Being brought into the many uses of language

When language-games change, then there is a change of concepts, and with the concepts the meanings of words change. (On Certainty, #65)

In the previous blog post, I mentioned that Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was his flawed masterpiece. And I went on to write that “it is flawed only in the sense that our human language consists of a greater variety of propositions than merely descriptive sentences. We tell jokes. We ask questions. We talk about abstract things. We create rules and so on.”

I’d like to spend this post focusing on Wittgenstein’s attempt to rectify these flaws in his later work, particularly in the Philosophical Investigations. Even more specifically, I’d like to write about his language games concept, since it sheds light on the diversity of language practices learners are asked to adopt over time. 

Even before I do that, I’d like to justify my reason for pursuing this rabbit hole. Whilst Wittgenstein is not contemporary literacy research, The Literacy Bug was set up to explore ideas as much as it was set up to share evidence-based practices. Here, I’d like to continue exploring how we use oral and print language to help us render and - even - organise our experience of and interactions with the world. 

So here we go … let’s revisit the last blog post again. In it, I wrote, 

“If we take a moment to consider descriptive sentences, there is an elegant and meditative quality to the acts of writing and reading. In the acts of writing and reading, we are builders. We are builders of experiences. We are speculators on cause and effect.”

Let’s call this a language game. It is one language game amongst many in our daily lives. Let us define a language game as a particular use of language implicitly governed by certain rules and accepted (by a language community) as serving a certain function or purpose. Certain learners - such as certain children - are raised in an environment in which there is a particular value placed on particular uses of language, such as - say - describing (painting in words) a scene - real or imagined - in exacting detail for consideration. And there will be other contexts - such as in school - that this use of language will be rewarded, reinforced and extended. In this community, there is certain training and praise for this skill, but there are also repercussions if a learner becomes careless or inattentive in this language game, or form of discourse. As suggested by Garver, 

"It is ... possible to instruct people in the use of the language. Such instruction involves correction and drill that aims at some (unspecified) level of competence. It is no doubt pursued more doggedly and more dogmatically in some cultures than others." (Garver, 1996, pg 165)

A learner must become both skilled in this language game - of descriptions, in this case - but also motivated to do so in the appropriate circumstances, as suggested by Stanley Cavell, “the pupil must want to go on alone in taking language to the world." (Cavell, 2005, pg 115) And so, the learner is initiated into a particular use of language that the learner will turn to when the time is right. Upon initiation, a certain practice has been established. As stated in our essay Establishing Practices, the features of a practice are as follows:

  • “At the very least, a practice is something people do, not just once, but on a regular basis. But it is more than just a disposition to behave in a certain way; the identity of a practice depends on not only on what people do, but also on the significance of those actions and the surroundings in which they occur." (Stern, 2004, p. 166)
  • In a practice, what becomes necessary is the individual's "willingness to engage with such activities in a particular way, thus changing ‘mere’ activities into practices where standards of excellence do matter.” (Smeyers and Burbles, 2010 pg 196)
  • “Our deliberations seem to be entirely personal and self determined - yet they obviously derive from previous conversations with others, in which their voices and perspectives are represented in one’s own internal deliberations. Often this dynamic is what we call ‘conscience.’” — (Burbles and Smears, 2010, pg 180)
  • Therefore, “every instance of the use [or participation in a practice] … is the culmination of a process of socialisation.” (Phillips, 1979, pg 126).

That all might seem quite long-winded for a relatively simple point: children learn to describe (as one use of language) and children come to develop other uses of languages as well. As teachers, we want our learners to become skilled in many uses of  language (describing, recounting, explaining, comparing, narrating, critiquing, etc). This is true, but I think Wittgenstein refers to something more important here. He is interested in how we turn to particular uses of language to solve problems in daily lives. This requires both skill and the ability to recognise the circumstances in which to deploy a particular language game and why. James Paul Gee explains these two levels as two levels of discourse

“I will use ‘discourse’ [with a lower case "d"] for connected stretches of language that makes sense, like conversations, stories, reports, arguments, essays and so forth. So, ‘discourse’ [the spoken or written text] is part of the ‘Discourse’ – ‘Discourse’ [with a capital “D”] is always more than just language.[The] Discourses are ways of being in the world, or forms of life which integrate words [integrate little “d” discourse], acts, values, beliefs, attitudes and social identities as well as gestures, glances, body positions and relationships.” (Gee, 1996, p 127)

For instance, we’d want to encourage learners to “stop, consider, describe” when faced with a problem that requires one to outline and examine all the various factors and variables in a scenario, and we’d need to consider how language is used to navigate such a way of thinking AND a way of working with others. Teaching includes providing the scaffolding which supports the turns/sequences in the game. And like any game, we want learners to play this game many times so they are able to discover the nuances in the game and to generalise the rules from the game.

Figure 1:   Source:  Florida Centre for Reading Research

Figure 1: Source: Florida Centre for Reading Research

Figure 1 is an example of a paper-based scaffold that makes explicit the cognitive architecture - or schema - of a particular way of analysing a text. This way of analysis would be an example of a language game. The scaffolding (or guidance) that a teacher provides can also consist of particular activities, axioms, mnemonics, reminders, hints, routines and encouragement, which are essential to ensuring successful completion of the task. Ultimately, all of this modelling and guidance teaches the learners to go on in a particular manner, which involves a whole raft of moves, turns, checkpoints and further points for deliberation.

Then, am I defining “order” and “rule” by means of “regularity”? ... I shall teach him … by means of examples and by practice. -- And when I do this I do not communicate less to him than I know myself. In the course of this teaching I shall shew him … get him to continue a … pattern when told to do so. -- And also to continue progressions. And so … I do it, he does it after me; and I influence him by expressions of agreement, rejection, expectation, encouragement. I let him go his way, or hold him back; and so on. (Philosophical Investigations, #280)

So, being initiated into such a practice - therefore - involves the internalising of - what we might call - deliberative talk. For instance, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein models this aspect by presenting the inner monologue of a character who is building something:

Every now and then there is the problem “Should I use this bit?” — The bit is rejected, another is tried. Bits are tentatively put together, then dismantled; he looks for one that fits etc, etc.. So I sometimes make him say “No, that bit is too long, perhaps another’s fit better.” — Or “What am I to do now?” — “Got it!” — Or “That’s not bad” etc. … (Wittgenstein, Zettel #100)


Diversity of language games

Consider all the language games which serve to mediate daily lives ... from “morning news” to planning meetings to personal reflection to prayer to meditative poetry to following instructions and much, much more. Learning these games involves the ability to focus attention, participate in the game, and demonstrate an appreciation of how such engagement is purposeful in some way.

Throughout students’ academic, social and moral careers, they must navigate and negotiate through many different and even conflicting discourses (or ways of using language) in order to participate and advance in multiple contexts, school only being but one of them. Navigating through discourses involves anything from understanding the forms and functions of significant linguistic practices, to being sensitive to the conventions of speaking in particular contexts, to critically assessing the assumptions and outcomes of language practices in society.  

Guiding students through these subtle areas of language development is complex, and involves more than the teaching of specific language features (phonology, grammars, vocabularies, and structures). It involves initiating students into a growing repertoire of ways of using language to perform different roles with language, whether in constructing knowledge, imaginative recreation, construing activity, or actively impacting the world and the people around them.  The very nature of this process of initiation becomes the concern of how literacies (ways of reading, interacting and being through language and communication) are transmitted, formed and engaged in within pedagogical relations amongst people, whether it be between mother-child, teacher-student, co-worker-co-worker, elder-youth, author-reader, institutions-individuals, etc (Bernstein, 2000).


One more thing …

There is something that Wittgenstein raises that often isn’t included in the educational literature: he asks us to explore what happens when a complex *language game* is adopted which is - in fact - destructive. Let’s consider either racist discourse or defeatist discourse, which are both language games that can become habitual and exert a powerful shaping force on how one navigates the world. Racist discourse doesn’t necessarily require further explanation, but defeatist discourse may. In defeatist discourse, a person may learn to self-sabotage any hopes of success by entrenched habits of doubt. Wittgenstein would tell us that philosophy seeks to free ourselves from the “bewitchment” of language by revealing the bewitching patterns of language use and proposing alternatives (e.g. showing the fly the way out of the bottle). However it is not so easy, since it requires the learner to take the brave step of trying to alter the “ruts” of language.  

If we switch to an educational example, a learner may not be asking the right questions or sequence of questions that an expert would when trying to get the most out of a topic. Consequently, the learner may be failing to make any forward momentum in an area of learning. At some point, though, the learner encounters a teacher who guides him or her in asking “the right questions” which come to “reshape the nature of the investigation” and the potential for learning. This new language game or revision of an old language game opens up the possibility for discovery.

Bringing things closer to a close

How - then - does all this relate to literacy, you may ask? Well, it relates to the central issues of comprehension and composition. Even if one has learned the “basics”, such as decoding and grammatical competence, there are many higher order linguistic issues to attend to if one is going to read and write for the diverse purposes in life.

As James Paul Gee more simply reminds us, “We have to worry about what texts students have read and how they have read them, not just about how much they have read and how many books they do or do not own (though, of course, these are important matters).” (Gee, 2003, pg 30-31) 


“After all, we never just read "in general", rather, we always read or write something in some way. We don't read or write newspapers, legal tracts, essays in literary criticism, poetry, or rap songs, and so on and so forth through a nearly endless list, in the same way. Each of these domains has its own rules and requirements.” (Gee, 2003, pg 28)

As Wittgenstein would also,

PI 156: The use of this word [to read] in the ordinary circumstances of our life is of course extremely familiar to us. But the part the word plays in our life, and therewith the language-game in which we employ it, would be difficult to describe even in rough outline. A person, let us say an Englishman, has received at school or at home one of the kinds of education usual among us, and in the course of it has learned to read [basically] his native language. Later he reads books, letters, newspapers and other things. 


In closing

On that note, I’d like to end. This essay has been written in the spirit of the original definition of the French "essai" - coined by Michel de Montaigne - which means to try/attempt/trial ... to seek new ways to explore and/or articulate relevant issues. I hope this digression is of some benefit/use. On behalf of *The Literacy Bug* and until next time, please enjoy and explore!


Bernstein, B. (2000). Pedagogy, symbolic control and identity: theory, research, critique. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Burbles, N., & Smears, P. (2010). The practice of ethics and moral education. In M. Peters, N. Burbles, & P. Smears (Eds.), Showing and doing: Wittgenstein as a pedagogical philosopher (pp. 169 – 182). London: Paradigm Publishers.

Cavell, S. (2005). Philosophy the day after tomorrow. In Philosophy the day after tomorrow (pp. 111 – 131). Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Garver, N. (1996). Philosophy as grammar. In H. Sluga, H. and D. Stern (Eds.), The Cambridge companion to Wittgenstein. (pp. 139 - 170) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gee, J (1999). An introduction to discourse analysis: theory and method. London: Routledge.

Gee, J. P. (2003). Opportunity to learn: a language-based perspective on assessment. In Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy and Practice, Vol 10, No. 1, pp 27 - 46.

Phillips, D. (1977) Wittgenstein and scientific knowledge.  London: MacMillan Press.

Smeyers, P., & Burbles, N. (2010). Education as initiation into practices. In M. Peters, N. Burbles, & P. Smeyers (Eds.), Showing and doing: Wittgenstein as a pedagogical philosopher (pp. 183 – 198). London: Paradigm Publishers.

Stern, D. (2004). Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations: an introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wittgenstein, L. (2001a). Tractates Logico-Philosophicus. Translated by D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuinness. London: Routledge.

Wittgenstein, L. (2001b). Philosophical Investigations. 3rd Edition. Translated by G.E.M. Anscombe. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. 

Wittgenstein, L. (1967). Zettel. (G. E. M. Anscombe & G. H. von Wright, Eds.). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Wittgenstein, L. (1969). On Certainty. Edited by G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H. von Wright. Translated by D. Paul and G.E.M. Anscombe. New York: Harper Torchbooks.

The Power to Depict

Once again I feel the desire to return to the inspiration for The Literacy Bug: the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein

By this stage, it lies in the distant past that this website was once known as Wittgenstein on Learning, but despite the passage of time Wittgenstein’s influence remains ever present.

The man was preoccupied by how we are able to express anything whatsoever through language. And in his flawed masterpiece Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein presents us with a conceptualisation of language which encourages us to be amazed by our ability to transfer pictures of the world through our utterances. From this perspective, a function of language is to express propositions of the world to one another. That is, language is powerful because we can use it to propose states of affairs to one another through a system of sounds (to which we attach shared meaning). By propositions, we can take it to mean “sentences on the world”. 


Through the lens of the Tractatus, each proposition (or sentence) paints a picture of a state of affairs, and that state of affairs is open to consideration and contemplation (as long as the speaker and the listener share some form of language). In other words, language permits people to generate, communicate and examine possible states of affairs, whether real or fictitious ... declarative or speculative ... true or false. I can convey and receive pictures through language, and there is no necessity that I am able to experience these pictures directly for me to understand them and draw meaning from them. 

The Tractatus is flawed only in the sense that our human language consists of a greater variety of propositions than merely descriptive sentences. We tell jokes. We ask questions. We talk about abstract things. We create rules and so on. Even these paragraphs - the ones you are currently reading - are valuable in that they present a picture of abstractions - languages, propositions, sentences - that may influence your future perception of “how certain things work”. In Wittgenstein’s own words from a later work,

"This picture has a double function: it informs others, as pictures or words inform -- but for one who gives the information it is a representation (or piece of information?) of another kind." (Philosophical Investigations, 280)

If we take a moment to consider descriptive sentences, there is an elegant and meditative quality to the acts of writing and reading. In the acts of writing and reading, we are builders. We are builders of experiences. We are speculators on cause and effect. We are builders of how our concepts are meant to fit together. In writing, we may chisel out an unfolding picture as we lay sentence after sentence onto the page with the aim of describing how something occurred or how something works. We must have the patience, motivation and care to find this recording process beneficial and - in fact - important to how we live our lives. That is, we must find some value in recording an observation for ourselves and others to return to. In reading, we must find some benefit in encountering and constructing a mental image of a state of affairs as we come to navigate texts. Some texts may be more accessible, whilst other texts may be “harder to crack” because they are more difficult for a particular reader to generate pictures from them.

Implied in all of this is a substratum to language: our ability to experience, perceive, notice, visualise, critique and represent aspects of the world or possible words. And whilst we have all read mechanically (focusing merely on decoding) at least once in our lives, we have also had to reread a section of text to get a proper image of what we failed to grasp in the first place. And if I am to demonstrate my comprehension, I’d be compelled to represent my understanding in some way (either in words, images or schematics). And we share these representations with others to determine whether our understanding of a text is shared by others. Have we extracted the right image?

So … amidst The Literacy Bug’s recent focus on the alphabetic principle, I feel it is important to splash a bit of paint on the purpose of our reading and writing, since the acquisition of literacy is a means to an end - not an end in itself. We want learners to become dexterous with the written word so they can discover, debate, and develop knowledge of the world, of themselves within it, and of people around them. And the learners should be deeply motivated to do so, and it is our role as teachers - in whatever capacity we serve - to foster this compulsion to examine, express and explore. This sentiment is elegantly captured by Mr. Stanley Cavell,

"The pupil must want to go on alone in taking language to the world, and that what is said must be worth saying [and writing], have a point (warning, informing, amusing, promising, questioning, chastising, counting, insisting, beseeching, and so on) … If it is part of teaching to undertake to validate these measures of interest, then it would be quite as if teaching must, as it were, undertake to show a reason for speaking [writing and reading] at all." (Cavell, 2005, pg 115)

So … please imagine, explore and enjoy! The path to discovery involves many patient moments of illumination.


Cavell, S. (2005). Philosophy the day after tomorrow. In Philosophy the day after tomorrow (pp. 111 – 131). Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Wittgenstein, L. (2001a). Philosophical Investigations (3rd ed.). Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing.

Wittgenstein, L. (2001b). Tractatus logico-philosophicus. London: Routledge.

In the Spirit of Wittgenstein: Seeking a Clear View of Literacy

Following on the heels of the most recent blog entries (here and here), we have another unpublished entry to share from the archives … Unpublished no more, though. Whilst there are some rough edges to it, it is posted here as part of the ongoing conversation



Often, when I have had a picture well framed or have hung it in the right surroundings, I have caught myself feeling as proud as if I had painted the picture myself. That is not quite right: not as proud as if I painted it, but as proud as if I had helped to paint it, as if I had, so to speak, painted a little bit of it. It is as though an exceptionally gifted arranger of grasses should eventually come to think that he had produced at least a tiny blade of grass himself. (Wittgenstein, Culture & Value) 

Following in the tradition of Ludwig Wittgenstein, I am compelled to grasp a clear view (or perspicuous representation) of literacy. It is a view that is not encumbered by the various forms and instances of literacy. In the spirit of Hans Sluga (2011), the search represents a compulsion to articulate a surveyable representation of an unsurveyable whole. The unsurveyable whole - in this case - is the history of the written word and its current manifestations in print and digital form. 

While this might seem an esoteric preamble to an otherwise basic blog entry, I was not comfortable proceeding without a nod to the context to these words.

Literacy Facts

Here are the elements of a clear view of literacy in English.

1. There are 26 letters in the English alphabet.

  • 21 are consonants;
  • 5 are vowels (or 6 if you treat “y” as a sometimes vowel)

2. We use these letters and letter combinations to represent 44 phonemes or English sounds (give or take one or two).

  • 25 consonant sounds
  • 19 vowel sounds

The clever reader will notice a curious fact about consonant and vowel sounds; there is a greater letter-sound correlation in relation to consonant sounds than there is for vowel sounds. It isn’t as easy to explicitly state the various letter and letter combinations which represent the 44 phonemes in English. These are learned over time, and are analysed from the learner’s growing (print) vocabulary. For more information, please refer to to the charts below.

3. There are also 131 possible graphemes which represent those 44 or so phonemes. There are 74 possible consonant graphemes to represent the 25 consonant sounds, and 57 vowel graphemes to represent the 19 vowel sounds. A grapheme can be an individual letter (like the letter "k") or it can be a group of letters (like the grouping "igh", "ph" or "ea"). And a grapheme can make more than one sounds. For example, the letter "a" can make four different sounds, as in cat, baby, father, alone. The letter "a" makes two sounds in the common word "banana". Can you identify the sounds? The following diagram shows a mapping of the 44 phonemes and all the grapheme which can represent those sounds.

Learners do not recognise all graphemes from the get go. In terms of learning, the following is a recommended order in which children explore the various graphemes in the first three to four years of school.

  • Letter Name-Alphabetic (Semi-Phonetic) Stage [typically between 4 - 7 yrs old]: CVC word patterns with the following sequence of graphemes and blends: a, m, t, s, i, f, d, r, o, g, l, h, u, c, b, n, k, v, short e, w, j, p, y, x, q, z, sh, ch, th, wh, st-, pl-, bl-, gl-, sl-, sp-, cr, cl, fl, fr, sk, qu, nk, ng, mp, ck


  • Within Word (Transitional) Stage [typically between 7 - 9 yrs old]: CVCe word patterns leading into more complex CVVC vowel patterns and common multisyllabic words: a-e, ai, ay, ei, ey, ee, ea, ie, e-e, i-e, igh, y, o-e, oa, ow, u-e, oo, ew, vowel+r, oi, oy, ou, au, ow, kn, wr, gn, shr, thr, squ, spl, tch, dge, ge, homophones

4. These sounds/graphemes are joined to form syllables. There are six common syllable types in English.

  • Closed (e.g. mat or pic/nic)
  • Open (e.g. he or ve/to)
  • Silent “e” or vowel-consonant-e [vce] (e.g. cape or stripe)
  • Vowel team or vowel pair (e.g. pain, head or toy)
  • R-controlled (e.g. far or fer/ment)
  • Consonant+le (e.g. a/pple or li/ttle)

In an analytic phonics approach, learners analyse known words to gain a firm grasp of letter-sound correspondences and word patterns. In a synthetic phonics approach, learners progressively move through letter-sound patterns of increasing complexity. Both approaches should be systematic, developmental and integrated. In practice, both approaches should be used, though one approach may be more or less dominant or effective.

5. Over time, we notice how …

  • The larger a learner’s vocabulary, the more lexical items the learner has to draw on to comparatively see how words work;
  • Phonological and phonemic awareness places an individuals in a position to problem solve the aural structure of words, and hold this in working memory for encoding and decoding;
  • Morphological knowledge helps a learner refine options by seeing meaningful, regular patterns in words;
  • Emerging spelling rules are understood through further practice;
  • Eventually, knowledge is built up over countless encounters with words. Some words we just remember. Other words we decode, encode and recognise in context. 

5. Word level fluency is not enough to engender reading/writing fluency, though. Learners must also become adept at rapidly interpreting, scanning and generating the grammatical elements in our sentences.

  • We must identifying the components of syntax, and understanding how the logic of this syntax allows one to express states of affairs and to understand states of affairs expressed in utterances.
  • This includes the ability to track pronouns - for instance.
  • The structure of a sentence explains how elements are related to one another (e.g. The cow jumped over the moon). This includes an awareness of the various types of words (e.g. nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc).
  • We need to know the words to extract sense from the sentence. And we often need to grasp the intention/conversation of the sentence to grasp its meaning.

To consolidate: Structural features are mastered whilst an individual is in the early stages of learning language and literacy. Whilst the learner is learning, teachers are directing the learner’s attention to the way in which language is represented in print.

Proceed With Caution

It is here that we need to proceed with caution.

The above (meta-linguistic) knowledge is necessary but not sufficient for full literacy development. It represents the form of our utterances but not their content. Actual utterances have content (i.e. refer to things and are parts of conversations).

Actual statements are also more complex than the formulaic syntax learned in formal grammatical study. Actual utterances include nuances of idiomatic language, fragmented constructions, rhetorical devices and more. 

The sequence of statements in a texts are also shaped by a dialogic agreement between “speaker” and “audience” … rather than a formulaic one which is determined by the structure of the utterance on its own. For instance, when Michael Mohammed Ahmed writes in his novel The Tribe (2014):

“Most of my Tayta’s children still live with her in a house that belonged to my grandfather. His name was Bani Adam. Everyday my father reminds me that it was my grandfather's house, he says, ‘We are Baat Adam,’ which means, ‘We are the House of Adam’. The house is in Alexandria. People sometimes think because we’re Arabs, that I mean the city in Egypt, but the Alexandria we’re from is actually a suburb in Sydney's inner-west.” (p. 3-4)

The sequence of the text responds to the imagined needs of an imagined interlocutor rather than a logic inherent in the grammatical form of the text. The text abides by the conventions of autobiography whilst anticipating questions/assumptions that an audience would be making. (Note: Even a recipe is shaped by the conventions/expectations imposed by tradition/context.)

This observation is most pronounced in the otherwise mimetic text - a poem by William Carlos William


“so much depends



”a red wheel



“glazed with rain



“beside the white



Whilst simple on its surface, the poem demands its audience to see beyond the merely descriptive poem. The author would like the audience to appreciate its meditative quality if the text is to communicate as intended. One must recognise how the poem may or may not fit within the tradition of the haiku. (Note: See this as an example of Wittgenstein’s ‘language game’ concept illustrated in the video at the end of this section.)

We get close to a mimetic portrait in Ernest Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River”, but even “Big Two-Hearted River” requires its audience to be familiar with the general context, the language/vocabulary, and the overtones of Romanticism.

“Nick looks down into the pool from the bridge. It was a hot day. A kingfisher flew up the stream. It was a long time since Nick had looked into a stream and seen trout. They were very satisfactory. As the shadow of the kingfisher moved up the stream, a big trout shot upstream in a long angle, only his shadow marking the angle, then lost his shadow as he came through the surface of the water, caught the sun, and then, as we went into the stream under the surface, his shadow seemed to float down the stream with the current, unresisting, to his post under the bridge where he tightened facing up into the current.” (p. 143-144)

Ludwig Wittgenstein was a philosopher obsessed with the difficulties of language, who wanted to help us find a way out of some of the muddles we get into with words.


Whilst the surface code can be teased out as an object of analysis, the content of utterances elicits background knowledge which is so pervasive that any analysis must acknowledge that

“nothing merely physical, such as acoustic blasts or ink marks, or even words and gestures - ‘signs’ of one kind or another - can possibly communicate thought. For such tokens taken by themselves are ‘dead’, and can only be animated, have life breathed into them, by something inner, such as an act of understanding.” (Stern, 2004, pg 136)

Schneider (2014) also notes this implicit and confounding dilemma. Any formulaic, analytic theory of meaning makes only so much progress through a focus on structure alone. Eventually, one must include the imagination/experience/context/shared language of the speaker and the audience as part of the equation.

Formal theories of meaning seek to explain how propositions express a sense, hopefully clearly and unambiguously, through an understanding of the proposition’s logical structure. In such a case, one must have access to the phonetic, orthographic, 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. Wittgenstein himself was inspired by Gottlob Frege to contribute to the formalist, analytical project in the Tractates Logico-Philosophicus, but would soon find this pursuit inadequate to explain how meaning is expressed beyond a very limited frame. 

Wittgenstein found that meaning - in context - is less static and more elusive. The meaning of an utterance requires an understanding of the utterance’s context, a familiarity with the way the utterance is being exchanged, the intentions of the participants, 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. For another example, let's say someone said, "I really loved Madagascar." The individual could be referring to the place, the film or Madagascar vanilla (as opposed to another type of vanilla). There might be an audience who wouldn't find the phrase ambiguous (they only know one meaning for Madagascar) or it might not be meaningful at all (they have no concept of Madagascar whatsoever), even though they understand the grammar of the sentence and can accurately pronounce each element.

Therefore, actual elements of context, content, purpose, practice, deliberation and cognitive/information processing must be dealt with to leap into meaning. This does not negate the importance of direct, explicit instruction in the structural elements of language and literacy; however, we must acknowledge that formal skills only facilitate communication. They are not the germ of communication.

In the words of Ludwig Wittgenstein 


A. TLP 3.13: A proposition includes all that the projection includes, but not what is projected. Therefore, though what is projected is not itself included, its possibility is. A proposition, therefore, does not actually contain its sense, but does contain the possibility of expressing it. (‘The content of a proposition’ means the content of a proposition that has sense.) A proposition contains the form, but not the content, of its sense.


B. Z 74: A sentence is given me in code together with the key. Then of course in one way everything required for understanding the sentence has been given me. And yet I should answer the question “Do you understand this sentence?” : No, not yet; I must first decode it. And only when e..g. I had translated it into English would I say “Now I understand it.”


C. PI 496: Grammar does not tell us how language must be constructed in order to fulfil its purpose, in order to have such-and-such an effect on human beings. It only describes and in no way explains the use of signs.


D. Z 91: Ask: What result am I aiming at when I tell someone: “Read attentively”? That, e.g. this and that should strike him, and he be able to give an account of it. — Again, it could, I think, be said that if you read a sentence with attention, you will often be able to give an account of what has gone on in your mind, (e.g. the occurrence of images). But that does not mean that these things are what we call “attention”.


E. TLP 3.141: A proposition is not a blend of words. — (Just as a theme of music is not a blend of notes.) A proposition is articulate.


F. CV: Often, when I have had a picture well framed or have hung it in the right surroundings, I have caught myself feeling as proud as if I had painted the picture myself. That is not quite right: not “as proud as if I painted it, but as proud as if I had helped to paint it, as if I had, so to speak, painted a little bit of it. It is as though an exceptionally gifted arranger of grasses should eventually come to think that he had produced at least a tiny blade of grass himself.


G. PI 291: What we call “descriptions” are instruments for particular uses. Think of a machine drawing, a cross-section, an elevation with measurements, which an engineer had before him. Thinking of a description as a word-picture of the facts has something misleading about it: one tends to think only of such pictures as hang on our walls: which seem simply to portray how a thing looks, what it is like. (These pictures are as it were idle.)


H. PI 533: How can one explain the expression, transmit one’s comprehension? Ask yourself: How does one lead anyone to comprehension of a poem or of a theme? The answer to this tells us how meaning is explained here. Let’s simplify language to the declarative statement that has the capacity to convey the unambiguously.  


I. “I shall in the future again and again draw your attention to what I shall call language games. There are ways of using signs simpler than those in which we use the signs of our highly complicated everyday language … If we want to study the problems of truth and falsehood, of the agreement and disagreement of propositions with reality, of the nature of assertion, assumption, and question, we shall with great advantage look at primitive forms of language in which these forms of thinking appear without the confusing background of highly complicated processes of thought.” (quoting Wittgenstein in Monk, 2005, p 69)


J. “When the boy or grown-up learns what one might call specific technical languages, e.g. the use of charts and diagrams, descriptive geometry, chemical symbolism, etc. he learns more language games. (Remark: The picture we have of the language of the grown-up is that of a nebulous mass of language, his mother tongue, surrounded by discrete and more or less clear-cut language games, the technical languages … Here the term ‘language game’ is meant to bring into prominence the fact the speaking of language is part of an activity, or a form of life …” (Wittgenstein quoted in Phillips, 1977, pp 29 - 31)


K. “The pupil must want to go on alone in taking language to the world, and that what is said must be worth saying, have a point (warning, informing, amusing, promising, questioning, chastising, counting, insisting, beseeching, specifying the location of pain, and so on), then is there some question left as to whether the pupil has to find warning, informing, amusing, promising, counting, beseeching, chastising, and so on themselves worth doing? If it is part of teaching to undertake to validate these measures of interest, then it would be quite as if teaching must, as it were, undertake to show a reason for speaking at all.” (Cavell, 2005, pg 115)



Literary References

Ahmad, M. M. (2014). The Tribe. Western Sydney (NSW): Giramondo.

Hemingway, E. (1995). The Collected Stories (Everyman's Library Classics). New York: Everyman's Library.

Williams, W. C. “The Red Wheelbarrow” n.d. Web at


Wittgenstein References

Wittgenstein, L. (1967). Zettel (Z). (G. E. M. Anscombe & G. H. von Wright, Eds.). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Wittgenstein, L. (1974). Philosophical Grammar (PG). (R. Rhees, Ed.). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Wittgenstein, L. (1980). Culture and value (C&V). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wittgenstein, L. (2001a). Philosophical Investigations (PI) (3rd ed.). Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing.

Wittgenstein, L. (2001b). Tractatus logico-philosophicus (TLP). London: Routledge.


Academic References

Cavell, S. (2005). Philosophy the day after tomorrow. In Philosophy the day after tomorrow (pp. 111 – 131). Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Phillips, D. (1977). Wittgenstein and scientific knowledge. London: Macmillan Publishers Limited.

Schneider, H. J. (2014). Wittgenstein’s later theory of meaning: imagination and calculation. Oxford, UK: John Wiley & Sons.

Sluga, H. (2011). Wittgenstein. Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Stern, D. (2004). Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations: an introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

How is it that we are able to communicate at all?

Following hot on the heals of the previous entry, I share the numbered remarks below. The notes originated over 10 years ago when I was conducting a research project that was investigating English language learners, their acquisition of  "school discourse", and the teaching practices which assisted learning. There are 13 numbered sections, which all play around with the question, "how is it that a message is communicated at all, whether as intended or in an altogether new interpretation?" Please enjoy. Like any notes from old, I cringe at certain phrasings but would rather leave them as is.

1. The foundation of any communication depends upon messages expressed and messages received. 

  • <1.1> Not all messages (in fact, few messages) expressed will be received as intended.
    • <1.1.1> Messages expressed and received are encoded in a system of meaning which includes grammatical relationships; intrapersonal, interpersonal and cultural delivery; and a referential ontology, epistemology and ideology.
  • <1.2> Messages that are received do not necessarily and rarely do match the explicitly intended expressed message.
    • <1.2.1> The expresser and the receiver do not, in fact, have to be separate people and so can be the same person (communicating in order to transfer/solidify information)

2. The rules of communication (while providing an analytical framework) are flexible and under constant modification

Please click below to continue with the remaining numbered remarks ...

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