Wittgensteins later theory of meaning

Posted by on August 21st, 2007

The meaning of a word is given by its use in a language-game. A language game is a rule-guided social activity in which the use of language plays an essential part.

I shall also call the whole, consisting of language and the actions into which it is woven, the “language game”(sec7)… Here the term “language-game” is meant to bring to prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity or a form of life (sec23).

Wittgenstein illustrates this concept with the boss and worker on a building site. The boss shouts ‘slab’ and the worker has to fetch a slab. This constitutes the very basics for a language game. So what does the word mean? In this case the meaning of the word ‘slab’ is given by its use in the activity being carried out between boss and worker.

A brief note on terminology. Wittgenstein used the term language-games and in other analogies talked about the family resemblances between different types of games. However some have criticised the term for not being sufficiently serious or accurate, thus language-activity is often used as an appropriate substitute.

The early Wittgenstein pre-empts the meaning=use hypothesis in the Tractatus.

6.211 (In philosophy the question, ‘what do we actually use this word or this proposition for?’ repeatedly leads to valuable insights.)

Does the meaning=use theory give a meaningful status to metaphysical and religious language? In short it would appear to do so, although Wittgenstein still insisted metaphysics was nonsense (to philosophy and empirical language games).

Here is an example of its supposed meaningfulness. Consider a group of Catholic theologians who meet on wednesday afternoons to discuss metaphysical questions. These people use a number of curious words and expressions such as ‘essence’, ‘ground of being’, ‘grace’, ‘dialectic’, and so on. Yet the discourse in progress clearly is not arbitrary, but rule-guided. A beginner who uses an expression incorrectly is reprimanded, and may even be ostracized if he or she does not conform. Within the group it is well known who are the experts whose pronouncements are listened to with most respect, and so on. Here we could propose is a language-game, it is a rule-guided activity and probably (being religious) is a form of life. Within this language game, words and expressions have a use which is circumscribed by rules and conventions. On Wittgensteins later theory of meaning, therefore, we must surely say taht these words and expressions have meaning, and that the metaphysical discourse is (to its game-players at least) meaningful.

If only it were so easy though, some (ideologically predisposed according to Feyerabend) just cannot accept the language games concept. Or more importantly cannot accept that all lanagauge games are somehow critically independent from each other. There are three specific responses to this problem.

The first one concerns the paradox that language-games (where meaning=use) still rely on a language that has a picture idea quality to it. But Wittgenstein points out that this is simply how language is constructed, it is a series of picture ideas, but its meaning is derived from its use. Stop looking at the words look for the context and use. A good example is to consider paintings in art. For example abstract art or even religious art.

Let’s consider Michaelangelo’s painting of God creating Adam. The logicial positivist, stuck in the picture idea language game may attempt a variety of interpretations of the picture. He can say ‘it is a snapshot’ this is what God looked like, that is what Adam looked like. This the logical positivist can then reject because ‘who has seen God/Adam?’ Furthermore the logicial positivist can look at the picture and consider it as nothing more than a botched metaphor, an attempt to express something non-empirical rendering it incoherent. An emotivist logical positivist could also look at the picture and say that it has little meaning other than ‘wow! God!’ an equally meaningless expression. Wittgenstein rejects these interpretations wholeheartedly. The first two have made a massive mistake in their conception of language. Language has more than one purpose, more than just being a tool with which to make empirical claims. Just because the picture looks like a snapshot (this is God that is Adam) does not mean the picture is asserting such a proposition.

the picture has to be used in an entirely different way [than for example, a picture of an actual historical event] if we are to call the man in that queer blanket ‘God’ and so on.

In the words of Peter Winch:

what makes the picture a religious picture is not its pictorial relationship to some [actual] event.

If we were to accept the logical positivists limited rules of language use then religious language must be wholly nonsense. But (as an example of the variety of language games) God is relevant to a theist (who is engaged in the act of believing before the language game) just as pain is relevant to someone who is not under heavy anesthesia.

A picture does not have to designate per se, but rather it can show the role that religion has in someone’s life.

The Second response challenges the assumption of usefulness often proposed by logical positivists. Science and the scientific language game is useful, it produces results. Metaphysical discussions although perhaps meaningful to the metaphycisist who is conversent in its rules and practises, is of little practical use in the real world. Religion might be fine for those who believe, but it has little tangible worth beyond being a placebo.

The proposition that meaning=use but usefulness enhances the quality of the meaning can be shown to be untenable using the follwing counter-example concerning physics.

Let us suppose that a piece of pure mathematics is developed by a group of pure mathematicians. It is then taken up by a group of theoretical physicists, and used in the creation of a new physical theory. Finally this theory is used in a practical application – perhaps even in house building. Suppose, further, that we adopt the view that a term is meaningful only if it used in a practical, everyday social activity and not when it is used purely in a theoretical discourse. It then follows that the terms of the mathematical theory are meaningless while the theory is being developed by the pure mathematicians, that they remain meaningless when the mathematics is used to create the new physical theory, but then suddenly become meaningful for the first time when that theory is applied to house building. Such a consequence seems to me quite unacceptable. – Donald Gillies

This example is close to actual events in the history of science. For example tensor analysis was developed as a piece of pure mathematics by two Italians, Ricci and Levi-Civita in a groundbreaking paper in 1901. It was then used by Einstein in his general theory of relativity in 1915. Now the theory of general relativity find itself being applied to practical situations concerned for example with satellites. So then, at what point did the key terms of the tensor calculus become meaningful? It would appear to be the case that they were meaningful throughout the process.

Therefore the second rebuttal concerning the measuring of the value of meaning=use goes like this.

We cannot use the demarcation between practical discourse and purely theoretical discourse to distinguish sense from nonsense.

The Third rebuttal develops ideas from the first and second. The limited rule of language use that logical positivists attempt to use frustrates Feyerabend and epistemological anarchists in the extreme. In particular this rebuttal is critical of the idea that only science produces useful and true results.

This view (which could be termed scientism) assumes or even declares that the only things which science calls ‘results’ are TRUE results. Under this view, saving ‘souls’ (which are non-scientific objects) would not count as a result. Science’s inability to save souls, and religions ability to do so, does not indicate that science is lacking results which religion can provide. But as Feyerabend says this is absurd. It is obvious that there are certain things that science can do that other systems can’t, but it is equally obvious that there are things that science can’t do but that other systems can. Including the ‘irrational’ arts such as homeopathic medicine, magic, astrology and so on. The proposition that one system, one language game is superior to another is simply tyranny.

The liberation from this tyrannical tendency is described as epistemological anarchism. Feyerabend describes it thus:

While the political anarchist wants to remove a certain form of life, the epistemological anarchist may want to defend it, for he has no everlasting loyalty to any institution and any ideology. Like the Dadaist (whom he resembles in many respects) he not only has no programme, he is against all programmes. – For and Against Method.

The only method (anything goes) that Feyerabend and the extreme exponents of the language games paradigm propose is that of the open exchange of ideas. This entails the necessary equality of all language games and the forms of life they entail and the types of knowledge they claim to have.

An open exchange respects the partner whether he is an individual, or an entire culture while a rational exchange promises respect only within the framework of a rational debate. An open exchange has no organon though it may invent one, there is no logic, though forms of logic may emerge in its course. –science in a free society.

Thus we can see through these three rebuttals that certain forms of language, such as metaphysics or religious language, have (a) a meaning relevant to its game-players, (b) that has meaning regardless of its practical usefulness and (c) is capable of producing meaningful results (as in a tribe that has a non-scientific and mythological theory of the elements, a theory that it uses in its raindances and in other agricultural practises).

In conclusion it is worth noting that there are a variety of uses for the language-games concept. For Wittgenstein is dissolves the arguments between theists and atheists for example. It proposes that different forms of life are not in competition with each other. For Feyerabend it becomes the rallying cry for a revolutionary deconstruction of what he calls the propaganda of rationalism and reason. The individual should not let himself become absolutely dedicated to a particular programme, as no one programme can ‘truly’ or ‘fully’ describe the word. For Feyerabend one should explore all possibilities no matter how peculiar or seemingly contradictory, for in disbanding rationalism there is no peculiar and no negative implications in contradiction. Finally for pragmatic philosophers like Richard Rorty it becomes an exercise in Nietzschean re-creation to realize that our own worldviews (what he calls ‘final vocabularies’) are contingent. Once we have recognised this, then we can embark on a project of self-creation rather than attempting to provide explanations for the world around us and make them absolute (as has been done from Plato to Popper) one should create ones own descriptions of the world as we see it, pulling in elements from diverse systems to aid in our own project.

Early Wittgenstein pre-empts the Later Wittgenstein

Posted by on August 16th, 2007

There is a theory that the early Wittgenstein had provided a sophisticated and subtle defence of religion. Particularly individual and private religious experience.

6.522 There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.

The mystical is beyond words, quite probably ineffable. Wittgensteins theory of the mystical in the Tractatus is that the limits of what can be meaningfully said do not coincide with the limits of what can be thought. On the contrary there are things which ought not be said, or perhaps cannot be meaningfully said but which can nonetheless be shown or thought of, manifesting themselves in a non-linguistic manner.

Thus Wittgensteins view of religious experience, or personal (non-institutional) religion is very similar to the pragmatic approach of William James that concerns its analysis with “fruits not roots”.

The Tractatus explicitly rejects metaphysics as being meaningless. Wittgenstein consistently held this view, yet whilst defending the mystical which he insisted should remain unspoken of. The view of the Tractatus towards religion is that the more one attempts to elucidate religious/mystical experiences into words, the deeper one is entering into making metaphysical propositions, thus the more nonsense one is uttering.

The Logical Positivists, who were broadly speaking fans of the Tractatus, interpreted the anti-metaphysical nature of his work as the basis of an attack on religion. If religious doctrines are explained with reference to metaphysics, then non-empirical religious doctrines can be attacked as being meaningless and nonsensical. But Wittgensteins demarcation between the mystical (that can be known/shown but must remain unsaid) and the logical atomist approach that he championed (that what is said can be analytically de-constructed and atomic facts known) was actually an attempt to disengage from (for example) arguments concerning the existence/non-existence of God. Instead of attempting to solve the question he simply sidestepped it. The question is unresolved and dissolved. Because the experience of God is something that is mystical, something that cannot be spoken of, any attempt to prove or disprove God’s existence was equally meaningless and nonsense.

Wittgensteins theory on religion would appear to be very closely related to his personal experience. Religion is meaningful only in an existential way not in an intellectual way. Thus he attempts to shield it from the pitfalls of metaphysics (encouraging silence instead) and from the attacks of logical positivism.

The later Wittgenstein, as emerging from Philosophical Investigations maintains many of his earlier themes. Religion as an existential and private enterprise remains important to him, and likewise Metaphysics remains nonsense and should be discarded by Philosophy.

But the later Wittgenstein adds a technical distinction to the term nonsense, and seems to apply it towards metaphysics. Instead of nonsense, as in gobbledook or unintelligible rubbish, he begins to talk of non-sense as in not-sense. Here he begins to expound his language-games theory. Metaphysics instead of being meaningless nonsense, i.e. something that means nothing, becomes instead meaningful non-sense, i.e. something that means something outside of the sense language game.

Metaphysics is nonsense when judged by the criteria of the critico-rationalist language game. But it remains perfectly meaningful within the context of the metaphysics language game. The immunity from rational criticism that he once offered to mysticism now applies to other forms of language. The later Wittgenstein sought to analyse the content of these language games and no longer to judge their value. The key to this volte face is his rejection of the picture idea theory of words and his development of the ‘meaning=use’ theory. (More of which in the next post).