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. Continue reading