Book Tip: Wittgenstein's Later Theory of Meaning

Imagination and Calculation by Hans Julius Schneider

I must admit that Chapters 2 - 5 of this book are a bit hard going for someone who is not immersed in the philosophical debates around language and meaning. That might sound like an odd way to begin a book review/recommendation. That said, Schneider's early sections set up a suitable platform to engage in a compelling argument fom Chapters 6 - 13. 

At its core, this book asks two simple questions, "can we have a suitable theory of meaning? and, can Wittgenstein's later philosophy contribute to such a theory?" The two are barriers to a comprehensive theory of meaning are as follows. First, formal attempts to account for meaning (or how meaning is expressed in propositions) fail to explain how meaning is expressed in everyday language. Second, attempts to include everyday language into a theory of meaning begin to fray due to the intentional, contextual and personal meanings that arise in the social and relational nature of ordinary language.

Put another way, Schneider explores how formal theories of meaning in the tradition of Gottlob Frege,  Michael Dummett and Noam Chomsky - seek to explain how propositions express a sense, hopefully clearly and unambiguously, through an understanding of the proposition's logical structure. One must have access to the phonetic, syntactic and lexical knowledge to be able to decode the sentence and to decipher the picture expressed within the sentence. This process is quite a static exchange. The only quality which requires "open" uptake is vocabulary, whereas the other features are structurally finite and can be studied scientifically, as Noam Chomsky proceeded to do. In addition, in this perspective, vocabulary is treated quite narrowly; a word is seen to represent (or point) to its referent, and the meaning of this referent does not change based upon the context of the utterance. If one does not know a word, one must either "look it up in the dictionary" or be pointed to its logical role within the syntax of the utterance. Wittgenstein himself was inspired by Gottlob Frege to contribute to the formalist, analytical project in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, but would soon find this pursuit inadequate to explain how meaning is expressed beyond a very limited frame.

Meaning, on the other hand, is less static and more elusive. The meaning of an utterance requires an understanding of its context, a familiarity with the way the utterance is being exchanged, the intention of the utterance, and the position of the utterance within a "language game" or "conversation". For instance, the meaning of the phrase "he is a Red" could meaning "He is a communist", "He is a supporter of the Liverpool Football Club", "He is a Native American", or some other derivative. Its meaning is dependent on factors outside of the logical structure of the utterance itself. To comprehend the meaning of an utterance does requires an appreciation of how sense is made (which does indicate that meaning-making does build from sense-making) as well as the components that infuse meaning into an utterance, such as

  • an appreciation of the illocutionary role ("I've played this game before and there is momentum to this statement"), including an appreciation of the intention of utterances within discourse;
  • an appreciation of the conversation or discussion of which an utterance is part, including the meaning of terminology and meanings specific to the domain; and 
  • the individuals' commitment to the speech act as being of particular significance in a form of life (as contributing to extra-linguistic activity) and to one or more world pictures (to one's knowledge of the world).

This leads me to the subtitle Schneider's book, "Imagination and Calculation". Schneider argues that meaning-making requires much more than "calculation", which is all that would be required in a purely formal account of meaning. In a purely formal account of meaning, the individual would only be required to calculate the exact, unambiguous meaning of a proposition as long as the proposition was logically expressed and all terms were accounted for clearly and directly. Instead, a theory of meaning must take into account that the subject is a creative, imaginative agent who extends (or projects) new language practices from prior encounters. Since meaning is framed by the individual within a social exchange, it becomes a challenge to express a general theory of meaning that would meet the standards set by Gottlob Frege and Michael Dummett.