Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Wittgenstein's Critique of the Metaphysical View of Language, Part 1

In my last post, I gave a short summary of Plato’s view of language. In the next few posts, I will summarize Wittgenstein’s critique of the metaphysical view of language and then summarize Wittgenstein’s view of language and communication.

Robert J. Fogelin refers to the metaphysical view of language as “referentialism,” which he defines as “the view that the presumptive role of words is to stand for or refer to things, and the presumptive role of sentences is to picture or represent how things stand to each other.”[1] Wittgenstein critiques this view in the opening passages of Philosophical Investigations. Wittgenstein first cites a passage from Augustine’s Confessions in which he describes the way in which he learned language. Augustine says, “When they (my elders) named some object, and accordingly moved toward something, I saw this and grasped that the thing was called by the sound they uttered when they meant to point it out.”[2] Augustine goes onto say that the more his elders pointed out objects with their bodily movements, he grew to learn how to speak in sentences and express desires. Wittgenstein comments on this passage by saying:

These words, it seems to me, give us a particular picture of the essence of human language. It is this: the individual words in language name objects—sentences are combinations of such names.—In this picture of language we find the roots of the following idea: Every word has a meaning. This meaning is correlated with the word. It is the object for which the word stands.

Augustine does not speak of their being any difference between kinds of words.[3]

Wittgenstein proceeds to critique the understanding that all words function in the same way. He does so by telling a hypothetical story:

I send someone shopping. I give him a slip marked “five red apples”. He takes the slip to the shopkeeper, who opens the drawer marked “apples”; then he looks up the word “red” in a table and finds a colour sample opposite it; then he says the series of cardinal numbers—I assume that he knows them by heart—up to the word “five” and for each number he takes an apple of the same colour as the sample out of the drawer.—Its is in this and similar ways that one operates with words.[4]

Wittgenstein does not say that Augustine’s “primitive idea of the way language functions” is completely false, but just incomplete. Wittgenstein illustrates an example in which Augustine’s view is correct. He discusses a builder, named A, and the builder’s assistant, named B. A needs various building-stones, such as “blocks, pillars, slabs and beams.” When A calls out the name of a certain building-stone, B passes that stone to A.[5] Wittgenstein refers to this understanding of words as “ostensive,” for it “establish[es] an association between the word and the thing.”[6] Wittgenstein says, “Augustine, we might say, does describe a system of communication; only not everything that we call language is this system.”[7]

The ostensive teaching of words is even, in a sense, incomplete for the story of the builder and his assistant. For it took a level of training for the assistant to know not only how to identify the certain stone, but also to know that the builder wants the assistant to hand him that stone.[8]

[1] Robert J. Fogelin, “Wittgenstein’s critique of philosophy,” In The Cambridge Companion to Wittgenstein, ed. Hans Sluga and David G. Stern (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 37.

[2] As cited in Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 3rd ed., trans. G.E.M. Anscombe (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1967), § 1.

[3] Ibid., § 1.

[4] Ibid., § 1.

[5] Ibid., § 2.

[6] Ibid., § 6.

[7] Ibid., § 3. Wittgenstein also proposes other similar languages, such as “a language consisting only of orders and reports in battle.—Or a language consisting only of questions and expressions for answering yes and no. And innumerable others.—And to imagine a language means to imagine a form of life” (§ 19).

[8] Ibid., § 6.

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