Understanding Wittgenstein: Studies of Philosophical Investigations

By J. F. M. Hunter | Go to book overview

One
DOES EVERY WORD HAVE A MEANING?

These words [of Augustine's], 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. ( Philosophical Investigations, §1)

IT IS very well known that Wittgenstein queried the final two of the three propositions at the end of the above quotation; but whether or in what way he was sceptical about the first -- the proposition that every word has a meaning -- is a question not often raised, and not easy to answer. Depending on how this proposition is interpreted, he either did or might well have had doubts about it:
i. He certainly questioned whether every word has a meaning in the sense of something correlated with it, for which it stands; but that is not to say that in the ordinary sense of the word 'meaning', there is something wrong with saying that every word has a meaning.
ii. He would have been right to question whether nonsense words, like 'mimsy' and 'borogroves', have meanings. Since 'mimsy' is clearly an adjective, and 'borogroves' a noun, they are words; but while some people may say that they understand them, they at least do not have the uncontroversial meaning that most English words have.
iii. Most proper names do not have meanings. Some, like 'Constance', 'Prudence' and 'Smith', do, but their meanings do not generally play any role in their use. Not many Smiths are smiths any more, and if Prudence is imprudent, we do not

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