The following is an exploration into Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “Philosophical Investigations“. This was an explanation I had presented as an essay to my philosophy class, “Language, Meaning, and Understanding”. Hopefully this provides some sort of insight into this work. In particular, I explore the question: How does meaning relate to use?
Wittgenstein claims in his “Philosophical Investigations” that meaning is how a word is “use[d] in language” (Wittgenstein 20). Meaning is contingent on usage, as it is grounded in the reality or ideality in which the word is used. Usage is imperative to meaning, as sense-perception is how one comes into contact with the context of a phrase. There is the tendency to problematize the relationship between knowledge of a word and usage; however, it is necessary that there is the acknowledgement of something referenced in order for a word to be created in the first place: “What I really see must surely be what is produced in me by the influence of the object..a sort of a copy, something that in its turn can be looked at, can be before one; almost something like a materialisation …” (Wittgenstein 199). It is not an argument of whether or not the subjects are, in the present moment, coming into physical sensory contact with a word. It is an argument towards what a word means in the context of the reality it is being used. In order to determine meaning, there are several foundations upon which it must be established; a normative linguistic stage, and an exchange between a receiver of the information and the giver of the information.
The normative linguistic stage this paper refers to is described by Wittgenstein as the rules of interpretation. He claims that all that is said and communicated “is, on some interpretation, in accord with the rule” and that “interpretation still hangs in the air along with what it interprets” (Wittgenstein 80). The main rule of interpretation has to do with how a word is societally accepted and established, and also serves as the foundation for how meaning is created.
A word’s meaning is inherently embedded in usage within a society. Words in it of themselves are tools in language to express ideas and interpretations to other folks who are on the same normative linguistic stage. This stage is determined by the culture of the society in which the individuals interact: “Certainly. From time to time he gives [them] the right tip.—This is what ‘learning’ and ‘teaching’ are like here.—What one acquires here is not a technique; one learns correct judgements. There are also rules, but they do not form a system, and only experienced people can apply them right,” (Wittgenstein 227). The two characters on either end of the bridge, the giver of information on one end and the receiver of information on the other, play on this normative linguistic stage. Play or word usage is not completely open-ended, it relies on already-established and societally subconscious rules of interpretation. Words serve as the bridge in which one crosses over to meaning, always on a journey forward towards closer levels of understanding with the other. It is important to note in this metaphor that both characters must be on the same bridge in order to interact: “What happens when we make an effort—say in writing a letter—to find the right expression for our thoughts?—This phrase compares the process to one of translating or describing: the thoughts are already there (perhaps were there in advance) and we merely look for their expression” (Wittgenstein 108). There are many instances of miscommunication based off of not starting from the same place; there is a humorous image of two characters on two different bridges crossing two separate streams, where both assume that they are getting closer to the other, but aren’t even close to getting across the same bridge.
Both the giver and the receiver of the information must be clear on their intent on interpretation in order to be playing the same game and understanding the same rules of word usage. Without these things, meaning cannot be completely transferred from either party. Both must make it clear where there is any disconnect in their own subjective usage or meaning of a word. It is impossible to use the correct string of words to perfectly communicate one’s own ideas, as the mind already abstracts itself in the process of conferring a phrase to say. In understanding how a word is being used and under what context, general meaning is easier to discern.