The Magic Prism: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language

The Magic Prism: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language

The Magic Prism: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language

The Magic Prism: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language


The late 20th century saw great movement in the philosophy of language, often critical of the fathers of the subject-Gottlieb Frege and Bertrand Russell-but sometimes supportive of (or even defensive about) the work of the fathers. Howard Wettstein's sympathies lie with the critics. But he says that they have often misconceived their critical project, treating it in ways that are technically focused and that miss the deeper implications of their revolutionary challenge. Wettstein argues that Wittgenstein-a figure with whom the critics of Frege and Russell are typically unsympathetic-laid the foundation for much of what is really revolutionary in this late 20th century movement. The subject itself should be of great interest, since philosophy of language has functioned as a kind of foundation for much of 20th century philosophy. But in fact it remains a subject for specialists, since the ideas are difficult and the mode of presentation is often fairly technical. In this book, Wettstein brings the non-specialist into the conversation (especially in early chapters); he also reconceives the debate in a way that avoids technical formulation. The Magic Prism is intended for professional philosophers, graduate students, and upper division undergraduates.


A proposition may be defined to be anything which can be said to be true or false. But we shall understand this definition more clearly if we also indicate what a proposition is not.

1. a proposition is not the same thing as the sentence which states it. the three sentences, “I think, therefore I am, ” “Je pense, donc je suis, ” “Cogito ergo sum, ” all state the same proposition. a sentence is a group of words, and words, like other symbols, are in themselves physical objects, distinct from that to which they refer or which they symbolize. Sentences when written are thus located on certain surfaces, and when spoken are sound waves passing from one organism to another. But the proposition of which a sentence is the verbal expression is distinct from the visual marks or sound waves of the expression. Sentences, therefore, have a physical existence. They may or may not conform to standards of usage or taste. But they are not true or false. Truth or falsity can be predicated only of the propositions they signify.

4. Propositions are often confounded with the mental acts required to think them….But just as we have distinguished the proposition (as the objective meaning) from the sentence which states it, so we must distinguish it from the act of the mind or the judgment which thinks it.

5. Nor must propositions be identified with any concrete object, thing, or event….Whenwe affirm or deny the proposition The moon . . .

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