How to Make Wittgenstein’s Concept of Meaning Complete?

Ilya Kasavin


The well-known Wittgenstein’s expression sounds: «The use of the word in practice is its meaning» (Wittgenstein, L. 1978. The Blue and Brown Books. Oxford. P. 39.). This insight into the problem of meaning faces three challenges, namely, if this formula is 1) logically clear; 2) empirically probable; and 3) conceptually complete. 1) In order to understand this thesis we need to know the meanings of the words involved and to be able to operate with this sentence in communication. According to Wittgenstein, we cannot know the isolated meanings of the words. So everything what remains is to learn how to deal with this language construction without knowing initially what “use”, “practice” and “meaning” are. It is evident that words are used in speech and in language in general. Is this a practice Wittgenstein had in mind? If yes, why he underlines then the practical use of the word in particular? What kind of practical use outside language can we imagine? So the expression “use in practice” is basically unclear unless we prescribe a solely emotional content to it, where word “practice” makes the word “language” sound stronger. 2) We presupposed that use of words is a speech act or any other linguistic activity. The Wittgenstein’s idea of meaning consists then in rejecting meaning as a stable mental state and treating it as a process, a change from one state to another. Either meaning is a routine, circulating activity or a communicative innovation, a mental or behavioral form of psycho-physiological activity, in any way meaning is an activity, and we have to agree with Wittgenstein in this point. 3) So the scheme proposed by the Wittgenstein’s formula includes a linguistic agent, his activity and a word which thereby receives meaning. Is it an isolated agent or a participant in a collective language game? Is this game determined by some rules? Are these rules arbitrary or not? How do people master them? Do they understand rules in the same way? Is there anything outside language game that influences the meaning? All these questions reveal the necessity to go beyond the initial Wittgenstein’s formula and problematize the concepts of mind, spirit, naming, meaning, use, language game, and appealing to other concepts as well. Can meaning be considered as something mental? Is meaning a kind of activity, its quality or function? Is meaning a kind of communication, its quality or function? Is meaning a kind of surrounding, its quality or function? So what is the key concept which can make the Wittgenstein’s theory of meaning complete – this is the major issue of my paper.


20th century philosophy; philosophy; Wittgenstein Ludwig; activity; communication; creativity; knowledge; meaning; rule following

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