Philosophy of language

Olivia asked:

Hello. I see that the natural and constructed world around us offers us meaning. I find myself constructing a grid of meaning that uses abstract nouns e.g. peace, hope, love, excitement, beauty, belonging, freedom, creativity. All things offer up the possibility of ‘meaning’ which will vary according to the situation, the person and the particularities (social, religious, etc) of that person. Is there a philosopher, or philosophical understanding that can articulate this ‘grid of meaning’ that I’m speaking of?

Answer by Martin Jenkins

I would propose that such a philosopher could be Ludwig Wittgenstein.

In his earlier works such as the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) Wittgenstein offered a Logical atomist view of the ‘grid of meaning’. A word had meaning if it could correspond or be reducible to an object: Logical statements could be verified by reference to facts or ‘atoms’. So far so good. Unfortunately, this excluded words such as ‘peace’, ‘hope’, ‘beauty’ etc which could not be reduced to observed objects. Wittgenstein himself became dissatisfied with this position which, he had once believed had solved the problems of Philosophy.

Enter the Philosophical Investigations (1953).In this work, the meaning of Language is its use. How it is used is constituted by rules – in the same way a card game is constituted and operable by rules. Knowledge of the rules allows knowledge of how the language, in all its guises, operates and is used. The rules have to be mastered by Language users. So the ‘grid of meaning’ exists as knowledge of all the various ‘language games’ of a language such as for instance, the language game of Religion. However, the ‘grid’ is not immutable and fixed, it changes as it interacts with life and as life interacts with it.
Words such as ‘peace’ etc are understood and used in the context of the language games in which they are used.

Wittgenstein’s views on Language have been employed and developed by contemporary Thinkers such as Richard Rorty (Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature) and Jean-Francois Lyotard (The Differend).

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