Sunday, January 14, 2007

Meaning is use

Although the idea that meaning is use is often attributed to him, Wittgenstein never said that meaning is use. The closest he seems to come to saying that (based on my cursory knowledge of Wittgenstein, reading other things and poking around the internet) is from PI 43: "For a large class of cases — though not for all — in which we employ the word ‘meaning’ it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language." Wittgenstein here denies the idea that the meaning of all words can be given in terms of their use. He isn't quite nice enough to say which class of words has meanings that cannot be defined in terms of use. Most philosophers that apply the 'meaning is use' slogan to the whole of semantics seem to think that all words can be explained in that way. Is this a case where people were just inspired to grander things by a qualified statement? Or, are there reasons to think that Wittgenstein, by his own lights should have dropped the qualification and said that all meaning is so explainable?


Jennifer said...

I think Wittgenstein assumes the unqualified version in the Blue and Brown Books, e.g. "We are inclined to forget that it is the particular use of a word only which gives the word its meaning. . . . The use of the word in practice is its meaning" (69); "The meaning of the expression depends entirely on how we go on using it" (73), etc. But it would seem odd for someone to treat Blue and Brown Books as representative of his mature thought; he later threw out many of the views expressed therein.

I've always wondered what he had in mind as possible exceptions.

Shawn said...

Interesting. Thank you for pointing out the material from the Blue and Brown Books. I read those and it completely slipped under my radar. Comparing those quotes and the PI material will be a future post topic.

I don't think that the people that use the phrase "meaning is use" are referring to the Blue book material. I think they are referring to the PI material and just deleting the qualification (maybe what they think he should have said). It is somewhat murky.

R. Daniel said...

I have always read that qualification as pointing, not to a class of words and other features of language whose meaning is not exhausted by their use, but simply to other senses of (i.e. ways of using) 'mean[ing]' in ordinary language -- a familiar source of confusion, which Paul Grice among others has tried to sort out.