Wittgenstein on Language

Partially Examined Life

On Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, Part I, sections 1-33 and 191-360 (written around 1946).

What is linguistic meaning? Wittgenstein argues that it’s not some mysterious entity in the mind, but that it is a public matter: you understand a word if you can use it appropriately, and you know the context in which it’s appropriate to use it and how to react when you hear it in that context. W. calls such a context a “language game,” and sees language as big heap of these games, spanning a wide range of human activity. Words don’t just name objects; they could be commands, or variables, or exclamations, or even meaningless when considered outside of a particular game. When philosophers pull words out of the kinds of settings in which they originated and try to figure out what they really mean, that creates bogus philosophical problems.

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