[lit-ideas] Re: Wittgenstein PI $A431 - "This is the king"

  • From: Robert.Paul@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx (Robert Paul)
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: 29 May 2004 22:39:23 PDT

NB: I've used [  ]s to indicate the symbol for 'section.' When I tried to use
that symbol, freelists.org replaced it dollar signs, etc. I hope the umlauts
make it through.

Phil asks: '...what is involved in an ostensive definition?'

Let me try to respond to this part of his thoroughgoing post, for he is right:
this passage is about the role of 'ostensive definitions' in language; about the
role of names (how names are used and learned); and is a continuation of the
discussion of how language is and isn't learned. It is _not_ about chess,
metaphors, or other tropes. (The discussion of how trying to solve problems by
appealing to ostensive definition leads to further problems begins in the Blue

Wittgenstein considers in the very first section of the Investigations a certain
view of how language is learned: it is Augustine's view (Confessions I.8), and
amounts to roughly this: as a child, one learns a language by observing and
listening to adults as they name, identify, and point out things that are open
to view. (Augustine's account would not seem to explain how we learn words like
'or,' 'hence,' 'maybe,' 'yesterday,' 'impossible' (and various other modal
terms), i.e., words that are not prima facie names, and do not have ostensible

Wittgenstein says of it: 'Augustine does not speak of there being any difference
between kinds of word. If you describe the learning of language in this way, you
are, I believe, thinking primarily of nouns like "table", "chair", "bread", and
of peoples names, and only secondarily of the names of certain actions and
properties; and of the remaining kinds of words as something that will take care
of itself [was sich finden wird].'

And later: 'Augustine, we might say, does describe a system of communication
[ein System der Verstandigung]; only not everything that we call language is
[such a] system...It is as if someone were to say: "A game consists in moving
objects about on a surface according to certain rules..."--and we replied: "You
seem to be thinking primarily of board games, but there are others. You can make
your definition correct by restricting it to those games.' [3]

He has just introduced [2] the famous example of the 'Builders,' whose only
words are 'block,' 'pillar,' 'slab,' and 'beam,' and whose form of life consists
entirely of fetching and carrying blocks and building with them. We are to
imagine this as 'a complete primitive language.' 'We could imagine [6] that the
language of [2] was the _whole_ language of a tribe...children are brought up to
perform _these_ actions (e.g. the builder's assistant fetches a block when the
Builder says, 'Block'), to use _these_ words as they do so, and to react in
_this_ way to the words of others. ... An important part of this training will
consist in the teacher's pointing to the objects, directing the child's
attention to them, and at the same time uttering a word; for instance, the word
"slab" as he points to that shape. (I do not want to call this "ostensive
definition", because the child cannot yet _ask_ what the name is. I will call it
"ostensive teaching of words" [hinweisendes Lehren der Worter].--I say that it
will form an important part of the training, because it is so with human beings,
not because it could not be imagined otherwise.'

'The child cannot yet ask...' This points the way to the discussion of ostensive
definition, which makes up an important part of [31]. An ostensive definition,
one might say, at first, makes sense only where one knows something about the
surroundings into which the definition is to 'fit.' 'What is this called?' and
'What is this?' presuppose that the answers to some earlier questions have been
answered--e.g. 'This controls the intensity of the light.' 'What's it called?'
'A rheostat.' (Next, I suppose, comes Quine, and his radical indeterminacy of
translation...) Answering this question is different from merely indicating an
object and saying, 'That's a rheostat,' or 'That's called a rheostat,' in the
absence of any particular setting.

Wittgenstein moves, in these very compressed initial sections, which I pass over
reluctantly, to the question [10] 'Now what do the words of this language
_signify_ [bezeichnen]?' The language here [8] is the language of the Builders 
modified to include words used as numbers would be used in counting, various
color words, and 'two words, which may as well be "there" and "this" (because
this roughly indicates their purpose).'

'What is supposed to show what they signify, if not the kind of use they have?
And we have already described that. So we are asking for the expression "This
word signifies _this_" to be made part of the description. In other words the
description ought to take the form "The word....signifies....".

He goes on to suggest that for all of the words in [8] 'assimilating their
descriptions [the descriptions of how they are used] in this way [by construing
them as signifying or referring] cannot make the uses themselves any more like
one another. For, as we see, they are absolutely unalike.'

[13] When we say: "Every word in language signifies something" we have so far
said _nothing whatsoever_; unless we have explained exactly _what_ distinction
we wish to make.'

I'll skip over the sections from here to [30]; the material is too dense and
suggestive; too filled with allusions and cross-allusions, with battles with
himself, with battles with Frege, and provide the bread for [31]s sandwich:

[30] 'So one might say: the ostensive definition explains the use--the
meaning--of the word when the overall role of the word in language is clear.
Thus if I know that someone means to explain a colour-word to me the ostensive
definition "That is called 'sepia' " will help me to understand the word.--and
you can say this, so long as you do not forget that all sorts of problems attach
to the words "to know" or "to be clear".

'One has already to know (or be able to do) something in order to be capable of
asking a thing's name. But what does one have to know?'

[32] 'Someone coming into a strange country will sometimes learn the language of
the inhabitants from ostensive definitions that they give him; and he will have
to _guess_ [shades of Quine!] the meaning of these definitions; and he will
guess sometimes right, sometimes wrong.

'And now, I think, we can say: Augustine describes the learning of human
language as if the child came into a strange country and did not understand
[that country's] language; that is, as if [the child] already had a language,
only not this one. Or as if the child could already _think_, only not yet speak.
[Cf. 342] And here "think" would mean something like "talk to itself".

I cannot see how this discussion of the role of naming, referring,
('signifying'), and its transition from simple language games to the whole of
language, a discussion which has as one of its aims pulling us away from the
Tractatus view that 'names' are fundamental to language, relates directly to the
notion of simple objects in the Tractatus. There may be such a relation, but I
fail to see it. I'll stop here, leaving that penultimate sentence open to
Richard's easy reply--which I hope won't be too easy, and which I look forward

Robert Paul
Reed College
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