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Meaning, Understanding, and Use 1 [W]e are so much accustomed to communication through language, in conversation, that it looks to us as if the whole point of communication lay in this: someone else grasps the sense of my words—which is something mental: he as it were takes it into his own mind. If he then does something further with it as well, that is no part of the immediate purpose of language. (PI: # 363) 2 This picture is reinforced by the fact that signs are arbitrary and conventional. If we replace ‘p’ by ‘t’ in ‘chap’ we end up with another sign with a different meaning, but it is arbitrary that we should employ one word instead of the other to signify such and such. ‘chat’ in English has a different meaning than in French. It seems that a sign’s meaning is given by what goes on in the mind when it is read, uttered or heard. For, by themselves sign are death.
Meaning and understanding seem to be mental phenomena.
Understanding is conceived as the underlying mental phenomenon of which the behaviour is a symptom and our access to someone’s understanding is only indirect, i.e. by inductive or analogical inference, while she has direct access to her understanding.
4 Understanding Understanding as a state of the mind. Notice, however, that we speak of being in a state of excitement, depression, joy, etc. but we do not speak of being in a state of loving, fearing, hating, etc. Do we speak of being in a state of meaning, intending, minding? Understanding is more linked to an activity than to a state of the mind.
5 If understanding and meaning are mental processes, experiences or states, then they should be accessible to introspection, like hearing, listening or suffering. Cf. Descartes methodology.
What, though, is the specific quality or mental experience or state which ‘understanding’ name?
6 On this approach ‘understanding’ is conceived, like in the Augustinian picture, as a word naming something. Besides, if understanding is a state whose manifestation is behaviour, then this state is likely to be conceived as a physicochemical state of the brain (cf. Central State Materialist position). It is the physical state that causes behaviour.
7 Meaning and understanding are not experiences.
For experiences are neither necessary nor sufficient for understanding. The criterion for understanding lie in performances. 8 Understanding is an activity. “Now I understand” is more a signal of understanding which is judged to be correctly employed by what the pupil goes on to do, rather than a report of an introspective experience. 9 Meaning is Use Understanding is not a mental process or state. It is more linked to an activity. So, understanding is an ability
To understand a word it to be able to use it correctly. Meaning is use.
10 For any words to have meaning, or to be understood as having certain meanings, it must be used in a certain way, to do something or other. Sounds or marks do not possess meaning at all on their own. Someone’s meaning or understanding something by a certain word on a certain occasion could then perhaps be explained as the person’s engaging in a certain practice or conforming to the way that word is used; without some such practice the word would have no meaning at all. (Stroud; Meaning, Understanding, and Practice, Oxford UP, viiiix) 11 There are some interconnected central notions one should keep in mind when considerdeiring Wittgenstein’s motto “meaning is used”.
Form of life
The nonlinguistic context is essential to the understanding linguistic activities. 12 To Imagine a language is to imagine a form of life (PI, # 7) What has to be accepted, the given, is—one could say—
form of life. (PI II, 226) 13 Insofar as language has foundations, they are provided not by metaphysical atoms, but by patterns of communal activity. The idea that form of life provides the foundations of language has been elaborated in opposite directions. 14 1. Transcendental reading Grammar is an integral part of human practice. So it is subject to change. 15 2. Naturalistic reading
Form of life is part of our human nature which determines how we act and react. But Wittgenstein’s naturalism is anthropological rather than biological for the natural history is the history of cultural, languageusing individuals. 16 Language game
There are many different games and there is a family resemblance between them. 17 The notion of a game allows to highlight the facts that games must be played, that there are rules which must be followed, etc. That one must engage in the game.
Our language games are embedded in our form of life, the overall practice of a linguistic community. 18 Like any other game, language games are “played” in a setting.
Even if the setting is not involved in the explanation of the meaning of a given expression, is nevertheless relevant to that expression having that meaning. 19 We learn games, how to play, etc. The foundation of our learning is training. Language games are not subject to justification; they are rooted in our natural reactions and activities. 20 Wittgenstein’s antireductionism An ability is distinct from its vehicle. E.g. whisky can intoxicate (ability) because of the alcohol it contains (vehicle) but the alcohol is not identical with the intoxicating power. 21 One can weight the alcohol but not the ability to intoxicate. So if an ability is distinct from its vehicle, it is distinct from the structure of its vehicle which may explain the ability. 22 Hence it is misguiding to think that we can reduce power to the structure of its vehicle. E.g.: sugar is soluble, but solubility (disposition) is not a state of sugar. The same for psychological dispositions: being able to speak French, like being clever, charming, etc., is not a state of a person. 23 We are not tempted to identify the horsepower of a car with a state of its engine although the car has this horsepower because of the state. Why, though, are we so tempted to reduce mental powers with the underlying neural structure? 24 Moral
Wittgenstein reverses the traditional direction of fit between meaning and understanding. 25 While the Augustinian picture deals with understanding, explanation and communication using the concept of meaning qua correlation between words and objects, Wittgenstein reverses the order of explanation. Meaning is explained using the notion of understanding, explaining and communications. Meaning reduces to use.
Concepts get their meaning, i.e. their use, because they are embedded in a complex form of life that is revealed (and is the background) in the way speakers live and act. 27 Wittgenstein and Psychologism
Conventions play a central role in Wittgenstein’s conception of language.
Cf. the notion of rules and rules following. 28 Conventions vs. Intentions
Grice, Lewis, Schiffer, … argue that the notion of convention can be analyzed in terms of the speaker’s intentions.
Thus linguistic conventions can be explained in terms of the psychological notion of intention. We would hence have a psychological theory of meaning.
29 The Psychological Theory of Communication Communication resumes to the transmission of what one has in the mind and understanding to the grasping of what one has in the mind, i.e. to grasp one’s mental representation. The latter need not be, pace Frege, private. 30 Words in their primary or immediate signification, stand for nothing but the ideas in the mind of him that uses them ... nor can anyone apply them as marks, immediately, to anything else but the ideas that he himself hath. (Locke; 1690: III.ii.2)
The chief end of language in communication being to be understood, words serve well for that end, neither in civil nor philosophical discourse, when any word does not excite in the hearer the same idea which it stands for in the breast of the speaker. (Locke; 1690: III.ix.4) 31 The Institutional Theory of Communication
It rests on the Division of Linguistic Labour (see Putnam 1975 “The Meaning of ‘Meaning’”). “Meanings aren’t in the head”.
Mental representations do not determine what words stand for (reference or extension). Cf. twinEarth thought experiment.
32 We could hardly use such words as ‘elm’ and ‘aluminum’ if no one possessed a way of recognizing elm trees and aluminum metal; but not everyone to whom the distinction is important has to be able to make the distinction. ... Consider our community as a “factory”: in this “factory” some people have the “job” of wearing gold wedding rings, other people have the “job” of selling gold wedding rings, still other people have the “job” of telling whether or not something is really gold. ... everyone to whom gold is important for any reason has to acquire the word ‘gold’; but he does not have to acquire the method of recognizing if something is or is not gold. He can rely on a special subclass of speakers. (Putnam 1975: 2278) 33 Direct Reference
Cf. causal theory, social character of meaning/reference, … Reference depends on a social causal chain. 34 Language
It is conceived as the result of a social interaction and cooperation.
[T]he harmony between thought and reality is to be found in the grammar of the language. (Wittgenstein Philosophical Grammar: 162) 35 Theory of meaning = theory of understanding (cf. Dummett)
A theory of meaning deals with the speaker’s mastering the language, that is, with her knowledge of the language. 36 This account can only be given in terms of the practical ability which the speaker displays in using sentences of the language; and, in general, the knowledge of which that practical ability is taken as a manifestation may be, and should be, regarded as only implicit knowledge. (Dummett 1978: p.101) 37 Knowinghow vs. knowingthat
The knowledge involved in the mastery of a language is a sort of implicit knowledge akin to a practical ability, a kind of knowinghow. 38 ...
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This document was uploaded on 10/26/2011 for the course PHIL 2504 at Carleton CA.
- Winter '08