The Philosophical Investigations of Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Aphorism 31-38 from |
with commentary on the right by
(Emphasis is bold is inserted by Shawver to
|31. When one shews someone the king
in chess and says: "This is the king", this does not tell him the use of
this piece-unless he already knows the rules of the game up to this last
point: the shape of the king. You could imagine his having learnt the
rules of the game without ever having been strewn an actual piece. The
shape of the chessman corresponds here to the sound or shape of a
||Suppose someone showed you an Xray and said to you,
"see that tumor?" It might be evident to all who have learned to
read Xrays, but just pointing to it is not enough to enable this kind of
seeing. So it is with handing a child a chess piece and saying "This
is a king." The background for making sense of this pointing and
naming has not be laid down.|
| One can also imagine someone's having learnt the game
without ever learning or formulating rules. He might have learnt quite
simple board-games first, by watching, and have progressed to more and
more complicated ones. He too might be given the explanation "This is the
king",-- if, for instance, he were being strewn chessmen of a shape he was
not used to. This explanation again only tells him the use of the piece
because, as we might say, the place
for it was already prepared. Or even: we shall only say that it
tells him the use, if the place is already prepared. And in this case it
is so, not because the person to whom we give the explanation already
knows rules, but because
in another sense he is already master
of a game.
|The emphasis in this passage is mine. It
represents a key concept, the concept of an ostensive definition being
made possible by the place for the definition being prepared.
But the primary point, I believe, is that if we knew the rules of the
chess game, knew that losing your king meant that you lost the game, for
example, or how the king can move within the rules of the game, then
having someone say, "This is the king in a chess set" would mean a lot
more, would clarify more, than if you had never heard of chess or board
games. Sometimes, one does not know enough about a subject to even
ask useful questions.
|Consider this further case: I am explaining chess to someone; and I
begin by pointing to a chessman and saying: "This is the king; it can move
like this, .... and so on." -- In this case we shall say: the words "This
is the king" (or "This is called the 'king' ") are a definition only if
the learner already 'knows what a piece in a game is'. That is, if he has
already played other games, or has watched other people praying 'and
understood'-and similar things. Further, only under these conditions will
he be able to ask relevantly in the course of learning the game: "What do
you call this?"--that is, this piece in a game.
We may say: only someone who already knows how to do something with it
ask a name.
|There are a family of ways one might go about
preparing a person to understand "This is a king" when showing them a
chess piece. It would help, perhaps, if a person knew how to play
checkers and knew, in addition, that in chess, losing the king meant
losing the game. Still, this would not prepare the listener to
understand his statement as much as if he learned to play chess with
pieces that had a different kind of king. |
|And we can imagine the person who is asked replying: "Settle the name
yourself"-and now the one who asked would have to manage everything for
|If you did not have the concept of what is being
named, that is, if the place for this name is not prepared, then perhaps
it would be as well for you to name it for yourself. Learning the
"name" of something (instead of naming it) is important precisely in those
cases that learning the name will connect with what we already know and
allow us to learn what we are seeing more completely.
Say you go to the doctor with a skin rash and ask, "What is this
called?" And suppose the doctor gives you an unintelligible
technical name. Not helpful. But suppose the doctor says,
"This is a measles rash." Then, because you have an idea as to what
measles is, you have learned quite a bit. But if you didn't have the
concept of measles, things would be different. You could call it
whatever you wanted. It would be just as meaningful to you.
However, it might prepare you less well for talking with others.
|32. Someone coming into a strange country
will sometimes learn the language of the
inhabitants from ostensive
definitions that they give him; and he will often have to 'guess' the
meaning of these definitions; and will guess sometimes right, sometimes
|I remember Harry describing learning a foreign
language like this. He was in a foreign country and people would
teach him the names of things by pointing and naming. This seems like a
very easy way to learn the names of things in a foreign tongue.|
|And now, I think, we can say: Augustine
describes the learning of human language as if the child came into a
strange country and did not understand the language of the country; that
is, as if it already had a language, only not this one. Or again: as if
the child could already think, only not yet speak. And "think" would here
mean something like "talk to itself".
|Isn't it so? Augustine describe this
kind of pointing and naming as the way that the child learns
language? But we have been working on why this explains so
little in the learning of language, and noticing the limits to this kind
of learning, for example, that pointing and naming "blue" doesn't mean
that the hearer recognizes what we are naming -- even if the hearer then
can point at the blue object and say "blue."
Also, such an ostensive definition can hardly expain how we learn the
word "the" or "for" or, in fact, most words. Look back at this
paragraph and see how many words could be taught to the child by ostensive
||The problem is that the young child, in the
beginning (picture baby Augustine), does not have a place prepared
for learning by pointing.
What kind of background is necessary to prepare such a place? How
would you train a child so that it understood that you are naming a chess
piece, for example? Or the color
|33. Suppose, however, someone were
to object: "It is not true that you must already be master of a language
in order to understand an ostensive definition: all you need --of
course!-- is to know or guess what the person giving the explanation is
pointing to. That is, whether for example to the shape of the object, or
to its colour, or to its number, and so on." -- And what does 'pointing to
the shape', 'pointing to the colour' consist in? Point to a piece of
paper. --And now point to its shape -- now to its
colour -- now
to its number (that sounds queer). --How did you do it? --You will say
that you 'meant' a different thing each time you pointed. And if I ask how
that is done, you will say you concentrated your attention on the colour,
the shape, etc. But I ask again: how is that done?
|Here LW is luring us back into the muddle and it is
good to let ourselves go there for a moment, knowing it is a muddle but
letting ourselves feel the pull. In this muddle he continues to ask,
how can an ostensive definition teach the meaning of a term? How
does the student know what we are pointing to. There is ambiguity in
the pointing in every case we can imagine.|
|Suppose someone points to a vase and says "Look at that marvellous
blue-the shape isn't the point." --Or: "Look at the marvellous
shape-the colour doesn't matter." Without doubt you will do something
different when you act upon these two invitations. But do you always do
the same thing when you direct your attention to the colour? Imagine
various different cases. To indicate a few:
||What we do when we "attend to the color' of something
seems, when you think about it, rather nebulous. |
|* "Is this blue the same as the blue over there?
Do you see any difference?"
are mixing paint and you say "It's hard
get the blue of this sky."
* "It's turning fine, you can
already see blue
* "Look what different effects these two blues
* "Do you see the blue book
over there? Bring
it here. "
* "This blue signal-light means ...."
this blue called.'-Is it 'indigo'?"
|Consider all these contexts in which you "attend to
the color" of blue. Isn't there something different about each?
| You sometimes attend to the colour by putting your hand
up to keep the outline from view; or by not looking at the outline of the
thing; sometimes by staring at the object and trying to remember
where you saw that colour before.
You attend to the shape, sometimes by tracing it,
sometimes by screwing up your eyes so as not to see the colour clearly,
and in many other ways. I want to say: This is the sort of thing that
happens while one 'directs one's attention to this or that'. But it isn't
these things by themselves that make us say someone is attending to the
shape, the colour, and so on. Just as a move in chess doesn't consist
simply in moving a piece in such-and-such a way on the board-nor yet in
one's thoughts and feelings as one makes the move: but in the
circumstances that we call "playing a game of chess", "solving a chess
problem", and so on.
|Although there are surely typical things you actually
do when you attend to the color, it is not the things you actually do that
are in fact what we mean by the "attending to the color." There are
a variety of things people might actually do in the process of "attending
to the color."
|34. But suppose someone said: "I always do the
same thing when I attend to the shape: my eye follows the outline and I
feel....". And suppose this person [were] to give someone else the
ostensive definition "That is called a 'circle' ", pointing to a circular
object and having all these experiences[,[ cannot his hearer still
interpret the definition differently, even though he sees the other's eyes
following the outline, and even though-he feels what the other
||In 34, the question is: "How does the student know
what the teacher is pointing to? What if the teacher points to the
shape and says, 'This is the shape?' How will we know that the
teacher is not pointing to the color? Would it help to notice that
the teacher makes some moves of her hand to suggest she is pointing to the
|That is to say: this 'interpretation' may also consist in how he now
makes use of the word; in what he points to, for example, when told:
"Point to a circle".-
|Even when you point at the blue circular image to me
and say, "circle" very carefully, and follow the edge of the circle with
your eyes, maybe even run your finger around the edge of the circle, and
even when you are possessed of a 'circle-feeling', I can still
misinterpret what you are pointing to. Is that not true? |
|For neither the expression "to intend the definition in such-and-such
a way" nor the expression "to interpret the definition in such-and-such a
way" stands for a process which accompanies the giving and hearing of the
|If you intend your pointing to the shape to be a
definition of the circle, that is all well and good, but there is no
mental accompaniment of this act that we call "intention" that is required
for it to be an ostensive definition. Ostensive definition is
just the pointing and naming of something. It is pointing to the
blue circle and saying "circle", regardless of inner intention.
(Think of someone who does this so routinely that it can be done 'without
thinking about it' in the moment.) And the same is true for the
student's interpretation of the ostensive definition. Imagine the
student paying meager attention to the teacher and, neverthless,
picking up on the definition correctly, or, as another example,
incorrectly. If the student failed to understand correctly, would
that make the definition any less of a
|35. There are, of course, what can be
called "characteristic experiences" of pointing to (e.g.) the shape. For
example, following the outline with one's finger or with one's eyes as one
points. --But this does not happen in all cases in which I 'mean the
shape', and no more does any other one characteristic process occur in all
these cases. --Besides, even if something of the sort did recur in all
cases, it would still depend on the circumstances --that is, on what
happened before and after the pointing --whether we should say "He pointed
to the shape and not to the colour".
| For the words "to point to the shape", "to mean the shape", and
so on, are not used in the same
way as these: "to point to this book (not to that one), "to point to the
chair, not to the table", and so on. --Only think how differently we
learn the use of the words "to point to this thing", "to point to that
thing", and on the other hand "to point to the colour, not the shape", "to
mean the colour", and so on.
||Wittgenstein is distinguishing two related
language-games of pointing. One in which you point to the thing and
give its name, and another related one in which you point to the shape or
the color and give its name. Both cases require only that you
point in the same physical way. There may be differences in the way
people point in these two language games, but these differences only help
us distinguish between them. These different ways of pointing are
not inevitable and they are not required. |
|To repeat: in certain cases, especially when one points 'to the shape'
or 'to the number' there are characteristic experiences and ways of
pointing-'characteristic' because they recur often (not always) when shape
or number are 'meant'. But do you also know of an experience
characteristic of pointing to a piece in a game as a piece in a
|All the same one can say: "I mean that this piece is called the
'king', not this particular bit of wood I am pointing to".
(Recognizing, wishing, remembering, etc. )
|Here LW is saying that the sentence ": "I mean that
this piece is called the 'king', not this particular bit of wood I am
pointing to" is itself ambiguous. "Mean" can mean "reccognizing,
wishing, remembering, etc." For example, the above sentence might be
paraphrased, "I recognize that this piece is called the 'king'..." or "I
wish this piece were called the 'king'..., and so forth. All these
different paraphrases have different meanings.
Thus, this concept of introspective pointing to the shape or color to
teach shape and color remains a
|36. And we
do here what we do in a host of similar cases: because we cannot specify
any one bodily action which we call pointing to the shape (as
opposed, for example, to the colour), we say that a spiritual (mental,
intellectual) activity corresponds to these words.
Where our language suggests a body and there is none: there, we should
like to say, is a spirit.
|36. When we point to the ball there is a physical
object we are pointing to. When we point to the color, what we are
pointing to is much more nebulous. In these cases, LW says, we tend
to do something quite peculiar. We imagine that there must be
something that we are pointing to, even though it is hard to see or even
imagine, and this "something" we imagine ourselves pointing to is
||I don't think this concept of "spirit" necessarily
implies anything religious, although it sometimes might. What he
means by "spirit" is more subtle and available only by
introspection. One points to the blue circle and mean "blue".
How does one do this. LW is saying that it feels like we are doing
it "spiritually". Remember, LW is not saying that we
are doing it spiritually. He is saying that we all have a
tendency to think of it this way. It is as though there is something
"spiritual" involved in forming a "meaning" in our minds and that
this "meaning" that we form in our spirit somehow corresponds to the words
that we are thinking.
When do we do this? He says we tend to do it when our language
says there is a body we should be referring to, and where, in fact, there
is none. The language suggests that "blue" is a body, but, in fact
it is not, so it seems we are pointing spiritually.
Let's imagine another example. I say
"It is raining."
Our language suggests there should be a body to correspond with the
'it' in this sentence. Notice, however, that it is
hard to find a body although our language suggests that there is
one. Here is a case, then, that we might be tempted to say that the
"it" that is raining is spirit.
Here are some more examples:
* I have a hard time keeping all these numbers
in my mind."
* What about the word "numbers"?
time to go.
Is there a body to correspond to these nouns?
What about the
word "mind"? Is there a body to correspond with that? What
about "numbers"? Or the word "It's"? Do you want to say that "it" is
"time" in this sentence? Then ask yourself what you oint to when you
point to time.
In cases like this, LW is saying, we are inclined to think that what is
being referenced is spirit, or something spiritual or
Wittgenstein noted that we cannot identify a distinctive action that we
call pointing to the shape (or pointing to the color) and because of that
we tend to see this kind of pointing as "spiritual." |
|37. What is the relation between name and
thing named? Well, what is it? Look at
language-game (2) or at another one: there
you can see the
sort of thing this relation
consists in. This relation may
among many other things, in the fact that
hearing the name calls before our mind the
picture of what
is named; and it also
consists, among other things, in the
being written on the thing named or being
pronounced when that thing is pointed at.
consider the matter more imaginatively, as Augustine did in #1 when he
imagined that he had been taught language by being taught to name things,
we might well think of the name bringing up a mental image of that
originary lesson. Supposedly, according to this imaginative picture,
we know what the other person is talking about (e.g., a slab) because,
having learned the name of slab ostensively, we now have mental images of
a "slab" every time we hear the word. This is particularly
compelling because we have all experienced mental images when things are
named. Still, a little introspection shows that we do
not have a mental image for every word we hear.
Alternative to the theory of mental images assisting understanding we
sometimes imagine objects having labels attached. Still, we do not
often write the word "chair"on our chairs. So, in the end, these two
theories of language do not work very well when we think about them.
But, that does not mean we give them up. What we do, sometimes,
is imagine that the images (or the labels) are there but in a fuzzy and
spiritual way. In this fuzzy and spiritual way we point to things
and name things in our mind.
But then LW asks us to look at #2. You
remember in #2 , we had the simple game of the worker and his
supervisor. The supervisor called out "beam!" and the worker brought
it. What is the relationship between the name and the thing in that
particular instance? It simply causes the worker to fetch what the
supervisor wants. Need there be mental images here? Remember our
talking about the way I might teach a gorilla to hand me a banana when I
said "banana"? And that this would be a kind of trick. It
wouldn't need to be the case that the gorilla actually understood what the
banana was apart from this particular context of handing one to me.
Here, we might say, that the 'name' of the object does not function merely
as a name. It functions more as a command, although the word we
think of as a name has a role in making the command clearer.
So, can you see that in spite of our models of language (pointing
spiritually, or attaching a label spiritually) these models do nt seem
entirely satisfactory. Aside from the problematic metaphysics of a
spiritual pointing and naming, we have the fact that in the language game
the term "slab" is not just a name of an object. It is a command to
fetch a slab. That activity around which the word gets pronounced is
not accounted for by naming and pointing.
Are the mental images required for this activity of fetching? No.
Not logically. The worker is just trained to do something at
the sound of the name. The supervisor does not require him to create a
mental image of the object first. Of course he might do so anyway,
but this is not required.
This shows how problematic our notion of naming is, and how much we try
to patch it up with notions of fuzzy spirits doing the
||37. We have been talking about the relationship
between a name and the thing named and we have studied two cultural
models. In one, the name is metaphorically "attached" to the thing
(like a label might be inscribed on the thing it names) and in the other
model the word we use "points" spiritually to the thing it names.
These are the vague models we use for how words "attach" to things.
But Wittgenstein is leading us through a critical reflection on these
models because these models lead us to think we have the problem solved
when in fact they are in many ways unsatisfactory models that lead us
Wittgenstein continues to deconstruct these old models of
language. Here in 38, he is going to remind us, again, that the
models are only satisfactory when we think of certain kinds of
words. Then, he points to terms for which it is hard to use one of
the two models above.
|38. But what, for example, is
the word "this" the name of in language-game (8) or the word
"that" in the ostensive definition "that is called ...."?
|"This" and "that" are very difficult words to
understand if we stay within the models above., of teaching
something by attaching labels or pointing. How could you attach the
word "this" to everything you call "this"? And if you point
spiritually to a particular "this" with your hidden soul, then what on
earth does this "pointing" have to do with the word "this" in a more
general sense. One might illustrate an apple or a dog by pointing to
one, but can one illustrate a "this" just by pointing?|
|--If you do not want to
produce confusion you will do best not to call these words names at
all.-- Yet, strange to say, the word "this" has been called the only
genuine name; so that anything else we call a name was one only in an
inexact, approximate way.
This queer conception springs from a tendency to sublime the logic
of our language-as one
might put it.
|If we call "this" a name, then it is a name that can
be applied everywhere. It offers no specificity at all. Yet,
at a certain point in doing philosophy it seems like the only legitimate
name. To call something a "chair" classifies it with other often
dissimilar objects. But what can be purer than just calling it a
This is a way of trying to make our logic more lofty, our statements
more pure. And when we do this, it leads to queer conceptions.
|The proper answer to it is: we call very different things "names"; the
word "name" is used to characterize many different kinds of use of a word,
related to one another in many different ways;-but the kind of use that
"this" has is not among them.
|Here LW is introducing us to an important puzzle that
he will clarify later. He wants us to notice that diverse kinds of
things are called "names' and that we have no golden thread to tie them
all into a neat conceptual bundle.
And, at the same time, he is showing that it will be problematic for us
if we try to include "this" and "that" within this diverse bundle of words
that we call names.
| It is quite true that, in giving an ostensive
definition for instance, we often point to the object named and
say the name. And similarly, in giving an ostensive definition for
instance, we say the word "this" while pointing to a thing. And also
the word "this" and a name often occupy the same position in a
sentence. But it is precisely characteristic of a name that it is defined
by means of the demonstrative expression "That is N" (or "That is called
'N' "). But do we also give the definitions:
"That is called
'this' ", or "This is called 'this'"?
|This seems to devastate the notion that you can
ostensively define "this" and "that". How can one point to anyplace
and say "that" is "that". Or, if one does, how does this explain to
the hearer what "that is." |
| This is connected with the conception of naming as,
so to speak, an occult process.
| When LW talks of the notion of naming as
a kind of occult process he is criticizing the picture of naming
that he feels our culture teaches us. It is the picture of naming
being a kind of spiritual pointing. |
|Naming appears as a queer connexion of a word with an object. --And
you really get such a queer connexion when the philosopher tries to bring
out the relation between name and thing by staring at an object in front
of him and repeating a name or even the word "this" innumerable
times. For philosophical
problems arise when language goes on holiday. And here we may indeed
fancy naming to be some
remarkable act of mind, as it were a
baptism of an object. And we can also say the word "this" to the object,
as it were address the object as "this"-a queer use of this word, which
doubtless only occurs in doing philosophy.
| This sentence "For philosophical problems arise
when language 'goes on holiday'," is a famous sentence in
Wittgenstein. It means that language is taken out of context and
philosophized about it becomes "confusing". It reminds me of a time
when I was a child that I said "butterfly" over and over. Isn't it
strange, I thought, that we say "Butter-fly" as though butter were to fly
away, or "but -er -fly" and by the time that I had said this 15 times or
so, the word no longer seemed to mean "butterfly" in the simple way it
had. Often when one philosophizes about a concept the concept has
"gone on holiday". We have lost our grounding in concrete
examples. We know very well how to use the word "virtue" in a
sentence, for example, but when we scratch our heads and wonder what
"virtue" really means, then the word "virtue" is on holiday. We are
just thinking about the word, not using it in the natural way that our
language allows us to use it.
Do you have any experience with language going on holiday? Ever
said a word a few times, a familiar word, and then sort of lose the
meaning of it as you reflect on what this word means?
And what do you think about "that" and "this"? Do they seem like
names to you?
What is it to mean the words "That is blue" at one time as a statement
about the object one
is pointing to --at another as an
explanation of the word "blue"? Well, in the second case one really means
"That is called 'blue' ". --Then can one at one time mean the word "is" as
"is called" and the word "blue" as " 'blue' ", and another time mean "is"
really as "is"?
|Paraphrase like this can help us be clearer about what
language game is being played.|
|It is also possible for someone to get an explanation of the words out
of what was intended as a piece of information. [Marginal note: Here lurks
a crucial superstition.]
||Of course. I might say, "How do you like my new
sepia couch." This might give you an unintended explanation of the
|Can I say "bububu"
and mean "If it doesn't rain I shall go for a walk"? --It is only in a
language that I can mean something by something. This shews clearly that
the grammar of "to mean" is not like that of the expression "to imagine"
and the like.
||This is a critical point that should be puzzled about
at this moment rather than clarified. Can one say "hello" to mean
goodbye? Without somehow creating a special code for others to
interpret? Or does the meaning that we spin with our words have to
cooperate, somehow, with their more standard cultural
Table of Contents
Extended Look at 43