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Introduction

The Philosophical Investigations of Ludwig Wittgenstein.

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Aphorism 39-50 from
Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations
with commentary on the right by
Lois Shawver
 
 
 
 
Wittgenstein:
(Emphasis is bold is inserted by Shawver to enhance commentary.) 
Shawver commentary:
39.    But why does it occur to one to want to make precisely this word into a name, when it evidently is not a name?-That is just the reason. For one is tempted to make an objection against what is ordinarily called a name. It can be put like this: a name ought really to signify a simple. And for this one might perhaps give the following reasons: The word "Excalibur", say, is a proper name in the ordinary sense. The sword Excalibur consists of parts combined in a particular way. If they are combined differently Excalibur does not exist. But it is clear that the sentence "Excalibur has a sharp blade" makes sense whether Excalibur is still whole or is broken up. But if "Excalibur" is the name of an object, this object no longer exists when Excalibur is broken in pieces; and as no object would then correspond to the name it would have no meaning. But then the sentence "Excalibur has a sharp blade" would contain a word that had no meaning, and hence the sentence would be nonsense. But it does make sense; so there must always be something corresponding to the words of which it consists. So the word "Excalibur" must disappear when the sense is analysed and its place be taken by words which name simples. It will be reasonable to call these words the real names.  In (39), LW introduces the question of whether complex objects have simple components.  We discuss whether Excalibur (the sword of King Arthur) disappeared when it is broken into a blade and a handle.  And, if it does, then how can we speak of Excalibur having a sharp blade?  If the blade is required to be attached to the handle in order for Excalibur to exist, then the blade is part of Excalibur and that means, that Excalibur is the handle+blade combination so to say that Excalibur has a sharp blade is to say that this handle+blade combination has a sharp blade -- which makes no sense.  (Hence our aporia.) 
 
 
40.  Let us first discuss this point of the argument: that a word has no meaning if nothing corresponds to it.-It is important to note that the word "meaning" is being used illicitly if it is used to signify the thing that 'corresponds' to the word. That is to confound the meaning of a name with the bearer of the name. When Mr. N. N. dies one says that the bearer of the name dies, not that the meaning dies. And it would be nonsensical to say that, for if the name ceased to have meaning it would make no sense to say "Mr. N. N. is dead."  Here is a digression as to whether a word has a meaning if nothing corresponds to it. 
 
 
 
41.   In #15 we introduced proper names into language (8). Now suppose that the tool with the name "N" is broken. Not knowing this, A gives B the sign "N". Has this sign meaning now or
not.?-What is B to do when he is given it?-We have not settled anything about this. One might ask: what mill he do? Well, perhaps he will stand there at a loss, or shew A the pieces. Here one might say: "N" has become meaningless; and this expression would mean that the sign "N" no longer had a use in our language-game (unless we gave it a new one). "N" might also become meaningless because, for whatever reason, the tool was given another name and the sign "N" no longer used in the language-game.  -- But we could also imagine a convention whereby B has to shake his head in reply if A gives him the sign belonging to a tool that is broken.-In this way the command "N" might be said to be given a place in the language-game even when the  tool no longer exists, and the sign "N" to have meaning even when its bearer ceases to exist. 
This continues with the digression of whether names make sense once the objects disappear.  In 15 we are talking about one of the building site language games.  The worker is fetching pillars and blocks.  If the pillars and blocks have proper names does it make sense to refer to them if they have no object to reference? 
 
 
 
42.  But has for instance a name which has never been used for a tool also got a meaning in that game? Let us assume that "X" is such a sign and that A gives this sign to B -- well, even such signs could be given a place in the  language-game, and B might have, say, to answer them too with a shake of the head. (One could imagine this as a sort of joke between them.)  Say that the X is "tree".  The supervisor asks the worker to bring a Block1, Pillar3, and then "tree" and all the workers  laugh.  Or, instead of "tree" the supervisor might say "angel" and this, too, might provoke a laugh even though no angel corresponded to it.  Or, the work supervisor might say "pillar 6" even though both supervisor and worker know that "pillar 6" was crushed recently and so cannot be brought because it "no longer exists."
43.    For a large class of cases-though not for all-in which we employ the word "meaning" it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language. 

    And the meaning of a name is sometimes explained by pointing to its bearer. 

The examples in #42 that I gave illustrate ways in which words can have a use in the language-game even when they do not have a referent that we can point to and name.  This settles the question introduced in 39.  Yes, a word can have a meaning even if it does not have a "bearer" (something to point to).  Its meaning is explained by its use in the language-game. 
(Click here for an expanded commentary on this aphorism.)
44.   We said that the sentence "Excalibur has a sharp blade" made sense even when Excalibur was broken in pieces. Now this is so because in this language-game a name is also used in the absence of its bearer. But we can imagine a language-game with names (that is, with signs which we should certainly include among names) in which they are used only in the presence of the bearer; and so could always be replaced by a demonstrative pronoun and the gesture of pointing.  In 44,  LW uses the point established in #43 that a name can make sense even in the absence of its bearer.  But now he wants to reflect on the possibility of having a language in which words only made sense when they have a bearer, that is, when the names could be replaced with the pronoun "this" as in "bring this!"  (Imagine the work supervisor walking over and pointing to the pillar that he wanted taken over to the pile.  We can hardly imagine this working if the pillar wasn't there)
45.  The demonstrative "this" can never be without a bearer. It might be said: "so long as there is a this, the word 'this' has a meaning too, whether this is simple or complex." But that does not make the word into a name. On the contrary: for a name is not used with, but only explained by means of, the gesture of pointing.  Imagine someone pointing to person and saying, "This is Joseph."  The "This" is not a name.  It is a way of explaining who Joseph is. 
 
 
 
46.   What lies behind the idea that names really signify simples? --Socrates says in the Theaetetus: "If I make no mistake, I have heard some people say this: there is no definition of the primary elements  --  so to speak -- out of which we and everything else are composed; for everything that exists in its own right can only be named, no other determination is possible, neither that it is nor that it is not..... But what exists in its own right has to be ....... named without any other determination. In consequence it is impossible to give an account of any primary element; for it, nothing is possible but the bare name; its name is all it has. But just as what consists of these primary elements is itself complex, so the names of the elements become descriptive language by being compounded together. For the essence of speech is the composition of names." 

  Both Russell's 'individuals' and my 'objects' (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus) were such primary elements. 

Here LW shows us how deep the roots of the ideas of simples is.  The idea is that everything is either a simple thing or a complex thing where a complex thing is a composite of simples things. 
 
 
 
47.  But what are the simple constituent parts of which reality is composed?  -- What are the simple constituent parts of a chair?  -- The bits of wood of which it is made? Or the molecules, or the atoms? -- "Simple" means: not composite. And here the point is: in what sense 'composite'? It makes no sense at all to speak absolutely of the 'simple parts of a chair'.  (The emphasis is mine.)  When he says it makes no sense to speak "absolutely" of the simple parts of something he means that it makes no sense to speak of "parts" without some kind of context that defines what a "part" is. 
 
 
 
    Again: Does my visual image of this tree, of this chair, consist of parts? And what are its simple component parts? Multi-colouredness is one kind of complexity; another is, for example, that of a broken outline composed of straight bits. And a curve can be said to be composed of an ascending and a descending segment.  This is the gestalt notion that the perception consists of more than the sum of its parts.  If you look at a particular person you do not see just a collection of parts.  And if you look at a curved line 
you do not just see the elements of that curve.  You see it as a whole.
    If I tell someone without any further explanation: "What I see before me now is composite," he will have the right to ask: "What do you mean by 'composite'? For there are all sorts of things that that can mean!  --  The question requires a context.  Otherwise, we don't know what to count as "parts."
The question "Is what you see composite?" makes good sense if it is already established what kind of complexity -- that is, which particular use of the word -- is in question. If it had been laid down that the visual image of a tree was to be called "composite" if one saw not just a single trunk, but also branches, then the question "Is the visual image of this tree simple or composite?" and the question "What are its simple component parts?", would have a clear sense-a clear use. And of course the answer to the second question is not "The branches" (that would be an answer to the grammatical question: "What are here called 'simple component parts'?") but rather a description of the individual branches.  That is, we can create a language game in which we count "branches" as parts and say that a tree is a composite (imagine a sketched tree) if it has branches.  But without such a context, the question "Is this tree composite?" doesn't make much sense.  If there is no such context, then the answer to the question "What are its parts" is an answer as to what to count as parts in this context, not an answer about what the parts are aside from the context.  In other words, to say that "the branches" are the parts is an answer to the grammatical question as to what to count as parts not an answer about the component parts in this tree aside from context.  If we wanted to talk about this particular tree (and not just negotiate what are to count as parts) we will want to do something closer to describing what we see as its parts (which is arbitrary outside of a negotiated language game).
    But isn't a chessboard, for instance, obviously, and absolutely, composite?  Notice the word "absolutely" here.  It has the special meaning of "absolutely and irrespective of context."
-- You are probably thinking of the composition out of thirty-two white and thirty-two black squares. But could we not also say, for instance, that it was composed of the colours black and white and the schema of squares? And if there are quite different ways of looking at it, do you still want to say that the chessboard is absolutely 'composite'? --  This is the question, again, as to whether there are ever absolute parts of anything.  The chessboard is the example he chooses that seems most compelling.  Doesn't it seem, in some natural sense, that there are absolute parts of a chessboard?  And these parts are the squares on the chessboard?  What context could change the answer to that?
Asking "Is this object composite?" outside a particular language-game is like what a boy once did, who had to say whether the verbs in certain sentences were in the active or passive voice, and who racked his brains over the question whether the verb "to sleep" meant something active or passive.  This is Wittgenstein's emerging philosophy.  It says that everything we say makes sense only within a language-game that establishes the rules and sets the meaning of the terms.  The distinction between "active" and "passive" is different when we think of sleeping than when we think of grammar.  In grammar, if that's our language game at the moment, the passive voice has nothing to do with being sleepy, or passive in that sense of the term. 

And, Wittgenstein is suggesting, it is the same with "parts."  What counts as "parts" depends on the context.

    We use the word "composite" (and therefore the word "simple") in an enormous number of different and differently related ways. (Is the colour of a square on a chessboard simple, or does it consist of pure white and pure yellow? And is white simple, or does it consist of the colours of the rainbow? -- Is this length of 2 cm. simple, or does it consist of two parts, each ~ cm. long? But why not of one bit 3 cm long, and one bit I cm. long measured in the opposite direction?) 

 

To show that things do not have "absolute" parts, but only parts relative to the language game we are playing, he is now showing us some of the different ways we define the parts in different language games. 

I consider the last example, the one of lengths, most compelling.  What are the parts of a length that is two inches?  Are there two parts, each one inch long?  Wouldn't this be different if we measured the object in centimeters?

    To the philosophical question: "Is the visual image of this tree composite, and what are its component parts?" the correct answer is: "That depends on what you understand by 'composite'." (And that is of course not an answer but a rejection of the question.) Again, this is not Wittgenstein's aporetic voice, but his clarifying voice.  This is his own philosophy which says that we can only answer the question "What are its parts?" once we have negotiated the meaning of "part" in a particular language game.
48.    Let us apply the method of (2) to the account in the Theaetetus. Let us consider a language-game for which this account is really valid. The language serves to describe combinations of coloured squares on a surface. The squares form a complex like a chessboard.  There are red, green, white and black squares. The words of the language are (correspondingly) "R", "G", "W", "B", and a sentence is a series of these words. They describe an arrangement of squares in the order:  Notice the statement, "Let us consider a language-game for which this account is really valid."  This is most explicit.  This is what he is trying to do, trying to find an illustration in which the theory is really valid.  What theory is that?  The theory of simples, the theory that Wittgenstein had in the Tractatus and is also Russell. 
 

 

1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
 
And so for instance the sentence "RRBGGGRWW" describes an arrangement of this sort: 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
    Here the sentence is a complex of names, to which corresponds a complex of elements. The primary elements are the coloured squares. "But are these simple?"-I do not know what else you would have me call "the simples", what would be more natural in this language-game. But under  The sentence is "RRBGGGRWW."  It describes the way in which the squares are colored.  Doesn't it seem natural to call these different squares the parts?  This is LW's aporetic voice taking us back into the fly-bottle.
other circumstances I should call a monochrome square  "composite", consisting perhaps of two rectangles, or of the elements colour and shape. But the concept of complexity might also be so extended that a smaller area was said to be 'composed' of a greater area and another one subtracted from it. Compare the 'composition of forces', the 'division' of a line by a point outside it;  And here he takes us back out of the fly bottle.  He is pointing to a way to see the components of the above figure differently.  We may see 9 if we insist that each part is a square, but we could see the continugous colors as constituting a part. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

So, there would be two red parts as the following figure helps to illustrate: 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
these expressions shew that we are sometimes even inclined to conceive the smaller as the result of a composition of greater parts, and the greater as the result of a division of the smaller.  When I read this I see a mistake that I overlooked before.  The smaller is a division of the greater (the smaller square is half of the larger square) and the larger is a composite of two small squares.  This is what I take him to mean.  In other words, we sometimes divide up a part to make smaller parts, or combine parts to make larger parts.
    But I do not know whether to say that the figure described by our sentence consists of four or of nine elements! Well, does the sentence consist of four letters or of nine?  And which are its elements, the types of letter, or the letters? Does it matter which we say, so long as we avoid misunderstandings in any particular case? If the parts are determined by the colors, then there are 4 parts.  But if the parts are determined by the shape (square), then there are 9.  Which way you count them depends on how you define "part."  And the same thing is true for the sentence: 
RRBGGGRWW
You will say there are 9 words if you count each appearance of a character as "a word."  But if you count the second appearance of each character merely a copy of the same word, then you will count a different number of words.
49.    But what does it mean to say that we cannot define (that is, describe) these elements, but only name them? This might mean, for instance, that when in a limiting case a complex consists of only one square, its description is simply the name of the coloured square.  Here he takes us back to 46. (Use your ordinary way of returning from a link to get back to this comment after you click on the above 46 to peak at 46.)  The point is, that if we are thinking of the squares as the "parts", then when we look at a single square we can no longer name the parts.  We can only describe the square.  Isn't this the dilemma that Plato was noticing in the Theaetetus?
    Here we might say -- though this easily leads to all kinds of philosophical superstition -- that a sign "R" or "B", etc. may be sometimes a word and sometimes a proposition. But whether it 'is a word or a proposition' depends on the situation in which it is uttered or written. For instance, if A has to describe complexes of coloured squares to B and he uses the word "R" alone, we shall be able to say that the word is a description -- a proposition. But if he is memorizing the words and their meanings, or if he is teaching someone else the use of the words and uttering them in the course of ostensive teaching, we shall not say that they are propositions. In this situation the word "R", for instance, is not a description; it names an element but it would be queer to make that a reason for saying that an element can only be named! For naming and describing do not stand on the same level: naming is a preparation for description. Naming is so far not a move in the language-game  -- any more than putting a piece in its place on the board is a move in chess. We may say: nothing has so far been done, when a thing has been named. It has not even got a name except in the language-game. This was what Frege meant too, when he said that a word had meaning only as part of a sentence.  I have emphasized the parenthetical "though this easily leads to all kinds of philosophical superstition" because I want to show you how LW shows us which voice he is using, the voice that leads us into aporia or out of it.  He does not really expand on this aporia but you can note it.  The question is when is something a sentence or a word?  We know, but it is hard to say.  We could say that it is a sentence when it makes complete sense, but a sentence does not always make complete sense and a word sometimes does.  Doesn't it? 
 
 
 

Wittgenstein steps out of this aporia by saying that naming and describing do not stand on the same level, that naming is preparation for describing, it is not a move in the langauge game.  It is like setting up the pieces in a game of chess. 

Still, this is confusing because we don't know how to tell, at times, what constitutes the langauge game.  It is easier when we think of chess.

50.    What does it mean to say that we can attribute neither being nor non-being to elements?  --One might say: if everything that we call "being" and "non-being" consists in the existence and non-existence of connexions between elements, it makes no sense to speak of an element's being (non-being); just as when everything that we call "destruction" lies in the separation of elements, it makes no sense to speak of the destruction of an element.  This fuzzy word "being" is really necessary here.  It is the concept that we are reaching for when we are in an Augustinian frame of mind and trying to make sense of things.  The idea is that if you destroy something by breaking it into its parts then the existence of that thing is destroyed because its existence consisted in the relationship between its parts.  For Excalibur to be Excalibur, the blade of the sword has to have a certain relationship to the handle.  But what about the little piece of the handle 4 cm above the blade, does it have to have a relationship to the rest of the handle?  There is a way in which we cannot speak of the destruction of the handle.
    One would, however, like to say: existence cannot be attributed to an element, for if it did not exist, one could not even name it and so one could say nothing at all of it. But if the handle has to be in a relationship to the blade in order for Excalibur to exist, then Excalibur is a handle+blade in a certain relationship.  And what sense would that make?  When the blade broke off we would have to say that the handle+blade (that is Excalibur) no longer has a blade.
 --But let us consider an analogous case. There is one thing of which one can say neither that it is one metre long, nor that it is not one metre long, and that is the standard metre in Paris.-But this is, of course, not to ascribe any extraordinary property to it, but only to mark its peculiar role in the language-game of measuring with a metre-rule.-Let us imagine samples of colour being preserved in Paris like the standard metre. We define: "sepia" means the colour of the standard sepia which is there kept hermetically sealed. Then it will make no sense to say of this sample either that it is of this colour or that it is not.  Here he gives us two examples of an object becoming the paradigm we use to make judgments.  If we say that the standard meter in Paris is one meter long it isn't the same sense of "one meter" as when we say this cloth is "one meter long."  The standard meter sets the standard.  What would it mean to say that it is inaccurately measured?  It is what sets the standard of perfection.  On the other hand, we can say that the cloth was inaccurately measured. 

And the same is true when we define "sepia" by giving a sample that we will keep as being "sepia."

   We can put it like this: This sample is an instrument of the language used in ascriptions of colour. In this language-game it is not something that is represented, but is a means of representation.-- And just this goes for an element in language-game (48) when we name it by uttering the word "R": this gives this object a role in our language-game; it is now a means of representation. And to say "If it did not exist, it could have no name" is to say as much and as little as: if this thing did not exist, we could not use it in our language-game.-- Here he is talking about the way in which we negotiate the meaning of the terms of our language game.  One way we do it is by using an example to define the meaning of the term.  When we utter the word "R" in (48) this is actually a way of negotiating the meaning of the term.  We are giving the object a name and a role in our language game.  It is as though someone were to place a stick in Paris and say, "This is a meter" or "this is a length we shall call 'finger'."  It sets up a meaning for this term.
What looks as if it had to exist, is part of the language. It is a paradigm in our language-game; something with which comparison is made. And this may be an important observation; but it is none the less an observation concerning our language-game-our method of representation. 
 
 
 
It had looked as though we could not break the object up into smaller components.  But on reflection it is just that we had not named the fragments of the compents.  If the square was the basic unit and we could not think of something smaller being an element, it is because we had not learned to think of a fragment of the square as a component. 

For example, take this square as a component that could be multiplied (with different colors) to make up a complex composite: 
 

.
But imagine that we learned to see the only columns as objects so that we saw three objects when we saw the above square - as we might today if they were different colors 
 
. . .
Perhaps we would do this if we were used to building fences of some sort so that we interpreted all graphic squares: 
 
.
in terms of fence slats.  At a glance, even if there were no separating lines, we might see it as 3 fence slats, or three components to a composite fence. 

For, example, in terms of slats, can't you imagine seeing that, wheresas the above square was composed of 3 slats, the one below has  6? 
 

.
 

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Table of Contents
Shawver Commentary


Aphorisms
Index Page
1-10
11-20
21-30
31-38
39-50
51-59
60-64
65-69
70-75
76-80
81-88
89-100
Reference
Extended Look at 43


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