Meaning, Understanding, & Naming

        26. One thinks that learning the language consists in giving names to objects. Viz., to human beings, to shapes, to colors, 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 for?

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 sentences. Think of exclamations alone, with their completely different functions.

Water! Away! Ow! Help! Fine! No!

Are you inclined to still call these words “names of objects”?
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 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 connection how singular is the use of a person’s name to call him!)

28. Now one can ostensively define a proper name, the name of a color, 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 thisgroup 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 color, of a race, or even of a point of the compass. That is to say: an ostensive definition can be variously interpreted in every case.

29. Perhaps you say: two can only be ostensively defined in this way: “This number is called ‘two.'” For the word “number” here shows 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.–The word “number” in the definition does indeed show this place; does show the post at which we station the word. And we can prevent misunderstanding by saying: “The color is called so-and-so,” “This length is called so-and-so,” and so on. That is to say: misunderstanding are sometimes averted in this way. But is there only one way of taking the word “color” or “length”?–Well, they just need defining.–Defining, then, by means of other words! And what about the last definition in this claim? (Do not say: “There isn’t a ‘last’ definition.” That is just as if you chose to say: “There isn’t a last house in this road; one can always build an additional one.”)
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 to.
And how he “takes” the definition is seen in the use that he makes of the word defined.

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 color-word to me the ostensive definition “That is called ‘sepia'” will help me to understand the word.–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.”
One has already to know (or to be able to do) something in order to be capable of asking a things name. But what does one have to know?

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 understood.
But it might well be asked: are we still to call this “definition”?–For, of course, even if it has the same 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.” [Note added by Wittgenstein.]

31. When one shows someone the king in chess and says: “This is the king,” this does not tell him the use of this piece–unless he already knows the rules of the game up to this point: the shape of the king. You could imagine his having learnt the rules of the game without ever having been shown an actual piece. The shape of the chessman corresponds here to the sound or shape of a word.
One can also imagine someone’s having learnt the game without ever learning or formulating rules. He might have learnt quite simple board-games first, by watching, and have progressed to more and more complicated ones. He too might be given the explanation “This is the king,”–if, for instance, he were being shown chessmen of a shape he was not used to. This explanation again only tells him the use of the piece because, as we might say, the place is already prepared. And in this case it is so, not because the person to whom we give the explanation already knows rules, but because in another sense he is already master of a game.
Consider this further case: I am explaining chess to someone; and I begin by pointing to a chessman and saying: “This is the king; it can move like this,…and so on.”–In this case we shall say: the words “This is the king” (or “This is called the ‘king'”) are a definition only if the learner already ‘knows what a piece in a game is.’ That is, if he has already played other games, or has watched other people playing ‘and understood’–and similar things. Further, only under these conditions will he be able to ask relevantly in the course of learning the game: “What do you call this?”–that is, this piece in a game.
We may say: only someone who already knows how to do something with it can significantly ask a name.
And we can imagine the person who is asked replying: “Settle the name yourself”–and now the one who asked would have to manage everything for himself.

32. Someone coming into a strange country will sometimes learn the language of the inhabitants from ostensive definitions that they give him; and he will often have to guess the meaning of these definitions; and will guess sometimes right, sometimes wrong.
And now, I think, we can say: Augustine describes the learning of human language as if the child came into a strange country and did not understand the language of the country; that is, as if it already had a language, only not this one. Or again: as if the child could already think, only not yet speak. And “think” would here mean something like “talk to itself.”

33. Suppose, however, someone were to object: “It is not true that you must already be master of a language in order to understand an ostensive definition: all you need–of course I–is to know or guess what the person giving the explanation is pointing to. That is, whether for example to the shape of the object, or to its color, or to its number, and so on.” And what does ‘pointing to the shape,’ ‘pointing to the color’ consist in? Point to a piece of paper.–And now point to its shape–now to its color–now to its number (that sounds queer).–How did you do it?–You will say that you ‘meant’ a different thing each time you pointed. And if I ask how that is done, you will say you concentrated your attention on the color, the shape, etc. But I ask again: how is that done? [….]

* * * *

37. What is the relation between name and the thing named?–Well, what is it? Look at language-game (2) or at another one: there you can see the sort of thing this relation consists in. This relation may also consist, among many other things, in the fact that hearing the name calls before our mind the picture of what is named; and it also consists, among other things, in the name’s being written on the thing named or being pronounced when that thing is pointed at.

38. But what, for example, is the word “this” the name of in language-game (8) or the word “that” in the ostensive definition “that is called…”?–If you do not want to produce confusion you will do best not to call these words names at all.–Yet, strange to say, the word “this” has been called the only genuine name; so that anything else we call a name was one only in an inexact, approximate sense.
This queer conception springs from a tendency to sublime the logic of our language–as might put it. The proper answer to it is: we call very different things “names”; the word “name” is used to characterize many different kinds of use of a word, related to one another in many different ways;–but the kind of use that “this” has is not among them.

What is it to mean the words “That is blue” at one time as a statement about the object one is pointing to–at another as an explanation of the word “blue”? Well, in the second case one really means “That is called ‘blue'”–Then can one time mean the word “is” as “is called” and the word “blue” as “‘blue,'” and another time mean “is” really as “is”?
It is also possible for someone to get an explanation of the words out of what was intended as a piece of information. [Marginal note: Here lurks a crucial superstition.]
Can I say “bububu” and mean “If it doesn’t rain I shall go for a walk”?–It is only in language that I can mean something by something. This shows clearly that the grammar of “to mean” is not like that of the expression “to imagine” and the like. [Note added by Wittgenstein.]

It is quite clear that, in giving an ostensive definition for instance, we often point to the object named and say the name. And similarly, in giving an ostensive definition for instance, we say the word “this” while pointing to a thing. And also the word “this” and a name often occupy the same position in a sentence. But it is precisely characteristic of a name that it is defined by means of the demonstrative expression “That is N” (or “That is called ‘N'”). But do we also give the definitions: “That is called ‘this,'” or “This is called ‘this'”?
This is connected with the conception of naming as, so to speak, an occult process. Naming appears as a queer connection of a word with an object.–And you really get such a queer connection when the philosopher tries to bring out the relation between name and thing by staring at an object in front of him and repeating a name or even the word “this” innumerable times. For philosophical problems arise when languagegoes on holiday. And here we may indeed fancy naming to be some remarkable act of mind, as it were a baptism of an object. And we can also say the word “this” to the object, as it were address the object as “this”–a queer use of this word, which doubtless only occurs in doing philosophy.

39. But why does it occur to one to want to make precisely this word into a name, when it evidently is not a name?–That is just the reason. For one is tempted to make an objection against what is ordinarily called a name. It can be put like this: a name out really to signify a simple. And for this one might perhaps five the following reasons: The word “Excalibur,” say, is a proper name in the ordinary sense. The sword Excalibur consists of parts combined in a particular way. If they are combined differently Excalibur does not exist. But it is clear that the sentence “Excalibur has a sharp blade” makes sense whether Excalibur is still whole or is broken up. But if “Excalibur is the name of an object, this object no longer exists when Excalibur is broken in pieces; and as no object would then correspond to the name it would have no meaning. But then the sentence “Excalibur has a sharp blad” would contain a word that had no meaning, and hence the sentence would be nonsense. But it does make sense; so there must always be something corresponding to the words of which it consists. So the word “Excalibur” must disappear when the sense is analyzed and its place be taken by words when name simples. It will be reasonable to call these words the real names.

40. Let us first discuss this point of the argument: that a word has no meaning if nothing corresponds to it.–It is important to note that the word “meaning” is being used illicitly if it is used to signify the thing that ‘corresponds’ to the word. That is to confound the meaning of a name with the bearer of the name. When Mr. N. N. dies one says that the bearer of the name dies, not that the meaning dies. And it would be nonsensical to say that, for if the name ceased to have meaning it would make no sense to say “Mr. N. N. is dead.”

* * * *

43. For a large class–though not for all–in which we employ the word “meaning” it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.
And the meaning of a name is sometimes explained by pointing to its bearer.

44. We said that the sentence “Excalibur has a sharp blade” made sense even when Excalibur was broken in pieces. Now this is so because in this language-game a name is also used in the absence of its bearer. But we can imagine a language-game with names (that is, with signs which we should certainly include among names) in which they are used only in the presence of the bearer; and so could always be replaced by a demonstrative pronoun and the gesture of pointing.

Notes: The presence of “****” indicates a break I have made in the text. Similarly, the presence of “[….]” also indicates editing I have done–not what Wittgenstein did himself.

Other Wittgenstein texts on this website:

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.