[lit-ideas] Wittgenstein's Slabs

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  • Date: Sun, 29 Nov 2015 08:16:59 -0500

Since we are moving away from Sraffa's gesture, we might just as well
change the subject line!

In a message dated 11/28/2015 1:10:58 P.M. Eastern Standard Time,
donalmcevoyuk@xxxxxxxxxxx writes:
Why should this be so? When the later W turned away from the kind of
"logical atomism" of the TLP he also turned away from thinking sense must be
determined by compositional units.

For the record, the passage by Grice I was thinking about, from "Meaning

"In some cases, the artificial communication devices might have certain
other features too, over and above the one of being artificial: they might,
for example, involve a finite number of fundamental, focal, elementary, root
devices, and a finite set of modes or forms of combination (combinatory
operations, if you like) which are capable of being used over and over
again. In these cases, the creatures will have, or be near to having, what
some people thought to be characteristic of a language: namely: a communication
system with a finite set of initial devices, together with semantic
provisions for them, and a finite set of different syntactic operations or
combinations, and an understanding of what the functions of those modes of
combination are. As a result, they can generate an INFINITE number of sentences
or complex communication devices, together with a correspondingly
infinite set of things to be communicated, as it were. So, by proceeding in
teleological kind of way, we seem to have provided some provided some
rationale for the kind of characterization of speaker's meaning which I went
long ago, and also for the characterization of various kinds of
communication systems, culminating in things which have features which are
supposed (more or less correctly, I would imagine) to be the features of a
fully developed language."

It may do to compare ways in which Witters diverges from this view. His
example of "Slab", which is I think incorporated in a play by Stoppard, may



-- Witters invites us to consider this. But what about this: is the call
"Slab!" a sentence or a word?--- If a word, surely it has not the same
meaning as the like-sounding word of our ordinary language, for in (2) it is a

call. But if a sentence, it is surely not the elliptical sentence: "Slab!"
of our language.

As far as the first question goes you can call "Slab!" a word and also a
sentence; perhaps it could be appropriately called a 'degenerate sentence'
(as one speaks of a degenerate hyperbola); in fact it is our 'elliptical'
sentence.---But that is surely only a shortened form of sentence "Bring me a
slab", and there is no such sentence. But why should I not on contrary
have called the sentence "Bring me a slab" a lengthening of the sentence
"Slab!"?--- Even in English it is biased to say that "Slab!" is an elliptical
form of "Bring me a slab." If we began by learning the command "slab!" (and
maybe we did), then wouldn't "Bring be slab!" be a lengthened form of

Because if you shout "Slab!" you really mean: "Bring me a slab".--- Here
is Witters's aporetic voice. Let's unpack what we mean by "really mean."
But how do you do this: how do you mean that while you say "Slab!"? Do you
say the unshortened sentence to yourself? And why should I translate the call
"Slab!" into a different expression in order to say what someone means by
it? And if they mean the same thing---why should I not say: "When he says
'Slab!'"? Again, if you can mean "Bring me the slab", why should you not be
able to mean "Slab!"? -----But when I call "Slab!", then what I want is
that he should bring me a slab!Certainly, but does 'wanting this' consist in
thinking in some from or other a different sentence from the one you utter?
And here are some observations that are meant to shed clarifying light: How
do you have this other meaning "Bring me a slab!" going on? In what way
is this what we really mean? We don't say "Bring me a slab!" to ourselves
while we say "Slab!" Why not say that "Bring me a slab!" really means
"Slab!" This notion "really mean" is confusing here. We do not "really mean"
particular sentence in this case. Or, we might just as well say that we
really mean "slab!" as to say that we really mean "Bring me a slab!"

But now it looks as if when someone says "Bring me a slab" he could mean
this expression as one long word corresponding to the single word "Slab!"
----Then can one mean it sometimes as one word and sometimes as four? And can
one mean it sometimes as one word and sometimes as four? And how does one
usually mean it? And, when a person says "Bring me a slab!" it is not the
same as if a peson said "bring-me-a-slab!" as if it were just one word.
What is wrong with our analysis here? When is "Bring me a slab!" four words
and when is it one? I think we shall be inclined to say: we mean the sentence
as four words when we use it in contrast with other sentences such as
"Hand me a slab", "Bring him a slab". "Bring two slabs", etc.; that is, in
contrast with sentences containing the separate words of our command in other
combinations.----- When we have a variety of sentences that use most of the
same words but are variations on a theme, then we will say that the
sentence has four words.

But what does using one sentence in contrast with others consist in? Do the
others, perhaps, hover before one's mind? All of them? And while one is
saying the one sentence, or before, or afterwards? No. Even if such an
explanation rather tempts us, we need only think for a moment of what actually
happens in order to see that we are going astray here. We say that we use the
command in contrast with other sentences because our language contains the
possibility of those other sentences. Someone who did not understand our
language, a foreigner, who had fairly often heard someone giving the order:
"Bring me a slab!", might believe that this whole series of sounds was one
word corresponding perhaps to the word for "building-stone" in his
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