The Philosophical Investigations of Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Aphorism 21-30 from |
with commentary on the right by
(Emphasis in bold in Wittgenstein's text has
been inserted by Shawver to enhance commentary.)
|21. Imagine a language-game in which
A asks and B reports the number of slabs or blocks in a pile, or the
colours and shapes of the building-stones that are stacked in
such-and-such a place.--- Such a report might run: "Five slabs". Now
what is the difference between the report or statement "Five slabs" and
the order "Five slabs!"?---
||That is, what is the difference between "Five slabs"
(in language-game 21) and ("Five slabs!" in language game 8? ) |
|Well, it is the part which uttering these words plays in the
||Emphasis mine. But isn't the important thing
that "Five slabs!" in (8) causes the worker to bring 5 slabs? While
"five slabs" in (21) only causes the supervisor to have information?|
|No doubt the tone of voice and the look with which they are uttered,
and much else besides, will also be different. But we could also imagine
the tone's being the same---for an order and a report can be spoken in a
variety of tones of voice and with various expressions of face---the
difference being only in the application. (Of course, we might use the
words "statement" and "command" to stand for grammatical forms of sentence
and intonations; we do in fact call "Isn't the weather glorious
to-day?" a question, although it is used as a statement.) We could
imagine a language in which all statements had the form and tone of
rhetorical questions; or every command the form of the question "Would you
like to. . .?". Perhaps it will then be said: "What he says has the form
of a question but is really a command",---that is, has the function of a
command in the technique of using the language. (Similarly one says "You
will do this" not as a prophecy but as a command. What makes it the one or
||On the surface the difference might be a matter of how
it is voiced. But we could imagine them being voiced with the same
intonation. The intonation is, after all, only a clue as to what the
differences are, not the difference itself. |
Besides, we could imagine a language in which everything stated or
commanded was put in the form of a question.
|22. Frege's idea that every assertion contains
an assumption, which is the thing that is asserted, really rests on the
possibility found in our language of writing every statement in the form:
"It is assert that such-and-such is the case."--- But "that
such-and-such is the case" is not a sentence in our language---so far it
is not a move in the language-game. And if I write, not "It is asserted
that . . . .", but "It is asserted: such-and-such is the case", the words
"It is asserted" simply become superfluous.
||Still, there is the dream (such as Frege
had) of including some sort of notation in the body of the sentence
saying how it was used. For example, one might include a statement
such as "It is asserted that" and complete the sentence any such
way. Or, alternatively, one might do the same thing by saying "It is
asserted:" and complete the sentence any way.
But isn't it clear, at least in the last case, that the notation "It is
asserted:" is superfluous?
|We might very well also write every statement in the form of a
question followed by a "Yes"; for
instance: "Is it raining?
Yes!" Would this shew that every statement contained a question?
|Besides, there is nothing to guarantee that a notation
"It is asserted:" will in fact be attached to an assertion. After
all, don't we use questioning grammatical forms to make statements?
Don't we say "It is a wonderful day, isn't it?" Even when we use
formulations that seem to tell us how a sentence is being used, they need
not accurately do so.|
|Of course we have the right to use an assertion sign in contrast with
a question-mark, for
example, or if we want to distinguish an
assertion from a fiction or a supposition. It is only a mistake if one
thinks that the assertion consists of two actions, entertaining and
asserting (assigning the truth-value, or something of the kind), and that
in performing these actions we follow the prepositional sign roughly as we
sing from the musical score. Reading the written sentence loud or soft is
indeed comparable with singing from a musical score, but 'meaning'
(thinking) the sentence that is read is not.
Frege's assertion sign marks the beginning of the sentence. Thus its
function is like that of
full-stop. It distinguishes the whole
period from a clause within the period. If I hear someone say "it's
raining" but do not know whether I have heard the beginning and the end of
the period, so far this sentence does not serve to tell me
|But we can try to construct language so carry such a
notation accurately. The mistake is in thinking that it is the
notation that makes it so. What is in question is whether the
sentence is a question, and the notation does not make it so.
The notation is only a label and a label can be correct or
This means, when we determine that a statement is an assertion or a
question, it is not enough to look to see what the notation (or
punctuation) tells us. This information is not contained in the
words, but in the way these words are being used in the
Frege's notation that a sentence is an asssertion is like the full stop
of a period at the end of string of words. Just as a period does not
assure you that the sentence functions as a statement, however, so Frege's
notation does guarantee that the sentence functions as the notation
inserted comment of LW's.
|23. But how many kinds of sentence are
there? Say assertion, question, and command?--- There are countless kinds:
countless different kinds of use of what we call "symbols", "words",
"sentences". And this multiplicity is not something fixed, given once
for all; but new types of language, new language-
games, as we
may say, come into existence, and others become obsolete and get
forgotten. (We can get a rough picture of this from the changes in
|The rules of language games are not unchangeable
laws. There is a continuous evolution not only in how many language
games there are, but evolution, too, as to the kind of language games thee
|Here the term "language-game" is meant to bring into prominence the
fact that the speaking of
language is part of an activity, or of
a form of life.
|We have seen this concept of langauge being woven in a
form of life before. In (19), he
said that to "imagine a language meant to imagine a form of
life." And in (2) he pointed out
that the slab language of that language-game involved not only words but
activities, specifically, the activity of fetching objects on
|Review the multiplicity of language-game in the following examples,
and in others:
|Now that LW has taught us something about
"language-games" he is going to give us samples to count. This
serves as a kind of ostensive definition of language games, although,
note, these examples differ from the primitive language games he talked
about in 7
(which was illustrated by the slab language of 2|
|* Giving orders, and obeying them---
* Describing the
appearance of an object, or
* Constructing an object from a description
* Reporting an
* Speculating about an event---
* Forming and
testing a hypothesis---
* Presenting the results of an
tables and diagrams---
Making up a story; and reading it---
* Singing catches---
* Guessing riddles---
Making a joke; telling it---
* Solving a problem in practical
* Translating from one language into
* Asking, thanking, cursing, greeting, praying.
---It is interesting to compare the multiplicity of
the tools in language and of the ways they are used, the multiplicity of
kinds of word and sentence, with what logicians have said about the
structure of language.( Including the author of the Tractatus
|It is a useful exercise to imagine a sentence of any
sort functioning in several of the different language games. When it
does this, it takes on a different meaning. For example, "There was
a storm today." Imagine how a sentence like this might function in
"reporting an event" "speculating about an event" "presenting results from
an experiment" "play acting" "singing catches" and so forth. Some
sentences, of course, do not make sense in all language games, but
whenever they do, they mean something different in different language
Of course, Wittgenstein is himself the author of the
Tractatus-Logico-Philosophicus. And, in that book, as well as in
works by other authors of that era (e.g., Russell) language was seen as
much more stable and finite.
|24. If you do not keep the
multiplicity of language-games in view you will perhaps be inclined to ask
questions like: "What is a question?"---Is it the statement that I do not
know such-and-such, or the statement that I wish the other person would
tell me. . . .? Or is it the description of my mental state of
uncertainty?---And is the cry "Help!" such a description?
|Questions such as these, LW tells us, come about from
the Augustinian (Platonic and confused) understanding of language that is
our heritage. Why is this confused? |
In my reading LW, it is because a "question" is just a grammatical
form. It does not get at the activity of "asking". We can ask
with cries such as
And a sentence in the form
of of a question might not be an asking.
|Oh, I wish I had someone to go to the movies with!
We want to get beneath such
grammatical form (which LW calls "surface
grammar") and move down to the depth, that is something more
important than language than the form we use to express it. Asking "What
is a question?" betrays a concern with the way things look on the page, or
sound in the voic, and not a concern with the deep structure, that is, the
way the language is working and having an impact on what is
|Would you mind going to get me a
|Think how many different kinds of thing are called "description":
description of a body's
position by means of its co-ordinates;
description of a facial expression; description of a sensation of touch;
of a mood.
|If asking what a question is reveals a hidden
confusion, what about asking what a description is?|
|Of course it is possible to substitute the form of statement or
description for the usual form of
question: " I want to know
whether . . . ." or "I am in doubt whether . . . ."---but this does not
bring the different language-games any closer together.
|Here, too, with descriptions, we find there is a
surface form that does not tell us much about how the sentence is being
used. Just as practically anything can be put in a questioning
formt, so practically anything can be put in a descriptive format.|
|The significance of
such possibilities of transformation, for example of turning all
statements into sentences beginning "I think" or "I believe" (and thus, as
it were, into descriptions of my inner life) will become clearer in
another place. ( Solipsism.)
||LW gives an account of pain language later that I
think this refers to, but it is too early to get into this now. The
important thing now to feel at home in his distinction between the surface
of language (such as "What is a question") and the questions about the
depth of language (how is the sentence functioning in the language
|25. It is sometimes said that
animals do not talk because they lack the mental capacity. And this
means: "they do not think, and that is why they do not talk." But---they
simply do not talk. Or to put it better: they do not use language---if
we except the most primitive forms of language.--- Commanding,
questioning, recounting, chatting, are as much a part of our natural
history as walking, eating, drinking, playing.
|Here, LW is looking back at this cultural imagery that
he has been deconstructing. According to this imagery, to be able to
"talk" one must be able to think -- because "talking" is the expression of
our internal ideas.
Don't try to deconstruct this imagery at this moment. Just notice
that it is a natural thing to think here. Dogs do not talk, because
they do not think internal thoughts.
But note the parenthetical that I have emphasized. A dog can be
taught to fetch on command, just as the worker in (2) could fetch slabs on
command. Why are we leaving this kind of language outside the scope
of "language"? Because this is an aporetic voice, the voice of the
Still, we are indlined to say that "dogs do not talk" and by this we
mean that they also "do not think."
|26. One thinks that learning language consists
in giving names to objects. Viz, to human beings, to shapes, to colours.
to pains. to moods, to numbers, etc. To repeat-naming is something
like attaching a label to a thing. One can say that this is preparatory to
the use of a word. But what is it a preparation for?
||What is naming a preparation for? Imagine a
culture that could only name. It had no other use for
language. People simply sat around and named things, or else they
did things without language. All that this culture would lack in its
language is what naming is a preparation
|27. "We name things and then we can talk about
them: can refer to them in talk." 'As if what we did next were given with
the mere act of naming. As if there were only one thing called "talking
about a thing". Whereas in fact we do the most various things with our
|Isn't this exactly what the Augtinian picture of
language in (2)
implies? We name things and then we can talk about them. It is
as though this is all that is required.
But naming things, we have come to see, does not show us what to do
with them. The workers might be able to name the beams, pillars,
blocks and "slabs" and still not know to fetch them. Language is not
just the uttering of words. It is the use of words in the activity
Also, the illusion that all we need to do to be able to talk is name
things neglects how few of the words we use are actually names.
|Think of exclamations alone, with their completely different
Are you inclined still
to call these words "names of objects"?
|* Water! |
In languages (2) and (8) there was no
such thing as asking something's name. This, with its
correlate, ostensive definition, is, we might say, a language-game
on its own. That is really to say: we are brought up, trained, to ask:
"What is that called?"-upon which the name is given. And there is
also a language-game of inventing a name for something, and hence of
saying, "This is ...." and then using the new name. (Thus, for example,
children give names to their dolls and then talk about them and to them.
Think in this connexion how singular is the use of a person's name to call
|Look at exclamations. Are these just names of
objects? Do you want to say that there is something internal that
these words name? Of course, someone uttering an exclamation like
this might have a image, but are they required? |
In (2) and (8) the worker
simply brought the objects required. There was no language for
asking what something was called. Pointing and naming is a language
game of its own. One must learn how to do this.
And, in addition to learning to give the existing name of an object,
one can learn how to invent names.
|28. Now one can ostensively define a proper
name, the name of a colour, the name of a material, a numeral, the name of
a point of the compass and so on. The definition of the number two, "That
is called 'two' "--pointing to two nuts-is perfectly exact. --But how can
two be defined like that? The person one gives the definition to doesn't
know what one wants to call "two"; he will suppose that "two" is the name
given to this group of nuts! He may suppose this; but perhaps he does not.
He might make the opposite mistake; when I want to assign a name to this
group of nuts, he might understand it as a numeral. And he might equally
well take the name of a person, of which I give an ostensive definition,
as that of a colour, of a race, or even of a point of the compass. That is
to say: an ostensive definition can be variously interpreted in every
||Where, for example, is this hand
pointing? Is it pointing to both of the diamonds? Or
one? Or is it pointing to the color red? Or is it pointing to
the side of one of the diamonds? |
Wittgenstein says that in every case the object being
pointed to is ambiguous. Can you think of an exception? If
not, does this not undermine Augustine's picture of how we learn
|29. Perhaps you say: two can only be
ostensively defined in this way: "This number is called 'two' ".
For the word "number" here shews what place in language, in grammar, we
assign to the word. But this means that the word "number" must be
explained before the ostensive definition can be understood.
Does that solve the problem
of how we might ostensively define 2? There are several problems
with it. First the child must learn what "number" means in order to
understand what is being pointed to.
2 3 4 5 |
This number is called
|--The word "number" in the definition does indeed shew this place;
does shew the post at which we station the word. And we can prevent
misunderstandings by saying: "This colour is called so-and-so", "This
length is called so-and-so", and so on. That is to say: misunderstandings
are sometimes averted in this way. But is there only one way of taking the
word "colour" or "length"?-Well, they just need defining.-Defining, then,
by means of other words! And what about the last definition in this chain?
(Do not say: "There isn't a 'last' definition". That is just as if
chose to say: "There isn't a last house in this road; one
can always build an additional one''.)
|Still, you might say, the 2 is in the right
place. One can see where 2 sits in the series of numbers. And
misunderstandings can sometimes be averted by pointing like this.
But how can we define number?
Can we do it by example? Should we use a figure like this:
This number is called "two".
Or will the student be confused by
this ambiguity, too? And if we tried to get around this problem of
ambiguity by defining the words, how shall we define them without their
being ambiguous, too?
| Whether the word "number" is necessary in the
ostensive definition depends on whether
without it the other
person takes the definition otherwise than I wish. And that will depend on
the circumstances under which it is given, and on the person I give it
|But perhaps someone learns what two means in a
particular context, even without a completely adequate explanation for all
contexts. I ask for a ball and the child learns to fetch a
I ask for two balls and the child learns to fetch two balls.
This always pleases me.
| And how he 'takes' the definition is seen in the use that
he makes of the word defined.
||But, if he "takes" it in the right way it will become
a powerful and reinforcing tool.|
|30. So one might say: the ostensive
definition explains the use--the meaning--of the word when the overall
role of the word in language is clear. Thus if I know that someone means
to explain a
colour-word to me the ostensive definition "That is
called 'sepia' " will help me to understand the word.
| In 30, Wittgenstein continues to investigate the
Augustinian model and its problems as the total explanation for our
developing language. This model, you'll recall, is based on the
picture of words being defined ostensively, that is by naming and
|--And you can say this, so long as you do not forget that all sorts of
problems attach to the words "to know" or "to be clear".
|Someone from another country wants to teach you a word
in her native language. She points to a pillow and make a strange
sound "upapal" and your question is, "What is she pointing to? Is it
the pillow or the shape of the pillow, or what?" But if you knew
somehow that she was pointing to the color of the pillow, then that would
make all the difference in the world. But that is because you know
what "color" means. Imagine, then, how difficult it must be to learn
a color word from an ostensive definition if you don't even have a concept
of color. And, of course, all of us were in that place
initially. isn't it remarkable that we learned anything at all from
the experience? |
| One has already to know (or be able to do) something in order to
be capable of asking a
thing's name. But what does one have to
|If I already am quite clear about what a color word
is, then I can begin to ask what the color of something is. If I
know the term for color and my teacher knows the term for "color", too,
then I am indeed a smart student. Just pointing and saying "that is
the color sepia" should surely do it. But without those tools,
things are going to be a lot tricker. |
Could one define the word "red" by pointing to
something that was not red? That would be
as if one were
supposed to explain the word "modest" to someone whose English was weak,
and one pointed to an arrogant man and said "That man is not modest". That
it is ambiguous is no argument against such a method of definition. Any
definition can be misunderstood.
But it might well be asked: are we still to call
this "definition"?-- For, of course, even if it has
practical consequences, the same effect on the learner, it plays a
different part in the calculus from what we ordinarily call "ostensive
definition" of the word "red".
Table of Contents
Extended Look at 43