Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Wittgensteinian Parenting

My 3 year old is having nightmares – waking up at 3 in the morning scared because of the fire on the carpet coming from the ceiling.  This is very real for him, and is recurring.  However, he hasn’t necessarily grasped the concept of a dream, which is all the more terrifying for him.

It is very hard to him to explain the sense in which a dream is not real, or at least cannot be talked of in that sense.  I also think that maybe he gets things right in a way that adults don’t when they get stuck in their own metaphors

A conversation in the morning might go:

  • Son: “There isn’t a fire on the floor any more”
  • Me: “Was there every a fire? An actual fire?”
  • Son: “There was last night, but now there isn’t”
  • Me: “Was it just a dream though?”
  • Son:  “Yes, it was a dream, there was fire last night”
  • Me:  “But was it just inside your head?”
  • Son: [Chuckles]“Not a fire in my head..” [Chuckles] “… it came from the ceiling”

Of course there wasn’t a fire in his head – what a funny thing to say!

We may mean it to say (in philosophical talk) that was no correspondence to reality, that there was no verifiable instance of fire.  We might mean it factually to say that the brain was rehearsing memories, strengthening neuron connections.  More practically, we mean it as a source of comfort – it was only in your head and there is no need to be frightened.

The subject matter of the dream though (of which the experience can be just as real as the “real thing”) is not about anything going on in the interior of his skull; and sees no reason why that is relevant.  And why – actually – is that relevant?  Why would one press the point? Is that a natural way of speaking?

As adults we like to use the metaphor, and are probably encouraged to do that by neuroscience.  We can see the visual cortex light up (in textbooks mainly!) and so that it must be our brain thinking.  Our brain doesn’t think (we do), and we do not do it “in our heads”.  No more so, than when our visual cortex lights up on seeing a more deadly (not necessarily a more real) fire.

It is probably impossible to distinguish Philosophical Talk from any form of “natural” language game absolutely.  But equally, as long as my son can be happy at night, no metaphors beyond what is necessary be imposed upon him

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Wittgenstein and Academic Disagreement

I had a further reflection – 7 years on - on my experience of studying Wittgenstein for my masters: It was very hard to find people who could present a constructive argument against his philosophy.

There were people who argued about his philosophy in an exegetical sense.  People argued amongst each other on traditional and ‘resolute’ readings of Wittgenstein. People argued about how he used the Context Principle; or whether ‘meaning is used’ is per se a definition of meaning.

There were also arguments in a more philosophical sense between his earlier and later works – defending one against the other.

However, in terms of: Wittgenstein said x and it is wrong because y – there was an awful lot less than what you would expect of an influential philosopher. People might dismiss his whole enterprise but do not engage with individual ideas and arguments

There are the non-critical admirers, and then again, a larger amount in philosophy at large that pretty much ignore him altogether and carry on metaphysical arguments as if 1) they are sensible arguments to have, and 2) do not even have to ‘face down’ the Wittgensteinian challenge.

On the one hand this is fine, I am much more interested in what Isaiah Berlin might call the ‘history of ideas’.  I quite enjoy the history of philosophy, doing philosophical exegesis and trying to provide a charitable and compelling view of a philosopher’s project in the context in which it was written.

On the other, it makes it harder than most to write a critical philosophical essay (to amongst other things, gain good marks) when the literature doesn’t lend itself to it.

Why has this happened that there is such little critical literature?

1. The cryptic style, early and late, lends itself to arguments about what he really meant

2. The nature of philosophy for Wittgenstein, again both early and late, is that philosophy should not ultimately teach you something ‘new’ as such – at least not in the sense of a discovery of true proposition

Is there something positive (philosophically) to say about this or the literature of little import than other than a historical curiosity?  I tend towards the former but as ever, I am torn

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Life Post-Wittgenstein

Since the day I met my current wife for the first time until now, I haven’t blogged. 

I always wrote writing excruciatingly painful and time-consuming.  In this sense, I always sympathised and related to Wittgenstein: The endless editing, re-editing, re-ordering and deleting felt very similar to my own experience.  The only way anything got down on paper was due to a deadline or sheer force of will.  In some sense, it was even harder with computers because I didn’t keep a notebook of my bad thoughts to be refined – they just got deleted and had to start over.

The consequence of this was such that when having a girlfriend turned wife turned joint-parent, I just did not have the time.

Yesterday, for the first time (inspired, or rather, horrified by Corbyn’s election as Labour leader) I felt compelled to sit down and right on (what was) my main blog: http://thehidingoftheface.blogspot.co.uk/

Out of interest, I looked at the blogspot stats and whilst, despite the hundreds of posts, my main blog only had a tiny view-count; my Wittgenstein blog (with only a few posts) had thousands.  Interestingly, I am linked to by the British Wittgenstein Society and I never knew!

Now, this got me thinking.  Wittgenstein’s attitudes towards philosophy have left their mark and I often see something that makes me wonder what Wittgenstein would think.  So, I wrote my blog just now on whether Bridge is a “Sport”

Now, I don’t believe I was ever the best philosopher.  Yet, being away from philosophy for many years (and not being able to access academic journals which are very expensive), I no doubt I have lost any depth of understanding that I did possess.

Being linked to by BWS, therefore, makes one awfully self-conscious and wonder what talented philosophers would make (or scoff) and any Wittgenstein writing that this self-professed “outsider” would write.

Yet, in and of itself, I think of myself as an interesting case study.  On the one hand, I have fulfilled Wittgenstein’s ambition that philosophy should lead one to leave philosophy.

Secondly, Wittgenstein (after the Tractatus) gave up philosophy and went to do all sorts of other things (e.g. teacher), before coming back to Cambridge much later.  My supervisor (Roger White) was always of the impression that the later Wittgenstein simply didn’t understand what he himself had earlier written and its motivations.  Implausible sounding at the time, I am not sure now.

Whilst Wittgenstein was a lot cleverer than I, it is sometimes hard to look back at some philosophy and just think “that’s silly”.  No doubt, within the theoretical framework constructed in analytics philosophy, there were motivations and logical paths which one could re-take.  Yet, it doesn’t alter that the pre-theoretical ‘aghast’ face that many non-philosophers would have at some of things discussed.

To my mind, this would include Leibniz’s Monads; existent, but not actual, abstract objects that are possible worlds that somehow give meaning to modal statements; and yes, Wittgenstinian Simple Objects.

Anyway, calling something “silly” would certainly not make me seem any more intelligent to real philosophers

Wittgenstein, Bridge and Sport

There is a Judicial Review underway around whether Bridge should be classified as a sport or not.

My initial thought – as I’m sure would be the initial thought of anyone reading the article – is what would Wittgenstein say?

Sport England, taking its lead from the Council of Europe, defines a sport as an "activity aimed at improving physical fitness and well-being, forming social relations and gaining results in competition".

The later Wittgenstein wouldn’t countenance that any definition or analysis of the word “sport” (indeed, any word, meaning or function) that would act as a ‘rule’ that would satisfactorily cover all eventualities – classifying an activity in or out. 

Even if such rules were theoretically possible (which they aren’t), an ‘imposed’ definition such as the one from Sports England would not do justice in many cases as to how we actually use the term – what we do or do not in fact use “sport” in relation to. 

It makes sense to call Snooker a sport, but am not sure how much it is “aimed at improving physical fitness” or successful at doing so, in comparison to SAS training, which would not generally be thought of a sport

There is no “right” answer but nonetheless how we use the term (according to Wittgenstein) forms a ‘grammar’ of the term.  The grammar does firstly, mean that someone would look at you weirdly if you said “Pencil is a sport” – you would know that they cannot mean the same thing as you or that they are talking nonsense.  Secondly, it establishes some things as more representative of “sport” with others bearing more or less family resemblance to it.  Third, it will establish associations and disassociations with other concepts such as “hobby”, “leisure activity” and “game” 

Sports England argue: 

It has argued that bridge is no more of a sporting activity than "sitting at home, reading a book".

First thing, why couldn’t reading a book at home be a sport?  One could certainly come up with a scenario (e.g. multiple people reading the same book as fast as they can against the clock, and then answering 20 questions about it) where it might more plausibly thought of as so.

As such, Wittgenstein says there is no reason why one couldn’t call Book-Reading a sport.  Yet, they are probably right that the family resemblance is more like a second cousin-twice removed than an identical twin. Comparing bridge to book reading is a good rhetorical point, therefore, but probably a disservice (Bridge does at least have competition, for example)

My thoughts, in brief, then are:

  1. If you were going to call Bridge a sport, first you would have to admit that it is not an archetypal sport; and second, go on to explain its family resemblance
  2. Ultimately, if you were discussing it in the pub, people would “know what you mean” but someone else might be “you must be kidding, mate”.  Ultimately though, it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other
  3. Bridge players are therefore entitled to call it a sport but not sure they can simply do so because they want some funding from Sport England if they didn’t already.
  4. Judges are entitled to decide whether there is any legal reason why it is somehow wrong to deny them funding (but seems dubious if on the basis that they are the right people to “define” the word(even if that were possible)
  5. Sports England are too entitled to define who gets funding based on their mission and mandate, however defined, and this can well exclude bridge.  This though would not seem to depend on the meaning of a word.

If you were to press me though, Bridge isn’t a sport

Sunday, 19 April 2009

My Thesis: Section 5 (/end)


‘Something far away’

The GFP embodies a particular conception about the understanding of propositions, which can be revealed through analysis. All propositions are truth-functions of elementary propositions (TLP 5) which tell you what is the case if they are true. These express the thought that simple objects are concatenated in a certain way. However, “language disguises thought” which means that as the multiplicity of thought is hidden, we cannot see the connection between the proposition and reality. When completely analysed, however, “a thought can be expressed in such a way that elements of the propositional sign correspond to the objects of the thought” (TLP 3.2). In this way, the proposition manages to line up with the thought it is expressing. Given that “A logical picture of facts is a thought” (TLP 3), the proposition reveals itself as a picture of a situation in reality, where there is a one-to-one correspondence between the elements of the picture and the objects in the world.

For the Tractatus, then, language, thought and the world are all constructed according to a common logical pattern (TLP 4.014). If these are made to line up, there is no further question we can ask about the proposition’s logical relationship to reality. All we can do is see whether the proposition is true or not. This is the view criticised in the Investigations:

Thought, language, now appear to us as the unique correlate, picture, of the world. These concepts: proposition, language, thought, world, stand in line one behind the other, each equivalent to each. (But what are these words to be used for now? The language-game in which they are to be applied is missing?) (PI 96)

What is the complaint here? What he is pointing to as a weakness of the Tractatus is what we above highlighted as a (seeming) strength. On my interpretation, the strength and weakness derive from the same source: the presence or absence of the ability to elucidate the sense of our ordinary propositions. For the Tractatus there is no need to express it in this way as we could express the same proposition with any sign. Indeed, a propositional sign with the right multiplicity may have no use in our language (we wouldn’t know what to do with it). However, if the sort of analysis envisaged in the Tractatus is feasible, then it reveals the content of the proposition as the terminus of such an analysis (as envisaged by the GFP). On the other hand, if we can’t say how it applies to our propositions, then what is the use of accepting the GFP? What was positive is now negative: no further questions can be asked. It stops us saying anything about the relationship between the proposition and reality or what makes it true.

Indeed, it is the inability to see how such an analysis might proceed, that made Wittgenstein think his earlier position was empty. Consider the following:

I spoke as if there was a calculus in which such a dissection would be possible. I vaguely had in mind something like the definition that Russell had given for the definite article... At the root of all this was a false and idealized picture of the use of language. (PG p.211)

In PG he says that we can elucidate the sense of certain expressions through the use of definitions. In such instances it will help us see the connection between different concepts, see the logic of that language-game and remove misunderstandings. However, firstly, it would be a mistake to say that this could apply to all of language. Secondly, to the extent that one can dissect a proposition into logically more basic ones, it becomes a ‘problem of calculation’ as to whether the proposition is elementary or not. By this he means we must have a method of discovery whereby we could discern/calculate whether it is further analysable or not. It is precisely because we don’t have such a method for the majority of language, that it is misleading for the GFP to talk about thought being disguised or hidden. As the quote testifies, he thought something like Russell’s definition applied to the whole of language. In relation to this he says, “I saw something far away and in a very indefinite manner, and I wanted to elicit from it as much as possible”[1].

Something very close

Given what I have said above we have to ask why he was so confident of it earlier. Was he ignoring ordinary language and did he simply suppose that we could break down propositions into elementary ones? Would it have bothered him that we can’t see how such an analysis would go or would have merely stated it must be like that? Consider the following:

The strict and clear rules of the logical structure of propositions appear to us as something in the background- hidden in the medium of the understanding. I already see them (even through a medium): for I understand the propositional sign, I use it to say something. (PI 102)

He is referring to such passages as “the understanding of general proposition palpably depends on the understanding of elementary propositions” (TLP 4.411). We are able to understand all sorts of propositions, including ones we have heard for the first time, even though we can’t spell out its projective relation to reality. Equally, we didn’t have to have any new ‘logical experience’. As such, palpably the ingredients were there for understanding the proposition and I know how to put them together to form the thought. Here, my understanding can be brought to light but not in the sense of telling me something I didn’t already know. Instead, in terms of using the medium of language in such a way that logically makes clear what I already know.

In these passages we don’t see analysis as far off and distant but which we must say is there anyway. On the contrary, they seem directly relevant and they feel as if they are contained within my understanding of ordinary propositions. As I argued in the previous section, analysis is only possible because we already know the meanings of the parts of thought. In this way, at each stage of the analysis, the proposition will recognisably be the proposition being analysed. As such, it would certainly be a concern if there was a disconnect between analysis and our understanding, if there was no method of discovery, or if we couldn’t see how it would be applied in the situations in which we use the proposition. The logic of propositions are not ‘out of sight’ but seen through the medium of language, in its application to the world.

The argument then is that it wasn’t dogmatism, as such, about logical analysis or a focus on an ideal language that led him down the path to the GFP. Instead, it was caused by the very real way in which we explain the sense of a proposition to someone. That is, we either point to the situation, point to a picture of it, or explain how things are in that situation. Through this, the person being explained to manages to grasp the sense and is then able to use it appropriately. This requires the person to understand the parts and how they are put together in the sentence. As far as it goes, that account is fine. However, the philosopher then takes that picture, image of the situation or whatever, and says to himself “This is true”, “This is how things are”. Then s/he starts to believe in something like Russell’s theory of descriptions where either we know the elements of the picture by acquaintance or by description.

Now, I said that it was fine in as far as it goes because i) we do understand a proposition because of the words that make it up and ii) pointing to something (for instance) can help us grasp the sense of a sentence or the meaning of a word. However, this is where the Augustinian picture comes in with a philosophically naive conception of what it is to ‘grasp a sense’. We begin to feel that what is grasped is something given in the proposition, or by the explanation or through the pointing. However, we don’t grasp the meaning individually or exclusively through any of these things. These things only manage to do against the background of the rest of language. If we look at the wider context of language, it is harder to see how digging down below its surface helps us become clear about how we are using the propositions.


The GFP, in theory, is simply what is shown through the analysis of language and the uncovering of what we already know when we understand of a proposition. What we will find will differ with each proposition and can only be discovered as the end-result of a process of analysis. However, the kind of answer is given once-and-for-all in advance of such an elucidation. He later believes that if we look at the conditions under which our propositions make sense, we will no longer believe that all propositions can be elucidated in the same way. One reason he had earlier thought it could is because of a prior conception of what understanding a proposition consisted in, brought about through a particular way they are explained. Once we read his critique of the Augustinian picture of language, this motivation is undercut.

[1] Wittgenstein to Waissman as cited by (Monk, 1990) p. 183

Monday, 13 April 2009

My Thesis: Section 4, Part 2

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Leaving it to chance

What then if we reject the view that simple signs were elucidated via ostensive definition? One should certainly agree with Kenny that in the Tractatus “he is saying is that the understanding of names and the understanding of propositions stand or fall together.”[1] That is, you cannot have facts without things, or things without facts. This much I agree with but it doesn’t explain the import of elucidations. How do they explain the meanings of simple signs? Let us return to the dilemma from Philosophical Remarks where the elucidation “This is A” is either a proposition or a definition. Most commentators take Wittgenstein to be endorsing the first option only: elucidations are fully fledged, true-false propositions. For example, McGuiness says the following:

..teaching can only be carried out by means of complete propositions or complete thoughts. The learner has to grasp these as a whole, and, when he has done that, he will have an understanding of the primitive signs contained in the proposition.[2]

We cannot explain the meaning by pointing at the object, but have to provide ‘illustrative examples’ (White’s translation of Erlauterung[3]) of propositions with the name in. In taking this view of elucidations they firmly ‘bite Wittgenstein’s bullet’ in saying the following: “We must then leave it to chance whether the other catches onto the meanings of those sentences, which is something that can only be done by grasping the meaning of the name.”[4] [5]

This accords with my view in that 1) one can learn whole propositions without first learning the meanings of the simple signs and 2) in learning a proposition you will ‘grasp’ the objects involved in understanding it. As such, if there was already a perspicuous sign-language with the right logical multiplicity, and elucidations were there to help you to understand or speak that language, one is taught complete propositions and it is left to chance whether you catch on.

The meanings of the sign are already known

Everyone in the debate about elucidations has been focusing on a learning situation where we come to learn what a word or a proposition means. It is as if we were learning language for the first time and we had to ‘grasp’ what was being said. Given this, it has been seen as an obstacle to explaining the signs that “they can only be understood if the meanings of the signs are already known” (TLP 3.263). Either an ostensive definition is needed to connect language and reality or it is left to chance whether the learner catches on. However, this is to ignore the context of the passage about elucidations. What is of interest is not how we came to be acquainted with simple objects or have the ability to form elementary propositions in the first place. To the extent that we can speak language at all, we have those experiences and that ability. What is of interest is how we come to know what objects are involved in a proposition as the end result of analysis. We can see this from the fact that 3.263 is a commentary of “In a proposition a thought can be expressed in such a way that elements of the propositional sign correspond to the objects of thought” (TLP 3.2).

3.263 starts from the fact that we already understand how to use the propositional sign and that with it, we can already express that particular thought. Ex hypothesei, if we know the thought we know the objects of thought. Given that a thought is a picture of a state of affairs, we not only know the objects but how they are related in that state of affairs pictured. The objects are the ‘logical co-ordinates’ through which the situation is projected into the propositional sign (NB p.20). Given this, the last line of the passage is seen as an advantage: it is because we already know the meanings that 3.2 is possible. The point is that we do not need any extra information in order to lay out the sense in which a proposition is used. We fully understand a proposition if we use it correctly but the thought can be expressed in such a way that it is clear that it is a logical picture of a fact. In line with the argument throughout the essay, the Tractatus is looking at how we can display the logical features of a proposition in a way that is logically perspicuous.

In making the above argument I am making a distinction between knowing that a simple sign ‘A’ has [object] A as its meaning, and knowing the meaning itself (i.e. knowing A). Of course, if we understand an analysed proposition understanding the simple sign is to know its meaning. In such situations, it would be nonsense to ask which object is the meaning of ‘A’ (‘A’ is the same sign as ‘A’). However, the distinction needs to be drawn for the following reason. We can know the meaning of a sign (i.e. be acquainted with the object) without a) knowing that in a particular notation, ‘x’ has that object as its meaning b) having any sign in my notation (i.e. English) which specifically names it. It is this kind of implicit knowledge of objects and understanding of elementary propositions that I’m claiming are necessary for analysis. However, until the analysis (philosophical elucidation) itself is performed, I am unable to name the objects. Equally, I would be unable to use the analysed proposition without it being explained which object is named by the signs.

How the last stage of analysis is supposed to be achieved- where somehow we are brought to recognise the simple sign names an object we have grasped all along- is as mysterious as any other part of the analysis. That we are able to (at least theoretically) express the proposition so it lines up with the objects of thought was seen as a demand of logic.

A last look at Philosophical Remarks

As Hacker finds ostensive definitions of simple objects to be found in the Tractatus he believes that the Investigations’ criticisms of ostensive definition hit their target, and as Kenny doesn’t find it there he thinks the Tractatus has been misrepresented. However, why, in looking at the passage, must we take “This is A” an elucidation of a Tractarian simple? Would it not be more likely to be something like “This is red”, “This is a ball”, “This is Neil”? Nowhere in his earlier work does he talk about observation statement in relation to simple objects. Where he does talk about ‘pointing’ in the Notebooks, it is about the kind of things above which we are obviously acquainted with. These may indeed be the simple elements of representation, (i.e. simple signs in not further analysable propositions) if the later Wittgenstein is correct. However, whether such propositions are fully analysed is precisely what is up for dispute.

In both periods, ostensive explanation can help us grasp the way ‘red’ is used but for different reasons. Earlier he believed that ostensive explanation revealed our ability to pick out a state of affairs as being ‘red’. However, given that the state of affairs may not exist, the ability does not consist in ‘red’ being a simple element of representation that refers to something red. If, despite this, it helps me grasp the contribution of the word to the sense of a proposition saying that ‘something is red’, it must be analysable by other terms I understand. One is able to elucidate it in this way because the objects of thought are already latent in my understanding of such sentences. After all, I understand the meaning of the sign as I can use it in propositions to assert the truth and falsity of states of affairs.

Here ostensive explanation doesn’t provide the elucidation, it is what is in need of elucidation. It gives me an intuitive grasp of its meaning: it means just that. It needs to be elucidated to yield its objective content. The point of the GFP is, however, that whatever the rules of the logical structure of language are, we are already in command of them. I think this better explains the following: “Logical analysis and ostensive definition were unclear to me in the Tractatus. I thought at the time there is a “connection between language and reality”[6]. Ostension made it seem that there was a connection between language and reality but didn’t reveal what it was; logical analysis reveals that connection. Later he believed both were flawed. “This is ‘red’” is either a proposition or definition. If the former, we could pick it out because we already knew that to be red (because we know how red is used in language). If the latter, then it becomes is part of grammar rather than by revealing reality.

[1] (Kenny, 1974) p.5

[2] (McGuiness, 1981) p.70

[3] (White, 2006) p.61


[5] I’m not putting all three in the same boat except to say understanding the names come with understanding the proposition. McGuiness thinks it absurd that we could simply be acquainted with a singular object as we only ever sense a concatenation of objects. For Kenny and White it is possible that we can point to a thing.

[6] Wittgenstein in 1932 as cited in (Hacker, 1975) p.608

Saturday, 11 April 2009

My Thesis: Section 4, Part 1

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As I said on the introduction, the version I have here is not the one that I eventually handed in.  If I remember correctly, I changed this one more than most.  But it give you a good idea...

4- Elucidations and ostensive definitions

In the previous two sections we have looked at the questions to which Wittgenstein’s critique of the Augustinian picture of language and his earlier analysis are addressed. Broadly speaking, both look at how we make clear the contribution of a word to the sense of a particular utterance. The word in both cases played its role as part of something larger: for Augustine as signifying part of the thought and for the Tractatus as contributing to the sense of a proposition. However, there was a difference in the two cases. A main facet of the Augustinian picture- ostensive explanation- is aimed at explaining- or making known- the meaning of our words from one person to the other. How, as a matter of fact can the content of our thoughts be communicated in such a way that another person can grasp what we mean? The Tractatus, on the other hand, was interested in giving a philosophical elucidation in which we can make the sense of our utterances reveal their connection to reality. Whilst this is a matter of understanding, it is done in a way free of an individual’s psychology. My argument in this thesis, as I have intimated, is that a particular view of explanation misled the direction that he though elucidation must take. This section will advance this argument by exploring how the understanding of a proposition brought about by ostension provides the explandum for analysis.

As I have been emphasizing, understanding a proposition and using it with sense does not entail that I have an analysis of a proposition. Wittgenstein says, “Obviously propositions are possible which contain no simple signs… nor do the definitions of their component parts have to be attached to them” (NB p.46). On the other hand, he says that a proposition is “understood by anyone who understands its constituents” (TLP 4.024). Here then, understanding the proposition comes along with understanding the parts but, in analysis we can only come to the parts through what we understand about the proposition. This requires us to think about the proposition in some way to fix that as the object of investigation. We need an independent grip on the proposition in order to evaluate what role the parts contribute to the whole. This cannot be given through laying out its parts as that can only be investigated once we have the thought in focus. Luckily, he tells us that unlike simple signs, with propositions we can make ourselves understood (TLP 4.026). Maybe this involves pointing at a picture, or at the situation that makes it true etc. If through these we fully grasp the thought being analysed, we will automatically (but sub-consciously) be aware of the objects.

Here then is the position I have been putting forward that philosophical elucidation relies on what is ‘grasped’ in non-philosophical explanations of the sense of a proposition. What is grasped is something ‘given’ by the explanation such that it was an alternative way of presenting the same thing. This can be further seen from the passage we quoted from in section 2 about two ways of giving a sign meaning: ostension (which gets outside language) and definition (which relies on other signs with meaning we understand). On this view, both are equivalent in understanding the expression and our ability to use the sentence with sense. However, the distinct advantage of ostension is that it brings us to grasp the meaning of the term non-linguistically. It brings us to an intuitive awareness of what is being thought about in the first place and acquaints us with the objects of thought. The Tractatus is not concerned with ‘reaching outside language’ in this intuitive way but elucidates the state of affairs through analysis into its constituent parts. Consider this:

The meanings of primitive signs can be explained by elucidations. Elucidations are propositions that contain the primitive signs. So they can be understood only if the meanings of those signs are already known. (TLP 3.263)

Here elucidation is made possible as we already know the meanings that the primitive signs will stand for. They were present in my intuitive conception of the proposition all along. We manage to reach parts that themselves reach out to reality. It makes clear what was already there in our notion of ‘how things stand’ given in our explanation of a proposition.

Ostensive definitions and Tractarian objects

I will have a look at another interpretation both of the role of ostensive definitions and its connection with the passage about elucidations. This position is one that is very much connected with what I called the ‘orthodox view’ of the Augustinian picture that I laid out in a previous section. We know how to use language, on this view, because words are ostensively correlated with objects. Hacker advocates the position that this view is present in Wittgenstein’s earlier thinking claiming that “the Tractatus contains a tacit and confused doctrine of ostension”[1]. Nowhere in the text does it talk about ostension or ostensive definition but this may simply be due to the fact that it didn’t exist as a technical term when the Tractatus was written. Hacker believes the passage about elucidations provides a clue that the view was indeed there. Discussing this view is not only worthwhile because it is differs from my take on ostensive definitions and elucidations, but for two further reasons:

1. If this view is to be found in the Tractatus, then the Investigations is aiming at a clear target and is meeting it head on. As such, the Tractatus and the GFP would be undermined to the extent that Wittgenstein’s criticisms of a view of ostensive definition linking language to reality are correct. This, if it could be substantiated, would be a more clear-cut refutation than my criticism. For me, a) ostensive definition remains pre-theoretical and b) the criticisms wouldn’t show the GFP to be false but would just say that it doesn’t meet the real need of elucidating the sense of our propositions.

2. Secondly, those who think the passage about elucidations does not contain a doctrine of ostensive definition, think that the Investigations misrepresent the Tractatus. For example, Kenny agrees that 3.263 is the closest thing you will find to ostensive definition in the Tractatus, but concludes that it isn’t about that after all. As such, he is led to conclude that “The criticism of the role assigned to ostensive definition quite passes by the account briefly given in the Tractatus.[2]

As such, both the view put forward by Hacker, and its critics share the premise that the Investigations aims to criticise the Tractarian view that names and signs are connected by ostensive definition. This shared premise is one that my answer avoids. However, let’s start by examining Hacker’s view.

Wittgenstein says that “Elucidations are propositions that contain the primitive sign”[3] (TLP 3.263). Hacker contests that the type of proposition Wittgenstein envisaged fulfilling this elucidatory role is one of the form “This is A”. The simple signs to be elucidated are names (TLP 3.202) and “A name means an object. The object is its meaning” (TLP 3.203). As such, pointing to an object and naming it helps convey the meaning of a simple sign. In recognising what the person is pointing to, I form a mental connection between the sign and that object. Therefore, on the view that Hacker ascribes to Wittgenstein, the elucidation helps form a connection between language and reality. In this way we learn all the internal properties of an object and so how to use it in propositions. This view would help explain a comment that Wittgenstein later made to Waissman, “Logical analysis and ostensive definition were unclear to me in the Tractatus. I thought at the time there is a “connection between language and reality”[4].

Hacker draws in support of the view that the Tractatus used “This is A” as an ostensive definition the following passage:

When I explain to someone the meaning of a word A by saying ‘This is A’ and pointing at something, this expression can be meant in two ways. Either it itself is a proposition and then can only be understood if the meaning of ‘A’ is already known, i.e. I have to leave it to fate whether the hearer will grasp the proposition as I meant it or not. Or the proposition is a definition.[5]

Hacker notes how similar the second sentence is to 3.263, which shows that he did take his elucidations to be true-false proposition. However, if this is all an elucidation is it would leave it to chance whether people grasped the meaning of the sign, and as such would fail to explain it. It would no more be a elucidation than the use of any proposition. Thus, he takes it that Wittgenstein also took it as a definition. As such, Hacker believes ‘This is A’ in the Tractatus is “an ostensive definition ‘seen through a glass darkly’, misconstrued as a bipolar proposition”[6]. Propositions tell us about reality (i.e. does a state of affairs obtain in reality or not) whilst definitions tell us about the meaning of a term. In confusing these two functions, Wittgenstein believed that the meaning of name (including its possible combination with other names in propositions) was determined by a feature of reality (the internal properties of an object).

The context principle: a prima facie case against ostensive definitions

At 3.3 Wittgenstein states his version of the context principle: “Only propositions have sense; only in the nexus of a proposition does have a name have meaning”. I will primarily focus on the logical question that the context principle is seeking to address. In doing so, we will see that there is no explanatory need for ostensive definitions of simple objects in the Tractatus. As such, whilst dubious, I will not demonstrate that one’s attention cannot be brought to bear on a particular object or that (empirically speaking) a connection could be set up between a word and a thing by pointing at it and uttering a name. However, these questions will remain firmly in the domain of psychology and not of interest to the author of the Tractatus.

The logical import of the context principle can be taken in a weak or strong way. It could be saying that for a sign to be a name, we must know how it combines with other signs in a proposition in order to be able to state a fact. However, if this was all that the context principle was saying, then it would just be reiterating what had already been established. That is, the sign by itself is of no logical interest and wouldn’t be called a name. A sign only has the logical status of a ‘name’ in being an abstraction from a semantic fact. The key role of language, according to Wittgenstein, is that it is able to state facts. Through his picture theory, he says that for a proposition to represent a state of affairs, its elements must be arranged in a determinate way. The simplest elements ‘stand in’ for objects, and the way they are arranged show what is the case if the proposition is true. Here a name just is the simplest element in the representation of a picture.

This makes it implausible that we could come to know that a sign meant an object simply by pointing. That is because, in order to know that it is the meaning, I would have to know that the object can enter into all the states of affairs that the sign can. Thus, it could be argued that to know the internal properties of an object, I have to know how to use it in senseful propositions. However, an argument can be made out that this is backwards. That is, we know what senseful elementary propositions are because we know the combinatorial possibilities of objects. This is something that we learn by being acquainted with the objects in question. It can be pointed out kennen, the German word Wittgenstein uses for ‘know’, has a strong sensory connotation. Malcolm compares this to Russell’s objects of acquaintance.[7] As such, when he says “If I know an object I also know all its possible occurrences in states of affairs” (TLP 2.0123) he may be saying we learn the meaning from being acquainted with the object. If someone draws attention to it when saying a name, we will know what propositions it can take part in, because we know the combinatorial possibilities of the object it denotes.

However, the (logical) claim that is being made by the context principle is stronger than the one mentioned above. Firstly, it doesn’t just say that we have to consider a name as being capable of being in a proposition but that it actually has to be considered in one. Secondly, it talks about a ‘name’ and not simply a sign. Thus, consider a bona fide name: a sign that in a logically perspicuous language can combine with others to form a proposition. In standing in such a relationship to other names, it has a meaning and refers to an object. However, taken by itself and considered in isolation, it doesn’t refer to an object. This gains support from the commentary on the context principle:

TLP 3.31- I call any part of a proposition that characterizes its sense an expression (or a symbol)... An expression is the mark of a form and a content.

TLP 3.341- An expression has meaning only in a proposition.

Here it can be seen that a name is one such (or even the fundamental) expression. Wittgenstein says in relation to simple objects “It is form and content” (TLP 2.025). As such, a name contributes to the sense of an expression by standing for, or symbolizing an object. Given 3.341, a ‘name’ doesn’t mark a form and content when used by itself, as it doesn’t contribute towards the sense of a proposition.

[1] (Hacker, 1975) p.607

[2] (Kenny, 1974) p.6

[3] This presumably doesn’t mean all elucidations contain the primitive signs, but the ones that are concerned with explaining the primitive signs (the final stage of analysis). If all philosophy consists of elucidations (4.112) he can’t be suggesting that we reach the end of analysis straight away. Presumably there will be stages of analysis where each elucidation is less logically complex than the previous one.

[4] Wittgenstein in 1932 as cited in (Hacker, 1975) p.608

[5] (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Remarks, 1975), section 6

[6] Hacker (1986) p.77

[7] (Malcolm, 1986) pp. 8-10