Sunday, August 13, 2006

Comments: Wittgenstein on Context and Meaning

In the Preface to his Tractatus[1], Wittgenstein notes that “to the great works of Frege and the writings of my friend Bertrand Russell I owe in large measure the stimulation of my thoughts” (Wittgenstein, 5). The Tractatus can be read as Wittgenstein’s attempts to appropriate and reformulate many of the fundamental themes of Frege and Russell. Taking their basic ideas as his starting point, Wittgenstein combines a penetrating criticism of some of their ideas in order to illustrate his more important thesis: that philosophical problems are really no problems at all. As one example of this kind of criticism, we will consider Wittgenstein’s remark in proposition 3.3 that “Only propositions have sense; only in the context of a proposition has a name meaning.” Due to the limitations of this paper, we will be forced to confine ourselves to the latter part of the proposition. We will come to see a paradigmatic example of how Wittgenstein criticizes the methods of his predecessors while arguing towards the ultimate conclusions of his work. In the course of these considerations, we will come to see why, as he criticizes aspects of Frege and Russell’s work, Wittgenstein’s thought itself becomes rendered imprecise and meaningless as a result of his likewise being forced to rely on ordinary language to make his points.

One particular point on which Wittgenstein disagrees with Frege concerns the meaning of names. Frege argues that names have sense and meaning independent of their occurrence in any proposition (e.g the name “the morning star” always means the same celestial object and always has the same sense). For example, in “On Sinn and Bedeutung,”[2] Frege remarks: “The regular connection between a sign, its sense and its Bedeutung is of such a kind that to the sign there corresponds a definite sense and to that in turn a definite Bedeutung, while to a given Bedeutung (an object) there does not belong only a single sign” (Frege, 153). Although the same object can be represented by multiple signs, each of these signs will have one definite sense by which it will refer to one determinate object. Frege speaks of “the Bedeutung of the sign” and “the sense of the sign” (Frege 152). That is to say, each sign has one and only one meaning and sense. Wittgenstein takes up the project of discussing names according to sense (Sinn) and meaning (Bedeutung). However, he disagrees with Frege in some important ways. For example, Wittgenstein maintains that it only appears to be the case that names have definite meanings as a result of the logical deficiency of natural language. While Wittgenstein agrees with Frege that the meaning of a proposition will be a function of the context in which it occurs, he disagrees with the idea that the elementary components of the proposition (that is, the names) have definite meaning and sense regardless of the way in which they occur. In proposition 3.3, Wittgenstein maintains: “Only the proposition has sense; only in the context of a proposition has a name meaning.” By this he means not only that sense applies exclusively to propositions (i.e. contra Frege, names themselves do not have sense), but additionally that names only have meaning in particular uses. There is not some definite and determinate correspondence between names and their meanings. These will change depending on how they are used in propositions to represent thoughts.

Now, let us note that in proposition 3.203, Wittgenstein says: “The name means the object. The object is its meaning.” It might at first seem that this proposition is anathema to proposition 3.3, inasmuch as it speaks of the name meaning the object. However, this must be understood according to the clarification given in proposition 3.3. The name does not always mean the same object. What appears to be the same name can mean different objects in different propositions. Names neither always represent the same object nor ever contribute anything resembling sense. For this reason, Wittgenstein believes that it would be impossible to construct a dictionary laying out the standard meanings of names. In propositions 3.26 and 3.261, respectively, he says: “The name cannot be analysed further by any definition. It is a primitive sign” and “Names cannot be taken to pieces by definition.”

There are not these elementary meanings and senses corresponding to names that can be combined into meaningful (i.e. true or false) propositions. Wittgenstein makes this point in proposition 3.141, saying: “The proposition is not a mixture of words (just as the musical theme is not a mixture of tones). The proposition is articulate.” The proposition is not merely a compound consisting of basic linguistic entities that may be manipulated according to definite rules of grammar. For Wittgenstein grammatical form is not the same as logical form. Wittgenstein credits Russell with making this point, saying in proposition 4.0031: “Russell’s merit is to have shown that the apparent logical form of the proposition need not be its real form.” However, Wittgenstein finds Frege and Russell’s attempts to provide a supervening formal logic ultimately inadequate. For, they have retained much of the former reliance on the grammatical form in determining the logical or semantic form.

Here we see one of Wittgenstein’s major points of departure from Frege and Russell. This point of disagreement allows Wittgenstein to give an account of why it is that despite the fact that it sometimes appears as though concept-words function as object-words, this is only a seeming problem resulting from the insufficiency of natural language. That is, when what appears to be the same word, that is, the same marks on the page or the same audible sounds, appears in two different contexts, it is not the case that what is signified necessarily remains the same. The same marks or sounds can be used to mean two different things. For example, in proposition 3.323 Wittgenstein considers the sentence “Green is green.” Rather than wonder how it is that green-ness is predicated of green-ness or green is being identified with itself, Wittgenstein notes that these two strings of letters, while seeming to be the same word (which would mean that they function in the same way and stand for the same thing) are actually two different words standing for two different things. In this proposition, Wittgenstein notes: “(In the proposition “Green is green” – where the first word is a proper name and the last an adjective – these words have not merely different meanings but they are different symbols.)” Not only do these two strings of letters (‘Green’ and ‘green’) refer to (mean) different things, they are furthermore different symbols altogether. Frege’s mistake, according to Wittgenstein, lies in his assumption that “green” is the same symbol, with the same sense and meaning, in each of its occurrences in this sentence. This confused assumption is grounded in Frege’s reliance on the grammatical form of ordinary language and it results in what Wittgenstein would characterize as one of philosophy’s “fundamental confusions,” as discussed in proposition 3.324.

While Wittgenstein levies against Frege the criticism that ordinary language is not such that there is a definite corresponding meaning for every word, he does desire the construction of a logically perfect symbolism in which this would be the case. As he says in proposition 3.325:

In order to avoid these errors, we must employ a symbolism which excludes them, by not applying the same sign in different symbols and by not applying signs in the same way which signify in different ways. A symbolism, that is to say, which obeys the rules of logical grammar – of logical syntax.

(The logical symbolism of Frege and Russell is such a language, which, however, does still not exclude all errors)

Wittgenstein’s symbolism would be similar to Frege’s, except that instead of constructing a language that would make logical sense out of our ordinary language, Wittgenstein would require that this language be created such that it consist of a single sign for every necessary symbol without allowing particular signs to stand for multiple symbols. Each sign would have one definite meaning and one definite function in Wittgenstein’s ideal language. Furthermore, the symbols themselves would not carry any sense. This would make it logically complete and free from the confusions arising from equivocation. In this sense Wittgenstein’s project is not completely in opposition to Frege’s. Wittgenstein subscribes to the spirit if not the method of Frege’s project.

However, there is a deep and important problem with Wittgenstein’s attempts to explicate his philosophical insights. First, there is the fact Wittgenstein is forced to make his arguments in the very kind of ordinary language that he is critiquing. Wittgenstein is telling us in somewhat straightforward if cryptic language that we cannot know the meaning of a proposition merely by looking at the shape of its signs. However, if what he says is true, it should be impossible for us to know that this is what he is telling us. If we are to learn what he seems to be trying to tell us, we should conclude that we cannot have access to what he is telling us. This is paradoxical. How are we to know that we understand what Wittgenstein is saying if the means by which he is attempting to say this are ultimately insufficient for saying anything clearly. For this reason Wittgenstein tells us in the preface that “This book will perhaps only be understood by those who have themselves already thought the thoughts which are expressed in it – or similar thoughts” (Wittgenstein, 3). We can really only understand the meaning of the Tractatus if we have already independently understood everything it has to tell us. But how are we to know that what we have independently understood is the same as what Wittgenstein himself has attempted to tell us, given his condemnations of ordinary language? This problem never really gets resolved. However, Wittgenstein’s conclusions seem to point us towards the meaning of the Tractatus. At the end of the book, in proposition 6.54, Wittgenstein tells us:

My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)

He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.

In order to understand what Wittgenstein is telling us, we must realize that he has not really told us anything meaningful at all. But we must make this step under the influence of the very kind of ordinary language that we must abandon. Wittgenstein realizes that he has thus been constrained and attempts to let us in on the paradox. But we are still unable to make sense of Wittgenstein’s intuitions without already having had them ourselves – something that seems impossible to recognize.



[1] Ludwig Wittgenstein. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Trans. C. K. Ogden. Barnes and Noble Books. New York, 2003.

[2] Gottlob Frege. “On Sinn and Bedeutung,” Trans. Max Black. The Frege Reader. Blackwell. Oxford, 1997.

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