Skip to main content

THE MEANING MYSTERY (Wittgenstein on meaning, from my book The Philosophy Gym)

16. The Meaning Mystery

Language is an extraordinarily powerful tool – the most important tool we possess. How do our sounds, squiggles and other signs come by their astonishing power to mean something? Indeed, what is meaning, exactly? This chapter introduces some of the key ideas of two philosophers: John Locke (1632-1704) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (1989-1951).

Where does meaning originate?

Take a look at the following sequence of straight and curved lines.

            ILLUSTRATION: I am happy

In English these lines mean I am happy. But there could be other languages in which this same combination of lines conveys quite a different thought. There might be an alien civilization for which they mean my trousers are in tatters (I don’t say this is likely, of course. But it’s possible.) The lines are, in themselves, devoid of any particular meaning.
The same is true of other forms of representation, including diagrams, illustrations and samples. They don’t have any intrinsic representational power or meaning.
You might wonder about this. Here’s a well-known example from the philosopher Wittgenstein.


You might think that this simple combination of lines just has to represent a person climbing a hill. But as Wittgenstein points out, this same image could also be used to represent a man sliding down a hill backwards.
Indeed, we can imagine one-eyed aliens for whom the above combination of lines is used to represent a face


or a map-maker for whom this image represents where the treasure is buried (‘O’ marks the spot).


There’s nothing intrinsic to the lines themselves that makes them mean one of these things rather than another.
What of a simple patch of red? Surely that can mean only one thing: red.
Not so. A red patch might have all sorts of meanings. If the patch is square, for example, then it might mean red square. Or it might simply mean square (the sample just happens to be red). If the patch is scarlet, then it might be used to represent just that shade of red. Or it could also be used to represent a much wider section of the colour spectrum, such as red, purple and blue. A red patch might be used to symbolize blood or to warn of danger. I could use a red blob to record in my diary those days on which I ate a chocolate cookie. In fact, a red patch might be used to mean pretty much anything at all.
The moral is that nothing is intrinsically meaningful. Anything can be used to represent or mean more or less anything under the right conditions.

Meaning as an “inner” process

But if nothing intrinsically means or represents anything, then how do our words and other symbols come by their representational powers? What gives them meaning? The answer, of course, is that we do. But how?
Here’s one traditionally popular suggestion.
Suppose that a parrot starts to mimic the expression, “I am happy”. Of course, the parrott doesn’t mean anything by these words. It’s probably unaware even that they have a meaning. On the other hand, when I say, “I am happy”, I don’t just say something, I mean something.
Why do I mean something but the parrot doesn’t? After all, both the parrot and I engage in the same outward, observable process. We both say, “I am happy”.
It seems, then, that the essential difference between us must be hidden. In meaning something I must be engaged in an additional process, a process that accompanies the outward process of saying of the words, a process that the parrott doesn’t engage in.

Locke’s theory of meaning

An example of the view that meaning is essentially “inner” is provided by the Eighteenth Century philosopher John Locke.
On Locke’s view, the mind is like a container. At birth the container is empty. Gradually, our senses begin to furnish this inner space with objects. Locke calls these mental objects “Ideas”. We have simple Ideas, such as the Idea of the colour red. Locke seems to think of the Idea of red as being a mental image of some sort. We also have complex Ideas which are built out of simple Ideas. For example, my Idea of a snowball is made up of simpler Ideas including those of white, cold, hard and round.
On Locke’s view, Ideas form the building blocks of thought. And words obtain their meaning by standing for these Ideas.

Words in their primary or immediate Signification, stand for nothing, but the Idea in the Mind of him that uses them…[i]

This is called the Ideational theory of meaning. On the Ideational theory, the main purpose of language is to allow us to communicate our inner thoughts to others.

How to pick out a “red” object

The Ideational theory provides an explanation of how we are able to understand and apply a word correctly. For example, if I now ask you pick out something red from your environment, no doubt you can do so effortlessly. Yet all I gave you were some squiggly lines: “red”. How did you know what to do with them?
It seems that on the Ideational theory, something like the following must have happened. You engaged in a sort of internal “looking-up” process. On receiving the word “red”, you looked up in your memory – which functions, in effect, as a storehouse of Ideas – the Idea with which you have previously learnt to correlate that word. This idea, a sort of memory image, provides you with a template or sample with which other things can be compared. You then compared this Idea with the objects around you until you got a match. You then picked that object.
You may not be conscious of having engaged in such an inner “looking-up” process. But perhaps that is because, for a mature language user like yourself, the process is so quick and habitual that you no longer need to pay it any attention.


A popular picture

Down through the centuries many thinkers have been drawn to this picture of meaning and understanding sketched out above. Yet the picture is now rejected by the majority of philosophers. One of the main reasons for this is the later work of Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein constructed powerful arguments that show that the inner process model of meaning and understanding doesn’t explain what it is supposed to.
Here are two of Wittgenstein’s best-known arguments against the inner process model.

Argument one: how to pick the right inner object?

Let’s return to the suggestion that to understand a word is to engage in an inner looking-up process. Think about the following scenario:

Pedro runs a paint shop. Pedro receives lots of orders for paint written in English. Unfortunately Pedro cannot read English. So John, who can, set up a little filing cabinet in Pedro’s office. In the cabinet are cards. On each card is a blob of paint. The cards also have labels taped to them. On each label is printed the English word for the colour that appears on the card. When Pedro gets an order, he simply checks the English colour word on the order form against the labels in his file. When he finds the right card, he pulls it out and compares the colour on the card with the tins of paint in his store. Pedro then dispatches a tin of that colour.


It was suggested a moment ago that a similar looking up process must explain your ability to apply the term “red” correctly. Only we supposed that the looking up process must take place in your mind. You have a mental filing cabinet, if you like – a storehouse of Ideas – in which you have previously filed memory images of colours correlated with their English names. When you received the word “red” you went to your mental filing cabinet and pulled out the right sample. You then compared the objects around you with this memory image until you found a match.
            But does this inner looking up process really explain your ability to pick out those things to which the word “red” applies? Not according to Wittgenstein, who points out that the process actually just presupposes what it’s supposed to explain. To see why, ask yourself the following question: How did you pick out the right memory image?
            “I don’t see the problem”, you may say. “Why can’t I just go to my mental filing cabinet and look up the right mental image, the one I previously correlated with the word “red”?”
            The difficulty is that a mental image is not objective. It’s not the sort of thing to which you might attach a label and put in a drawer for future reference. Once you’re no longer aware of a mental image, it’s gone. So when next you want to conjure up a mental image of “red”, how do you know what sort of image you are supposed to be imagining? You need already to know what “red” means in order to know that. Yet it was your knowledge of what “red” means that the mental image was supposed to explain.
            The problem, in short, is that the mental “looking up” process presupposes what it is intended to explain: your ability to apply “red” correctly. It was suggested that you are able to pick out the right external object by comparing it with an inner object. But this just takes for granted your ability to pick out the right inner object. So the explanation is circular.
            The situation is quite different when it comes to an objective sample like a piece of coloured card. Pedro doesn’t need to know what “red” means in order to find the right coloured sample in his filing cabinet. This is because the word “red” is physically, objectively taped to the right piece of card.

Criticism two: how does the inner object come by its meaning?

Even if you can somehow manage to call up the right memory image without already knowing what “red” means, there remains a problem. The suggestion that words and other signs ultimately come by their meaning by being correlated with inner objects – Ideas – only seems satisfactory while one forgets to ask: And how in turn do these inner objects come by their meaning?
            Suppose that you correlate the word “red” with a mental image of a red square. Does that give “red” a meaning?
            No. We have already seen that public samples – a red square painted on a piece of card, for example – can be interpreted in innumerable ways. But exactly the same difficulty arises with respect to mental samples. They are no more intrinsically meaningful than are public samples.
            Let’s suppose, for example, that your mental image is of a scarlet square. Should you then apply “red” only to scarlet objects? Or would an orange object do? Or perhaps your sample just happens to be red, and it really represents squareness. So you should pick out only square objects? And so on. Your mental image fails to provide the answers to any of these questions.
            It’s clear that we have again gone round in a circle. This time we have explained how words and other signs come their meaning only by presupposing that certain signs – the mental ones – already have a meaning. So the mystery of how meaning ultimately originates remains.

Round and round in circles…

Wittgenstein points out that the explanations provided by the inner process model are circular. The model tries to explain how public words and signs have meaning by appealing to private, inner objects, but then takes the meaning of these inner objects for granted. It also tries to explain how you are able to identify which external objects are “red”, but only by presupposing that you already possess the ability to identify which internal objects are “red”.
            Here are two more examples of circular explanations. We once tried to explain how the Earth is held up by supposing that it sits on the back of a great animal: an elephant. Of course, this explanation didn’t really remove the mystery with which we were grappling, for we then needed to explain what held the elephant up. So we introduced another animal – a turtle – for the elephant to sit on.
            But then what did the turtle sit on? Should we have introduced yet another animal to support the turtle, and another animal to support that animal, and so on without end?


The problem is that our explanation really just took for granted what it was supposed to explain: why anything at all gets held up.
            A similar circularity plagues the suggestion that the behaviour of a person can be explained as the result of the behaviour of lots of little people running around inside controlling the full-size person much as if they were controlling a ship.


The explanation is circular because we now need to explain the behaviour of these little people. Do we suppose that they have still smaller people running around inside their heads?


If so, do these still smaller people have people running round in their heads?
            Of course, to point out that these explanations are circular is not to prove that there is no elephant or that there are no little people running around inside our heads. But if the only reason for introducing the elephant and those little people in the first place was to explain certain things which, it turns out, they don’t explain but actually just take for granted, then whatever justification we thought we had for introducing them is entirely demolished.
            The same, of course, goes for the inner, mental “looking up” machinery introduced by the inner process model. By showing that this machinery takes for granted what it’s supposed to explain Wittgenstein demolishes the justification we thought we had for introducing it.

Meaning and use

The temptation against which Wittgenstein warns us is that of thinking of meaning and understanding as mysterious inner activities or processes.

We are tempted to think that the action of language consists of two parts; an inorganic part, the handling of signs, and an organic part, which we may call understanding these signs, meaning them, interpreting them, thinking. These latter activities seem to take place in a queer kind of medium, the mind; and the mechanism of the mind, the nature of which, it seems, we don’t quite understand, can bring about effects which no material mechanism could.[ii]

            So in what does the difference between myself and the parrot essentially consist, on Wittgenstein’s view, if not in something inner?  Broadly speaking, it consists in what we are able to do. I possess a whole range of abilities that manifest my grasp of what is meant by "I am happy". For example, if asked, I can explain what the expression “happy” means. I can point to examples. I can use the expression appropriately. I can also use these words to construct many other different sentences. Parrots, on the other hand, can do none of these things.
            The revolution in thinking about meaning brought about by Wittgenstein’s later work lies in this shift in focus from what goes on “inside” to our publicly observable abilities. Meaning isn’t “hidden”. It lies on the surface, in the use to which we put our words and other signs. On Wittgenstein’s view, to grasp the meaning of a word is not to have correlated it with some mysterious inner object, but, roughly speaking, to know how it’s used.[iii]

An excellent and detailed discussion of the issues raised in this chapter can be found in:

·       Simon Blackburn, Spreading the Word (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), chpt 2.

[i] John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1975), III.ii.1.
[ii] Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Blue and Brown Books (Oxford: Blackwell, 1972), p. 3.
[iii] Some readers might feel a little short-changed. And perhaps rightly so. Wittgenstein has pointed out why one particular explanation of how I am able to identify that that is red (I am looking at a red object as I speak) fails. But how am I able to do this, then? Wittgenstein doesn’t offer an alternative theory. In fact, Wittgenstein’s view is that we don’t need a theory. But that’s another story.


Philip Rand said…
Regarding the parrot.

The parrot does use the expression “I am happy” with the same meaning as the human.

Here is my own anecdote. An acquaintance of mine who lives on the outskirts of my village owns a Grey Parrot. His parrot occasionally escapes. One evening this happened. However, this time the parrot flew a bee-line to my cottage. My cottage is situated in the centre of the village but is in woods (you would not know you live in a village). His parrot ended up sitting outside on my living room window ledge. I noticed the parrot and to cut a long story short I proceeded to sneak outside with a towel making my way around the parrot and behind him without being noticed and flung the towel over him to capture him.

As soon as the towel covered him, the parrot exclaimed:

“OH BOTHER!!!!!”

It would appear the parrot realised that for him….”The war is over…” and he knew it!

Moral of the anecdote: There is NO private-langauge.

Popular posts from this blog

What is Humanism?

What is Humanism? “Humanism” is a word that has had and continues to have a number of meanings. The focus here is on kind of atheistic world-view espoused by those who organize and campaign under that banner in the UK and abroad. We should acknowledge that there remain other uses of term. In one of the loosest senses of the expression, a “Humanist” is someone whose world-view gives special importance to human concerns, values and dignity. If that is what a Humanist is, then of course most of us qualify as Humanists, including many religious theists. But the fact remains that, around the world, those who organize under the label “Humanism” tend to sign up to a narrower, atheistic view. What does Humanism, understood in this narrower way, involve? The boundaries of the concept remain somewhat vague and ambiguous. However, most of those who organize under the banner of Humanism would accept the following minimal seven-point characterization of their world-view.


(Published in Faith and Philosophy 2011. Volume 28, Issue 2, April 2011. Stephen Law. Pages 129-151) EVIDENCE, MIRACLES AND THE EXISTENCE OF JESUS Stephen Law Abstract The vast majority of Biblical historians believe there is evidence sufficient to place Jesus’ existence beyond reasonable doubt. Many believe the New Testament documents alone suffice firmly to establish Jesus as an actual, historical figure. I question these views. In particular, I argue (i) that the three most popular criteria by which various non-miraculous New Testament claims made about Jesus are supposedly corroborated are not sufficient, either singly or jointly, to place his existence beyond reasonable doubt, and (ii) that a prima facie plausible principle concerning how evidence should be assessed – a principle I call the contamination principle – entails that, given the large proportion of uncorroborated miracle claims made about Jesus in the New Testament documents, we should, in the absence of indepen

Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism refuted

Here's my central criticism of Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN). It's novel and was published in Analysis last year. Here's the gist. Plantinga argues that if naturalism and evolution are true, then semantic epiphenomenalism is very probably true - that's to say, the content of our beliefs does not causally impinge on our behaviour. And if semantic properties such as having such-and-such content or being true cannot causally impinge on behaviour, then they cannot be selected for by unguided evolution. Plantinga's argument requires, crucially, that there be no conceptual links between belief content and behaviour of a sort that it's actually very plausible to suppose exist (note that to suppose there are such conceptual links is not necessarily to suppose that content can be exhaustively captured in terms of behaviour or functional role, etc. in the way logical behaviourists or functionalists suppose). It turns o