I have just started trying to make my way through Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, and so far it has had a surprising effect: it has made me more of a Platonist. Which is exactly the opposite, I think, of what Wittgenstein intended.
Wittgenstein begins the book with a critique of a passage in Augustine’s Confessions, on a subject whose Christian significance is not discussed. Speaking of his childhood, Augustine – a Platonist – explains how he came to understand concepts:
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….. Thus, as I heard words repeatedly used in their proper places in various sentences, I gradually learnt to understand what objects they signified… (Confessions I.8)
On such an account, Wittgenstein thinks, words have a meaning correlated with them, and their meaning is an object they stand for. Wittgenstein replies that such an account is true, at best, only of nouns. It is not true of other parts of speech. To argue his point he gives the following example, often cited in others’ expositions of Wittgenstein’s thought:
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 colour 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 colour 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. Explanatons 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. (Philosophical Investigations I.1)
I hope that Wittgenstein’s arguments get better as the book goes on, or that this excerpt turns out to be only a piece of a larger and better argument. For it strikes me as rather a poor piece of reasoning. Indeed the meaning of the word “five” was not in question in the transaction – but neither was the meaning of the word “apples,” for both participants already knew what the word meant.
But the issue here, I think, has more to do with Wittgenstein’s more specialized definition of “meaning”: meaning is an object (re in Augustine’s Latin, Gegenstand in Wittgenstein’s German, a thing, an item) for which a word stands. On Wittgenstein’s view, as expressed in this passage, only nouns stand for such objects. The word “apples” has an object, then; but “five” and “red” do not, they are merely used in a certain way.
This point puzzles me. I know there is a view, which I think Wittgenstein shares with the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, according to which the meanings of words are essentially arbitrary, deriving a sense only through their relationship to other words in the system of language. I’m skeptical of such an account, but even if it were true, I don’t see why nouns should be exempt from it. If “five” and “red” derive their meaning only from use, then so, it seems to me, does “apples.”
And this gets me to the gist of my point. Words, it seems to me, refer to real things. It’s hard for me to imagine a necessary relation between the sound of the word and its referent in the world, as Plato is sometimes supposed to have thought; but the point, or at least a point, of language is that it refers to real things that are not reducible to language. Contrary to some mistranslations of Jacques Derrida, there is indeed something outside of the text.
But if what I’ve said so far is true – if there is a reality that is not reducible to language, and if there is no qualitative difference in this regard between a noun like “apples” and adjectives like “five” and “red” – it implies, against Wittgenstein, that fiveness and redness, the states of being five or red, are themselves real things, out there in the world. And to say this, it seems to me, is to accept something much like Plato’s theory of the Forms or Ideas (eidos): there is some sort of idea or form or essence that underlies individual things, a real redness or fiveness that red things or sets of five partake of. There are of course many problems with this theory, problems that Plato himself sees in many of his dialogues. But it seems that I have arrived, at least, at Plato’s starting point – having been led there by Wittgenstein’s anti-Platonic arguments.