Meaning just is use

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Last updated: April 8, 2019

“Meaning just is use”, quotes Wittgenstein in his book Philosophical Investigations implying that words do not have intrinsic meanings defined by some reference sense associated with them but their meaning is defined in the context they have been used in effective communication. Meaning of a word depends on how it is used in the language. While ascertaining the meaning of a word, one must find out the different varieties of uses the word can be put and decipher the meaning in the context with which it is used.  The meaning is thus not a thoughtful generalization based on how the word was coined but how it has been used over the ages in different ways and what it signifies within a context.

This conception of use of words with meanings quite categorically rejects the earlier notion of sense and reference of meaning as something innate, something intrinsically attached to the word itself. The ‘meaning’ of words denotes a relationship as it becomes evident in the use of words in the sentences were they appear. Words are never used in isolation but they appear in a sentence form with a thought structure. The usage of words signifies a relationship applicable to a given text. The meaning of a word immediately refers to a context which gets embedded in one’s mind in a contextual sense. The definition of a word by any person is thus reflecting how he sees the usage of it and is actually a kind of mapping to the use of word he employs. Meaning of a word is thus not an independent entity but a use aspect of the languages.

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A word exists as an element of language and assumes different meaning according to the different structures of a language it is put to use in. In a context, any word may have a simple meaning or may carry implied meanings. Implied aspects may constitute a metaphor that constitutes a complex meaning of the word. The activity of attributing meaning to words, according to Wittgenstein, is thus akin to a game of chess with words assuming different meaning in the contest of the language game. This also entails in some cases experiencing the feelings that is denoted by the word.

In the Tractatus, the meaning of a word is ascribed to some sense of reference or a theory of word building. This is in conformity with the Fregean approach of a sense of reference that the meaning is dependent on a concept of truth. In order to identify a meaning, one must view it as a sign and a reference sense denoted by that sign. Words therefore have meaning when they are used in a sense. Finding the sense or symbol in the sign is what attributes meaning to a word.However, it needs to be pointed out that the vague terms of description of “sense” causes a similarity of definitions because the sense is essentially derived from the usage of the word.

The sense of a sign is derived from its usage and thus it can be argued that the use theory of meaning expounded in Investigations is actually already present in Tractatus. It is through regular usage of a sign that the meaning of a sin is connoted, hence becoming a symbol or being attributed a sense. In the Tractatus concept of sense, use of a sign to denote some meaningful sense constitutes the meaning of the word. Words are representational signs to denote some innate meaning in the real world.

The gap between the two views is essentially the abstract representational form in Tractatus and the practical use form in Philosophical Interpretations. The assertion of an innate meaning in the former thus gives way to the different usages that can be employed. The use theory favouring subjective interpretations and sense reference meaning fixed independently of use are the two different but not entirely separate points of views to be dealt with. While arguing against the use theory of meaning, critiques often forget to see the relation that still exists between them. Even in the Tractatus frame of “used in a sense”, use of the sign to constitute a meaningful symbol is implied. The usage guarantees sense and without usage, a sign is a useless symbol and hence carries no meaning.

Critiques supporting the earlier sense reference meaning thus fail to see that logical syntactical meaning in Tractatus is essentially incorporated into meaning by use. The two sets of meanings are thus related because what  gives something innate sense is the initial usage to constitute a symbol while in the use theory of meaning, words not only have a simple meaning but a complex contextual meaning depending on the use in the language structure. The exactness of meaning in Tractatus is also defined by the use cases that confer it with an innate meaning.

The critics are therefore not legitimate in their claim of innate meaning of sense as expressed earlier because even the sense or the meaning of a symbol is derived from a sign by its usage. The use theory of meaning actually builds upon the earlier sense reference meaning and is more expansive in the sense of defining something.  Since the meaning of words is essentially a linguistic activity, we must view the “used in a sense” and the use theory of meaning together and not in an isolated sense. Critics often miss the similarity inherent in both of them while trying to accentuate the difference in the two methods by which meaning of a word is ascertained.;ReferencesLuntley, Michael.

(2003). Wittgenstein: meaning and judgement. Wiley-Blackwell         Publications.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. (1958). Philosophical investigations. Blackwell Publications.

.Hallett, Garth L. (1991). Essentialism: A Wittgensteinian Critique. SUNY Press.Winch, Peter. (1969).

Studies in the philosophy of Wittgenstein. Taylor and Francis        Publications.Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. ;;;


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