This is a major, wide-ranging history of analytic philosophy since 1900, told by one of the tradition's leading contemporary figures. The first volume takes the story from 1900 to mid-century. The second brings the history up to date.
As Scott Soames tells it, the story of analytic philosophy is one of great but uneven progress, with leading thinkers making important advances toward solving the tradition's core problems. Though no broad philosophical position ever achieved lasting dominance, Soames argues that two methodological developments have, over time, remade the philosophical landscape. These are (1) analytic philosophers' hard-won success in understanding, and distinguishing the notions of logical truth, a priori truth, and necessary truth, and (2) gradual acceptance of the idea that philosophical speculation must be grounded in sound prephilosophical thought. Though Soames views this history in a positive light, he also illustrates the difficulties, false starts, and disappointments endured along the way. As he engages with the work of his predecessors and contemporaries--from Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein to Donald Davidson and Saul Kripke--he seeks to highlight their accomplishments while also pinpointing their shortcomings, especially where their perspectives were limited by an incomplete grasp of matters that have now become clear.
Soames himself has been at the center of some of the tradition's most important debates, and throughout writes with exceptional ease about its often complex ideas. His gift for clear exposition makes the history as accessible to advanced undergraduates as it will be important to scholars. Despite its centrality to philosophy in the English-speaking world, the analytic tradition in philosophy has had very few synthetic histories. This will be the benchmark against which all future accounts will be measured.
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Princeton University Press
January 16, 2005
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Excerpt from Philosophical Analysis in the Twentieth Century, Volume 2 by Scott Soames
REJECTION OF THE TRACTARIAN CONCEPTION OF LANGUAGE AND ANALYSIS
1. Critique of the Tractarian Conception of Language
The Augustinian picture vs. the conception of meaning as use
Conceptual prerequisites of ostensive definitions
Reference and analysis
The meaning and reference of names
Language games, family resemblances, and vagueness
2. Wittgenstein's New Conception of Language and Linguistic Analysis
Ordinary language is not to be understood on the model of logical calculi; sentences have neither hidden logical forms nor unique analyses
Language use is not to be explained by speakers knowing and being guided by linguistic rules, but rather by unthinking, socially-conditioned agreement
3. Wittgenstein's Deflationary Conception of Philosophy
Roots of this conception in his identification of the philosophical with the necessary and apriori, of these with the analytic
Doctrines of the Investigations as self-undermining because they lead to a conception of philosophy which they do not fit
Overview of The Philosophical Investigations
There are three main topics in the Philosophical Investigations : (i) a critique of what Wittgenstein regards as the dominant referential conception of meaning, and a proposal to replace it with a conception in which to use language meaningfully is to master a certain kind of social practice; (ii) a critique of the previously dominant conception of philosophical analysis, and the substitution of a new conception of analysis to play the central role in philosophy; and (iii) the development of a new philosophical psychology in which what appear on the surface to be sentences that report private sensations and other internal mental events or states are viewed as having meanings which license their assertion on the basis of public criteria having to do with behavior and external circumstances. The book's center of gravity is the discussion of what it is to follow a (linguistic) rule, and the lessons drawn from it about (i), (ii), and (iii). However, Wittgenstein does not start with this. Instead, he begins with preliminary critiques of his earlier, Tractarian conceptions of language and analysis. He then uses the discussion of rule following to strengthen his critiques, to illuminate his new conceptions of meaning and analysis, and to illustrate their consequences by applying them to psychological sentences. We will follow him in this. In this chapter we will deal with (i) and (ii); in the next chapter we will be concerned with (iii).
The Critique of Tractarian Descriptivism
The Augustinian Picture vs. the Conception of Meaning as Use
We begin with Wittgenstein's critique of the central tenets of his earlier referentialism about language. The view under attack holds that the meaning of an expression is what it names or stands for, and the meaning of a sentence is a possible fact the actual existence of which would make the sentence true. Natural corollaries of the view stipulate that learning a language, and being a competent user of its expressions, is the result of recognizing correlations between words and the objects they stand for, and that being justified in accepting a contingent, empirical sentence S involves having reason to believe that the language-independent possible state of affairs which constitutes the truth conditions of S actually obtains.
Wittgenstein introduces this picture of language in section 1 of the Investigations with a quote from Augustine:
When they (my elders) named some object, and accordingly moved towards something, I saw this and I grasped that the thing was called by the sound they uttered when they meant to point it out. Their intention was shown by their bodily movements, as it were the natural language of all peoples: the expression of the face, the play of the eyes, the movement of other parts of the body, and the tone of voice which expresses our state of mind in seeking, having, rejecting, or avoiding something. Thus, as I heard words repeatedly used in their proper places in various sentences, I gradually learnt to understand what objects they signified; and after I had trained my mouth to form these signs, I used them to express my own desires.1
Wittgenstein's summary of the view is as follows:
These words, it seems to me, give us a particular picture of the essence of human language. It is this: the individual words in language name objects--sentences are combinations of such names.--In this picture of language we find the roots of the following idea: Every word has a meaning. This meaning is correlated with the word. It is the object for which the word stands.
Having presented this picture, Wittgenstein immediately challenges it with his example of the five red apples. He says:
Now think of the following use of language: I send someone shopping. I give him a slip marked "five red apples". He takes the slip to the shopkeeper, who opens the drawer marked "apples"; then he looks up the word "red" in a table and finds a color sample opposite it; then he says the series of cardinal numbers--I assume that he knows them by heart--up to the word "five" and for each number he takes an apple of the same color as the sample out of the drawer.--It is in this and similar ways that one operates with words.--"But how does he know where and how he is to look up the word 'red' and what he is to do with the word 'five'?"--Well, I assume that he acts as I have described. Explanations come to an end somewhere.--But what is the meaning of the word "five"?--No such thing was in question here, only how the word "five" is used.2
In explaining what it is to understand the expression five red apples, Wittgenstein here recounts what one would do with it. Mastery of the numeral 'five' is not explained by finding some unique object for it to name; rather, mastery is a matter of engaging in certain sorts of routine that govern its application. The shopkeeper recites a series of sounds--one, two, three, four, five--and correlates them one-to-one with a series of acts--each act involving taking an apple out of the drawer. Mastery of the numerals is mastery of routines like this. This is Wittgenstein's first example of the thesis that meaning is use.
In sections 2 and 6-21, he continues the theme of meaning as use with the example of the primitive language of a builder and his assistant. Here, the sentences--Pillar, Slab, Block, and Beam--are not used as descriptions; rather, they are used to give orders. Wittgenstein goes on to emphasize many different uses of sentences as a way of undermining the tendency to take describing, stating a fact, or asserting something as primary. The value of undermining this picture is that it allows him to concentrate on using language as participating in many kinds of social activity. In the elementary language game he describes, there is no referring to an object and predicating a property of it. There is only the coordination of words and actions. The moves in the language game are meaningful in so far as they contribute to the coordination of the actions of the builder and his assistant.
Conceptual Prerequisites of Ostensive Definitions
One case study for the thesis that meaning is use is provided by names. At section 26 Wittgenstein starts talking about proper names, common nouns like cat, red, and round, and ostensive definitions. He has already pointed out that many parts of language are not names. Now he emphasizes that even when we introduce a name with an ostensive definition, the definition requires background assumptions in order to work. For example, suppose I point to one of the buttons on my shirt and say This is red, in an attempt to convey to you the meaning of the word red. In order for you to understand my intention, you need to know what I am pointing at--at myself, at my chest, at my shirt, at the button?--and you also need to know which aspect of the thing I am pointing at is the one I am characterizing--its size, its shape, its color, its price? This is where the needed background assumptions come in; it is only by relying on them that I can get my meaning across.
It is certainly true that these background beliefs are necessary in order for an ostensive definition to work; however, Wittgenstein appears to go beyond this, and suggest something stronger--namely, that ostensive definition (in the sense of the Augustinian picture discussed in section 1) makes sense only if one has already mastered a significant part of language in advance. For example, if you are not sure how to interpret my ostensive definition of red, I might clarify things by saying The color of the buttons on my shirt is red. But that presupposes that you have already understood the words color, buttons, and shirt.
Wittgenstein realizes that there are cases in which I could give my ostensive definition, This is red, and you would get the idea without my having to use any further words, because you would correctly guess that I was pointing to one of my buttons and talking about its color. In light of this, one wonders whether further language is always needed to understand an ostensive definition after all. Wittgenstein addresses this point in section 32.
Someone coming into a strange country will sometimes learn the language of the inhabitants from ostensive definitions that they give him; and he will often have to guess the meaning of these definitions; and will guess sometimes right, sometimes wrong.
And now, I think, we can say: Augustine describes the learning of human language as if the child came into a strange country and did not understand the language of the country; that is, as if it already had a language, only not this one. Or again: as if the child could already think, only not yet speak. And "think" would here mean something like "talk to itself ".
There is something quite striking about this passage. Wittgenstein seems to equate (i) a child's ability to have thoughts about what the words he has been exposed to stand for with (ii) the child's already having a language in which to express those thoughts. Since it is presumably absurd to suppose that the child already has such a language, Wittgenstein seems to be casting doubt on the idea that the child can think at all prior to having learned his first language.
To this one is tempted to reply: "Of course the child can think before he has learned to speak. Have you ever been around young children? It is obvious that they have thoughts before they can speak. Moreover, they would be in pretty bad shape if they couldn't have such thoughts. How could they learn anything--let alone language--if they couldn't do at least some thinking first? " However, Wittgenstein would not accept this reply. One of the themes of the Investigations is that terms like think and understand, which appear to refer to private mental events or processes, should really be understood as standing for complex behavioral and social dispositions, standardly including dispositions to use language. Of course, if one takes thinking to be something that essentially involves dispositions to use language in certain ways, then the idea of a child being able to think before he has language will seem to be a non-starter. Now, I am not sure that, in the end, Wittgenstein really wants to go so far as to claim that all thinking requires language use or linguistic dispositions, and hence to deny that non-linguistic creatures can have any thoughts at all.3 However, he does seem to presuppose that they couldn't have the kinds of thoughts needed to understand ostensive definitions. Why, precisely, we should take this to be so is something that, regrettably, he is not terribly clear about (at least at this stage of the Investigations). Still, the import of his view is clear enough: since the thoughts required to interpret an ostensive definition cannot be had prior to mastering a significant amount of language, ostensive definition cannot be the foundation of all language learning and language use. And if it can't serve as the foundation of language learning and use, Wittgenstein seems to suggest, it is hard to see how the referentialist conception of language, with its emphasis on the importance of naming, can get off the ground. It is not that he is suggesting that we never succeed in naming anything ostensively, or in describing something once we have named it. Of course, we do. Rather, he is saying that naming and describing cannot constitute the essence of meaning, since in order to be able to name or describe anything, we must have a rich system of meaning already in place. To be sure, he hasn't established this, or even really argued for it yet. He has just raised the issue, and started to paint an alternative picture.
Reference and Analysis
In sections 37 and 38, he attacks a different part of the descriptivist, or referential, conception of meaning. He indicates that it is not clear what we have in mind when we talk about the naming or reference relation.
What is the relation between name and thing named?--Well, what is it? Look at language-game (2) [the builder and his assistant] or at another one: there you can see the sort of thing this relation consists in. This relation may also consist, among many other things, in the fact that hearing the name calls before our mind the picture of what is named; and it also consists, among other things, in the name's being written on the thing named or being pronounced when the thing is pointed at.4
But what, for example, is the word "this" the name of in language-game (8) [Here Wittgenstein refers to an expansion of the primitive language game of the builder and his assistant] or the word "that" in the ostensive definition "that is called . . ."?--If you do not want to produce confusion you will do best not to call these words names at all.--Yet, strange to say, the word "this" has been called the only genuine name; so that anything else we call a name was one only in an inexact, approximate sense.
This queer conception springs from a tendency to sublime the logic of our language--as one might put it. The proper answer to it is: we call very different things "names"; the word "name" is used to characterize many different kinds of use of a word, related to one another in many different ways:--but the kind of use that "this" has is not among them.
. . . This is connected with the conception of naming as, so to speak, an occult process. Naming appears as a queer connection of a word with an object.--And you really get such a queer connection when the philosopher tries to bring out the relation between name and thing by staring at an object in front of him and repeating a name or even the word "this" innumerable times. For philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday. And here we may indeed fancy naming to be some remarkable act of mind, as it were a baptism of an object. And we can also say the word "this" to the object, as it were address the object as "this"--a queer use of this word, which doubtless only occurs in doing philosophy.5
The object of Wittgenstein's ridicule here is (in part) our inclination to think that there is just one relation which all names bear to their referents. Wittgenstein thinks that this idea is obviously incorrect. We can say, if we like, that the numeral '5' names or refers to the number five, but only if we do not take the naming or reference relation that we appeal to in this case to be the same as the relation between someone's name and the person named, for example. In section 38, he indicates that he thinks that the philosophical problem of discovering the nature of the naming or reference relation falsely presupposes that there is just one such relation. He dismisses this idea with the general remark about philosophy, "For philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday."
It is less clear what relevance his dismissal of the idea that there is a unique reference relation has for his overall attack on the referentialist conception of meaning. Perhaps the idea is this: the referentialist is inclined to think that the relation of reference is basic, that by taking it as our starting point we can give a general account of meaning and understanding, and by employing it in the philosophical analysis of language we can achieve a level of clarity and exactness not obtainable in any other way. By contrast, Wittgenstein thinks that talk about reference is something that stands in as much need of analysis and clarification as anything else. In certain cases we mean one thing when we talk about the reference of a word, and in other cases we mean something else. Since talk about reference is subject to the same sorts of ambiguity and unclarity as the ordinary talk it is supposed to be used to analyze, he seems to suggest, claims about reference can't provide the basis of, or starting point for, all philosophical analyses of meaning and understanding.
This point, though arresting, is telling only if supplemented with something further. Consider the view that to understand a word is to know what it refers to (which, we may suppose, includes, in the case of a predicate, what it applies to). It is one thing to be told that by reference we mean different things in different cases; it is quite another to be told that what we mean by reference in at least some of these cases is such that understanding a word cannot be explained as knowing what it refers to. Maybe the thought is that for any specific disambiguation of 'refers', the general claim that to understand any word is to know what it refers to in that specific sense must be false, since, at a minimum, for different words, different reference relations will be required. However, even if that were to turn out to be so, it would still leave open the possibility that understanding a word is always a matter of what it refers to, in the relevant sense of 'refers'. To rule even this out, one might argue that in at least some cases--e.g., the terms '5', 'Uranus', and 'neutrino'--we don't understand these terms because we know that '5' refers to an object iff it is the number 5, that 'Uranus' refers to an object iff it is Uranus, and that 'neutrino' applies to an object iff it is a neutrino; rather, we know these elementary truths about reference because we understand and accept the sentences that express them, which in turn presupposes that we already understand the expressions '5', 'Uranus', and 'neutrino' themselves. If such an argument could successfully be made, it would show that understanding an expression is at least sometimes conceptually prior to knowing what it refers to, in which case the latter cannot be the explanation of the former.6 Although Wittgenstein seems to have believed this, he did not explicitly argue in this way, and his argument at this stage of the Investigations is left inexplicit and incomplete.
The Meaning and Reference of Names
In sections 39 and 40, he continues his assault on the referential conception of meaning with an argument that the meaning of a name can't be its bearer. Here is section 39.
But why does it occur to one to want to make precisely this word [the word "this"] into a name, when it evidently is not a name?--That is just the reason. For one is tempted to make an objection against what is ordinarily called a name. It can be put like this: a name ought really to signify a simple. And for this one might perhaps give the following reasons: The word "Excalibur", say, is a proper name in the ordinary sense. The sword Excalibur consists of parts combined in a particular way. If they are combined differently Excalibur does not exist. But it is clear that the sentence "Excalibur has a sharp blade" makes sense whether Excalibur is still whole or is broken up. But if "Excalibur" is the name of an object, this object no longer exists when Excalibur is broken in pieces; and as no object would then correspond to the name it would have no meaning. But then the sentence "Excalibur has a sharp blade" would contain a word that had no meaning, and hence the sentence would be nonsense. But it does make sense; so there must always be something corresponding to the words of which it consists. So the word "Excalibur" must disappear when the sense is analyzed and its place be taken by words which name simples. It will be reasonable to call these words the real names.
This is essentially one of Russell's old arguments that ordinary names are not real, or logically proper, names, since ordinary names can have meanings even when they lack referents, whereas the meaning of a real (logically proper) name is nothing other than its referent. Unlike ordinary names, Russell thought, at least some uses of the demonstrative 'this' conformed rather well to this criterion. If one says, pointing at nothing in particular, This is a fine red one, then it is plausible to suppose that since one hasn't identified any object to which the predicate is supposed to be applied, one's sentence lacks content, and one hasn't meaningfully asserted anything. For reasons like this, Russell was inclined to say that the word 'this' functions as a genuine name, whereas ordinary proper names do not.
Although Wittgenstein at one time accepted essentially this argument, by the time of the Investigations, he no longer did. Here is section 40:
Let us first discuss this point of the argument: that a word has no meaning if nothing corresponds to it.--It is important to note that the word "meaning" is being used illicitly if it is used to signify the thing that 'corresponds' to the word. That is to confound the meaning of a name with the bearer of the name. When Mr. N. N. dies one says that the bearer of the name dies, not that the meaning dies. And it would be nonsensical to say that, for if the name ceased to have meaning it would make no sense to say "Mr. N. N. is dead".
In this passage, Wittgenstein turns the Russellian argument around and uses it to refute the contention that the referent of a name is its meaning. In addition, we get an anticipation of his rejection of "old-style" philosophical analysis (which assigned abstract logical forms to sentences). Russell and the early Wittgenstein would have said that the fact that a sentence containing an ordinary name would remain meaningful even if its referent ceased to exist, shows that what looks like a name really doesn't function logically as a name; hence the whole sentence must be given a complex analysis. For Russell and the early Wittgenstein, genuine names must have referents the existence of which is somehow guaranteed. For Russell this meant that names could refer only to things that one could not be mistaken about, like private sense data, or the abstract objects with which one was directly acquainted. For the early Wittgenstein it meant that names must refer to indestructible metaphysical simples that could not fail to exist. Either way, sentences containing ordinary names had to be analyzed in terms of complicated logical forms, which, if they contained genuine, logically proper names at all, were construed as talking about a certain philosophically revealed subject matter. The Wittgenstein of the Investigations rejects the idea that sentences have analyses of this sort. In the sections following 40, he demolishes his old Tractarian view that there are indestructible, necessarily existing simples in the world that cannot be described but can only be named by the corresponding linguistic simples--i.e., by expressions satisfying Russell's idealized conception of genuine names. The significance of this demolition is rather limited, however, since the views about metaphysical simples in the Tractatus were always seen to be implausible, and never had much of a following. Undermining them was not a great advance.
A more interesting question is whether Wittgenstein's argument in these sections really shows that the meaning of an ordinary name can't be its referent. I am not convinced that it does. Certainly the sentence Socrates is dead continues to be meaningful even though the man Socrates no longer exists, and the name Socrates does not refer to any existing thing. However, is it so clear that Socrates fails to refer to anything at all? If it did fail to refer, then it would be hard to see how the sentence Socrates is dead could be true--since the subject expression wouldn't refer to anything that had the property expressed by the predicate. So perhaps names can continue to refer to things that once existed but no longer do. If the things they refer to are their meanings, then names may remain meaningful, even when the things that are their meanings cease to exist.