself had thought about language in his the early work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. The idea is that language seeks to generate a map of reality, the truth of its propositions residing in the accuracy of the map. Language is “laid across reality like a ruler”.

The importance of this way of thinking about the way language works in 20th-century discussions of God cannot be over-stated. For following on behind Wittgenstein’s so-called picture theory of language comes the thought that there is a strong connection between sense and verification. Wittgenstein was himself a driving force of the Vienna Circle that popularized the idea that the meaning of a sentence is to be found in how that sentence is verified against reality. Those sentences that cannot be verified are deemed meaningless – with theological statements like “God loves the world” being rejected as meaningless precisely because they are unverifiable.

But then in the early 1930s, Wittgenstein became increasingly dissatisfied with this account of the way language operates, discovering more and more different types of sentences that didn’t seem to work in the way assumed in this picture theory. Indeed, he came to see that his former ideas made abstract assumptions about how language ought to function in some philosophically “ideal world” then tried to shoehorn how language actually works into the structure of that that preconceived conception. In contrast, the Investigations opens by locating language within practical and everyday reality – someone buying apples, builders on a building-site – thus emphasizing that language is a tool that we use to achieve various sorts of things. Meaning is use.

Here we find introduced Wittgenstein’s celebrated idea of a language-game. Language makes sense when understood within the context of a particular sort of activity – a language game. Language about building makes sense in the context of the activity of building. In some abstract conception, a word like “slab” might be said to gain its meaning by standing in a relationship of referring to some concrete object and independently of the use to which the word is put. But that way of defining the word does not come close to explaining how the word actually functions on the building site.

Furthermore, if words are tools, then, like tools, they can be used for very different purposes and work in very different ways. Indeed, different language games exist for different purposes. “Review the multiplicity of language-games in the following examples” he writes in PI 23:

“Giving orders, and obeying them –
Describing the appearance of an object, or giving its measurements –
Constructing an object from a description (a drawing) –
Reporting an event –
Speculating about an event –
Forming and testing a hypothesis –
Presenting the results of an experiment in tables and diagrams –
Making up a story: and reading it –
Play-acting –
Singing catches –
Guessing riddles –
Making a joke; telling it –
Solving a problem in practical arithmetic –
Translating from one language to another –
Asking, thanking, cursing, greeting, praying.”

With this list, Wittgenstein is trying to break the idea that language all functions the same way according to one preset pattern. His advice to “look and see” how it actually works, insists that thinking ought to take place in the midst of activity rather than on some lofty intellectual platform suspended outside of life and beyond lived activity. And this, of course, applies just as much to religious language as to any other. Here the implied challenge to those of a verificationist disposition is clear: in your condemnation of religious language as meaningless, have you perhaps assumed too quickly what religious language is and does and how it actually functions in the lives of believers?

Giles Fraser

guardian – monday feb 1st 2010



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