Thursday, September 10, 2009

Perils of mantra severing

The previous posting dealt with one serious consequence of the proliferation of the "meaning = use" formula ascribed to Ludwig Wittgenstein. Were we speaking of music, this pitfall might be termed the “bang on a can” approach. That is to say, anyone’s usage is as good as anybody else’s, and since careless, sloppy users are in the majority, why shouldn’t their practice be paramount in determining meaning?

Some decades ago this populist temptation gave rise to the “ordinary language” trend in analytic philosophy. To be sure, the arcane discussions generated by attention to PI 43 and cognate passages were scarcely couched in ordinary language.

Wittgenstein’s later philosophy, as seen in the “Philosophical Investigations"[PI], was essentially a reconsideration--and partial refutation--of the approach he espoused in his first book, the “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.” In his early days Wittgenstein could be called an artificial-language philosopher in the vein of Russell, Frege, and the Vienna Circle. His “Tractatus” posited an ideal language built up from atomic statements using logical connectives. Over time, however, he came to appreciate more and more the phenomenon of natural language. “Philosophical Investigations," published after his death, signaled a sharp departure from his earlier approach--a turn of 180 degrees--in part because of his perceived focus upon ordinary-language use.

As we have seen, his followers tend to compress this focus into a mantra extracted from PI 43, “the meaning of a word is its use in the language.” Yet this mantra has been severed from its context, yielding a crucial distortion, as one can see from the key passage (I quote the authorized translation): “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.”

As the passage shows, the mantra applies to only one class of cases, a large one to be sure. However--and this point must be emphatically underlined--Wittgenstein allows that there are other classes that are unspecified. If one honestly confronts this pluralism, one must needs refrain from erecting a theory that universalizes a particular class. Yet the acolytes have been undeterred. It is as if one said “A large class of insects consists of beetles (more than fifty percent of known species). Therefore we will formulate a theory of insects based exclusively on beetles.”

Wittgenstein’s followers forged ahead on their faulty holistic premise. For a time, the attention to natural language triggered by this simplification proved to be an influential philosophical technique. A whole string of analytic thinkers, highly regarded within the precincts of academic philosophy but largely ignored elsewhere, have followed this trend. These include P. F. Strawson, Paul Grice, R. M. Hare, R. S. Peters, and Jürgen Habermas.

Ostensibly, past philosophers had understood reference to be tied to words themselves. In his influential essay, “On Referring,” Peter Strawson took issue with this view. He argued that there is nothing true about statements on their own; rather, only the uses of statements could be considered to be true or false.

One of the hallmarks of the ordinary-use perspective is its insistence on the distinction between meaning and use. For ordinary-language philosophers, "meanings" are the instructions for the deployment of words. By contrast, usage comprises the actual meanings that individual speakers entertain, the things that an individual speaker in a particular context wants to refer to. Taken in and of itself the word "dog" is an example of a meaning, but pointing at a nearby dog and exclaiming "This dog smells bad!" is an example of usage.

Paul Grice, a philosopher working within the ordinary-language tradition, understood "meaning"--in his 1957 article of that title--to comprise two kinds: natural and non-natural. Natural meaning had to do with cause and effect, for example with the expression "these spots mean measles." Non-natural meaning, on the other hand, had to do with the intentions of the speaker in communicating something to the listener.
Grice’s work engendered a considerable body of research and interest in the field, both supportive and critical. One spinoff was called Relevance Theory, developed by Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson during the mid-1980s. Similarly, in his work, "Universal pragmatics,” Jurgen Habermas began a program that sought to improve upon the work of the ordinary language tradition. In it, he set forth the goal of a valid conversation as a pursuit of mutual understanding.

Even such a brief account suggests the fertility, or apparent fertility of the ordinary-language trend during its heyday. As such, these contributions certainly give abundant evidence of diligence. However, the authors are not diligent enough, because as a rule they fail to notice that in PI 43 Wittgenstein acknowledges that the criterion he is putting forth does not suffice to explain all cases.

Let us recall, once more, Wittgenstein’s actual formulation. “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).

As the passage shows, the criterion of use (Gebrauch) applies to many cases (“a large class”). Yet Wittgenstein is careful to stipulate that it does not apply to all. There are other classes of cases, unstated to be sure, in which it does not apply. Therefore Wittgenstein is not proposing a theory that would be universally applicable. His idea covers only s o m e instances. Yet most ordinary-language philosophers have chosen to ignore this caveat of the master. I grant that they may take the discussion of language and meaning in any direction they choose. Nonetheless, they are not entitled to fob their dogmatism off onto the person of Wittgenstein himself. Wittgenstein was not dogmatic in this regard.

To restate the case once more, it follows that no satisfactory general theory can be erected on the basis of the false claim that the Gebrauchstheorie (encapsulated in the truncation “the meaning of a word is its use in the language”) has universal applicability.

In fact the meaning of words is determined by many factors, including etymology, structural relations between words, the performance of exemplary speakers and writers, professional cadres with their terms of art, logic, and common sense. In discussing “meaning” there is no silver bullet.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I fully agree with your observations. But you still fail to identify what "use" is. Is use meaning? LW can be read to suggest that, and David Stern thinks this is LW's final belief.

But that is false, in ordinary language -- or natural language -- philosophy. Use has two meanings:

(1) the constitutive rules of grammar;
(2) the intentionality of the user.

By these "uses" the meaning is determined, which is why the phrase "use determines meaning" is the proper direction of fit, not the reverse, that meaning determines use.

With the latter, one gets abject relativism if not a private language. I think when you reflect on the proper direction of fit, that use determines meaning (not meaning determines use), you'll also see that two senses of "use" are entailed, not one.

Thanks for the good word in favor of Paul Grice, one of my favorite teachers.

10:06 AM  
Blogger Burk said...

Hi, Dr. Dynes-

Perhaps it is worthwhile introducing reflexivity at this point. That, like in evolution and economics, language and meaning constitute a back and forth between what we understand others to mean in their usage, and what we seek to mean in our use. The original contribution at any stage in this cycle is quite small, amounting to serendipitous misunderstandings and bendings of rules. Mutations, as it were.

Many horribly complicated topics in science have turned out to be complicated because they have no neat A -> B structure, but involve circular processes that give feedback or other mutual influences that render the whole question of causation or first-ism rather moot.

What came first, the chicken or the egg? Supply or demand? Form or function? Voltage or current? Language presents our best shot at freezing meaning, until we come up with new language or other modes of discourse. That is doubtless why some philosophers despaired of using language at all and tried to use math and logic alone, as the most crystalline language which encompasses exceedingly little of what humans ever mean.

Delightful posts!

5:12 PM  

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