Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Meaning and use

Sometimes we are told that Ludwig Wittgenstein held that “The meaning of a word is its use.” The Master has spoken: end of discussion.

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.



Blogger Burk said...

Hi, Dr. Dynes-

This is a tough issue. How do you benefit from the novelties of new coinages and evolution in language without also putting up with, as you call it, corruption? Casting the signifiers in stone is not going the retard changes in human thought -the zeitgeist- whether for good or for ill. Dictionaries, schooling, and nagging of various kinds serve to skew the process of change to more elitist-acceptable directions, but change happens in any case.

To put a positive gloss on it, perhaps Wittgenstein was not being populistic in this case, but referring to the quite rarified culture that he himself inhabited (Sprache is more inflected towards speech than writing). Or just referring reflexively to himself- whatever it was that he meant. Additionally, we can never write down all the meanings of a word or expression anyway-they will always overflow such containers. One of the most enjoyable aspects of writing (and blogging) is expressing oneself through a new usage or even a new word.

Indeed, it is the thought that is primary, and language its polymorphous vehicle. Meaning is what we mean, and it may take many different expressions and approaches through language and even non-written media to fully get a thought across. While it is great to have stable conventions of language to hand, their richness lies in part in their protean flexibility, as well as in their commonality and standardization. New thoughts sometimes require new language.

11:18 AM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

These points are well taken, Burk. In mentioning the diachronic dimension I did acknowledge (as who could not?) that language evolves. The important questions, though, are how it is to evolve, and at what rate? If the meaning of words changes too radically or too fast, communication will be impeded.

Hoi polloi influence on language we will always have with us, witness the abundant and vibrant history of slang. (I have contributed to the study of this with my Homolexis.) My belief, however, is that the language elites must exercise some brake on this development--otherwise confusion will ensue. Like it or not, there must be guardians of language. That means that not every user has an equal vote.

Sometimes of course the battle is lost. Or the arguments may be hard to arbitrate. Most educated speakers employ "presently" to mean "in a little while." Increasingly, though, it is being used to mean "right now," as in "I am presently writing these sentences." Many object to the latter usage; however, it has been documented since the fifteenth century.

11:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is true that Wittgenstein established "use determines meaning." But your sense of use seems emasculated, as if any use conveys meaning. It does not.

Two senses of "use" are entailed.
(1) the constitutive rules of grammar;
(2) the intentionality of the user.

Take for example, the claim that, "neurontin is an anti-seizure drug." It's not. Yet, I understood the user's intention, even if the constitutive rules of use require neurontin be classed as an "anti-convulsant."

Was the original claim false? False in that the wrong word was used, but not false in sense and meaning because I understood the user's intentions. The speaker could violate the "constitutive rules of use" and still his meaning could be understood by his secondary sense of "use" (his context and intention).

Like some stubborn individuals, when corrected, he refused to alter his speech to conform to "the constitutive rules of use." He still speaks of "anti-seizure" medications. Good luck finding an "anti-seizure" medication, because the class of drugs in reference are named "anti-convulsants."

He is abusing language, granted, but few fail to understand what he means, and few deny he's a stubborn asshole. Now, if he claimed "flurb is an anti-seizure drug," his intentions won't rescue him, because nonsense cannot be rescued by (1) reference, (2) sense, (3) use (a) constitutive rules, or (b) intentions.

11:53 AM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

Wittgenstein wrote nothing about "use" but rather commented on "Benützung." not the same thing. To attempt to clarify his dictum as if he thought and wrote in English is poor methodology.

Were he writing in English, he would have to confront (I would hope) the distinction between "use" and "usage."

12:43 PM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

To be sure, Wittgenstein's German sentence is well crafted. Twice he selects the word Benützung. Then he comments on the deployment (Gebrauch) of the word which has been selected (Benützt). This distinction is lost in the English trot.

12:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Perhaps you should translate Philosophical Investigations (now in its third edition) and have it published. While you are at it, revise and translate the Complete Works of Aristotle, and have it published.

Your scholarship is desperately needed to prevent the travesty going on in academia. All these scholars insisting on language functioning through "use" must be causing a mess.

Golly gee wiz, Elizabeth Anscombe who translated the first edition was a student of Ludwig's. But what does she know? Stupid broad, she only wrote her own contributions to philosophy, as did her husband Peter Geach. But your expertise would be a welcome change of pace. We could all "use" language as H. W. Fowler demands. Or we can "use" it as it is.

It's not coincidental that Bruce Diffey's novel based on LW is titled, The World As I Found It and not, "The World As I Demand It."

1:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Charles Travis of Northwestern University wrote The Uses of Sense: Wittgenstein's Philosophy of Language (Oxford, 1989). Who knows, it might help. Saul Kripke, A. J. Ayer, P. M. S. Hacker, David Stern, A. C. Grayling just to name a few philosophical wunderkind wrote extensively about Wittgenstein.

Ludwig may have been a borderline pscyhotic, but his writings have remained influential, perhaps too influential. Of the Above authors, David Stern's, Wittgenstein on Mind and Language (Oxford, 1995). Currently professor of philosophy at the University of Iowa, he was a grad student while I was taking seminars at Cal via Mills College. His book is by far the best, fully-developed account of LW. I recommend it highly.

2:13 PM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

Thanks, GS. Since I am currently underemployed I may just take you up on translating Aristotle and Wittgenstein.

For an interpretation of the passage in question, to the items you cited I prefer the monograph of Richard Raatzsch. A native speaker of German, Raatzsche faces none of the difficulties that have bedeviled W's Anglophone pedisequi, toiling away at their scholastic labyrinths based on a host of misinterpretations.

In his 2003 monograph, "Eigentlich Selsames: Wittgensteins Philosophische Untersuchungen, Band I, Einleitung und Kommentar PU 1-64," Raatzsch comments that Wittgenstein was never able to shake off the older referential theory of meaning (Gegendstandstheorie) ; the new Gebrauchstheorie (which the AS acolytes have naively sought to make absolute) supplants its predecessor only in part. R. supplies a number of parallel passages to demonstrate this point. Consequently, no unified structure emerges, and PU 43 instantiates no viable theory of meaning. And so Wittgenstein "established" precisely nothing in this regard.

Btw, watch it with terms like "broad." Your sexism is showing.

2:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I knew both Anscombe and Geach, and she knows of all men I am not a sexist. She also knows that 'broad' as used as I used it means "wide and expansive," perhaps you should re-read her seminal "Intentions." She knew mine. But I'm glad you fell into the trap. It sort of makes a point I wish were otherwise obvious.

5:53 PM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

Well, you could have fooled me.

6:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr and Mrs. Geach were highly influential "personal" mentors, nudging me ever closer to a conversion to Catholicism. They were frequent "visitors" to Cal during the 1970s, as were many other Catholics (e.g., Maritain, Gilson, et alia).

But after reading Peter's The Virtues (Cambridge UP, 1977) that summarized his lecture to Oxford's Blackfriar's on ethics, I came to regard even analytic Catholicism as a species of casuistry that Blaise Pascal documents in his Provincial Letters. Geach kept insisting I keep his audience in mind. (What am I? Chopped liver?)

Of course, the "three theological virtues" of Faith, Hope, and Charity are not Aristotle's, but Aquinas's, but when he appeals to the sophistry of dissimulation as not "bearing false witness," That singular sophistry was do disagreeable, any hope of being authentic under the Catholic umbrella -- however wide its circumference -- was simply impossible.

Yet, I still regard these two individuals with great affection, and I wish I had visited them in U.K. They were the emblem of "hospitality."

12:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In philosophy, individuals with a "direct acquaintance" with thinkers hold a privileged place, not because of privilege, but because of "acquaintance." Ms. Anscombe had those privileges in spades. Acquaintance counts when someone makes a claim, not simply the "use of words," but what someone meant. Ms. Anscombe -- like Antony Kenny, A. C. Grayling, et alia, -- knew L.W. personally, had informal seminars, and understood his meanings however broken in English they may have been. Thus, acquaintance counts, in which unfamiliarity does not.

1:26 PM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

Yes, I often look back on my German Jewish mentors at NYU, who rank among the most brilliant people I ever hope to know. Yet eventually I digested what they had to offer, and moved on.

I did learn German in their honor, though.

6:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In 1973 for a rhetoric class I found these two quotations (rendered in English, with the translations verified by respective speakers:)

Josef Stalin (1941): "The purpose of the State is to ameliorate the human condition."

Pope Paul VI (1968): "The purpose of the State is to improve the human condition."

Same words. Same meaning? NO. The "use" determined different meanings. By YOUR logic, Stalin and Paul VI were "comrades."

1:40 PM  
Blogger Burk said...

Gosh- I'd say their meaning was precisely the same. It is just their level of sincerity that may have been different. But I really wouldn't know. When Popes had a states, they did precious little to improve the human condition.

2:05 PM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

I agree with Burk. If there is any difference in these utterances by two authoritarians, it may be glossed by the concluding sentence in PU 43: "Und die Bedeutung eines Namens erklaert man manchmal dadurch, dass man auf seine T r a e g e r zeigt." In this case it is not a name, but the identity of the bearer(s) osr emitter that is significant.

All these attempts to tease a general theory of semiosis out of a few scraps of Wittgenstein are doomed to fail. What is needed is a broader theory making use of the contributions of linguistics over the last 150 years.

Those who work with language usually distinguish between "use" and "usage." When the Wittgensteinians say use they seem to mean usage--but it is hard to tell. In any case this persiflage yields no enlightenment. It's ditching time!

4:30 PM  

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