Meaning and use
Unfortunately the statement is not strictly accurate with regard to what the Viennese thinker actually wrote. Wittgenstein defines his notion of meaning in section 43 of the "Philosophical Investigations."
“Man kann für eine große Klasse von Fällen der Benützung des Wortes "Bedeutung"--wenn auch nicht für alle Fälle seiner Benützung--dieses Wort so erklären: Die Bedeutung eines Wortes ist sein Gebrauch in der Sprache.” (PU §43).
That is to say, according to Anscombe’s authorized translation (which is by no means flawless):
“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.” (PI §43).
Evidently the criterion of use (Benützung) does not apply to all cases. Yet Wittgenstein seems to think that the principle covers many instances, quite possibly the majority. Is this true?
Notoriously, Wittgenstein disliked reading. Probably subject to Asperger’s syndrome, he was a person of rather rudimentary general culture. In daily life he was incapable of meaningful dialogue with others, and was willfully ignorant of the great traditions of philosophy. He liked to boast that he had never read Aristotle. Today--or at least so one would hope--no graduate student in philosophy could get his degree without doing that. Reading Aristotle accurately, however, is quite another matter.
What are Wittgenstein’s qualifications for offering any sort of definitive statement on the nature of meaning? Very exiguous, I would say. He shows no sign of ever having read Charles Sanders Peirce or Ferdinand de Saussure, the founders of the modern discipline of semiotics. There he would have learned, for example, the fundamental difference between the diachronic and synchronic perspectives of language. To attend only to the current meaning of words is to restrict oneself to the synchronic (present) perspective. Most of us are aware of the fact that words have a diachronic or historical dimension, and many words retain, vestigially at least, associations derived from prior times. Thus a bachelor nowadays usually means an unmarried person. However, a bachelor of arts may be married or unmarried.
In England, where Wittgenstein resided for most of his adult life, C. K. Ogden and Ian Richards had popularized semiotics with their “Meaning of Meaning” (1923), which went into many editions. Apparently, Wittgenstein chose to ignore this book, even though Ogden had helped translate Wittgenstein's "Tractatus."
Evidently, Wittgenstein’s semiotic ukase was not well grounded.
A major problem with the use criterion is its populism. Any half-educated yahoo who can talk has the same vote in determining the meaning of words that an educated person has. This cannot be so. It is not only that we recognize that some have a better understanding of words than others, but we have dictionaries and grammars to stabilize the meanings of words, and to prevent them from being abducted by the ignorant and careless. It is no longer fashionable to say so, but there are many normative constraints on our use of language. We appeal to dictionaries, to teachers whose diction we admire, to the writings of authors noted for their careful style, and even--mirabile dictu--to logic. If we are alert, we learn from these sources--and not from the lowest common denominator of usage--to improve our speech and writing.
A valspeak person is reputed to have said “When I learned that it was going to be a bad hair day, I was totally devastated. I literally died.” In this example “totally” functions simply as an intensive; it should mean completely Moreover, the word “literally” cannot have the sense therein imputed to it, since the speaker was still living at the time of the utterance. These judgments remain true no matter how many people mangle those words by using them in the way that has been illustrated.
As a verb the word “jive” means to act or speak pretentiously and deceitfully. Confusingly, however, it is often relexified to take on the sense of “jibe,” to be in harmony or accord. The meanings of the two words are almost opposite.
To flaunt means to show off shamelessly, while to flout means to show scorn or contempt. They are commonly confused: “The quiz-show contestant liked to flout his knowledge.”
“Irregardless” is an old bugaboo of grammarians. Evidently many users think that it is an intensive form of “regardless.” However, the prefix ir- normally turns a word into its opposite, as in “irrespective.”
“Disinterested” means impartial, but is commonly understood to signify “uninterested.” Some grammarians have simply given in on this one.
Unchecked, the corruption of language leads to the corruption of thought. Wittgenstein, the great thinker (or so we are told), must be charged with collusion in this deleterious process because he offers no criterion for distinguishing usage from abusage. In his view “use” is king.
Labels: semiotics Wittgenstein