6.07.2002

[43,44,45,46] These remarks continue Wittgenstein's inquiry into the sources of meaning. 43 sets out the claim that in the largest class of cases, "the meaning of a word is its use in the language." We would no doubt rewrite this to say "uses in language." But meaning can arise differently. "And the meaning of a name is sometimes explained by pointing to its bearer." Ostensive defining is way for a word -- a name -- to gain meaning. In 44, this act of ostensive defining is carried into a language-game where a name is "used in the absence of its bearer." Here the example "Excalibur has a sharp blade" is used as illustration. A word to object relation is not necessary for an act of ostensive defining to be successful. At the same time, we could imagine, as do Logical Positivists/Empiricists, a language-game where names are used only in the presence of the bearer/object. We would make a mistake if we would contend that this is all there is to language and meaning, however. Along this line, Wittgenstein looks at the unique instance of the demonstrative "this." I wonder if Wittgenstein raises this example to show just how limited the Positivist view of language and reality really is. Here is the one instance -- when this one word is used -- where their theory of meaning is correct.

Just when you begin to think that Wittgenstein could never sound like an academic philosopher, he comes along with remark 46. The effect, however, is profound. Philosophers in the tradition of Socrates, Russell, and the early Wittgenstein, sought to demystify language, reality, and the relation between language and reality, by reductionism. Language is reduced to nouns; reality is reduced to irreducible simples; and their relation is naming. Wittgenstein asks, "What lies behind the idea that names really signify simples?" A desire by philosophy to disenchant? Philosophy's self-image as the embodiment of true science? A general, human hope to achieve certitude by eliminating (conceptually) contingency? Can we really compare Socrates with the ambitions of professional twentieth century philosophers? Do "primary elements" really exist? Do we need to redefine atoms since we have the technological ability to split them?

Of the latter two questions, Wittgenstein responds in 47 by asserting, "'Simple means: not composite." This is a rich remark. Let me try to pull it apart, and then I'll wait for your reading. Wittgenstein opens 47 with a phenomenological question: "[W]hat are the simple constituent parts of which reality is composed?" Can we get to these simple things themselves?, as Kant might have asked. Can we talk of simples apart from composites? That is, can we talk about the elements composing a chair without talking about the chair?

Wittgenstein makes two main points in response to this question of whether we can see simples apart from composites. The first point is that we need to be aware of where we stand when we ask the question and look to distinguish simples from composites. These relations are going to be different from language-game to language-game. In one language-game, a chessboard is absolutely composite. In another language-game, we might at least wish to question is a chessboard is essentially composite. Wittgenstein notes, "Asking "Is this object composite?" outside a particular language-game is like what a boy once did, who had to say whether the verbs in certain sentences were in the active or passive voice, and who racked his brains over the question whether the verb "to sleep" meant something active or passive." This is a neat example.

The second point is a rejection of the philosophical essentialism that is expressed in "What is...?" questions, when these questions are asked in the language-game of philosophy? Now we see the real point to the question asked in 46: "What lies behind the idea that names really signify simples?" The answer is a desire by philosophers to reduce the world to the philosophical language-game.

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