Sunday, August 13, 2006

Comments: Wittgenstein's Shift to the Bearer-Meaning Distinction

Wittgenstein notes in his Preface[1] to the Philosophical Investigations[2] that in order to understand his later thought we must situate it within the context of its relation with his earlier work in the Tractatus.[3] This is a tall order, but one that, if undertaken, will provide a greater appreciation of the propositions contained in the Philosophical Investigations. One issue that can be better understood through this kind of situation is Wittgenstein’s thought regarding the nature of names and reference. By understanding the ways in which his later theory of names differs from and reacts against his earlier theory, we will come to better understand the reasons for and content of his later philosophy of names. We will also see that overlooking his important distinction between the meaning of a name and the bearer of a name can only lead us to a misrepresentative reading of Wittgenstein’s actual theory of names within the Philosophical Investigations. While representing a more nuanced and critical position regarding the meaningfulness and workings of names than that presented in his earlier work, it will be shown that his later position is still subject to critical problems. Although he makes some philosophical progress in the formulation of his later theory of names, Wittgenstein’s position is ultimately insufficient.

Wittgenstein gives something resembling a Fregean account of names in the Tractatus. However, he departs from 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.”

In his later work Wittgenstein departs from this earlier view of names. In §79 of the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein discusses a Russellian account of the meaning of the name “Moses”. In the course of this section Wittgenstein modifies Russell’s account so as to include the possibility of there being a stock of identifying definite descriptions rather than one specific uniquely identifying definite description.[4] He concedes that there will be multiple identifying definite descriptions that will each have their own circumstances of appropriate use. He finally concludes by saying: “I use the name “N” without a fixed meaning.” In overturning his previous theory of names, Wittgenstein has given something resembling a Russellian picture with the proviso that the meaning of a name is a cluster of definite descriptions rather than one fixed definite description. In the course of this investigation we will question why Wittgenstein would have traded the Fregean understanding of the meaning of names set forth in the Tractatus for this modified Russellian account.

Recall that in the Tractatus Wittgenstein has claimed: “The name means the object. The object is its meaning” (3.203). In both §79 of the Philosophical Investigations and proposition 3.203 of the Tractatus, the word translated into English as “meaning” is the German word “Bedeutung”. Now, according to Wittgenstein’s earlier Fregean account, the meaning of the name “Moses” should really just be Moses himself, the bearer of the name. But on his new account, Wittgenstein claims that he uses the name “Moses” without a fixed meaning. Does this mean that he is claiming to use the name “Moses” to refer to an indeterminate set of objects or persons?

I should like to argue that this is not the case. Recall that in §40 of the Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein has said: “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.” Note that §40 has been given as a way of dealing with the problem raised in §39, that “…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….” This example from §39 can be read as something of a reductio ad absurdum of Wittgenstein’s Fregean picture of names (from the Tractatus), within which the meaning of a name is simply the object named. Wittgenstein has launched a direct assault against his previous theory of reference. Since such a view entails the absurd conclusion that the sentence “Excalibur has a sharp blade” is meaningless once Excalibur has been broken, it cannot be correct. The view espoused in the Tractatus fails to make sense of how we speak of things using names after they have gone out of existence. In order to cope with this problem Wittgenstein has changed the meaning of “meaning”. Rather than being the Fregean referent of the name, as Wittgenstein proposes in the Tractatus, on his new account the meaning of a name is captured by some set of identifying definite descriptions. In addition to this set of meanings, the name has some bearer to which it refers. In order to make sense out of how it is that we can talk about named things after they have been destroyed (for example, a tool named “N” in some language-game), Wittgenstein has advanced a distinction between the bearer of the name (“der Träger”) and the meaning of the name (“die Bedeutung”). By situating these propositions within the context of his earlier philosophy, we are in a better position to understand Wittgenstein’s motivations. We will also be in a better position to appreciate the nuances of this new view. One aspect of Wittgenstein’s new theory is his distinction between the bearer of a name and the meaning of a name. To overlook this distinction would lead us to a misrepresentative comprehension of Wittgenstein’s view. Contrary to what he might declaim, Wittgenstein has given a theory of meaning and reference, and it is this: the bearer of a name is its referent (the thing to which the name has been attached) while the meaning of the name is something like the set of identifying definite descriptions, as noted above in our discussion of Wittgenstein’s notion of using a name with multiple meanings. This distinction represents a positive turn of thought in Wittgenstein’s philosophy. His new theory is better able to make sense of our actual use of names in a way that his earlier view could not.

However, this account is problematic and insufficient. Without bringing up the well-worn Kripkean objections to all forms of descriptivism, we may subject Wittgenstein’s later account to an insurmountable criticism. According to his account, when we make statements containing the name “Excalibur” after Excalibur has broken, it makes sense to say that the sentence is meaningful, since the name retains meaning after its bearer passes away. Whether or not the bearer of a name exists, its meaning still remains and functions properly within propositions. Propositions containing names whose bearers have passed away will remain meaningful. The problem of vacuous names has at least been diffused as regards meaningfulness. However, in what sense then are we actually talking about Excalibur after it has been broken? If the name “Excalibur” serves to contribute meaning to statements, then we may have made meaningful statements. But this is not the only thing that names do. They also point us towards something as the subject of statements containing them. Now, how have these statements containing the name “Excalibur” after Excalibur has broken really been about Excalibur?

Preserving the about-ness of a name (and a sentence containing it) should be an important desideratum of any theory of names. We ought to demand that any theory of names must state how they are names of something and that, when they occur in the subject of a sentence, the sentence should be about something. Meaningfulness alone does not capture this concern. To say that a sentence is meaningful is not to say that it is about something. The sentence “Excalibur has a sharp blade” may remain meaningful after Excalibur has been broken, but according to Wittgenstein’s later theory the sentence will no longer be about Excalibur. We should expect that the sentence would be about Excalibur, inasmuch as the name “Excalibur” occurs in the subject place of the sentence. However, inasmuch as Excalibur no longer exists, the name “Excalibur” no longer has a bearer and therefore no longer refers to anything, despite its meaningfulness. Wittgenstein’s account advances a philosophical thesis that fails to leave everything as it is, and indeed winds up sullying our normal use of names.



[1] “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 thinking” (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Preface xe).

[2] Ludwig Wittgenstein. Philosophical Investigations. Trans. G. E. M. Anscombe. Blackwell. Oxford, 2001.

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

[4] This idea will later be expanded upon in John Searle’s “Proper Names.” Mind 67 (1958): 166-173.

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