Wittgenstein's Later Theory of Meaning
Hans Julius Schneider is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Potsdam. His publications include Phantasie und Kalkül (1992) and Religion (2008). He also served as a co-editor of the journal Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie for a number of years and has made several contributions to this publication as well as numerous other philosophical essay collections.
Wittgenstein's Later Theory of Meaning
Analytic Philosophy may not be the most "up to date" branch of the field but it has certainly produced a number of insights and procedures nobody would seriously want to miss out on. Concerning many philosophical questions (e.g., what are numbers, what are mental states, virtues, gods) it is still good advice to look at the words and phrases we use in trying to state the respective problem in an intelligible way as a prerequisite for answering it. Although hardly anyone would claim that philosophers are concerned with "mere words," in most cases they cannot do their work without also having an eye on language; indeed, in many cases it is not at all clear what it would mean to look at "the things themselves."
Yet the philosophical treatment of language has slowed down in the last decades. One symptom of this is that Michael Dummett (1975, 1976, 1981), who had offered many most valuable suggestions for the shape of a theory of meaning, did not complete his project, and it seems that ideas developed in the later philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein played no small role in this retardation. 1 In the same context, philosophers like Richard Rorty (1980) and John McDowell (1998, 1998a, 2007) have explicitly pleaded (against Dummett) for a "modest" theory of meaning, that is, one that would exclude the issues most relevant to philosophy, especially those pertaining to epistemology. Such a "modest" approach (in contradistinction to a "full-blooded" one) would simply use the logical tools provided by Gottlob Frege (1972) and his followers without asking (as Frege himself unceasingly did) the relevant philosophical questions such as why we are calling certain structures "logical" and why we think they shed light on what we do in using a natural language or in thinking. This negligence corresponds to the fact that in the newly flourishing philosophy of mind semantic concepts like "representation" and "reference" are mostly taken for granted instead of being explained, so that here too we have a kind of "modesty" that shies away from what used to be the "real" philosophical questions. Judged by older ideals, this approach to the mind constitutes a vicious circle, not unlike John Locke's (1975) talk of "ideas" in his explanation of language, which so many of his contemporaries had difficulties in understanding. Locke explained language with recourse to "ideas," and when his contemporaries pressed him to explain what he meant by ideas his answer was: the meanings of words.
This book investigates the significance of Wittgenstein's later philosophy of language for a theory of meaning. Did he indeed give compelling reasons that force us to give up on the development of a "full-blooded," epistemologically interesting theory of meaning? Is the "quietism" attributed to him, the idea that philosophy in all respects leaves everything as it is, a systematic result of his understanding of the functioning of language? 2 Or is it a personal preference? Is it even a mistake to attribute such a view to him, a false generalization of statements that were meant to have a much more limited scope? The answer worked out in these pages takes sides against the first alternative: There is nothing in Wittgenstein that would compel us to resign ourselves to a "modest" theory of meaning. Our claim is, on the contrary, that there is a systematic -network of insights to be found in his later philosophy that is of epistemological relevance and that no philosophical treatment of language should neglect, although this body of insights does not (and indeed cannot, as we will see) take the form of an axiomatic-deductive theory, as Dummett had once envisaged. We shall see in detail why