Philosopher Stephen Law examines how words get their meanings. He says that when I say “It is hot today”, it is at one level just a process by which sounds are articulated. A parrot saying the same thing is also just a process. But the difference is that when I say it, I am conveying meaning in a way that a parrot is not. From whence does this meaning arise? Law says that Ludwig Wittgenstein took a different view of this question than John Locke (1632-1704)
On Locke’s view, the mind is like a container. At birth, the container is empty, but our senses soon begin to furnish it with Ideas. We acquire simple Ideas, such as of the colour red. Simple Ideas constitute the basic building blocks of thought. We can then form more complex ideas by combining our simple ideas together. For example, I can combine my idea of white, round, solid and so on to form the idea of a snowball.
How, according to Locke, am I able to understand a word and apply it correctly? Suppose someone asks me to pick a red flower from a vase of coloured blooms. How am I to know to which flowers ‘red’ applies? On Locke’s view, on hearing ‘red’, I rummage through my memory – which Locke thinks of as a ‘storehouse of our Ideas’ – to find the Idea I previously learnt was correlated with ‘red’. This retrieved Idea then provides me with a sample of ‘red’ – a mental image – with which I can compare the flowers in front of me until I get a match.
In short: when we start to think about meaning and understanding, we’re easily drawn towards a picture of them as private accompaniments to our public use of language. It’s a picture that Wittgenstein rejects. On his view, meaning resides entirely in the public use we make of language, not in any such private accompaniments.
Wittgenstein argues against this idea for several reasons, one of which is that it involves circular reasoning.
If I’m able to pick a red flower only by pulling out my internal mental sample of red and comparing the flowers with it, then how am I able to identify the correct mental sample? At this point, we’re presupposing the very ability we’re trying to explain – the ability to pick out ‘red’ things.
The problem with the suggestion that I can ‘look up’ the meaning of ‘red’ by rummaging through my storehouse of Ideas to find the relevant private mental sample is that such samples aren’t objective. Just like a pain, a mental image of red can’t exist unexperienced. So, when later I want to know what ‘red’ means, I need already to know what ‘red’ means in order to conjure up the correct mental image.
Law says that Wittgenstein said that meaning does not reside in some private inner realm but in the public use of words.
On Wittgenstein’s view, the relevant differences reside, not in any private accompaniments to my public saying, but in what we’re able publicly to do. I possess a wide range of abilities that manifest my grasp of what I mean. For example, I can explain what must be the case for the sentence to be true. I can explain what the word ‘hot’ means by pointing to examples or by using other words. And I can successfully combine the words ‘hot’ and ‘today’ in other sentences. A parrot can do none of these things.
The revolution in thinking about meaning to be found in Wittgenstein’s later work lies in this shift in focus from private inner accompaniments to what’s publicly observable. Meaning and understanding reside, not in some mysterious private realm, but entirely in the public domain. On Wittgenstein’s view, to grasp the meaning of a word is not to have associated it with some private inner object but, roughly, to know how it’s used.
Wittgenstein’s emphasis on the importance of how language is used in constructing meaning was discussed in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (pages 44-45).
What need we know, Wittgenstein asked, in order that we can apply terms like ‘chair,’ or ‘leaf,’ or ‘game’ unequivocally and without provoking argument?
That question is very old and has generally been answered by saying that we must know, consciously or intuitively, what a chair, or a leaf, or a game is. We must, that is, grasp some set of attributes that all games and that only games have in common. Wittgenstein, however, concluded that, given the way we use language and the sort of world to which we apply it, there need be no such set of characteristics. Though a discussion of some of the attributes shared by a number of games or chairs or leaves often helps us learn how to employ the corresponding term, there is no set of characteristics that is simultaneously applicable to all members of a class and to them alone. Instead, confronted with a previously unobserved activity, we apply the term ‘game’ because what we are seeing bears a close “family resemblance” to a number of the activities that we have previously learned to call by that name. For Wittgenstein, in short, games, and chairs, and leaves are natural families, each constituted by a network of overlapping and crisscross resemblances. (Emphasis in original)
Trying to define anything by means of listing necessary and sufficient conditions, while seemingly rigorous, turns out to be highly problematic, even impossible, in practice. The idea of family resemblances seems vaguer but more realistic.
Wittgenstein’s thinking strikes me as similar to that of Saussure’s who proposed that words themselves were arbitrary and that they only acquired meaning through usage among a group of people.
A friend of mine had a parrot that would loudly say “Bad!” just before doing something that wasn’t allowed. (A thing it did frequently.) I suspect it knew what it was doing; it used the word for a large set of misbehaviors that had enough family resemblance (as Kuhn might say) for the parrot to recognize.
WMDKitty -- Survivor says
A word isn’t just a collection of sounds, it’s also the thoughts and feelings we’ve attached to that collection of sounds.
A neat rebuttal to the endless, tedious transphobic demands to, “Define woman!”. Where was this guy when I was trying to get the same idea through to the blog’s resident transphobes?
Wittgenstein says trans rights! 😉
consciousness razor says
It’s not clear how “meaning is use” avoids the same kind of circularity. With a minor change to the quote from Law, here we go again:
“How am I able to identify the correct use? At this point, we’re presupposing the very ability we’re trying to explain – the ability to use the ‘red’ term for red things.”
No, we’re presupposing that humans can learn and retain information, without necessarily having to consciously retrieve that information. But I love that this was italicised, it reminds me of those people that think it deep to mention something like “the brain is an entity that can like, comprehend itself, man!” *bong hit*
Yes, we retrieve our memory of redness from prior experience, and whether our interpretation of redness was encouraged or discouraged by social cues from other people that may have been present. For example, I might look at a sunset and call it red, and the people with me might agree, reinforcing my association of the word to the concept. Or perhaps someone was playing with toy cars as a toddler, and be told that the fire engine is “the red one” by the parent or whoever. If the child reaches for the wrong one, the person might correct them with “no that’s green, silly. I mean this one” while pointing.
We see the importance of retrieval of prior experience of redness when trying to describe it to someone that has never had sight in their lives. There’s no point describing red as “like orange, but darker” or “in between orange and brown” when all of those are things that have not been experienced by that person.
These are not incompatible. I know what redness is, because I recall times others have use it, or I have used it, and the constructive or destructive reinforcement from other people present at the time. I have experience of its use, which leads to an internal conceptualisation of what it is, at least according to the conventions of this language. Word meaning is both determined by common use of our language peers, and also understood as a concept.
We can see that this also leads to differences in understanding of a word/concept. If we asked different people what termperature a day must be in order to be described as cold, we would see variations in the answer depending on the region we grew up in. I, an Australian, might say that a day is cold if it does not reach 10 C, and a Canadian would probably scoff. And then if asked what constitutes a hot day, the Canadian might give a temperature that makes me scoff. We learned those words in our different learning environments, so we both have a slightly different conceptualisation of what cold is -- where the temperature must be in order to qualify as cold -- while we also know how to use the word, and that it means the opposite of hot and so forth.
And so I agree with Locke’s view as presented here (acquire and retain words as ideas), and Wittgenstein’s (we learn how words are deployed in conversation from our peers). They are compatible, and I just can’t see how Wittgenstein didn’t see this.
John Morales says
Bah. At the bottom, meaning is shared understanding.
The meaning of words depends on in what context they are used and how we have learned to use the words. The meaning of words is culturally determined -- and the same word can mean different things to different groups of people and at different times.
This is pretty much the essence of structuralism.
There are still a surprising number of people who think that words have an essential meaning. Less surprisingly they usually believe that they are the people who know what the word “really means”.