Blue and Brown Booksby Ludwig Wittgenstein
These works, as the sub-title makes clear, are unfinished sketches for Philosophical Investigations, possibly the most important and influential philosophical work of modern times. The 'Blue Book' is a set of notes dictated to Witgenstein's Cambridge students in 1933-1934: the 'Brown Book' was a draft for what eventually became the growth of the first part of… See more details below
These works, as the sub-title makes clear, are unfinished sketches for Philosophical Investigations, possibly the most important and influential philosophical work of modern times. The 'Blue Book' is a set of notes dictated to Witgenstein's Cambridge students in 1933-1934: the 'Brown Book' was a draft for what eventually became the growth of the first part of Philosophical Investigations. This book reveals the germination and growth of the ideas which found their final expression in Witgenstein's later work. It is indispensable therefore to students of Witgenstein's thought and to all those who wish to study at first-hand the mental processes of a thinker who fundamentally changed the course of modern philosophy.
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What is the meaning of a word?
Let us attack this question by asking, first, what is an explanation of the meaning of a word; what does the explanation of a word look like?
The way this question helps us is analogous to the way the question "how do we measure a length?" helps us to understand the problem "what is length?"
The questions "What is length?", "What is meaning?", "What is the number one?" etc., produce in us a mental cramp. We feel that we can't point to anything in reply to them and yet ought to point to something. (We are up against one of the great sources of philosophical bewilderment : a substantive makes us look for a thing that corresponds to it.)
Asking first "What's an explanation of meaning?" has two advantages. You in a sense bring the question "what is meaning?" down to earth. For, surely, to understand the meaning of "meaning" you ought also to understand the meaning of "explanation of meaning". Roughly: "let's ask what the explanation of meaning is, for whatever that explains will be the meaning." Studying the grammar of the expression "explanation of meaning" will teach you something about the grammar of the word "meaning" and will cure you of the temptation to look about you for some object which you might call "the meaning".
What one generally calls "explanations of the meaning of a word" can, very roughly, be divided into verbal and ostensive definitions. It will be seen later in what sense this division is only rough and provisional (and that it is, is an important point). The verbal definition, as it takes us fromone verbal expression to another, in a sense gets us no further. In the ostensive definition however we seem to make a much more real step towards learning the meaning.
One difficulty which strikes us is that for many words in our language there do not seem to be ostensive definitions; e.g. for such words as "one", "number", "not", etc.
Question: Need the ostensive definition itself be understood?Can't the ostensive definition be misunderstood?
If the definition explains the meaning of a word, surely it can't be essential that you should have heard the word before. It is the ostensive definition's business to give it a meaning. Let us then explain the word "tove" by pointing to a pencil and saying -this is tove". (Instead of cc this is tove" I could here have said "this is called 'tove, ". 1 point this out to remove, once and for all, the idea that the words of the ostensive definition predicate something of the defined; the confusion between the sentence "this is red", attributing the colour red to something, and the ostensive definition "this is called 'red' ".) Now the ostensive definition "this is tove" can be interpreted in all sorts of ways. I will give a few such interpretations and use English words with well established usage. The definition then can be interpreted to mean:
"This is round",
"This is wood",
"This is one",
"This is hard", etc. etc.
One might object to this argument that all these interpretations presuppose another word-language. And this objection is significant if by "interpretation" we only mean "translation into a word-language". me give some hints which might make this clearer. Let us ask ourselves what is our criterion when we say that someone has interpreted the ostensive definition in a particular way. Suppose I give to an Englishman the ostensive definition "this is what the Germans call 'Buch' ". Then, in the great majority of cases at any rate, the English word "book" will come into the Englishman's mind. We may say he has interpreted "Buch" to mean "book". The case will be different if e.g. we point to a thing which he has never seen before and say: "This is a banjo". Possibly the word "guitar" will then come into his mind, possibly no word at all but the image of a similar instrument, possibly nothing at all. Supposing then I give him the order "now pick a banjo from amongst these things." If he picks what we call a "banjo" we might say "he has given the word 'banjo' the correct interpretation"; if he picks some other instrument"he has interpreted 'banjo' to mean 'string instrument' ".
We say "he has given the word 'banjo' this or that interpretation", and are inclined to assume a definite act of interpretation besides the act of choosing.
Our problem is analogous to the following:
If I give someone the order "fetch me a red flower from that meadow", how is he to know what sort of flower to bring, as I have only given him a word?
Now the answer one might suggest first is that he went to look for a red flower carrying a red image in his mind, and comparing it with the flowers to see which of them had the colour of the image. Now there is such a way of searching, and it is not at all essential that the image we use should be a mental one. In fact the process may be this: I carry a chart co-ordinating names and coloured squares. When I hear the order "fetch me etc." I draw my finger across the chart from the word "red" to a certain square, and I go and look for a flower which has the same colour as the square. But this is not the only way of searching and it isn't the usual way. We go, look about us, walk up to a flower and pick it, without comparing it to anything. To see that the process of obeying the order can be of this kind, consider the order "imagine a red patch". You are not tempted in this case to think that before obeying you must have imagined a red patch to serve you as a pattern for the red patch which you were ordered to imagine.
Meet the Author
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) was born in Austria and studied at Cambridge under Bertrand Russell. He volunteered to serve in the Austrian army at the outbreak of World War I, and in 1918 was captured and sent to a prison camp in Italy, where he finished his masterpiece, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, one of the most important philosophical works of all time. After the war Wittgenstein eventually returned to Cambridge to teach.
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