Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Wittgenstein's View of Language, Part 2

Wittgenstein argues instead that the meaning of a word comes from its use or its practice.[1] That, for Wittgenstein, does not mean a person can use a word anyway they want. A person cannot decide to start using the word “orange” for the color green or start calling a banana an “apple.” Wittgenstein denies that a person can develop their own private language to describe their own private experiences. As Hans Sluga says

Wittgenstein went on to maintain that the words of our language have meaning only insofar as there exist public criteria for their correct use. As a consequence, he argued, there cannot be a completely private language, that is, a language which in principle can only be used to speak about one’s own inner experience.[2]

This demonstrates a shift from Wittgenstein’s understanding in the Tractatus that a proposition pictures reality. Monk argues that the shift in perspective came from Wittgenstein’s interaction with Piero Sraffa. Sraffa was an Italian economist who had to leave Italy because of a tract he published attacking the policies of Mussolini. John Maynard Keynes invited Sraffa to come to Cambridge and the university created a teaching post for him.

Upon Wittgenstein’s return to Cambridge in 1929, Keynes introduced Wittgenstein to Sraffa and the two became close friends. They met weekly to discuss Wittgenstein’s philosophy. Sraffa helped Wittgenstein develop an “anthropological approach” to philosophy, leading Wittgenstein to emphasize communal life.[3] So, while the Tractatus discusses language apart from the context in which it is used, “the Investigations repeatedly emphasizes the importance of the ‘stream of life’ which gives linguistic utterances their meaning.”[4] Wittgenstein expresses his indebtedness to Sraffa in the preface to Philosophical Investigations by saying, “I am indebted to that which a teacher of this university, Mr P. Sraffa, for many years unceasingly applied to my thoughts. It is to this stimulus that I owe the most fruitful ideas of this book.”[5]

[1] Wittgenstein, The Blue and Brown Books, 4; Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, § 30; and Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, trans. Peter Winch (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 85.

[2] Hans Sluga, “Ludwig Wittgenstein: Life and Work. An Introduction,” In Cambridge Companion to Wittgenstein, ed. Hans Sluga and David G. Stern (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 21.

[3] Monk, 260.

[4] Ibid., 261.

[5] Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 4. As Kerr points out, by emphasizing communal life and action Wittgenstein rejects the “picture of the solitary disembodied consciousness” (140).

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