Symbols, Signs, and Figures in Frege and Wittgenstein

Silver Bronzo


The Tractatus distinguishes between symbols and signs and characterizes symbols as signs in use. According to a widespread exegetical approach, the Tractarian notion of a sign in use results from the combination of two independently intelligible ingredients: the notion of a “sign,” and some relevant notion of “use.” I argue, instead, that for the Tractatus both the notion of a sign and the relevant notion of use are obtained by abstraction from the primary and unitary notion of a sign-in-use. In order to set up my discussion of the Tractatus, I begin with Frege. I argue that Frege works with a ternary distinction between real signs, mere or empty signs, and figures. This distinction anticipates in some significant respects the Tractarian distinction between symbols and signs; but more importantly, it helps us to see how we should not understand the Tractarian distinction: neither Tractarian symbols nor Tractarian signs are Fregean figures. In the last part of the paper, I suggest that the views of the Tractatus about the relationship between symbols, signs, and use provide a promising entry into the views of later Wittgenstein about the relationship between meaningful signs, dead signs, and use.


philosophy; Wittgenstein Ludwig; 20th century philosophy; Tractatus logico-philosophicus; symbol; sign; use; meaning; formalist; Horwich Paul; reductionism


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