In philosophy, the issue of meaning is a classical problem and in the re-structuring of academic philosophy in contemporary times, this issue has been assigned to philosophy of language. The development of philosophic thoughts in historic time saw how the issue of meaning has been approached from the time of Plato and Aristotle to the contemporary period. Although we can say that more recent approaches have been proposed by philosophical theories of post-modern (or post-structural) era, the concern of this presentation specifically focuses on the significance of the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s contribution to the age-long discussions of this issue. An evaluation of what has occurred through time as philosophers continue to deal with the issue of meaning places the achievement of Wittgenstein over and above his predecessors and contemporaries. It could even be reasonably said that such an uncontested achievement of a single philosophical genius beyond his lifetime has been used not only as a take-off point but even as a solid bridge to inaugurate the forms and concerns of what we now call post-modern philosophy. Others may be critical of this view, believing that the developments of post-modern thoughts in contemporary philosophy were ushered into the intellectual and scholarly scene independent of Wittgenstein. But a careful and serious reading of Wittgenstein’s post-Tractatus writings (mostly post-humously published) will tell us that as early as that period, Wittgenstein’s thoughts had already been pregnant with “post-modern” tendencies and ideas. So that, at this point, we could simply say that Wittgenstein was in a way and in his own right a prophet of what would soon come up in the realm of contemporary philosophy.
The Problem of Meaning in the Pre-Wittgenstein History of Philosophy
A. Plato and Aristotle’s Theory of Meaning
Both Plato and Aristotle held the referential theory of meaning. By this theory, we mean that the meaning of a word is found in what the word refers to. As far as Plato was concerned, he proposed that words function like proper names. So that even if a word is what we grammatically call a common name, its meaning must be found in the referent which it is supposed to name. For example, the word “chair” in grammar is a common name but its supposed referent that gives it meaning is not just any chair in particular; the referent that grants it meaning is the perfect, ideal “chair” that can only be found in the Realm of Universals. However, in Aristotle’s view, the same word is meaningful because it refers to all the chairs that may be found in the world. It is common knowledge among students of philosophy that Aristotle didn’t quite bite the idea of Plato’s Realm of Universals as it is advanced in the latter’s Theory of Forms.
In passing, we can say that the referential theory of meaning has some real practical value in the casual affairs of life. A human child starts to learn the language of his/her people by way of the referential method wherein the meaning of a word is known by pointing to the thing or object that it refers to. The meaning that is known by this manner is called ostensive definition. Bertrand Russell explains,
“Ostensive definition” may be defined as “any process by which a person is taught to understand a word otherwise than by the use of other words.”…
Ostensive definition, in its earliest form, requires certain conditions. There must be a feature of the environment which is noticeable, distinctive, emotionally interesting and (as a rule) frequently recurring, and the adult must frequently utter the name of this feature at a moment
when the infant is attending to it. Of course there are risks of error….
In general, though not universally, repetition is necessary for an ostensive definition, for ostensive definition consists in the creation of a habit, and habits, as a rule, are learned gradually…(1)
B. Gottlob Frege’s Challenge o the Referential Theory of Meaning(2)
The German mathematician Gottlob Frege challenged the referential theory of meaning in his philosophical treatise, “Sense and Reference.” He contends that the meanings of the complex terms “the morning star” and “the evening star” are not the same, yet, they have the same reference and that is the planet Venus. Hence, if the meaning of a word or a term is its reference as the referential theory assumes, then there is no difference at all between the terms “the morning star” and “the evening star” because both refer to Venus. But this claim is obviously unacceptable because mere common sense tells us that the word “morning” in “the morning star” and the word “evening” in “the evening star” are definitely distinct from each other.
In his theory of meaning, Frege affirms the notion that complex terms like the abovementioned ones are proper names. (Proper names could also be single terms.) Every proper name, in turn, expresses a meaning and designate a reference.
C. John Stuart Mill’s Challenge to Frege’s “Proper Names”(3)
The British philosopher J. S. Mill precede Frege by almost half a century. Yet, prior to Frege’s theory, Mill had already advanced a more complex distinction between “proper names” (which he calls “singular names”) like Saint Paul, Socrates or Frege, and “general names” like red, mammal, human, or house. Mill used the categories of denotation and connotation to differentiate between singular names and general names. According to him singular names are merely denotative, meaning, a singular name denotes a referent whereas general names are mainly connotative, meaning, a general name connotes an attribute. For example, the singular name “Saint Paul” denotes its proper referent but it does not connote any attribute pertaining to this early Christian apostle. However, the general name “dog” denotes all the animals called by this name in the past, in the present and in the future. It also connotes the attributes possessed by all dogs.
Faced with this distinction, the question that comes up now is: Where does meaning reside—in the denotation or in the connotation? If we listen to Mill, meaning is in the connotation, not in the denotation. Hence, in this sense, singular names, having only denotations in terms of their referents, are deprived of meanings and only general terms are meaningful.
D. Russell’s Theory of Meaning as Denotation(4)
The British mathematical philosopher Bertrand Russell (who incidentally was a baptismal godson of J.S. Mill) took the contrary position by asserting that meaning resides in the denotation and not in the connotation. In his treatise, “On Denoting”, Russell sustained the survival of the referential theory of meaning in the present century.
It also marked the beginning of a confusion that had haunted philosophical empiricism for decades whose systematic expressions are found in the works of the Logical Positivists of the Vienna Circle. This was the confused treatment of the difference between meaning and truth. In Russell’s “On Denoting”, he asserts that terms like “The present King of France” is meaningless because it doesn’t denote any referent at all (i.e., considering that during Russell’s time, France was already a republic and the monarchical period was but a thing of the past). Actually, the term is meaningful but devoid of truth. Hence, meaningless is not dependent on truth, though truth must be based on meaningless. Presented logically, we say,
All true x are meaningful, but not all meaningful x are true.
In an enlightening evaluation of the referential theory of meaning, U.P. philosopher
Andresito Acuña in his Philosophical Analysis has the following to say:
In fairness to those who subscribe to the referential theory of meaning in the early 20th century empiricism, the theory has many accomplishments. When the theory was applied to some major branches in Philosophy, Ethics, Metaphysics or Theology, numerous objectionable concepts were uncovered such as concepts like intrinsic good, being, God, mind, material substratum, the absolute, etc. These concepts purport to have referents while in fact they have none. As a consequence, these concepts were committed to the limbo of meaningless utterances. When applied to the budding science of psychology of many mentalistic concepts like ego, spirit, soul, intention, and volition. As a result, psychology today has acquired a technical language analogous to the language of physics.(5)
The Problem of Meaning in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Development
A. Wittgenstein’s Pre-Tractatus and Tractatus Conceptions of Meaning
Ludwig Wittgenstein’s pre-Tractatus conception of meaning is of the classical referential type. Such is reflected in his Notebooks 1914-16. Regarding this, the Wittgensteinian scholar P.M.S. Hacker of Oxford comments that before Wittgenstein fully crystallized his more complex conception of meaning in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, he had the classical notion that “names to have a determinate meaning they must be uniquely and unambiguously correlated with simple constituents of the world. . . . The meaning of a logically proper name is a simple object, the object is the meaning. The essential point is that there must be unanalyzable noncomposite objects if language is to be related to the world. These simple objects must be indestructible; they are the substance of the world”(6)
Wittgenstein—being a student of Russell in Cambridge and whose great influence shaped Wittgenstein’s philosophical formative years—was initially a natural heir of the Russellian referential theory of meaning.
However, further development enhanced by his readings of Gottlob Frege’s works and others related thereto and culminated in the writing of the Tractatus marked a dramatic change in Wittgenstein’s conception of meaning which now became deeper in form and more complex in presentation. In the Tractatus, meaning is no longer determined through things or objects per se. Meaning is determined in propositions or statements about the world, and in 1.1 of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein says: “The world is the totality of facts, not of things.”(7) It means that “To say that the world is a totality of things would be to leave out that things fit together. Things exist only in facts.”(8) Now, what is a fact? Further in the Tractatus, he says:
2. What is the case—a fact—is the existence of a state of affairs.
2.01 A state of affairs (a state of things) is a combination of objects
2.011 It is essential to things that they should be possible constituents
of states of affairs.
2.012 In logic nothing is accidental; if a thing can occur is a state of
affairs, the possibility of the state of affairs must be written into the
Regarding this, Tractatus commentarist and Wittgensteinian philosopher H.O. Mounce explains:
To illustrate this, consider the propositions ‘Socrates is fat’ and ‘Plato is thin’. These, we shall suppose, represent states of affairs. These states of affairs hold in the world; but notice that they might not have done so. Socrates might have been thin and Plato fat. Now what this shows is that
states of affairs are complex. For we can imagine them rearranged, the elements appearing in combinations different from those in which they actually appear. But in logic, says Wittgenstein at 2.012, nothing is accidental; if a thing can occur in a state of affairs, the possibility of the state of affairs must be written into the thing itself. Thus it is written into Socrates and into Plato that each can be fat and thin. There is a range of possible states of affairs into which Socrates and Plato fit. Which of these states of affairs are actual is not a matter of logic; but it is a matter of logic which states of affairs are possible. Whether Socrates is fat or thin is a matter of fact, but it is a matter of logic that he can be either one or the other.(10)
In other words, facts are states of affairs and states of affairs are not only what is actually in the world but what can possibly be sustained by the things found in the world. So that a statement of fact is not necessarily meaningful only on the basis of its one-to-one correspondence with what is actually found in the world but on the basis that it is also possible to occur in the world, given the things that we know are in the world. This theory of meaning, Wittgenstein called, “the picture theory of meaning and representation.”
What we are trying to say here is that in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, the initial importance of an actual object as reference in the world to establish the meaning of a word-or name—is not repudiated. “At some point there must be objects, and therefore names, which are absolutely simple. Otherwise, there would be no contrast between language and the world and nothing could be said.”(11) However, it does not imply that meaningfulness ought to be always checked against what is actually found in the world. We only come to the world if we want to know the truth or falsity of a statement where such a word or name occurs as a constituent of a state of affairs. At this point, it is necessary for us to make a distinction between meaning and truth. “… [I]n order to be true (or false) a proposition must already possess a sense. The sense of a proposition, in short, must be independent of whether it is in fact true or false.”(12)
B. Wittgenstein’s Post-Tractatus Analysis of Meaning Expressed in His Philosophical Investigations
Ludwig Wittgenstein’s post-Tractatus conception of meaning comprehensively expressed in the pages of his monumental Philosophical Investigations is not only an attempt to improve and transcend the theory that he proposes in the Tractatus. It is rather a rigorous criticism of the classical referential theory of meaning in general.
In the P.I. Wittgenstein convincingly destroyed the theory in a disarmingly simple yet profound discussion of two counter-examples. The first is about the word “Excalibur.” According to the referential theory, the meaning of this word is supposed to be the actual object called “Excalibur.” The following however, is Wittgenstein’s penetrating critique found in # 39 of the P.I.:
…The word “Excalibur”, say, is a proper name in the ordinary sense. The sword Excalibur consists of parts combined in a particular way. If they are combined differently Excalibur does not exist. But it is clear that the sentence “Excalibur has a sharp blade” make sense whether Excalibur is still whole or is broken up. But if “Excalibur” is the name of an object, this object no longer exists when Excalibur is broken in pieces; and as no object would then correspond to the name it would have no meaning. But then the sentence “Excalibur has a sharp blade” would contain a word that had no meaning and hence the sentence would be nonsense. But it does make sense; so there must always be something corresponding to the words of which it consists…. (13)
Regarding the second counter-example, Wittgenstein further discusses in # 40 of the P.I.:
Let us first discuss this point of the argument: that a word has no meaning if nothing corresponds to it. –It is important to note that the word “meaning” is being used illicitly if it is used to signify the thing that ‘corresponds’ to the word. That is to confound the meaning of a name with the bearer of the name. When Mr. N.N. dies one says that the bearer of the name dies, not that the meaning dies. And it would be nonsensical to say that for if the name ceased to have meaning, it would make no sense to say “Mr. N.N. is dead.”(14)
In demolishing the referential theory, what Wittgenstein imparts to us is a better and more realistic way of looking at the whole problem of meaning. This he succinctly puts in # 43 of the P.I.:
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.
Moreover, the meaning of a name is sometimes explained by pointing to its bearer. (15)
It tells us that a name really denotes a bearer but this does not imply that the meaning of such a name should be identified with the bearer but rather with its use in a statement that signify a certain or definite context.
C. Wittgenstein’s “Use” Theory of Meaning
We use words in a lot of ways. We name persons, things, or places by means of words. A syntactical combination of words may give an information, ask a question, express a desire or give a command. In Wittgenstein’s theory of meaning the use of a word is an act that is done by human beings in certain linguistic situations. In the P.I., Wittgenstein says:
But how many kinds of sentences are there? Say assertion, question, and command?—These are countless kinds: countless different kinds of use of what we call symbols, words, sentences. And the multiplicity is not something fixed given once for all, but new types of language, new language-games as we may say come into existence, and others become obsolete and get forgotten. (We can get a rough picture of this from the changes in mathematics.) Here the term “language-game” is meant to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life.(16)
Being “part of an activity or of a form of life”, speaking a language is something that is done naturally by people in flesh and blood in actual situations. Wittgenstein is being critical here of some, specifically philosophers, who have been used to using specialized terms in a very artificial way. Well, these terms like, the absolute, essence, substance, etc., are surely part of a language-game. But the fact that they are not used by people in real events of daily living in the sense that they are specially used by philosophers (in this particular case) makes them artificial, i.e., they have no form of life. The meaning of a word is therefore determined in the context of its usage which Wittgenstein calls “language-game.” Say, for example, the word “bachelor”; we need to determine the particular language-game where it is used. In the language-game of the academe, “bachelor” is a collegiate-level academic degree granted by a school (university or college) to a student who successfully finished four year of undergraduate studies. The same word in another language-game would mean a male who is still single inspite of the fact he is already of marriageable age. Another word is “club.” In one language-game it means an organized group of people. In another language-game it is a hard stick used to beat people. Regarding the Wittgensteinian use theory of meaning contextually applied in language games, P.M.S. Hacker comments:
Philosophical problems arise out of ordinary language and are, in general, to be resolved by looking into its workings by considering the diverse uses of expressions. The Tractatus had pursued the real logical form of the proposition. The new method in philosophy demands a clarification of linguistic use, but not in order to achieve an use understanding for the first
time, but to eliminate misunderstanding. We words without first giving or even being able to give rules for their use just as we use money as a means of exchange and store of value, without being able to describe the underlying conversations, rules and laws which enable it to fulfill these functions. One can find one’s way around a city although one may be unable to draw a map of it. Being able to use words correctly, as well as recognize correct and incorrect use of them, is to understand them, to know their meaning.(17)
Regarding the Wittgensteinian concept of “language-game”, every Wittgensteinian scholar has his/her own interpretation. Hence, we are confronted here with a myriad interpretations. However, I have found the interpretation of U.P. philosopher Acuña simpler and easier to understand. Says he in his Philosophical Analysis:
I want you to try to imagine an activity that cannot be done without the use of language. Can reporting an event be done ithout the use of words? I don’t think so. Similarly, can giving orders and obeying them be done without the use of words? I think not …. The point is: If you have an activity that cannot be done without language, then you have a genuine language-game. And if another person can play your language-game, then your language-game has a form of life.(18)
(1) Bertrand Russell, Human Knowledge, Its Scope and Limits (New York: A Clarion Book, Published by Simon and Schuster, 1967), pp.63-66
(2) Gottlob Frege, “Sense and Reference”
(3) John Stuart Mill, “Of Names”
(4) Bertrand Russell, “On Denoting”
(5) Andresito Acuña, Philosophical Analysis (4th Edition) (Quezon City: U.P. Department of Philosophy 1998), p.24.
(6) P.M.S. Hacker, Insight and Illusion, Wittgenstein on Philosophy and the Metaphysics of Experience (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 41.
(7) L. Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,
(8) H.O. Mounce, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, An Introduction, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), p.18.
(9) Op. cit., Tractatus
(10) Op. cit., Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, p. 20.
(11) Loc. cit.
(12) Ibid., p.21
(13) Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. By G.E.M. Anscombe (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1968),#39.
(14) Ibid., #40.
(15) Ibid., #43.
(16) Ibid., # 23.
(17) Op. cit., Insight and Illusion, p. 124.
(18)Op. cit., Philosophical Analysis, p. 31. 113
(c) Ruel F. Pepa, Ph.D.