Meaning is use: Wittgenstein on the limits of language

LudwigWittgensteinLudwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951) was one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century. Wittgenstein made a major contribution to conversations on language, logic and metaphysics, but also ethics, the way that we should live in the world. He published two important books: the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus (1921) and the Philosophical Investigations (1953), for which he is best known. These were major contributions to twenty century philosophy of language.

Wittgenstein was a difficult character. Those who knew him assumed he was either a madman or a genius. He was known for working himself up into fits of frustration, pacing about the room decrying his own stupidity, and lambasting philosophers for their habit of tying themselves in semantic knots. In his favour, Wittgenstein was not afraid to admit his own mistakes. He once said: ‘If people never did anything stupid, nothing intelligent would ever get done’. He also said: ‘I don’t know why we are here, but I’m pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves’. Students approached his classes at Cambridge University with due trepidation, never sure if they were about to witness a brilliant act of logical deconstruction or the implosion of a tortured mind.

Sometimes a crisis can be productive. Wittgenstein, who was constantly in the grip of some kind of intellectual cataclysm, tended to advance his thinking by debunking what he had previous thought to be true. The best example is his celebrated about turn on the nature of language. In the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, Wittgenstein argued for a representational theory of language. He described this as a ‘picture theory’ of language: reality (‘the world’) is a vast collection of facts that we can picture in language, assuming that our language has an adequate logical form. ‘The world is the totality of facts, not of things’, Wittgenstein claimed, and these facts are structured in a logical way. The goal of philosophy, for early Wittgenstein, was to pare language back to its logical form, the better to picture the logical form of the world.

Wittgenstein’s early work inspired a generation of logical positivists – critical analytic thinkers who set out to debunk unverifiable ‘pseudostatements’ in an effort to define the limits of meaningful language. ‘That whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent’, Wittgenstein intoned in the closing passages of the Tractatus. To become a philosopher, one must learn to hold one’s tongue. Logical positivism was a powerful movement that defined the shape of analytic philosophy well into the 1960s. However, it was undercut by the work of the same man who was its founder. By the 1930s, Wittgenstein had decided that the picture theory language was quite wrong. He devoted the rest of his life to explaining why. ‘Resting on your laurels is as dangerous as resting when you are walking in the snow’, he commented. ‘You doze off and die in your sleep’.

Wittgenstein’s shift in thinking, between the Tractatus and the Investigations, maps the general shift in 20th century philosophy from logical positivism to behaviourism and pragmatism. It is a shift from seeing language as a fixed structure imposed upon the world to seeing it as a fluid structure that is intimately bound up with our everyday practices and forms of life. For later Wittgenstein, creating meaningful statements is not a matter of mapping the logical form of the world. It is a matter of using conventionally-defined terms within ‘language games’ that we play out in the course of everyday life. ‘In most cases, the meaning of a word is its use’, Wittgenstein claimed, in perhaps the most famous passage in the Investigations. It ain’t what you say, it’s the way that you say it, and the context in which you say it. Words are how you use them.

Communication, on this model, involves using conventional terms in a way that is recognised by a linguistic community. It involves playing a conventionally accepted language game. 

lion22ewew‘If a lion could talk, we should not be able to understand him’, Wittgenstein argued, because the language games of lions are too different from our own to permit understanding. It is worth noting, as an aside, that Wittgenstein’s theory does allow that lions have a language, based in the social dynamics of their hunting and mating activities. The roaring of two adult male lions, challenging each other for leadership of the pride, is arguably as much of a language gaming activity as the banter of two human rivals, each attempting to outdo the other through a play of words. We are a long way from the formalistic view of language described in the Tractatus. We have left the Platonic realm of pure logic and rediscovered the world. 

Wittgenstein’s view of language as social practice is instructive for anyone who seeks to communicate clearly and effectively. Writers and communicators are always told to think about the audience that they are speaking to and to craft their communiques accordingly. Wittgenstein’s philosophy pushes this point of view beyond linguistics into ethnography. In order to communicate with a social tribe, listen to how they play with language. In many cases, slang, banter, and jokes are not poorly structured ‘secondary’ forms of communication, but a coded means of crafting pointed exchanges within a community. A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words, but a well-timed joke can express a world-view. Wittgenstein once said that a ‘serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes’.

Jokes are not ephemera. They may be logically incoherent (this is often what makes them funny), yet they play an important role in the language games that bind a community together.

Wittgenstein’s view of language is also important for anyone engaging in philosophy. The dictum: ‘In most cases, meaning is use’ serves as a vital corrective for the impulse to launch into vague metaphysical speculations premised on the misuse of words. Take the word ‘God’, for example. The contemporary debate between atheists and believers is premised on the idea that the word ‘God’ either represents something in the real world, or it does not. Believers argue that it does (and tie themselves in knots trying to verify this claim), while atheists argue that it doesn’t. However, both parties to this debate unwittingly rely on a picture theory of language. On this theory, language represents facts about the world. What is says is either true or false. Never the twain shall meet.

A Wittgensteinian approach to the debate begins by pointing out ‘God’ is a word that has different meanings in the context of different communities. In the context of different linguistic communities, people use ‘God’ in different ways to articulate different facets of experience (consider ‘It’s in God’s hands now’ or ‘When the sun rose, I felt the presence of God’). Another way of thinking about the meaning of ‘God’, therefore, is to see peoples’ use of this term as a move in a social language game – a move that ideally has specific connotations for members of a community. Perhaps the term expresses fidelity to a way of life, as Karen Armstrong argues. Perhaps it expresses wonder in the face of existence. The bottom line is that using a term does not necessarily imply a belief in an entity that corresponds to this term. The meaning of a word hinges on its usefulness in context, not its ideal referent outside of all possible contexts.

Wittgenstein’s teaching has practical value. Why waste time arguing over issues that will never be resolved when the whole thing could be deflated with a simple question: ‘Are we even talking about the same thing?’ If you struggle to overcome the urge to define things too carefully, or find yourself becoming obsessed about the meaning of words and their ‘true’ definition, or if you are convinced, like many philosophers, that the existence of a word logically implies some metaphysical essence, or Platonic form, that corresponds to this word, remember that what gives a word meaning is the conventional social discourse within which it is employed. By attending to the ordinary language contexts that give words their meaning, we can avoid misusing them and trying to make them mean things that they aren’t made to mean. The more that we return words to their home, seeing them in terms of the ordinary language contexts that they work within, the easier it becomes to untie the knots in language and understand what is really being said. 


  1. Awesome photo of the lion 🙂

  2. Wittgenstein was a very confused individual – both the early and late versions of him represent only a detours down the wrong roads to a philosophy of language that only existed in his mind.
    I’m fully aware of the applications of his work to technologies like Google Search, but they are only language constructions (ontologies) leaving the deeper meaning of language inaccessible.

  3. I am not all that familiar with Wittgenstein or Ordinary Language philosophy for that matter, but am I understanding correctly from this posts that he was suggesting that we do not have ideas without language or something to that affect? I guess I am not understanding what is meant by the picture theory of language.

    My view is that we attempt to translate our impression of an experience into words that fail in a very large sense to capture the fullness of the lived experience. We simply do not have the capacity to accomplish with words what would be necessary to accurately describe some event. Since we are not able to fully describe the experience even sufficient to satisfy ourselves, then this makes it all the worse for wear when trying to communicate with others. I think this is why the metaphor and analogies are so useful because we can compare what we mean to convey with something that is more largely understood by our audience. Still, the fullness of the lived experience is lost in translation and this in large part is responsible for our limited capacity to understand and share knowledge.

    I am also curious about the concept of words that are quite simply meaningless. As an atheist who lands in the God conversation occasionally, I revert to a Socratic style of discourse because to me, the word God is either meaningless or could be assigned 7 billion plus meanings on any given day that it is a pragmatically useless conversation.

    • Bang on with the first point, Steven. Wittgenstein doubted that we have ideas or defined experiences in the absence of language. He even claimed that we don’t experience pain in the absence of understanding the word ‘pain’: we feel something awful, sure, but since we can’t process it in terms of the concept ‘I feel pain’, it’s an unqualified and mysterious experience, not ‘pain’ per se.

      The picture theory is a version of the correspondence theory of meaning and truth, traditionally dominant in philosophy. Words correspond to things in the world – they are like pictures that we use to signify things. What marked Wittgenstein’s theory as unique is his idea that language pictures facts about the world. Facts have a logical form (for example, X is not Y, or X is Y). To picture these facts, Wittgenstein believed, our language must be logically formed too. Hence the movement in analytic philosophy to define the logic of language and to deride non-logical forms of language (poetry for example) as essentially meaningless (in the sense that they don’t refer to anything real).

      Wittgenstein would agree with your take on language as an inadequate tool for discussing experience. Language had definite limits, and if we want to make sense in our discussions with one another, we must be aware of these limits. In his later work, Wittgenstein argued that these limits are set by social convention: the meaning of a word is its conventional use. Hence, his advice to anyone debating the substance of an ontological claim is: make sure that you are not using terms in a non-standard way. Taken out of their everyday contexts, words can mean anything and nothing.

      My sense is that the God debate would be deflated (if not resolved) if parties on both sides of the debate looked carefully at the many ways that people ordinarily use the term God, instead of assuming that God-talk implicitly refers to (or pictures) a metaphysical entity.

      Karen Armstrong makes this point in her article (see link in the post). It’s worth a read

      Thanks for your comments and thoughts.

      • Well my understanding is a credit to your ability to explain things clearly. I certainly thought my first comment was completely ‘wonky’ (that being a technical term in this conversation), but now I just think Wittgenstein’s analytics is wonky. Of course, I do not spend a lot of time in the analytics conversation or in the Philosophy of Language for that matter, so maybe it would make more sense if I did.

        Thanks for the post and the follow-up. I will check out that article you suggested.

      • How is LW on language differs/complements Avram Noam Chomski, please?

  4. Reblogged this on Mellissify and commented:

  5. Reblogged this on maha's place.

  6. I have wondered why English has become the dominant language. Perhaps it is for a reason the early Wittgenstein articulated on, ‘to pare language back to its logical form, the better to picture the logical form of the world’. Moreover, English is a pragmatic language.

    I think it is about English being best at paring back language and people’s meaning. It is also about English being the most versatile and fluid for a world that is always changing. English is an open language that enables an open world.

  7. akinagunbiade says:

    Wow. This has so helped me in my assignment

  8. Johann Klaassen says:

    Hey Tim: I’ve been looking for a citation for the ‘I don’t know why we are here, but I’m pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves’ bit, but I can’t find one. Can you help?

    • Hi Johann. You’ve caught me out! The quote is one that I’ve heard attributed to Wittgenstein a number of times (by reputable sources), but I don’t know who first cited it. It may be apocryphal. But so many great quotes are! I hope to be forgiven.

  9. Laura Fluyt says:

    Thank you for explaining this so clearly. I had some diffuculties to understand Wittgenstein, thanks to your notes I can finally understand (almost) everything. It also helped me to write my final thesis.

  10. Excellent article! By the way, I just wanted to ask if there is any reference on that quote about a good philosophical book being written entirely in jokes… is that on any of his books, or is it just an anecdote told by people? Thank you

  11. Ludwig Wittgenstein was a person on a mission to understand natural and human social behavior. However it was so vast he became very frustrated and contradicted his own hypothesis.

  12. Andrew James says:

    Very interesting and well written. I came here via Coursera Introduction to Search Engine Optimization by University of California Davis. This was recommended reading, and has made me want to read more about Wittgenstein. Thanks!

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