A Question Regarding Wittgenstein

Well, let me start off by apologizing for whatever I do not know (yet) about philosophy, I haven’t had the fortune of being formally taught any of it yet (Rural Highschools don’t have any of the fun classes), and what I do know I have come across from my own private studies (Which aren’t too horrible, its just fairly elementry although I have nothing to compare my knowledge to…).

Anyway, I was reading Wittgenstein and trying to get some information to reinforce the ideas, and came across the assertion that Wittgensteins philosophy has turned what used to be regarded as philosophy into merely arguing the usage of words. If you consider Wittgenstein’s philosophy to be correct, that philosophy boils down now to arguing semantics, which obviously seems boring compared to the problems looked at by classical philosphers like metaphysics and ethics and such.

So how did philosophers cope with this afterwards? They couldn’t have fully dismissed Wittgenstein, so how did they counter his points and continue in the vein of classical philosophy? I’m afraid I haven’t investigated much after Wittgenstein, so thats part of the problem, but I’m wondering what either invalidates or changes his ideas so that the interesting way of think that I’ve ocme to know and love can go on.

Hi, ZERO. Welcome to the boards.

That is my understandng of Wittegenstein also. Supposedly his error comes from a long line of philosophers whose thought descended from the empiricists (and perhaps farther back to nominalists). For these moderns, there is only knowledge of the empirical, and that is what words refer to.

Aristotlelian-Scholastic philosophers however would say that all knowledge starts with the empirical, but that universals are a knowledge of the spirit.

As for Wittgenstein’s intellectual descendants, I think these are the “post-modern” philosophers.

going with what I got…
my real name

“the limits of my language are the limits of my world” -Wittgenstein

this applies to both his early period- (logical positivism) and his late period (after he abandons the tractatus)


I thought it was “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world” which is something different to what you said, Imp.

Levelling the accusation ‘you are simply arguing about the meaning of words’ at Wittgenstein wouldn’t have bothered him. He saw philosophy as a language game where there was no Truth to be found, there was simply the construction and deconstruction of various notions of truth. Language isn’t a means for the expression of truth, but for the construction and deconstruction of truth.

Hence in a very real sense he’s only arguing about the meaning of words, but since that’s all philosophers can do (according to Witt.) it’s not really a damning criticism.

One simply cannot approach the later Wittgenstein with a classical notion of philosophy and language. Post-wittgenstein the entire discourse of philosophy of language changed, in particular the works of Austen, Searle, Derrida, Foucault.

Some philosophers have tried to dismiss Wittgenstein but in doing so they used the very language which is always involved in the game of its own deconstruction and as such haven’t escaped Wittgenstein at all.

I hope you enjoy your studies, and post any more ideas, reading, questions you have.


Sure sure. My reading of Wittgenstein above is about his later work, earlier he would have said meaning is something in the world which is then put into language, I think. That the meaning of ‘meaning’ shifts over time and at any moment is disputed shows the ever-present deconstruction which language never escapes.

Well thanks everyone for your responses, I think I’m going to remain blissfully ignorant of Wittgenstein for a little bit. Debating vocabulary just has no appeal.

You might want to consider sticking with this study, even if you don’t stay with Wittgenstein: it’s a profoundly meaningful insight – not “debating vocabulary,” but an end to debate over vocabulary – that almost all of what the human mind deals with is language rather than reality. It calls into question the way we proceed through life and instead of striding confidently through certainties, as the Victorians modeled it, it gives us a more realistic model of playing Battleship or Blind Chess.

You should be aware that most linguistic philosophers start from a premise that gives them problems – sometimes artificial problems – throughout; they start with the idea that language in some fashion models reality. It doesn’t. There is no direct relationship between language and reality (I think the jury is still out on indirect relationships). What language does is map the internal, mental model which is what we see and act on when we think we are seeing and acting on an external reality. What the linguistic philosophers most fruitfully do is point out to us how the map is drawn.

Well Socrates also was accused of “arguing about words” and confusing people with “semantics” although that is not what is was called then. In fact, Aristotle describes what Socrates did when he philosophized as, “the quest for definition”. Socrates asked questions like, “What is courage” “What is morality”, and he was asking for a definition of these terms. In one place in the Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein replies to the accusation, “But aren’t you only talking about words?” with, “Your questions refer to words; so I have to talk about words.”

Maybe we should distinguish between two ways of “talking about words”. Trivial ways (“semantics”) and important ways.

If you are in England, and an Englishman says, “Let’s take the lift. I don’t want to walk all the way up the stairs” and you say, “It’s not a lift, it’s an elevator” to argue about that is arguing “semantics”. It makes no difference whether you call that machine a “lift” or an “elevator”. But now, suppose you are a physician on trial for negligence. You performed an operation, but not in the prescribed way because during the operation, you came on a problem, and thought you had to do something different. The patient dies, and you are sued for negligence. The question is whether we should apply the term “negligence” to what you did. Is that just “semantics”? Of course not. It is a serious matter what to call what you did.

When people criticize Wittgenstein (or anyone else, for that matter) by saying that he was “merely” arguing “the usage of words”, it is the word “merely” that is really at issue. It is not arguing what words mean that is trivial in itself. It is that the issue in question which is being argued, is trivial (or “mere”) It is not how it is argued that matters, it is what is argued that matters, and its importance. Whether we should call a machine a “lift” or and “elevator” is unimportant, since nothing important hangs on what we say it is. But whether a man who feel fear, but who still risks his life should be called “courageous” or not despite the fact that he feels fear, is an important question. Even if it is about “the usage of words”.


You might want to consider reading Rorty’s essay ‘The Consequences of Pragmatism’, that set out rather clearly the post-Wittgensteinian philosophical landscape, albeit from a neo-pragmatic, Wittgenstein-influenced point of view. At least you can get a sense of the names and the kinds of debates that have unfolded.

marxists.org/reference/subje … /rorty.htm



It seems to me that if you are really interested in the question you asked about whether Wittgenstein was just “arguing about semantics” or “word usage” that you really ought to consider what it would mean just to argue “about semantics” and “word usage” and how that would be different from what philosophers like Socrates or Descartes, or Hume, or Kant did, who are, presumably philosophers who did not so argue. Wouldn’t it be remarkable if that description of Wittgenstein were accurate, and yet he has been so influential in modern recent philosophy. Could he really have fooled so many people?

However, I don’t see how running off on a diversionary wild goose chase reading about the general landscape of Wittgenstein’s philosophy (or whatever) is going to make you any wiser about the difference between “arguing semantics” and doing something else which might present the appearance of doing so, but is really very different. The issue is (as I argued in my previous post) about the difference between serious issues about the meanings of words, and trivial issues, sometimes called verbal disagreements about alternative notations. It is easy to get sidetracked in philosophy and start discussions which, in the end, leave you no wiser than before about the answer to the question you originally asked. In philosophy you really have to keep your eye on the ball, because it is so easy to be diverted by larger (and vaguer) questions which have little to do with the question being considered, but which are more attractive because you needn’t think so hard when dealing with them.


However, I don’t see how running off on a diversionary wild goose chase reading about the general landscape of Wittgenstein’s philosophy (or whatever) is going to make you any wiser about the difference between “arguing semantics” and doing something else which might present the appearance of doing so, but is really very different.

Are you back for another beating? Oh, you I-give-seminars-on-Wittgenstein-but-am-so-incompetent-I-can’t identify-a-private-language-argument kinda guy. Please refrain from commenting on my posts, as I will from yours, especially since you are incredibly uniformed on that which you speak. The essay was not an essay on “the general landscape of Wittgenstein’s philosophy”, but of philosophy before and after Wittgenstein, not on Wittgenstein. Nor was it intended for you. Yet, your argument that semantic differences between words only matter to the degree that they matter, is the Pragmatist argument. Rorty is the foremost philosopher of pragmatism writing today. If you had half a brain you’d realize that. Your ignorance both precedes you and follows you to such a degree, I don’t know how you manage it… Just ignore my posts, and I’ll ignore yours. Deal?


Please continue to take your medication. It seems to help.

“words only matter to the degree that they matter, is the Pragmatist argument. Rorty is the foremost philosopher of pragmatism writing today.”

Now that is enlightening. Tautologies are always so very helpful. Of course, now the real question comes up: how do we determine when they matter and when they don’t. In my example, why doesn’t it matter whether you call it a “lift” rather than “elevator”, while it does matter whether you call an action “courageous” even if the agent has fear?

And, to take an example directly from Wittgenstein, why does he think that it is wrong to call knowledge or understanding a mental state? Why does it matter?

And what difference to this question would a disquisition on pre-Wittgensteinian, or post-Wittgensteinian philosophy make? Save, of course, that is would be easier to talk in vague historical generalites, than to tackle the issue directly.


And what difference to this question would a disquisition on pre-Wittgensteinian, or post-Wittgensteinian philosophy make?

It really is best that we avoid each other on this and other points, because when you get contradicted - due to you not understanding the philosophical contexts of your point -, you become a bit nasty, and then I become nasty, and we both become pretty much unhappy. I end up ignoring your points because you don’t seem to understand what you reference, or as you claim, they are irrefutable.

But just to clue you in on the difference, specific to the question of this thread, and germane to the pragmatic notion you that you use, after Wittgenstein, largely, one lost the ability to refer to an extra-linguistic reality “out there” to justify why something linguistic “made a difference” or “not”. Wittgenstein, pretty much left us without reference to an extra “x”, which before Wittgenstein, was the goal of most philosophical work, most ardently from Kant and Frege on. As the essay by Rorty points out, philosophers did not go quietly into the night, but rather kicking and screaming, each attempting to find new grounding for language, and hence the ability to make distinctions between differences “objectively”. If you read the “wild goose-chase” instead of commenting on it without knowing it, - your usual style - you would understand this. Rorty presents his extreme view, that there is no pragmatically justifiable correspondence theory of truth (in other words the difference between “languaged justification to an audience” and supposedly referring accurately to what “really is out there”, makes no practical difference at all), but also presented are Kripke’s reformulation of the idea of reference, and a whole lot of other bag of tricks that might make you happy. The point is though, there is a difference to this question, before and after Wittgenstein.

But honestly, let’s just part ways on this. It just gets unpleasant for whatever reason. There really is no need for it. The essay was not presented in comment on the point you made, in fact it is in compliment to the point you made. Let’s just leave it at that.


Would that mean that we cannot tell that the “lift” “elevator” dispute is not a trivial one whether or not we have “lost the ability to refer to an extra-linguistic reality ‘out there’ (out where?) to justify why something ‘made a difference’ or ‘not’”? Whatever that might mean, of course. Why should such an ability make any difference? Let alone that since reference is a linguistic act, we never had any extra-linguistic ability to refer in the first place, so there was nothing to lose.

Not to say, of course, that when we refer, we are usually referring to something extra-linguistic in the non-linguistic world.

But, here again, we are off on one of those wild-goose chases that have nothing whatever to do with the issue at hand, namely, what is the difference between verbal (semantic) and non-verbal disputes? Why is it that unlike the “lift” “elevator” case, whether we should call an action which is done even though the agent is fearful, “courageous”, or, alternatively, whether we should call only actions done when the agent is free of fear, “courageous”. What is that to supposed to do with extra-linguistic reference?


You are drawing me in and I would really rather not go in…

Why should such an ability make any difference?

That is the Pragmatist’s point, there is no practical reason to refer to ''what is really out there" to make such a distinction, if you cared to, but only to the linguistic practices of a proposed audience. The point becomes contentious when if “what’s really out there” is not the point of reference for truth, true statements become threateningly unhinged from an ultimately objective truth. Propositional statements - and all this is due to the analytic desire to analyze propositions as the only carriers of truth - then become contingently true on how language is used, and the holism of beliefs that a person or audience holds, rather than true in all contexts, true before all possible audiences. “I took the lift” becomes something more of a cultural artifact rather than something objectively true, as does such things as “the sun is a burning ball of helium and hydrogren”, and every other proposition. If you recognize that there is no difference, then you have made the linguistic turn that Wittgenstein brought forwards. If you still want to point to “a” and “b” and say “See, statement “x” is objectively true” you have not.

If you asked the later Wittgenstein, “How do you know that is red?”, he would say, “Because I know English.”, not “Because it really is red.”


And that’s your answer to the question, 'Why is W.‘s philosophy not just an exercise in trivial “semantics”?’ Why is it not like the “lift” “elevator” dispute? That both “I took a lift” is a "cultural artifact, just as is “The Sun consists of helium and hydrogen” So does that mean that there is no difference between a verbal dispute and a factual dispute?

You are right. I think that we should leave it to anyone who has read your posts to decide whether you have addressed the question which began this thread, and whether, if you did, your reply makes sense.


So does that mean that there is no difference between a verbal dispute and a factual dispute?

Clearly you have never given seminars on Wittgenstein, as you claimed. You have no understanding of him at all. There is no such thing as a “factual dispute” in later Wittgenstein. There is no reference to “facts”, that is if you mean by facts “things as they really are”. Is it that you really have no clue why all of philosophy stood up and reacted to Wittgenstein, and continues to react to him? Post one more time, so you can have the last word, then let’s just move on. You simply are uneducated, unread on the points of philosophy you comment on… Its not that you disagree with them, you simply don’t understand them so much as to be able to disagree. Ignore my posts if you would, and I’ll let yours go in peace. :slight_smile:


Interestingly enough, in the years before Deleuze died, he and Badiou put aside their (so-called) ‘political differences’, and got to talking. What resulted is Badiou’s book on Deleuze, the first of his works to be translated into English. I am interested to know, Dunamis, which of the two thinkers reflects more your own Marxist colourings, and in what way you have understood their differences/simularities; especially concerning their views on truth. Badiou’s set theory ontology, for instance, is a rather strange beast, and would be ripe for discussion, if only I would stop reading other stuff and pay some attention to it. :wink:

As for Wittgenstein, he returned to Vienna sometime after writing the Tractatus - he had (intriguingly enough) been teaching in a primary school in Switzerland, if I am not mistaken - and once comfortably lodged in his huge family mansion, permitted occasional visits from the leading members of the Vienna School - including Carnap and Neurath amongst others. They would trudge up to his mansion, after spending considerable time dissecting his Tractatus; modestly dressed and not without a sense of awkwardness - to meet the great prophet himself (to use Quine’s phrase) - who would more often than not be locked away in some study or other, apparently deep in thought. And when they arrived, he would be seated far across the room, in a huge leather-back chair (of the very best, Montgomery Burns variety), and would slowly turn towards them, with a slight intensity in his eyes. “Herr Wittengenstein, Herr Wittgenstein…” Carnap would begin, eagerly - but Wittgenstein had other things in mind than the discussion of his book. Instead he would open up to a page of Rilke, or Shakespeare, or Goethe (or God knows who else), and begin a spontaneous poetry recital. “But Herr Wittgenstein…” Carnap would agonise… to no avail. That was the kind of person Wittgenstein was; enigmatic, perhaps not entirely without a sense of being the herald, the prophet - or even, we might say, the ‘anti-prophet’. Like Nietzsche, in that regard (or so they say), I suppose. Except he also had a slight tendency to roam the streets around Cambridge late at night, in search of fresh meat. A rather passionate figure, in the final analysis. Though he never did threaten Karl Popper with a hot iron - contrary to popular myth.

I probably would have, though. :sunglasses:



Suppose that it is true that "there is no such thing as a ‘factual dispute’ in later Wittgenstein.
How can that have any relevance to the question of this thread? The issue, let me remind you, is whether Wittgenstein was discussion was “semantic” or verbal, and so, trivial.
How can it possibly make any difference to that what Wittgenstein’s own view were on the matter, or whether he even recognized the distinction.

You don’t philosophize. You just talk about what other philosophers (whom you happen to favor) happen to think about this issue or that issue. When a philosophical question arises, you simply emit the views of this or that philosopher without discussing the issue itself. Where you learned to do this sort of thing I cannot tell. But you confuse interpretation of what others say with philosophizing. By the way, it was exactly that kind of thing Wittgenstein abhorred. In fact he took a rather silly pride in claiming to know nothing about the history of philosophy and not giving a hoot what this or that eminent philosopher has said about an issue. And, indeed, in his preface to the Investigations he specifically says that he would not like it if his writing “spared others the trouble of thinking. But if possible to stimulate them to thoughts of their own”. And in the body of the book, Wittgenstein tells us that philosophy is an activity, and not a theory.

If Wittgenstein replied to the question, “How do you know that is red?” with, 'Because I know English", that would be perfectly understandable as meaning in normal circumstances, “Because that is what that color is called in English”. But, in other circumstances, say if the question were asked in a pitch dark room, that reply would hardly be to the point. In that circumstance, you would have to investigate further to determine whether “it really was red”. On the other hand, if the question had been, “How do you know that the child has scarlet fever” even you can see that the reply, “Because I know English” would be inadequate even were it understood as “Because that is what scarlet fever is called”. So it might occur to you that here we have an illustration of the difference between a verbal and a factual dispute. And, that, whatever Wittgenstein happened to believe about whether or not there is such a distinction.