Philosophical Inquiries

From Legislating Language

Philosophical Inquiries by Ludwig Wittgenstein

40. Let us first discuss this point of the argument: that a word has no meaning if nothing corresponds to it.—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. And it would be nonsensical to say that, for if the name ceased to have meaning it would make no sense to say “Mr. N. N. is dead.”

41. In §15 we introduced proper names into language. Now suppose that the tool with the name “N” is broken. Not knowing this, A gives B the sign “N”. Has this sign meaning now or not?— What is B to do when he is given it?—We have not settled anything about this. One might ask: what will he do? Well, perhaps he will stand there at a loss, or shew A the pieces. Here one might say: “N” has become meaningless; and this expression would mean that the sign “N” no longer had a use in our language-game (unless we gave it a new one). “N” might also become meaningless because, for whatever reason, the tool was given another name and the sign “N” no longer used in the language-game.—But we could also imagine a convention whereby B has to shake his head in reply if A gives him the sign belonging to a tool that is broken.—In this way the command “N” might be said to be given a place in the language-game even when the tool no longer exists, and the sign “N” to have meaning even when its bearer ceases to exist.

42. But has for instance a name which has never been used for a tool also got a meaning in that game?——Let us assume that “X” is such a sign and that A gives this sign to B—well, even such signs could be given a place in the language-game, and B might have, say, to answer them too with a shake of the head. (One could imagine this as a sort of joke between them.)

43. For a large class of cases—though not for all—in which we employ the word “meaning” it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language. And the meaning of a name is sometimes explained by pointing to its
bearer.

44. We said that the sentence “Excalibur has a sharp blade” made sense even when Excalibur was broken in pieces. Now this is so because in this language-game a name is also used in the absence of its bearer. But we can imagine a language-game with names (that is, with signs which we should certainly include among names) in which they are used only in the presence of the bearer; and so could always be replaced by a demonstrative pronoun and the gesture of pointing.

45. The demonstrative “this” can never be without a bearer. It might be said: “so long as there is a this, the word ‘this’ has a meaning too, whether this is simple or complex.”——But that does not make the word into a name. On the contrary: for a name is not used with, but only explained by means of, the gesture of pointing.

46. What lies behind the idea that names really signify simples?— Socrates says in the Theaetetus: “If I make no mistake, I have heard some people say this: there is no definition of the primary elements— so to speak—out of which we and everything else are composed; for everything that exists in its own right can only be named, no other
determination is possible, neither that it is nor that it is not . . . . . But what exists in its own right has to be . . . . . named without any other determination. In consequence it is impossible to give an account of any primary element; for it, nothing is possible but the bare name; its name is all it has. But just as what consists of these primary elements is itself complex, so the names of the elements become descriptive language by being compounded together. For the essence of speech is the composition of names.”

Both Russell’s ‘individuals’ and my ‘objects’ were such primary elements.

47. But what are the simple constituent parts of which reality is composed?—What are the simple constituent parts of a chair?—The bits of wood of which it is made? Or the molecules, or the atoms?— “Simple” means: not composite. And here the point is: in what sense ‘composite’? It makes no sense at all to speak absolutely of the ‘simple parts of a chair’.

Again: Does my visual image of this tree, of this chair, consist of parts? And what are its simple component parts? Multi-colouredness is one kind of complexity; another is, for example, that of a broken outline composed of straight bits. And a curve can be said to be composed of an ascending and a descending segment.

If I tell someone without any further explanation: “What I see before me now is composite”, he will have the right to ask: “What do you mean by ‘composite’? For there are all sorts of things that that can mean”—The question “Is what you see composite?” makes good sense if it is already established what kind of complexity—that is, which particular use of the word—is in question. If it had been laid down that the visual image of a tree was to be called “composite” if one saw not just a single trunk, but also branches, then the question “Is the visual image of this tree simple or composite?”, and the question “What are its simple component parts?”, would have a clear sense—a clear use. And of course the answer to the second question is not “The branches” (that would be an answer to the grammatical question: “What are here called ‘simple component parts’?”) but rather a description of the individual branches.

But isn’t a chessboard, for instance, obviously, and absolutely, composite?—You are probably thinking of the composition out of thirty-two white and thirty-two black squares. But could we not also say, for instance, that it was composed of the colours black and white and the schema of squares? And if there are quite different ways of looking at it, do you still want to say that the chessboard is absolutely ‘composite’?—Asking “Is this object composite?” outside a particular language-game is like what a boy once did, who had to say whether the verbs in certain sentences were in the active or passive voice, and who racked his brains over the question whether the verb “to sleep” meant something active or passive.

We use the word “composite” (and therefore the word “simple”) in an enormous number of different and differently related ways. (Is the colour of a square on a chessboard simple, or does it consist of pure white and pure yellow? And is white simple, or does it consist of the colours of the rainbow?—Is this length of 2 cm. simple, or does it consist of two parts, each i cm. long? But why not of one bit 3 cm. long, and one bit i cm. long measured in the opposite direction?)

To the philosophical question: “Is the visual image of this tree composite, and what are its component parts?” the correct answer is: “That depends on what you understand by ‘composite’.” (And that is of course not an answer but a rejection of the question.)

The complete text of Philosophical Investigations



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