Understanding Wittgenstein: Studies of Philosophical Investigations

By J. F. M. Hunter | Go to book overview
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Four
UNDERSTANDING WORDS AND UNDERSTANDING LANGUAGE

IN §199 of the Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein says, as categorically as he ever says anything, 'To understand a sentence means to understand a language. To understand a language means to be master of a technique'.

In §33 he expresses a similar view: 'Suppose, however, someone were to object: "It is not true that you must already be master of a language in order to understand an ostensive definition . . ." .' This is not so categorically expressed; but calling it an objection would seem to imply that the proposition objected to was one Wittgenstein would defend.

Again in §30 we read: 'So one might say: the ostensive definition explains the use -- the meaning -- of the word when the overall role of the word in language is clear. Thus if I know that someone means to explain a colour word to me the ostensive definition "That is called 'sepia' " will help me to understand the word'. This is even less categorical, but the words 'So one might say' can quite naturally be read as about equivalent to 'So I suggest', and thus again as marking a position Wittgenstein would defend.

This last passage, however, is also where doubts may begin, because Wittgenstein goes on to say 'And you can say this, so long as you do not forget that all sorts of problems attach to the words "to know" and "to be clear" '. This suggests that Wittgenstein may agree that an ostensive definition explains the meaning of a word when the overall role of the word is clear, but only in a sense, and possibly in a sense such that the proposition is no longer of much moment.

What Wittgenstein goes on to say may be read as a conformation of the above suggestion. In §30 he had written 'One has already to know (to be able to do) something in order to be

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