Understanding the Relationship Between the Form, Meaning and Use of Language

In a recent entry, I reviewed a book that drew a distinction between a formal (or structural) analysis of language and an analysis that sought to take into account meaning-in-context. I would like to extend that discussion by presenting an integration of the two analytical perspectives into a single (metaphorical) model. The model seeks to account for the apparent structural unity of language with the vast diversity (and - at times - contradictory) meanings expressed through language. Earlier, I pictured this relationship as a many-headed hydra - the beast with one body and many devious heads. Each head of the beast represented a separate semiotic domain. That metaphorical representation soon fell by the wayside and, presently, I have settled on a flower, a more organic figuration (shown in the journal entry).

To recap the earlier entry, I mentioned how,

"Formal theories of meaning seek to explain how a proposition expresses a sense 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. 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. 

"Meaning-in-context, 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'. Such 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, and that such meaning is framed by the individual's social and discourse practices."

This draws me to propose a distinction between core components of language, which all instances of language may utilise and the interplay of language that occurs within semiotic domains. The relationship between the two perspectives is represented in the journey entry. Continue to read more ...

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Wittgenstein's Two Views of Language

From "The Wittgenstein Controversy" by Evelyn Toynton in The Atlantic Monthly (June 1997).


Whilst not the article's focus, Toynton's article does presents the common division between Wittgenstein's early and late perspectives on language.  The young Wittgenstein was deeply influenced by the study of logic. Consequently, he sought to illustrate how our descriptive sentences convey pictures of the world, which could articulate empirical truths under examination. However, he admits that a vast range of propositions do not fall into this category, including religious, ethical and aesthetic statements. These statement cannot be understood by merely understanding the elements of the sentence. One needs to understand the context in which these propositions are uttered and applied to fully grasp their significance. This leads to Wittgenstein's later philosophy. In the latter years, he was preoccupied with the ways we use language in context and in culture and in our form of life. Instead of seeking the absolute structure of language, he sought to investigate the vast range of human practices in which language plays a role in shaping experience and in executing activity. 

Tractarian View of Language

"This was the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922), which altered the practice of philosophy, perhaps forever, by calling into question the ability of language to talk about ethical and metaphysical questions in any meaningful way. Wittgenstein maintained that language could only show; it could not say anything that went beyond description: "Most propositions and questions, that have been written about philosophical matters, are not false, but senseless. . . . Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." To establish the limits of what could be spoken of, he stripped language down to its logical structure, which he saw as mirroring that of reality."

View of the Philosophical Investigations

"Wittgenstein abandoned his earlier quest for a logically perfect language to consider how language acquires meaning through use, the multiple ways it functions "in the stream of life."