[lit-ideas] Re: Witters & Sons - does meaning equal use? This means?
- From: "Donal McEvoy" <dmarc-noreply@xxxxxxxxxxxxx> (Redacted sender "donalmcevoyuk" for DMARC)
- To: "lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx" <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Mon, 20 Feb 2017 22:01:09 +0000 (UTC)
My comment below on PI 43 begins an examination of the point of W's writing
that suggests that W's central point is how meaning is shown and not expressed.
Let's consider a few things W writes, and their likely point.
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.
And the meaning of a name is sometimes explained by pointing to its
This is a rather different 'thesis' (if it may be referred to as a 'thesis' at
all) to saying 'meaning = usage'. And also different to 'meaning = use' (if a
distinction between 'use' and 'usage' were thought important in this regard).>
In my view, once we see this saying-showing as fundamental we will see how it
resurfaces time and again throughout every aspect of PI and is central to every
It is the only interpretation that does proper justice to what W writes in the
"After several unsuccessful attempts to weld my results together into
such a whole, I realized that I should never succeed. The best that I
could write would never be more than philosophical remarks; my
thoughts were soon crippled if I tried to force them on in any single
direction against their natural inclination.——And this was, of course,
connected with the very nature of the investigation. For this compels
us to travel over a wide field of thought criss-cross in every direction.—
The philosophical remarks in this book are, as it were, a number of
sketches of landscapes which were made in the course of these long
and involved journeyings.
The same or almost the same points were always being approached
afresh from different directions, and new sketches made."
Comment: the "same or almost the same points" are points showing the difference
between the meaning as shown and meaning as what seems expressed.
For W, we fall into a trap of thinking the meaning is expressed in the
language used, but this 'picture' while harmless enough in some ways, will lead
us badly astray when we try to develop a 'theory of meaning' from within this
trap. The reason there cannot be a "single direction" to his thoughts is
because there is no single way meaning is shown. W wants to show his pov by way
of wide survey of a "wide field of thought criss-cross in every direction", but
again and again the survey will reveal how the meaning of language 'is not
contained within its expression' (whatever that might mean) but is shown in
Hence perhaps the 'meaning' of roadsigns in a society that uses them to
navigate when driving cars will be different to their 'meaning' in a carless
society after a nuclear war where they are treated as remnants of a previous
civilisation [as a kind of historical artifact] and different again to their
'meaning' in a society with computer-driven cars that do not depend on the
roadsigns but where the roadsigns are kept for reasons of quaint nostalgia
(like keeping red phone boxes after no working phones are kept in them). (Or
something like that.) The 'meaning' of "e=mc2" as a meme in popular culture
[e.g. the song of that title by 'Big Audio Dynamite'] may be very different
from its 'meaning' in terms of a physics' paper drawing out its theoretical
"Even more than to this—always certain and forcible—
criticism I am indebted to that which a teacher of this university,
Mr. P. Sraffa, for many years unceasingly practised on my thoughts.
I am indebted to this stimulus for the most consequential ideas of this
Here, in the Preface, is a nod and a wink to the 'showing v saying' pov that
underpins PI - as the story of Sraffa's 'Neopolitan gesture' shows [a gesture
where the sense of this gesture is shown in a way that we can hardly say it is
said in linguistic terms].
"Four years ago I had occasion to re-read my first book (the Tractatus
Logico-Philosophicus) and to explain its ideas to someone. It
suddenly seemed to me that I should publish those old thoughts and
the new ones together: that the latter could be seen in the right light
only by contrast with and against the background of my old way of
Here, in the Preface, we have a passage that makes most sense when we
understand how a showing-saying distinction supplies the fundamental point of
continuity between earlier and later "thoughts", and how the earlier might have
to understood first in order to grasp that what W is doing in PI is 'showing
rather than saying' (remember: every 'pseudo-proposition' in TLP says nothing
with sense but instead shows the truth).
We can then turn to understanding a passage like that at PI 43.
Take the observation:
"And the meaning of a name is sometimes explained by pointing to its
A key word here is "explained", and this is qualified by "sometimes": what this
means, when we understand W's fundamental pov, is that the meaning of a name is
sometimes shown by pointing to its bearer. In this simple observation we have a
condensed expression of W's fundamental pov in PI: he is not saying the meaning
of a name is expressed by its bearer or by the name itself, and he is not
suggesting that the name acquires its meaning because of its relation to its
bearer (or vice versa). Rather we learn the names of things, and so learn a
relation between name and bearer in terms of meaning, but this relation is not
constituted by anything over and above the learning involved.
Among the ways we learn is by someone "pointing to its bearer" to explain the
meaning: but of course we might infer the meaning without such explanation. The
fundamental thing to realise is that in the learning process we are not looking
for any kind of relationship between name and bearer other than their
relationship in terms of 'meaning', and that 'meaning' in these terms is matter
of what is learnt and teachable. In understanding this, we see the contrast
with the view of names in TLP, and with the TLP view that names acquire their
meaning by virtue of standing in some underlying symmetrical structural
relation to their bearers [i.e. the objects they name].
W does not offer this later view as something difficult to understand, but he
offers it as something philosophers are wont to overlook. By these observations
and remarks he brings the notion of meaning 'down to earth' by asking us to
consider how meaning is established in case after case. He seeks to show that
in this process, of learning and teaching, meaning is something shown rather
The wider philosophical consequences of this view are not very explicitly drawn
in PI but may be drawn as there implicitly: but, before understanding any wider
consequences, we should get clear W's account of the many ways meaning may be
So, yes, if saying-showing was a turtle then, in terms of meaning, the PI
maintains that it's turtles all the way down.
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- » [lit-ideas] Re: Witters & Sons - does meaning equal use? This means? - Donal McEvoy