Episode 55: Wittgenstein on Language

On Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, Part I, sections 1-33 and 191-360 (written around 1946).

What is linguistic meaning? Wittgenstein argues that it's not some mysterious entity in the mind, but that it is a public matter: you understand a word if you can use it appropriately, and you know the context in which it's appropriate to use it and how to react when you hear it in that context. W. calls such a context a "language game," and sees language as big heap of these games, spanning a wide range of human activity. Words don't just name objects; they could be commands, or variables, or exclamations, or even meaningless when considered outside of a particular game. When philosophers pull words out of the kinds of settings in which they originated and try to figure out what they really mean, that creates bogus philosophical problems.

This discussion is part 1 of 2; we only get through the first sections of the book in detail, and you'll have to listen to part 2 for a good explanation of the famous "private language" argument. Read more about the topic and get the text. The foursome is joined by Philosophy Bro (the two posts of his we read part of are here and here).

End song: "Kite," by New People from The Easy Thing (2009), written and sung by Matt Ackerman.

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  1. Daniel Horne says

    Fantastic, loving this.

    The possibly-apocryphal story recounted by Philosophy Bro actually relates to Pierro Sraffa, not GE Moore: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piero_Sraffa

    Wittgenstein was insisting that a proposition and that which it describes must have the same ‘logical form’, the same ‘logical multiplicity’, Sraffa made a gesture, familiar to Neapolitans as meaning something like disgust or contempt, of brushing the underneath of his chin with an outward sweep of the finger-tips of one hand. And he asked: ‘What is the logical form of that?’

    In the introduction to Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein mentions discussions with Sraffa over many years and says: “I am indebted to this stimulus for the most consequential ideas in this book”.

    • Mícheál Johnny says

      Regarding a general understanding of “infidelidad”: Seth understands the concept this word describes and knows how to use this concept from his learning of concepts up to this point in his life. If he had not previously encountered this concept, he would not have been able to retrieve the meaning of the Spanish word.

      Regarding meaning as use: The initial use of this concept shaped Seth’s understanding of it through provision of associations, outcomes, causes, etc. that relate to the concept.

      Regarding the fuzzyness of foreign language implantation: Quite often, we will implant foreign words or untranslatable words into our native languages and use them in correct and grammatical ways. This is still correct use, even though it abandons all other parts of the foreign language. For example, use the German words zeitgeist or schadenfreude in an English language sentence. As I just have, for another example. Use!

      Language is as phenomenologicallly dependant as this implies, in my opinion. Comparing Genghis Khan’s knowledge of concepts used when talking about war to Margaret Thatcher’s knowledge of concepts used when talking about war can prove this theory quite easily. Perhaps two others would provide better examples, but the same proof structure works.

      The only question this raises for me is: what is the base concept, or what are the binary base-concepts we learn as infants, upon which we build or grasp of humanity’s known concepts??? My guess is that it’s something to do with the bonding process with the infant’s mother, even if it’s at a prenatal stage of development.

      PS: I loved the bit about the slap around the head! Both vital and funny. Mistakes shape our learning by testing parameters. 100%.

  2. Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

    I just detected an editing error and am replacing the file, so if your iTunes happened to be downloading it around 8:30pm central and you find that the file you’ve downloaded cuts off, you’ll have to re-download it (which, iTunes being annoying as it is, probably involves downloading it off this site and then using the “add file” to get it in iTunes, or just download it again via your smartphone or something).

    The error was kind of amusing though… about 1/2 hr in, Wes starts talking about slabs and beams, and I ask him if I should read the relevant passage. He says “yes, but let me finish my sentence,” and then proceeds to repeat the exact same speech in full, like he was a robot who, when interrupted, had to go back and re-execute the same exact routine.

  3. dmf says

    taking a break @44min. two thought sketches one is the larger question relating here to the shift from his earlier work to this later work and how it is that people get caught up in lines of thought/inquiry and related worlds/intuitions and later people (sometimes the same people) find them nonsensical, hard even to imagine taking them seriously, which relates to Kuhn and Rorty reading Davidson on metaphors/paradigm-shifts.
    2nd the big research area that has come out of this insight of Witt’s on the background practices/habits that are at play in human-being is that of enactivism and related developmental neurophenomenology which ties in with pragmatist neo-darwinian thinking on habits and critterly attempts to get a grip (remember M-Ponty) on our environs.

    • dmf says

      “Much is rotten in the ‘sciences’ of language and cognition. To those familiar with
      Wittgenstein’s work this is apparent in, for example, the gulf that separates
      investigations of mind from those of language. Equally, it appears in how empirical
      work tends to skate over conceptual issues while theories of discourse proceed with
      disregard for causal processes. Taking another direction, I invoke ‘natural history’ in
      asking new questions about the origins of minded and discursive behaviour. In this
      context, I use ‘micro-investigations’ to demonstrate how a single interaction can be
      used to throw light on human development. Rather than argue for the proposed
      ascriptions, my aim is to show the power of the method by exploring a moment when
      ‘understanding dawns’.”

  4. dmf says

    I find it helpful to think of “rules” in terms of expectations, so if you hand me the wrong building material I immediately perceive (in a holistic/gestalt kind of way like how in phenomenology I perceive an apple and not a bunch characteristics that I have to compute to be an apple) that you have missed the point/goal/mark, Rorty understands this in the wider context of all of the ways in which we manipulate our environs (think of babies) and I think is counter to attempts by Brandom to make “It” explicit, or say similar work by folks like Habermas.
    here is Alison Gopnik on philosophical babies:

    will be interested in the next meeting to see if you get into what Wittgenstein considers to be the limits of logic as relates to say ethics, aesthetics, or religion or such, and the ways in which we are “bewitched” by grammar. cheers

  5. Mike C says

    I just wanted to comment on the “meaning is use” vs “meaning is definition” discussion (not that it’s necessarily all one or the other). I see a problem with the “meaning is definition” claim: definitions are themselves made up of words. So where did the words in the definition get their meaning? Other definitions? By introducing the idea of meaning as use, Wittgenstein cuts the circularity or infinite regress present in “meaning is definition”. Now, that’s not to say that meaning can’t be conveyed through definition, it’s just that definition conveys meaning by at least one level of indirection; all roads eventually lead back to use. Just a thought.

  6. Billie Pritchett says

    Early Wittgenstein seemed to assume that predicate logic could capture all meaningful language. This is strange since it seems pretty clear that, if a person is thinking about natural language, the only kinds of sentences it really captures are statements for which a speaker would intend his sentence to be true, what John Searle and the speech act gang later called assertives. But of course there are other kinds of sentences or expressions, like commands, promises, and excuses, among other categories, which human beings take to be meaningful. I think Dylan in the podcast thought this was strange, too, but this is just to reiterate and flesh out some of the reasons it is strange.

    Whereas the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus had a naive view of language qua its different capacities to be expressed meaningfully, the Wittgenstein of Philosophical Investigations seems to adopt an inversely naive view that is not focused on a system of logical relations as could be expressed in some kind of semantics like a predicate logic but rather is focused on the behavior of people using language. The reason this latter view of language is naive is that it does not take seriously the myriad complexities involved in the examples he describes.

    I’ll justify this position using two examples, both of which you talked about, and the latter of which Seth had picked up on and found problematic–as did Wes, I think. First, consider ostension. As you discussed in the podcast, and I think this is Wes’s example, you could point to a yellow pencil and try to teach a person the word ‘yellow’ and, to keep that person from misunderstanding you as referencing to the pencil, you could point to a lot of other objects that are also yellow and hope that he infers that he is yellow. But, you know, to take seriously the phenomenology here, this prosaic occurrence is a higly complicated thing. For something to even count as ostension, one already needs to understand the finger directed toward an object as a particular act, namely pointing, which means understanding it as a kind of referring. On top of that, the sound the teacher makes with his mouth means understanding some perhaps hitherto unheard sound as making sense to associate with what is being referred to. Also it must be understand that this person is understood as a teacher who is trying to provide an ostensive definition of something which may or may not be understood at first, either correctly as among the things that are yellow or incorrectly as a pencil. But even this phenomenological description is too informal and what really needs to be explained is what cognitive capacities are necessary to understand/interpret/process this event as ostension. This involves cognitive capacities for phonology, gesture, and articulation, and the only way you could avoid giving a real explanation to these kinds of things is by going ahead and imposing the event as an attempt to provide an ostensive definition. In a way, though, that is kind of circular, because the event is the very thing that needs to be explained.

    Another example is the command example. As Wes was saying, calling out ‘Slab!,’ ‘Hammer!,’ etc., and acting in a certain way to provide those things assumes understanding, and ‘understanding’ is just an informal way to take about (perhaps) a series of complex cognitive faculties. Whatever the case, where the real investigation needs to occur to give a sound explanation of what is going on is in the head, not external to the body. Of course the articulation of language is in some sense body-external (but not entirely) but to really ask about the language itself and what it means to know a language or to know some aspects of a language is to ask at least in part about how a person has cognized certain syntactic and morphological structures.

    This message is too long, and now this is just a couple of name-drops, but I think there is promise in Donald Davidson’s event semantics, Noam Chomsky’s phrase structure rules, and the line of investigation both Davidson and Chomsky have generated. I would gladly share info about those ideas if you would like in a follow-up response–but of course, if you are not interested in a follow-up, I’ll slink off and just apologize for the long post.

  7. Joshua says

    That infidelidad example was way too ivory tower cringeworthy! =P You were all so into explaining the points of the philosophy that the example came up and it was just terribly separate from what my intuition about picking up language in real life. You jumped to the conclusion that you could hear “infidelidad” and pick up on it, just on the use or appearance of the situation, but I disagree. She might be saying infidelity! as an accusation against her husband, yes, but without really knowing what the word actually is yet, that is only one of a myriad of possibilities. She could just be using a shocked expression (i.e., if you were unaware of the meaning of Dios Mio! you might think she was just saying a shocked/anxious cliche like OHMYGOD.) She might be saying “with MY BOSS?” which has implications you’re supposed to take in beyond “wife now has the decision to forgive this or divorce over this” because there’s a job at stake instead of just marital relations. She might be saying “I saw the devil” because she has a mental disorder and the shocking situation this puts the character in is creating an infernal delusion before her. The only thing you pick up on is “a person is responding in a surprised/shocked way to a sexual event,” you can’t really pick up on the million things it could be and as such aren’t coming close to the truth of the word just through observing its use.

    • Profile photo of Seth Paskin says

      Fair enough. I had in mind not one instance, but rather a series of watching Telenovellas to pick it up but your point is well taken. But how is that ivory tower cringe worthy? Name one academic you know that’s every used Univision in an example.

      What would have been cringe worthy is if I had referenced Nazis somehow.

      • dmf says

        SP, I had thought that you were just making the point that you wouldn’t “read” her response as one of joy or otherwise approving, that the context was telling, pardon the pun, but not definitive.
        Lacan was right that to some degree all communication is miscommunication.

    • Profile photo of Wes Alwan says

      Actually, social contexts are far more fixed and unambiguous than you’re making out, and words often aren’t even necessary — we can uses mere gazes and gestures to convey very specific meanings because shared context is doing so much (see the Tomasello link above, great readings that provide details). On another note, Seth’s example here (a word — especially a foreign word — for which we have meaning but not use) is a standard criticism of Wittgenstein that you’ll find in introductory secondary readings; I’m not sure how well we explained it.

  8. Nick says

    Around 23 minutes Dylan makes some interesting points about the naivete of the logical positivist program. I’m very much in sympathy with his remarks but I think its important to remember that the incompleteness theorems were still more than a decade away when the tractatus was written and i’m not sure that non-euclidean geometry was then viewed as having the epistemic implications so obvious now with the benefit of hindsight and the developments of 20th century logic. I’d be interested to hear anyone else’s opinion about this second historical point.

    • Profile photo of Daniel Horne says

      Yes, I would have been interested to hear more about Dylan’s objections to the TLP as well (that it’s not merely wrong, but mathematically naive and silly.)

      The logical positivists were well aware of non-Euclidean geometry, as was Wittgenstein. I guess the issue is whether one finds TLP-era Wittgenstein committed to language having only one pictorial form, which is clearly untrue after taking non-Euclidean geometries into account. But some have argued that Wittgenstein’s “pictorial form” argument (if modified a bit) can survive other geometries. See, e.g.:


      Dylan seems fundamentally right (if this was his point) that logical positivism was certainly doomed after Gödel, if not before. But I think it would be wrong to align the errors of the Tractatus with the errors of the Vienna Circle, or even to call the Tractatus a necessarily positivist work.

      • Nick says

        Thanks Daniel. The proper place for this question is probably the discussion for the TLP podcast but maybe its fair game since Dylan brought it up in this one: Why is non-Euclidean geometry in itself so damning for the picture theory? To my mind the only thing that hyperbolic geometry has to say about the picture theory is that Hilbert’s axioms for geometry are insufficient to specify the correct picture if you leave out the parallel postulate. But the fact that sentences can be insufficiently specific is surely obvious. Or is it that these new geometries were so wacky that they couldn’t be pictured?

  9. says

    After listening to some of your great podcasts, in particular the Wittgenstein ones, since I work on machine learning things and have a physics background, I can’t help but relate to those fields.

    Check this out: Stings from Logic!

    Also, have you guys ever read Vapnik’s on the Nature of Statistical Learning Theory? He digs into some philosophical ideas as related to learning theory, particularly Popper, but touches on a number of others..

    Anyway, I love it, keep up the great work!

  10. Gakseori says

    I’m curious about this extended discussion of why the target of the statement “block” and “slab” wouldn’t have composed an unsaid verb “go get that”. The way I read that section is that Wittgenstein has set up the problem wrong by coming at it through ostension. These aren’t a series of nouns with an absence of verb, but actually different kinds of words. Assume the objects are sorted, I will take a different route to get the thing. Assume they’re of different weights, I might gird myself differently. Or even just assume that as different as the objects are, there is going to be some variation in my behavior as a result of going to get them, down to, “bend down over this one and not over that one”. When I say “block”, I’m saying all of those things in a single word. If we assume that verbs have to exist, or that some mix of subject verb object exists, then it makes sense that the target of the language would notice the similarities, but that’s a nominal distinction at some level, because the series of behaviors that result from it are going to be distinct. Maybe it’s a digression from Wittgenstein’s point, but if he’s going to make up a weird language, it’s going to have weird kinds of words in it that don’t have the implication, necessarily, of being nouns or verbs or subjects and objects. No?

  11. Joan says

    i am enjoying the W discussion, feel a bit of a connection to this topic…i have taught communication/language to many children using various forms: verbal, gestural, pictorial (PECs), fully kinesthetic/holistic movement, etc., basing my instruction on the child’s developmental and physical ability.
    anyway, may i ask: what prompted the slab, block, etc. question originally? did W have a reason for using these 4 objects?

  12. bryan says

    Everyone was trying to address Seth’s question and not hitting on it… You don’t need to know exactly how to use a word to understand it’s meaning, as the meaning of an unfamiliar word can lend itself to you based on its usage in a language game you are familiar with… That is also why Wittgenstein has to go into so many examples; he has to try to demonstrate a variety of different kinds of considerations there can be to discerning meaning when meaning/understanding is based on a complex of “word+usage+context”.

    Seth doesn’t need to know how to use the word “infidelidad” to understand what the lady is trying to express when she walks in on the couple and says that. The usage of any exclamation at that particular point is part of a language game that fits with that situation. She could walk in and exclaim “taco!”: It would be bizarre and yet make some sense to him because of her tone, facial expression, and the emotional/societal/cultural aspects of that type of situation. On the other hand, while “taco!” would not be totally out of context, at the same time it wouldn’t tell anyone about the meaning of the word “taco”, even if by exclaiming “taco!” she for some reason meant to express something having to do with the idea of infidelity. If she walked in and said “taco…” in a matter-of-fact way and smiled, this would imply a very unusual, unfamiliar language game because the facial expression, word-use, etc. in the context of the situation would be (in Seth’s view) divorced. In this case there is no context holding the meaning together for people unfamiliar with the usage of matter-of-fact language when an exclamation is called for. However, if throughout our lives we witnessed similar emotional reactions and uses of the word “taco” in the latter way, “taco” would begin to take on a new “definition” and the language game with which it is associated in this sense would become familiar and it would all start to mean something.

    So my first point is that Seth’s question shouldn’t be trying to contend with the meaning of the word “infidelidad” in that situation alone, because in that skit there would be so much more to what is being communicated than just the word. It is not the ideal situation (or language game) for learning the meaning of the word for an outsider, because the meaning of the word itself in that language game isn’t the primary factor in its utterance being understood. It is an exclamation or reactionary comment trying to express surprise, anger, or whatever; she is not trying to define or explain the situation in any way. If I stub my toe and say “Shit!”, I am not trying to use the word “shit” to explain what just happened — this could be considered a related language game where the point is not to say something about the situation so much as highlight it or express an emotional reaction to it.
    Secondly, another thing about being able to understand but not being able to use the word in question: Consider a situation in which the lady walks in and says “taco” — Seth could think he understands this to mean a Spanish slang word for “infidelity” that he hasn’t yet learned and has never used, and he can assume this only because he is familiar with the language games associated with this type of situation. That’s what I mean when I say you don’t need to know exactly how to use a word to understand it’s meanings, as the pertinent meaning of an unfamiliar word can lend itself to you based on its usage in a language game you are familiar with and can play yourself. For someone totally clueless about Spanish, she could be exclaiming any number of commonly exclaimed things that would fit in the situation; so “infidelidad!” could be assumed to mean “bastards!” or “how could you?!” etc.

    The idea of language games is that there is no particular situation in which you can learn the full spectrum of meanings for an utterance. An example is how poetry can effectively misuse words but still communicate a discernible meaning by creating a new context for that word based on the language games associated with that word in combination with the language games associated with the other words in the poem. Poems use language this way most when they talk about mystical, abstract ideas, and Wittgenstein’s main point is kind of that the language of poems (or hand gestures like the middle finger) can do that because the use is the meaning as long as our “vocabulary” of familiar language games can cope.

    If the Tractatus tries say how language should be used, Phil. Inv. tries to explain how it really is used, but the common thread is that the language games used for philosophical discussions are always tenuous due to the fact that they don’t rely on tried-and-true (“agreed upon by practice”) words+usage+context complexes, the combination of which gives rise to meaning, and therefore the level of meaning that one can find in philosophical works is always suspect. It’s similar to why Heidegger and the Zen Buddhists don’t feel that any of the philosophizing on being gives a better understanding of being than the experience of being itself.


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