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Use, Meaning, and Theoretical Commitment

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This paper is on theoretical commitments involved in connecting use and meaning. Wittgenstein maintained, in his Philosophical Investigations, that meaning more or less 'is' use; and he more or less proclaimed that in philosophy, we must 'not advance any kind of theory' (PI § 109). He presented a connection between use and meaning by describing a sequence of language-games where richness of vocabularies and complexity of embedding behaviour grow simultaneously. This presentation is very impressive in the sequence of PI §§ 2, 8, 15, and 21, even if it needs sympathetic touching up. If supplemented, the presentation makes a convincing case for claiming that there is a connection between use and meaning in the following sense: Within everyday, innocent talk about meanings of expressions, all questions and controversies about meanings are ultimately to be answered and to be decided by appeal to correct descriptions of the expressions' use. This may be a very modest statement of the meaning-is-use connection. However, establishing even this modest statement requires that one implicitly relies on controversial, explanatory theories from philosophy of language, as sober analysis of the sequence presented by Wittgenstein will reveal.

This is not to say that the modest statement is in any way fishy. Rather, I want to remind readers of how desirable it is to restrict the interpretation of Wittgenstein's famous hostile remarks on theories to that kind of metaphysical misunderstandings of our everyday language which the context of PI § 109 is about.

In (1) I characterize, by way of listing examples from the Philosophical Investigations, the area of what I think Wittgenstein regarded as innocent, everyday meaning talk, talk that is not yet infected by bad philosophy. In (2), I argue that what Wittgenstein wanted to show was that such talk is in some sense replaceable by use descriptions, i.e. by descriptions of language-games. In (3), I argue that not all kinds of language-games are relevant; in particular, those of teaching and explaining words have to be excluded. As I restrict myself to the four remaining 'primitive' language-games in PI §§ 2, 8, 15, and 21, I have to defend my approach, in (4), against Joachim Schulte's case for reading Wittgenstein's comparison of these language-games with real languages as ironical. How the invitation to regard such a language-game as a complete, primitive language should in fact be construed is a question I discuss in (5), defending my interpretation against Richard Raatzsch in particular. How increases of expressive power are brought about by increases of the use repertoires is shown by an analysis of modified versions of the language-games in question, and of alternatives thereof, in (6), (7), (8), and (9) respectively, pointing out the places where theoretical commitments enter. Section (10) sums up commitments that have emerged from a sympathetic defence of a modest reading of the meaning-and-use connection.

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: April 24, 2006

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