Attending to the Actual Sayings of Things

Lars Hertzberg


A variety of views have been attributed to Wittgenstein, by supporters as well as detractors, under the heading “meaning as use” or “use theory of meaning”. In these accounts, the word “use” variously carries the sense of function or of usage. What is in question is sometimes the use of words, sometimes types of sentence, sometimes particular utterances. This variety itself is often overlooked, which may betray a lack of sensitivity to Wittgenstein’s own concerns. Far from putting forward a rival account of meaning, Wittgenstein is steering us away from the idea that the understanding of linguistic communication requires some substantive account of meaning, whether in terms of mental contents, of reference, or of systematic features of the language. His appeals to use are meant to draw our attention to the way our understanding of a person’s words is connected with what the speaker is doing on the particular occasion of speaking. The radical nature of this shift of perspective is often ignored. Even writers who acknowledge the importance of context often retain the idea of an underlying generality. The attempt to combine general rules with recognizing the significance of the particular case, however, leads to incoherence. The logical features of an utterance made in a particular situation cannot be established on the basis of word meanings and language rules. The discussion will be carried out in dialogue with James Conant, Alice Crary, Hans-Johann Glock, Charles Travis and others.


20th century philosophy; linguistics; philosophy; Wittgenstein Ludwig; language; language game; logic; meaning; semantics; use

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