The Philosophical Investigations of Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Aphorism 1-10 from|
Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations
with commentary on the right by
(Emphasis in bold is inserted by Shawver to enhance commentary.)
|1. "When they (my elders) named some object, and accordingly
moved towards something, I saw this and I grasped
that that the thing was called by the sound they uttered when they meant
to point it out. Their intention was shown by their bodily movements,
as it were the natural language of all peoples; the expression of the face,
the play of the eyes, the movement of other parts of the body, and the
tone of the voice which expresses our state of mind in seeking, having,
rejecting, or avoiding something. Thus, as I heard words repeatedly
used in their proper places in various sentences, I gradually learnt to
understand what objects they signified; and after I had trained my mouth
to form these signs, I used them to express my own desires."
||This is a quotation that Wittgensteinn has taken
from Augustine (Confessions, I.8.). Visualize Augustine's
picture of how language is learned and notice how natural and complete
it sounds as a total explanation for how language is learned.
|These words, it seems to me, give us a particular picture of the essence
of human language. It is this: the individual words in language
name objects--sentences are combinations of such names.--In this picture
of language we find the roots of the following idea: Every word has
a meaning. The meaning is correlated with the word. It is the
object for which the word stands.
||Now, Wittgenstein is beginning his commentary.
The emphasis is mine. It is the deconstruction of Augustine's picture
of language that is the focus of this entire book. (Although, I should
say, that many others beside Augustine have shared this picture of language.
As we will see, it is a cultural illusion) Once deconstucted, new
and strikingly different ideas about language begin to emerge.
|Augustine does not speak of there being any
difference between kinds of word. If you describe the learning of
language in this way you are, I believe, thinking primarily of nouns like
'table', 'chair', 'bread', and of people's names, and only secondarily
of the names of certain actions and properties; and of the remaining kinds
of word as something that will take care of itself.
||Here the deconstruction begins. Looking at the Augustinian
picture of language we see that Augustine has explained only one type of
|Now think of the following use of language: I send someone shopping.
I give him a slip marked 'five red apples'. He takes the slip to
the shopkeeper, who opens the drawer marked 'apples', then he looks up
the word 'red' in a table and finds a colour sample opposite it; then he
says the series of cardinal numbers--I assume that he knows them by heart--up
to the word 'five' and for each number he takes an apple of the same colour
as the sample out of the drawer.--It is in this and simlar ways that one
operates with words--"But how does he know where and how he is to look
up the word 'red' and what he is to do with the word 'five'?" ---Well,
I assume that he 'acts' as I have described. Explanations come to
an end somewhere.--But what is the meaning of the word 'five'? --No such
thing was in question here, only how the word 'five' is used.
||This scenario is a thought experiment. To what
extent do you think the language in this scenario is explained by Augustine's
picture of language? Think of the shopkeeper counting out the apples,
one through five. Did he learn to do this by someone pointing to
five apples? Hardly. The teaching of language by pointing cannot
explain learning to count. What about using written languge to communicate
what is wanted? Someone had to teach him how to read before he could
make sense of the note and translate it into a order. And to follow
the order, he had to know much more than was specifically contained in
the note - which just said 'five red apples.' The shopkeeper had
to be able to find the apples, even to know to look for them, and
also to know to put them in a sack and accept money in exchange for them.
He had to be able to recognize various coins our bills and add them together.
It would be hard to explain all of this within the Augustinian picture
|2. That philosophical concept of meaning has
its place in a primitive idea of the way language functions. But
one can also say that it is the idea of a language more primitive than
|By "that philosophical concept of meaning" Wittgenstein
means the Augustinian picture that he gave us above. Look at Augustine's
This concept of meaning, Wittgensein says, has its place in helping us
understand primitive language, language more primitive than English, German,
French, etc. It is also the case, Wittgenstein explains, that there
are regions of our developed language in which language works just as Augustine
|The individual words in language name objects--sentences are combinations
of such names. Every word has a meaning. The meaning is correlated
with the word. It is the object for which the word stands.
|Let us imagine a language ...The language is meant to serve for communication
between a builder A and an assistant B. A is building with building-stones;
there are blocks, pillars, slabs and beams. B has to pass the stones,
and that in the order in which A needs them. For this purpose they
use a language consisting of the words 'block', 'pillar', 'slab', 'beam'.
A calls them out; --B brings the stone which he has learnt to bring at
such-and-such a call. -- Conceive this as a complete primitive language.
|This is an important thought experiment. Although
he does not call it a language-game in this passage, it will become clear
shortly that this passage describes the prototypic primitive language-game.
He will refer to it often, sometimes in its present form, or in one of
a multitude of variations he will give us shortly.
We will often refer to this as language game (2), using
the number of the aphorism to index the number of the language game.
I picture a work supervisor at the front of a site with a worker responding
to the supervisor's commands. There are piles of pillars, slabs,
blocks and beams. The supervisor calls out "Slab!" and the worker
brings a slab and sets it at the supervisor's feet. Pretty simple.
Wittgnstein puts forth language-game (2) in order
to try to envision a language in which Augustine's picture of language
Does Augustine's picture of language work here? How did the worker
learn this language by teachers pointing and naming the slabs and beams
as Augustine suggested? An exercise like Augustine suggests might
explain how the worker knew which object to fetch, but how did the worker
learn to fetch? As opposed, say, to taking objects behind the fence?
Crushing them? Or tapping them with a stone?
|3. Augustine, we might say, does describe a system
of communication; only not everything that we call language is this system.
And one has to say this in many cases where the question arises 'Is this
an appropriate description or not?' The answer is: 'Yes, it
is appropriate, but only for this narrowly circumscribed region, not for
the whole of what you were claiming to describe."
It is as if someone were to say: "A game consists in moving objects
about on a surface according to certain rules..." --and we replied: You
seem to be thinking of board games, but there are others. You can
make your definition correct by expressly restricting it to those games.
|Somehow Augustine's picture of language, although
appropriate for a subsection of langauge, is not as all inclusive an explanation
of language as we are, at first glance, inclined to believe.
As Wittgenstein says in (1), we tend to sweep
under the rug all the uses of language that do not fit the Augustinian
picture that seems to capture our imagination.
Although language-game (2) restricts the vocabulary
to words that seem to refer to objects, the Augustinian picture cannot
explain everything that happens.
|4. Imagine a script in which the
letters were used to stand for sounds, and also as signs of emphasis and
punctuation. (A script can be conceived as a language for describing
sound-patterns.) Now imagine someone interpreting that script as if there
were simple a correspondence of letters to sounds and as if
the letters had not also completely different functions. Augustine'
conception of language is like such an over-simple conception of the script.
|How might this be? Suppose we taught a parrot
to say "Polly wants a cracker," and whenever it says it, we gave the parrot
a cracker. On the surface this looks like language. The parrot
is asking for and receiving a cracker. However, on closer examination
it is not. We could have taught the parrot to say "Get lost!" and
give it a cracker each time it does. Then, it would not have looked
as though the parrot were speaking English.
To think that simply saying the words "Polly wants a cracker" constitutes
"language" is to have this sort of over-simple conception of the language.
Something profound is missing from this conception although it is not yet
clear exactly what this is. Still, it is a beginning to say that
when the parrot says, "Polly wants an cracker" he doesn't quite know what
this sentence means in English. It amuses us because, nevertheless,
it seems as though he does.
The same would be true if we taught a two year old to answer the question
"What is 450 divided by 366?" by saying "One point two three." It
would be a correct answer in English but the child would not know what
she was saying because she would not know how to count, know wha this number
means, or know what division means. There is more to language than
stringing together correct words.
|5. If we look at the example in (1),
we may perhaps get an inkling how much this general notion of the meaning
of a word surrounds the working of language with a haze which makes clear
vision impossible. It disperses the fog to study the phenomena of language
in primitive kinds of application in which one can command a clear view
of the aim and functioning of the words.
A child uses such primitive forms of language when it learns
to talk. Here the teaching of
language is not explanation, but training.
|But although the parroted sentences are not language
in the richest sense of the term, they help us to understand how language
begins, the roots of language.
|6. We could imagine that the language
of (2) was the whole language of A and B; even the whole
language of a tribe. The children are brought up to perform these actions,
to use these words as they do so, and to react in this way to the words
of others. An important part of the training will
consist in the teacher's pointing to the objects, directing the child's
attention to them, and at the same time uttering a word; for instance,
the word "slab" as he points to that shape.
|Although the word "slab!" is not tied to any particular
activity in English, in the language we are imagining in (2)
it is always a command to fetch a slab. What tends to confuse us
is that we can imagine something like this taking place in English.
It is just that the word "slab!" would not be confined to only this use.
However, in the community we are imagining, this is the only use for
the term "slab!" And how might children be taught the use of the
term? We can well imagine that the Augustinian picture of language
training might be involved. The child's attention will be directed
to the different shapes and the child will learn to expect each shape to
be associated with a particular sound.
| ( I do not want to call this "ostensive definition", because
the child cannot as yet ask what the name is. I will call it "ostensive
teaching of words".-----I say that it will form an important part of the
training, because it is so with human beings; not because it could not
be imagine otherwise.)
|What is the difference between ostensive teaching
of words and ostensive definitions? In ostensive definitions someone
points and gives a name of something and this serves to make clear how
the term is to be used. When someone points to a cracker and says
"cracker" those who know what a cracker is (but not the name for it) can
receive this as an ostensive definition. But if a child has not yet
learned language, it is like the parrot. It does not know what is
being pointed to on what the word cracker means. (Maybe the word
"cracker" means "square" or "salty". Or maybe it means "food".)
However the child understands the term, the child can be taught to say
it, in assocition with the object. As Augustine imagined things in (1)
. As Augustine imagined things the child without any language
was able to "grasp"
|This ostensive teaching of words can be said to establish an association
between the word and the thing. But what does this mean? Well, it can mean
various things: but one very likely thinks first of all that a picture
of the object comes before the child's mind when it hears the word. But
now, if this does happen---is it the purpose of the word?
||The emphasis here is mine. I want to show what
I will call Wittgenstein's aporetic
voice. He is reminding us of the cultural ways we think so tht
he can deconstruct them. Here Wittgenstein is talking about the cultural
illusion that is related to Augustine's
picture of language and what we are likely to say that supports this
|---Yes, it can be the purpose.---I can imagine
such a use of words (of series of sounds). (Uttering a word is like striking
a note on the keyboard of the imagination.) But in the language of (2)
it is not the purpose of the words to evoke images. (It may, of course,
be discovered that that helps to attain the actual purpose.)
||But although language may create images for us, remember,
the language in (2) was not required to create images
for the workers. The worker in (2) would understand
what was being said to him if he simply fetched what was called for, whether
or not he had images of what called for when it was called, or not.
| But if the ostensive teaching has this effect, ---am
I to say that it effects an understanding of the word? Don't you understand
the call "Slab!" if you act upon it in such-and-such a way? -- Doubtless
the ostensive teaching helped to bring this about; but only together with
a particular training. With different training the same ostensive teaching
of these words would have effected a quite different understanding.
||In (2) one understands the call
"Slab!" if one brings it when it is called. Pointing to slablike
objects and saying "slab" might have faciliated this teaching but one could
also imagine learning to take the slab behind the fence when it is called.
A different training would have resulted in the worker doing different
things with the slab, hitting it, hiding it, burying it, and so forth.
| "I set the brake up by connecting up rod and lever."---Yes,
given the whole of the rest of the
mechanism. Only in conjunction with that is it a brake-lever, and separated
from its support it is not even a lever; it may be anything, or nothing.
|Unless one knows how to weave the word into some
of human activity, the saying of the word is not yet language.
It is like a break that is not yet connected with the entire mechanism.
The parts seem to be there, but it does not yet have the connections to
function as it should.
|7. In the practice of the use of language (2)
one party calls out the words, the other acts on them. In instruction in
the language the following process will occur: the learner names the objects;
that is, he utters the word when the teacher points to the stone.---And
there will be this still simpler exercise: the pupil repeats the words
after the teacher-----both of these being processes resembling language.
||All of this sounds like Augustine's
picture of learning language.
| We can also think of the whole process of using words
in (2) as one of those games by means of which children
learn their native language. I will call these games "language-games" and
will sometimes speak of a primitive language as a language-game.
|Here Wittgensein introduces the concept of a language
game, but he will amplify this concept later so that it does not merely
apply to language learning exercises. To anticipate this amplification
of the meaning of this term, we might sometimes distinguish this meaning
of the term by calling these language games "primitive language games."
| And the processes of naming the stones and of repeating
words after someone might also be
called language-games. Think of much of the use words in games like
|In ring-a-ring-a-roses, the child learns the phrases
without knowing what they mean, as a parrot might learn to say "Polly wants
| I shall also call the whole, consisting
of language and the actions into which it is woven, the "language-game".
||So, "the language game" is not merely speech.
In (2), he whole activity of fetching the objects was
part of the "language game" of (2).
|8. Let us now look at an expansion of language
Besides the four words "block", "pillar", etc., let it contain a series
of words used as the shopkeeper in (1)
used the numerals
(it can be the series of letters of the alphabet); further, let there be
two words, which may as well be "there" and "this" (because this roughly
indicates their purpose),that are used in connexion with a pointing gesture;
and finally a number of colour samples. A gives an order like: "d---slab---there".
At the same time he shews the assistant a colour sample, and when he says
"there" he points to a place on the building site. From the stock
of slabs B takes one for each letter of the alphabet up to "d", of the
same colour as the sample, and brings them to the place indicated by A.---On
other occasions A gives the order "this---there". At "this" he points to
a building stone. And so on.
||In (8) LW creates a new language
game that is a variation of (2). Now we will be able to
speak of bringing X number of slabs and we will be abe to indicate where
we want the slab to be put. We understand these concepts LW explains
because they exist in English. Notice, however, that LW does not
say that the slabs will be counted with numbers, but with the letters of
the alphabet. This helps us get into the feel of what it would be
like if we had a more primitive system of counting, one in which there
was no arithemetic possisilibities, for example.
|9. When a child learns this language, it has
to learn the series of 'numerals' a, b, c, ... by heart. And it has to
learn their use.---Will this training include ostensive teaching of the
words?---Well, people will, for example, point to slabs and count: "a,
b, c slabs".---Something more like the ostensive teaching of the words
"block", "pillar", etc. would be the ostensive teaching of numerals that
serve not to count but to refer to groups of objects that can be taken
in at a glance. Children do learn the use of the first or six cardinal
numerals in this way.
|How can we imagine the people of (8) learning language?
Can they learn it ostensively as Augustine imagined? Take the learning
of numbers. We could imagine them learning to distinguish numbers
ostensively as we might learn to distinguish two from three by distinguishing
these configurations of two and three:
But this would be of limited use. We cannot learn to distinguish,
apparently much larger numbers in this fashion. Thus we count.
| Are "there" and "this also taught ostensively?---Imagine
how one might perhaps teach their use. One will point to places and
things---but in this case the pointing occurs in the use of the words too
and not merely in learning the use.---
||How will "there" and "this" be taught? This
is tricky, and LW does not answer the question for us. Do you point
to "this" and say "this"? Does that clarify the use of the word "this"?
|10. Now what do the words of this
language signify?---What is supposed to shew what they signify, if not
the kind of use they have? And we have already described that. So we
are asking for the expression "This word signifies this" to be made a part
of the description. In other words the
description ought to take the form: "The word . . . .signifies . .
|What does "two signify"? Does it signify any
two objects? Say, two blocks? Well, we know what the word "block
signifies." It signifies each of the two blocks. Does "two"
signifiy something other than what "block signifies"? There are conceptual
And what does "this" signify. It signifies what I point to.
But that can be anything. How can a child learn to associate the
naming of anything by one term?
But, do we need to say what these words "signify"? Isn't everything
clear already? Since we know their use? Why would we require
that all words "signify"?
| Of course, one can reduce the description of the use of
the word "slab" to the statement that this word signifies this object.
This will be done when, for example, it is merely a matter of removing
the mistaken idea that the word "slab" refers to the shape of building-stone
that we in fact call a "block"---but the kind of 'refering' this is, that
is to say the use of these words for the rest, is already known.
||In language-game (2) pointing and
saying "slab" may be helpful to show which slab is to be fetched, but pointing
and naming would not show that the slab is to be fetched.
| Equally one can say that the signs "a", "b", etc.
signify numbers; when for example this removes
the mistaken idea that "a", "b", "c", play the part actually played
in language by "block", "slab",
"pillar". And one can also say that "c" means this number and not that
one; when for example this
serves to explain that the letters are to be used in the order a, b,
c, d, etc. and not in the order a, b, d, c.
|In other words, we might want to explain that "c"
is not just another object like "slab" or "block" and so we might need
explain "a", "b", and "c" signify numbers. But where does this leave
us? Does it teach the child in (8) to learn to
use numbers (by counting things) and until the child learns to count does
the child really know what "numbers" means?
| But assimilating the descriptions of the uses of
the words in this way cannot make the uses
themselves any more like one another. For, as we see, they are absolutely
|So, although we can find a way to say that "a," "b,"
"c," signify something, assimilating these different kinds of words to
the same expression (they are instances if "signifying" hides the enormity
of the difference and creates a over simplified picture language and how
language is learned.
Table of Contents
Extended Look at 43