Wittgenstein in Practice 


Track Taters Log Ego Fill Oesophagus: a squib

Peter Holmes 





Words and things 



Nouns and names 

Philosophical nouns 

The myth of naming 









Identity and synonymy 













This squib is for people on their philosophical journey. If it only entertains it will have served its purpose. 


It deals with some problems of philosophy and shows a way to sort them out by applying one of Wittgenstein’s most important ideas. It amounts to remembering that words are only words. 


This is not an academic exercise. And I do not claim originality for any of it. I simply want to hit certain nails cleanly on the head and into yours. 


I have been assertive to get you thinking and arguing. But I have tried to make assertions that are true and that follow coherently from simple premisses. 


But, as always in philosophy, treat every assertion as a question in disguise. The most plausible are sometimes the most misleading. 


The numbers in the text refer to notes at the back, where you will find suggestions for reading. 


I would like to thank Dr P M S Hacker (St John’s College, Oxford) for his encouragement and generosity with suggestions in response to the first edition. Any flaws this squib has remain, of course, my own.



Words and things 


Words are not the things they are about, the things we do or express with them, the things they denote, and so on. A sign is not the thing for which it is a sign. The word dog is not a dog. 


The nouns wordnoun and sign are exceptions. They are examples of what they denote. We have to use words to talk about anything, including words. 


There is no inherent connection between words and what they are about. (This applies even to the exceptions.) And this is not because signs are arbitrary. The arbitrary nature of signs is a red herring. 


The connection between words and the things they are about is in neither the words nor the things. It is in the way we use the words. We make the connection. 


We can see the connection aright only when we see the separation between words and the things they are about. Mistaking a word for the thing itself is the beginning of philosophical confusion. 


What matters to us is not words but rather what we do with them. For example, we want to talk about real things or express feelings. And usually words are not in the way, so we do not feel the need to get around them. 


But in philosophy we try to get around some important abstract nouns to the things they supposedly denote: knowledge, being, truth, identity, necessity, and so on. 


When we use words in philosophy, we are not getting around or beyond words. But we keep trying.





To define a word is to explain how we use it. To define a thing is rather to try to describe it definitively. 


Words do not define themselves. They do not tell us how we must use them. And this is true of the word definition. We decide what defining involves. 


Things do not define themselves. They do not tell us how we must describe them. The thing we may point at to explain a word has the role we give it in the explanation. It does not independently show what the word means. 


If we define a thing with words, all we have is words, not the thing itself. And a verbal definition consists of words we may need more words to define, and so on. Yet we do not usually feel stuck with words. We do not fear circularity or infinite regress, which is significant. 


When we use words or other signs precisely, the precision is in the way we use them, not in what they are about. Most things just are, neither precise nor imprecise. What would a precise dog be like? (But would we say a triangle is a precise thing?) 


Precise definition of a word is really the demand that we use it in a certain way for a certain purpose. But we may have other uses for the word which are just as precise, or which are vague but perfectly serviceable. 


Sometimes we say a word is hard to define or define precisely, as though it must have one clear or precise definition if only we could find it. And sometimes we say a word is indefinable. It is like inventing gods and then being afraid of them. 


If we look at the ways we use the word, that will explain what it means. Where else could we look? The things we talk about cannot tell us what our words mean.





We can describe something in different ways which may overlap: physically, mathematically, historically, aesthetically, and so on. Each type of description has a different purpose. And any one type of description can take different forms. For example, physical analyses of a situation or an event will vary according to what we want to know. 


We can always substitute one type of description for another, for example, a chemical for a biological one. But the new description does not serve the same purpose. 


No type of description has an inherent priority over the others. None is more precise than the others. Only in the context of a particular type of description can we be more or less precise. 


But the idea persists that one type of description is or can be fundamental. Through time, candidates for the job have included metaphysical, mathematical, logical and physical descriptions. 


But, for example, the expected grand unified theory in physics will not explain all we want to know about the causes of war or what love is. And, for example, though mathematics is a powerful tool for measuring and calculating, to say the universe is mathematical is to mistake the description for the described. 


Like precision, completeness is not an independent thing by which we can measure a description. What we count as complete will vary according to the type of description and its purpose. 


But this means that completeness and precision are not unreachable goals. To deny the possibility of a complete description or a precise definition is to have in mind a sort of perfection beyond our reach. An unreachable goal is still a goal. 


Completenessprecisionabsoluteness, and perfection are words, not things.



Nouns and names 


We call nouns naming words. (We often try to by-pass grammatical categories and thus the grammaticality of words. We do not want to talk about mere words, because that is what linguists do, and we are philosophers.) 


A name is the name of something. That is how we use the word name. So a name seems to have a thing attached to it. With names we seem to grasp things. But things do not name themselves. They do not come with names attached. We name them. And naming does not make things what we name them. The illusion that it does is immensely powerful. 


Different problems arise when we treat each of the noun types as names, and then look for the things they supposedly name. 


Common nouns 


We use a count noun to talk about similar individuals (plural) or one example of them (singular). There are natural kinds such as dogs, made things such as tables, and so on. And we decide how to talk about them. 


But if a count noun such as table is the name of a thing, we are tempted to think it must be a thing that all tables have in common: ‘tablehood’ or ‘being a table’. This is one source of talk about concepts. 


We use a uncount noun such as gold to talk about a substance. Each bit of gold consists of the substance, but none is the substance, the thing itself. To pin the thing down, we may say gold is the metallic element with the atomic number 79. But that is to substitute one noun phrase for another, for a particular purpose. The thing itself remains what it is how ever we choose to name or describe it. 


The idea that a thing has identifying properties, without which it would not be what it is, leads to talk about essences. But different properties, and so essences, turn up in the different ways we talk about things. 


Our ascribing properties to things does not give them the properties we ascribe. Our saying grass is green does not make grass green. But we can ascribe properties only in the context of one or other of the ways we describe things. (Descriptions need not be human, but ours have to be.) 


It is as mistaken to deny as to assert that concepts and essences exist. That would be to mistake words for things. But given the way we use the word dog, it would be as pointless to assert as to deny that, somewhere, dogs exist. (But were we to assert it, we would not mistake the word for the things.) 


When we use words ordinarily, concepts and essences do not bother us. They are a peculiarity of the philosophical confusion about words which sometimes spreads beyond philosophy. 


Abstract nouns 


(Words are not abstract. They are sounds, marks on paper, and so on. So the phrase abstract noun confuses these nouns with the things they supposedly name  an emblematic confusion.) 


To say an abstract noun such as truth is the name of a thing is confusing. In answer to the question what is truth? we do not say: truth is a thing. The phrase abstract thing is a confusion arising from the idea that all nouns are names of things. Abstract entities and abstract objects are equally confusing, if more up-market. 


The phrase abstract thing suggests something analogous to a real thing. Speculation about the existence and nature of abstract things such as meaning, justice, goodness and truth arises from our mistaking abstract nouns for the things they supposedly name. 


To assert or deny that abstract things exist is to have mistaken abstract nouns for things which therefore may or may not exist. But some abstract nouns are among the most important words we use. (We could say they are merely words, but all words are merely words.) 


We use the adjectives concrete and abstract to talk about real and unreal things. But here real and unreal are also adjectives, as are spatio-temporal and non spatio-temporal. We cannot get around words with other words or signs. 


If necessary, we prove or disprove the existence of things by practical methods. We cannot do it with words. Words and the things they are about are quite separate.  


Proper nouns 


We sometimes use the word name as a synonym for proper noun. And proper nouns seem the most secure in their role as names. But we make their connection with the things they name as we use them. 


The proper nouns Socrates and Venus are, and could be, the names of many individuals. So the words do not specify which individuals they name. A proper noun does not proclaim: I am the name of this and only this individual. 


A proper noun is the rigid designator of an individual only if we make it so. And how we know which individual a name may designate is a social and historical matter. 


A thing is what it is in any possible world. But rigid designation is in the way we use the name, not in the name itself or the individual. We make and can therefore unmake the connection between words and things. [1] 


Naming is something we do with some words, not something they do on their own.



Philosophical nouns 


We do not have theories of be, refer or necessary. Verbs and adjectives are less philosophically amenable than nouns. With nouns such as beingreference and necessity we think we have things about which to theorise. 


Nominalisation, making nouns from verbs and adjectives, is one kind of linguistic creativity. And we often reverse the process, making verbs and adjectives from nouns. 


In terms of primitive language growth, it makes little sense to ask which, if any, part of speech came first. Perhaps for this reason, we use the word cognate, which suggests an unlikely simultaneous birth from a root word. 


But in philosophy we have tended to treat nouns as primary or originary. For example, we explain what it means to refer by producing a theory of reference. 


It helps to remember the different ways we use the cognates ordinarily. To refer is to do something straightforward. And a reference is an everyday thing. The artificial mystery of ‘reference’ tends to evaporate. 


We have everyday uses for words like object, proposition, fact, essence and relation. But in philosophy these and other abstract nouns tend to lead us astray. We forget they are words and treat them as fundamental things. We find we cannot say, or argue endlessly about, what those things are. Sometimes we conclude they are mysterious, which as things they are. 


Or, ignoring the problem, we build theories on abstract things, for example rival theories of knowledge based on experience or thought. Often we cannot conclusively answer our philosophical questions, because they arise from a misunderstanding of what words are and how they work.



The myth of naming 


The idea that the sole or main purpose of language is to name things is ancient and seductive. For example, in the two Genesis creation myths naming is fundamental. In the first, God said Let there be light and he called the light day, and the darkness he called night. 


He did not speak in Hebrew or seventeenth-century English. So what language did he use? And why did he speak at all? Was anyone listening? Was he talking to himself? Did creation require speech? And why did he name the things he created? No doubt we should understand the story metaphorically. But the nature of the metaphor is revealing. 


In the second myth, out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof. [2] 


But how did Adam know what to do? In these myths, creation and the assertion of authority involve baptismal naming. But this is possible only because the language that God and Adam speak is already in place. Nouns and the idea of naming are both primal and assumed. This confusion works at the deep level where myths operate. 


It is manifest in our assumption that infants know which of the sounds we make are names for things they have already identified as things, and that ostensive naming is primary in language acquisition. 


But a baby does not say mama to name the big warm thing that cuddles and feeds it. And when we say baby to it, we are not naming it. These are not observation sentences. [3] We use them to express delight, call for help, signal a warning, beckon, comfort, and so on. Naming things is just one among the many ways we learn to act and react with words.





A nomenclature is a system of names. Nomenclaturism is the view that language is a system of names in which words stand for the things of which they are names. 


We can easily extend the idea of naming beyond nouns to the other parts of speech. So verbs can seem to be the names of actions and states, and adjectives (along with adverbials) the names of properties and relations. 


Treating adjectives as names leads to talk about universals. We use yellow and taller to characterise many things, then wonder if there are such things as ‘yellowness’ and ‘being taller than’. 


Universals are like concepts and essences. It is fruitless, if entertaining, to assert or deny their existence. That is why the debate has lasted so long. Platonists and nominalists both mistake words for things about which to argue. 


Whole theories have developed from the idea that the word I is the name of something. (The other personal pronouns have received less attention and so caused less confusion. Is the word you the name of something?) 


If we think most words are names, then it seems that a sentence is a string of names describing or representing a situation or an event  expressing what we call a proposition. 


The way we talk about how words work reinforces this nomenclaturism. We say they define, delineate, denote, depict, describe, designate, determine, express, mean, name, refer to, represent, signify, stand for, and so on.  


The direct objects of these verbs are the things that words name, denote, and so on. Little wonder we say language is essentially representation. [4] (But what does the word hello represent?)





A theory is an explanation. But the word theory sounds more technical and exciting than the word explanation. 


Theories do not lie around waiting for us to discover them. We produce an explanation rather than discover it. Darwin and Wallace discovered an evolutionary process, not a theory. 


(Thinking of our explanations as discoveries is natural. But the idea that the universe began and developed with our explanations in mind has usually led us astray.) 


A scientific theory explains how some things are and the way they work. Science and technology are where the money is. So theory is a prestigious asset. 


When we talk about the theory of identity, or any abstract thing, we confer prestige on the supposed thing, what we say about it, and even ourselves. 


But epistemology and geology are radically different kinds of inquiry. The theories of identity and evolution are different kinds of theory. We are trying to explain very different kinds of things here.  


(That said, even physical science theories consist of words and other signs. No more than any other can scientific discourse escape its linguistic nature.) 


A theory of [abstract noun] is an explanation of how we use the word [abstract noun], its cognates and related terms. And a rival theory offers only a different way of using them. For example, a debate on the nature of knowledge does not involve rival descriptions of a thing. 


A philosophical theory is an attempt to describe an abstract thing in the way we describe a real thing, where all it can do is explain how we use, or could use, an abstract noun.





A meaning is the explanation we give when asked to explain the meaning of something. Since a theory is an explanation, a theory of meaning is an explanation of explanation, which is an explanation of how we use the word explanation and its cognates. 


There are different kinds of meanings because there are different things we sometimes want to explain: words, sentences, gestures, behaviour, actions, events, formulae, statistics, and so on. And each of these can have different meanings according to the kind of explanation we want. 


We think meanings are one kind of thing because we use the one word, meaning, for all of them. We think these various kinds of meanings have something in common, which is why we use the same word for all of them. 


We try various solutions to the imaginary problem of meaning, as though it is a thing we can try to describe definitively. Or we talk about concepts and propositions as things that some words and sentences mean or express. 


Or, rather than risk treating meanings as things, if only abstract things, we have even tried doing without them altogether, talking instead of words having significance.  


It is because meanings are not real things that we need not reject them. The meanings we reject are illusory products of the very reification we fear. [5] 


The thing named by a word is not the meaning of the word. (A thing is not a meaning.) The meaning of the word dog is not a dog but rather the use we make of the word. 


And the meaning of the word meaning is similarly the use we make of the word and its cognates, not some abstract thing we must try to describe. What puzzle there is is of our own making.





The meaning of a word comes out in the way we use it. But what we call its referent is the thing to which it refers, the thing it denotes or designates. By means of reference we feel that words make simple contact with what they are about. 


But though we did not invent natural things or what we call properties, we did (and do and will) invent the ways we talk about them. And if a word has a referent, that thing is not somehow contained in the word. 


In the assertion grass is green, if we say the referents of the subject and predicate terms (grass and is green) are an object and a concept, we are using words, inventing a way of talking about the way words work. [6] 


What we call the extension of a word is all the things to which we use it to refer. But words do not define their own extension. Nor by themselves do things fall under concepts that describe them. They need a push. 


The theory of definite descriptions was supposed to help us out of the problem of fictional names which have nothing to which to refer. But that Pegasus is not real worries us only if we confuse names with the things named. 


That we used both morning star and evening star to denote the planet Venus was a case of mistaken identity, not evidence of a fundamental difference between meaning and reference. A word’s reference to a thing is a use of the word, and so part of the word’s meaning. 


The related distinctions between meaning and reference, connotation and denotation, and intension and extension all aim to separate off reference as an independent and so objective power that words can have. But words’ power to mean or refer comes only from what we do with them.





An ordinary object is a real thing we cannot or do not want to specify, or a goal or purpose, as in the object of the exercise. By contrast, a philosophical object is so unspecified as to be mysterious, but so fundamental as to be a foundation for our knowledge. (Other candidates for the job have included entities, particulars and individuals.) 


We have thought of objects as (variously) ideas, sense-data, and real or abstract things. So they are not one kind of thing. They do not identify themselves, and so nor do the properties by which we are supposed to identify them. We build knowledge on foundations of our own making. 


What perceives an object is, supposedly, a subject. The subject and the object are flip sides of the same myth. (I use the word myth neutrally to mean explanatory story.) The subject has been, variously, the soul secularised, a mind, Mind itself, a person, consciousness, the owner of sense-data, and even working-class consciousness. It has been as protean as the object. 


In the subject-object myth, language is peripheral. Words are merely the neutral medium by which the subject expresses its non-linguistic knowledge of the object. 


Ordinary objectivity is sticking to the facts rather than what we think or say about them. Along with truth and fact, objectivity has great prestige for us. And our longing for certainty is understandable. We want solid foundations for what we know and believe, and objects fit the bill. 


But though we can use words to refer to what we call objects, what we call objectivity is in the way we use the words, not in the words themselves, nor in the objects. (What would it mean to say a word or an object is objective?) 





The word concept may be a useful shorthand for what we mean and understand by, or associate with, a word. But if we think of concepts as the abstract things denoted by concept-words, no end of confusion sets in. 


An example is the distinction between analytic and synthetic propositions: the concept of a subject may or may not contain a predicate. [7] How can an abstract thing (already a confusion) contain something? 


Concept is an abstract noun, but we use it like a count noun: a concept; concepts. The grammar reinforces the thinginess of concepts. (We can also do this with other abstract nouns.) 


We say we grasp a concept, as if it were an independent and sometimes elusive thing. Or we talk about concept formation  not grasping the thing but somehow putting it together. Our muddled metaphors are revealing. 


To analyse a concept is to examine how we use a word, its cognates and perhaps related words. (This may at least cure us of the urge to grasp and analyse the thing.) And the necessary and sufficient conditions for the application of a concept are the rules we follow when we use a word  which does not sound as impressive. 


To clarify a concept is to suggest it is unclear. But an abstract thing is neither clear nor unclear. We are trying to sharpen up thin air. All we can do is clarify the ways we use a word, though we have no standard or measure of clarity outside the ways we use it. The demand for clarity is just the demand for a specific use of the word. 


(What concept does the word concept denote? The word is meant to save us from this infinite regress.) 


We say a family-resemblance concept such as ‘game’ is one that turns up in different guises. But the family-resemblance here is between different but related uses of the same word. Game is a word, not a concept. To say it is the name of a concept does not explain what it means. 


The phrase family-resemblance concept is as misleading as the phrase abstract noun. We have misattributed the adjectives. Talk instead of a family-resemblance use of words would help us see the relationship aright. What we call concepts emerge from the ways we use words. 


(Presumably a concept that is not family-resemblance is unitary. But that we use the relevant word in only one way is a practical matter, not something impelled by the nature, or some property, of the concept.) 


The result of taking talk about concepts too seriously is talk of conceptual schemes. The phrase conceptual scheme is shorthand for how we use a collection of words for a specific purpose. 


To talk about the concept of, say, justice is usually just to mark the importance of justice, and perhaps to trail its complexity, and so our sophistication in recognising it. Rather like a theory, a concept has and bestows intellectual glamour. 


But in philosophy, talk of concepts is a symptom of our compulsion to get around words. It expresses our frustration and reinforces the illusion that we can do so. 


Talk of concepts has often misled us into mentalist or Platonist fantasies: being abstract, concepts must be in our minds, or in a realm of forms. (Take the three elements: love (the emotion); the word love; and the concept ‘love’. The concept ‘love’ looks very like a Platonic form or idea repackaged.)  





In philosophy, as some words supposedly denote concepts, so declarative sentences supposedly express propositions: the abstract things the sentences express or stand for. 


(Our treating the declarative as the root clause form, from which we derive the others, may explain our concentration on declaratives, and so on propositions, in philosophy and logic. (Or is it vice versa?) We have explicitly excluded or just ignored the other clause forms, or talked about their propositional content, as though they are all declaratives in disguise.) 


The myth of propositions arises from the observation that sentences in different languages, and within the same language, can express the same thing. But if it is raining and il pleut mean the same thing, that just means we use them in the same way in English and in French.  


We need not assume an extra-linguistic thing. We do not think that questions and commands exist independently of the means used to express them, so why assume that assertions do? 


A proposition is not tied to the language used to express it. Any language with the means will do. But there is no such thing as a proposition expressed in no language whatsoever  an unexpressed proposition. 


A proposition is supposed to be what a statement states, which is what matters. But we cannot get through the statement to the proposition. If we analyse a statement to find its proposition, we are left with another statement. (And that may be a useful exercise.) 


Using symbols and variables makes no difference. How ever we notate them, the subject and predicate or function and argument terms of a proposition are just more signs. 


That we talk about the clause elements of propositions shows that they are creatures of language. 





We make assertions about situations and events, and some of them can be true or false. But situations and events are neither true nor false. They just are. It is assertions that can be true or false, not the things they are assertions about. (Assertions about assertions are the exception.) The truth is not ‘out there’ any more than falsehood is.  


What we call a fact is just a true assertion. To say the world is the totality of facts is to mistake our assertions for what they are about. [8] The word fact epitomises our mistaking the description for the described, as does the expression discovering the truth. 


We feel the way things are or were makes our assertions about them true or false, so that language is not what matters. For example, the assertion snow is white is true because real snow really is white. We want to say the assertion corresponds with the fact. [9] 


But real snow really is white is also an assertion. Language is indeed not the point, but we use words to make the point. And we cannot get around them to the thing itself, in this case the whiteness of snow, by invoking real snow and real whiteness. Real snow is not real snow, just as snow is not fake snow. 


The idea of correspondence may suggest a two-way relationship. But snow and whiteness have no say in the matter. The relationship is all one-way. Our mistaking what we say for the way things are creates the illusion of correspondence. We call this stuff snow and this colour white, then marvel at how well the assertion snow is white corresponds with the situation, expresses the truth of the matter. 


The assertion that snow is white is not tied to the language in which we assert it. Any language with the means will do. But to make verbal assertions we have to use one language or another. There are situations and events about which no assertions will ever be made. But since facts are assertions, there are no unasserted facts. 


What we call a truth condition is the situation or event that an assertion asserts. If the situation obtains or obtained, or the event occurs or occurred, the assertion is true. But the truth condition of the assertion snow is white is that snow is white. We seem to be stuck with words. 


To explain, and so escape from, words, we may point at snow as we say snow is white. But without more explanation and context, the assertion could mean and be understood in any number of ways. And still we have not escaped words. What looks like a fact is sometimes the assertion of a linguistic rule: we use these words in this way. And a rule is a command, which is neither true nor false.  


For someone who spoke English but had never seen or heard of snow, the assertion snow is white would be factual, providing information. If someone said snow is red, we may suspect ignorance, misinformation, or a sensory problem. But we may instead suspect they had not learnt the rules for using the relevant words in English. 


The truth or falsehood of an assertion arises from its meaning. But a situation or an event is not a meaning. The meaning of the dog sat on the log is not the event but rather the use we make of the assertion. We regard it as true if the dog did sit on the log, but it is true only given the way we use the words. 


Things do not organise themselves into situations, events, states-of affairs, truth conditions, and so on. We do the organising as we talk about them. But this does not make truth relative and objectivity impossible. The feeling that we have lost something is a hangover from the illusion that we had something. 


Relativism and pragmatism are understandable but unnecessary reactions. Truth may not be what we thought, but that that does not mean it must be something else: merely what works, for example. A falsehood that works is still a falsehood. (We have survived for millennia on working falsehoods.) 


Another reaction is the redundancy theory of truth: an assertion is already an assertion of its truth: it is true that p just means p. Perhaps we should also have redundancy theories of fact, objectivity and certainty. But there is no need. Truth, fact, objectivity and certainty are not real things, so we need not reject them as redundant things. The words are not at all redundant. (That said, the redundancy theory has the benefit of helping to de-mystify truth, and with it necessity, both of which have long amazed us.) 


We have many contested theories of truth, because we forget that the meaning of a word such as truth is not a thing, and so not, pace Socrates, a thing we can try to describe. 



Contingency and necessity 


Only what is asserted can be true or false, so only what is asserted can be contingently or necessarily true or false. Like truth and falsehood, contingency and necessity are words, not things we can investigate. 


We say a contingently true assertion is one that would be false if things were different. But we have decided what makes it true, and so what would have to be different to make it false. Along with any truth condition, an assertion invokes its own falsehood conditions. 


Our accepting the possibility of a relevant difference in the way things are or were is why we call the assertion contingently true. Its contingency is not a surprise. 


We say a necessarily true assertion is one that could not be false. But we deny the possibility of any difference that could make it false because it is not about anything that could be different. Its necessity is also not a surprise, and need not be a source of wonder or perplexity. 


We use different kinds of necessarily true assertions for different purposes. Assertions can be necessarily true in a variety of ways. For example, an analytic assertion such as bachelors are unmarried men is necessarily true because that is how we use the words involved. The assertion is a rule for using the words. And it could become false only if we changed the way we use them  which we could. 


This applies to a true identity assertion such as water is a compound of hydrogen and oxygen. The nature of water was a scientific discovery, but the assertion is a rule. It is true given the way we use these words. What we call physical necessity is as much a matter of what we say as any other kind. Necessary truth is an attribute of assertions, not of things. 


(Try the redundancy test here: [It is necessarily true that] water is a compound of hydrogen and oxygen.) 


The necessary truth of mathematical assertions such as 2+2=4 comes from the rigidity of the way we follow rules when we make them. They are not about things that could be different. (Numbers are not real things.) But with them we make assertions about the way things are, in measurements and calculations. 


Logical truths such as it either is or is not raining tell us nothing about the way things are. They are necessarily true but factually empty. But they act as rules or models for what we count as sound reasoning or argument. 


By contrast, metaphysical truths are both empty and pointless. The assertion nothing can be simultaneously red and blue all over merely expresses a rule for the way we use (in this case colour) words to describe things. If we call something red, we therefore do not call it blue. Instead of seeing simple facts about the way we use words, we feel we have grasped profound and necessary truths about reality. 


Some necessarily true assertions are useful. But they do not do the same job as contingently true assertions. They amaze or puzzle us only when we make the mistake of thinking that truth is one kind of thing. 



Identity and synonymy 


We say a thing’s identity is what the thing is, and what makes it the same as, or different from, other things. Everything is what it is and not another thing. [10] But a thing does not identify itself, or even identify itself as a thing. We identify it by naming and describing it, in the context of a particular type of description, picking out the properties we choose to differentiate it. Its identity is not one of those properties. 


We use the words is the same as and is different from in many different ways. Like identity, sameness and difference are not independent properties that things have. Any things we call the same by one criterion we may call different by another criterion. 


A verbal or symbolic assertion of identity between things is still just an assertion. The meaning of the assertion a=b depends entirely on the meanings we give to a and b. No more than any sign system can symbolic logic escape its linguistic nature. To say that identicals are indiscernible is to point out one way we use the word identical. But we use it in other ways: twins may be identical and discernible. Discernibility is not self-defining or self-explanatory. 


With words, our criteria for synonymy similarly vary with the context. There is no independent standard against which to measure our attempts at synonymy. Like the word identity, the word synonymy does not dictate how we must use it. 


When we explain synonymy as sameness of meaning, we show what the word means by providing a synonymous expression. And this shows we know what meaning is. (We can deny the possibility of synonymy only if we know what meaning is.) The argument for rejecting meanings, and so synonymy, and so analyticity, undermines itself. [11] 





Nothing in the nature of a sign determines its application. But nothing in its nature underdetermines it either. By themselves signs do not refer to or mean anything at all, let alone determinately or indeterminately. 


What counts is how we use them, and we use them as precisely or vaguely as we need to. Wanting signs to be independently determinate, or conversely claiming they are inherently indeterminate, are flip sides of the same mistaken view of their nature. 


To say a sign consists of a signifier and a signified is to repackage a primitive superstition. Our cave painting of a dog did not contain the  dog-spirit. And there is nothing canine about the word dog, or the word canine. Whether we take signifieds to be real things or concepts, signs do not magically contain them. [12] 


There being no signifieds in signs, there is no unity between signifiers and signifieds to deconstruct, no determinacy to subvert, and no transcendental signified to reject. [13] 


We could not use signs to assert their own indeterminacy anyway. What would such an assertion mean? 


Signs are arbitrary because any sign can do the job we want to do with it. And signs such as words have structured differences, as arbitrary as the signs themselves, which allow us to distinguish them. 


But the way we use signs  what we do, mean or refer to with them  is not arbitrary. We follow the rules we have learned. (But the tools we use and what we do with them are quite separate matters. That is why linguistic innovation is possible.) 





Sentence logic is a tool for checking the validity of an argument, not the truth of its conclusion. The truth or falsehood of a premiss is not for logicians to decide. They work with a pre-logical ascription of truth values to assertions. 


Logic may allow us to move from one true assertion to another. But still only what is asserted can be true or false. The idea that reality has a logical structure comes from our mistaking what we say for the way things are. 


Sentence logic deals with relationships between true or false declarative clauses: p and q. Predicate logic just codifies the traditional clause elements, subject and predicate, which have no truth value. Grammarians have refined clause analysis into finite verb, object, complement and adverbial elements. Logicians stick with subject-predicate or function-argument: Fx  a crudity acceptable for their purposes. But both grammar and logic analyse what we say, not the nature of things. 


To say to be is to be the value of a variable in a given discourse is to risk mistaking a description for the described. A use of a word does not entail an ontological commitment. Quantification and set theory can provide useful ways of talking about things. But things do not quantify or predicate things of themselves in sets. [14] 


We can analyse (describe) what we say grammatically, logically, or any other way. And it may prove useful, or at least interesting, to describe one type of analysis in terms of another, such as mathematics in terms of logic. But logic will not replace mathematics. And we did mathematics long before logicists insisted on trying to describe mathematics logically. Any supervenient relationship is one we choose to assert and explore. 





Our conversations are shot through with expressions containing what we could call mental verbs: think, know, understand, imagine, feel, believe, doubt, and so on. But we do not ordinarily think of these as psychological words about private things going on in our minds. We learn to use them along with other everyday words. In language, we as much share our mental as our physical landscape. 


Nominalised, these verbs as usual become attractively abstract things about which we can theorise: thought, knowledge, understanding, imagination, feeling, belief, doubt, and so on. Here we have materials enough for epistemology, the philosophy of mind and psychology. 


The word mind dazzles us when we forget how we use it ordinarily. Reminders: I’m in two mindswe’re of the same mindwith this in mindmy mind was wanderingI was out of my mindcast your mind backdo you mind? mind out! Let me remind you, and so on, and so on. In everyday contexts we use and understand the word perfectly well. 


The myth of the mind arises from the physical separation of our bodies, and from the capacity for dissimulation which we share with all primates and some other species, and which social development has intensified. I cannot experience what you experience, so how can I know that we have the same experience? (The myth of the ego is immensely powerful.) If we see red, do we see the same colour? (The opening for scepticism is obvious.) But how do I know that I see red? Why am I so sure? 


The mind becomes a mysterious thing only when we philosophise or try to investigate it scientifically, as though it were a thing like a brain. What we call the mind-body problem arises from our mistaking the word mind for a thing which, like any abstract thing, is mysterious. And, to darken the mystery, the mind has religious baggage. We used to associate it with the spirit or soul or breath of life: psyche. 


Religious or spiritual thinking has given way to physical science, at least in our explanations of the physical universe. So now our theories of mind have become physicalist (what we used to call materialist). 


The identity theory of mind says that what we call mental states and processes are no more than physical states and processes. One thing is going on which we can describe in two ways: mentally and physically. A crude example might be: thinking is synaptic firing. 


Sometimes we have more than one name for the same real thing. For example, Phosphorus and Hesperus were both names for Venus. But to say thinking is synaptic firing is to identify not one thing but rather two ways of talking. It makes no sense to ask what is really going on: thinking or synaptic firing. (Is that dog a dog, or is it particles whizzing around in space? Is that garden really a five by seven metre rectangle?) 


A physical explanation of a causal mechanism does not tell us what it means to think or feel. These are separate descriptions. And our ordinary words come first. We try to explain thinking in terms of synaptic firing, not vice versa. 


Behaviourists say that what we call mental phenomena are just dispositions to behaviour, which are all we ever know about the mind. (One way to solve the mind-body problem is to banish the mind altogether.) 


But like thought and experience, behaviour is not an independent and self-identifying thing. What we call behaviour is what we count as behaviour in a particular type of description. 


And we customarily blend the behavioural with the mental: he looks sadshe smiled shyly. We do not mean two things are going on: external behaviour manifesting an internal state. To say shyness is just the disposition to smile shyly is to equate two descriptions, and reject one of them. 


We could say behaviourists, like identity theorists, are making a category mistake. But behaviour and mental processes are not things from different categories we mistakenly assimilate. They are not real things at all, but rather ways of talking about ourselves, what we do and why. [15] 





We say metaphysics deals with big questions about reality that science cannot answer. But notice how innocent the word reality seems here. To treat reality as a thing (if only an abstract thing) is already to be thinking metaphysically. 


When we use words to ask and answer questions about anything, we are dealing with (or handling) words, not the thing itself. When we talk about reality or a part of it, science and metaphysics are no different in this. 


The difference is in the job the words do in our practice. In science we use them to make testable assertions and produce predictive explanations about real things. We call these assertions factual or empirical. But what we say about a supposed abstract thing such as reality or the mind is not factual in this sense. And the shift from talk of things to talk of concepts makes no difference. 


To say that individuals or particulars in spatio-temporal relations are fundamental to our conceptual scheme is both unarguable and practically useless. Descriptive or revisionary, a metaphysical assertion seems to say something about the way things are, like a scientific one, but really expresses the way we use or could use words. 


We want to find the structure of reality (or thought) beneath the surface of what we say. We imagine we can get around words, but then write bookfuls of them. So glaring a contradiction is perhaps blinding. [16] 





To ask what is knowledge and where does it come from? is already to be dazzled by a word. And to try to answer a confused question is to deepen the confusion. An example is the choice between the a priori and the a posteriori, or thought and experience, as the source of knowledge. Each has been supposed capable of giving us knowledge of propositions independent of the language to express them. 


Empiricists say all knowledge comes from experience. But no experience could establish the truth of that proposition, not even the experience of hearing people say that all knowledge comes from experience. (Those are just words.) That we can and do learn from experience makes good sense to us. But empiricism contradicts itself with the metaphysical claim at its heart. 


Rationalists or idealists claim that thought or reason or the mind (take your pick) produces the ideas or concepts that organise experience into the categories by which we can know anything  that experience cannot provide general or universal knowledge. The persistence of philosophical talk about concepts and propositions testifies to the allure of this way of trying to by-pass language. 


When we remember that knowledgeexperience and thought are words rather than things, we no longer need wonder what kinds of things they are and how they relate to each other. We can return to knowing, experiencing and thinking things as usual. 


Divested of their thinginess, our minds and (if we like) souls are no longer separate from and trapped inside bodies which cut us off from each other and the world. It is like coming home to find we never left. Or waking from a nightmare to find all is well. 





When we use words and other signs, we follow rules, as am I as I write and are you as you read these words. That we are usually aware neither of the rules, nor that we are following them, does not mean we act unintelligently. If asked, we may not be able to explain the rules in detail. But following them correctly shows we understand them. 


How the rules developed and how we learned them may be interesting. But these considerations are irrelevant when we use the words. 


A rule may not cover every possibility. To deal with a new situation, we may need to interpret a rule afresh or make a new one. But the change will fit into the overall pattern of existing rules. And usually no interpretation is needed.  


(We could invent our own rules and use them privately. But they would be rules only if they laid down regular ways to use the words which others could follow.) 


The rules govern not only the form of words we use, but also the contexts in which we use them, which are as many and various as the activities we engage in. For this reason, the rules are much more varied and subtle than standard grammatical or logical analysis can show. 


We define as indexical words whose meaning changes with the context; todayhere and now are examples. And this suggests other words are non-indexical. But words make sense only in the context in which we use them. All words are indexical  perhaps some more than others. 


We become confused when we try to apply a set of rules outside their normal context. Reductive cognitive science is a modern example. An ancient (but persistent) one is metaphysical philosophy. 





Argue we may about details, emphasis, and even broad interpretation. But we Wittgensteinians agree the man was on to something profoundly important in his later philosophy. 


I have pushed Wittgenstein’s hard-won insight into the autonomy of grammar to conclusions some of which he may have opposed. If what I have written stimulates you to read him and make up your own mind, well and good. He wanted us to think for ourselves. 


He had his reasons for not spelling things out himself, reasons to do with the very point he was making. So he would have hated this squib. Ludwig, forgive me. 


Rather than refute arguments or other philosophers, he wanted us to see that misunderstanding how words work is why we philosophise in the first place  but that each of us has to go through the confusion to learn the way out. 


Here I disagree. The point of knowing our history is that we do not have to repeat it. It is not true that we must always be misled by words, because ordinarily we are not. 


Of the many excellent commentators on Wittgenstein, I want to mention Peter Hacker and the late Gordon Baker, who have done more than most to explain and promote his ideas. (This is not to claim my interpretation is always in line with theirs.) And I think Fergus Kerr’s Theology after Wittgenstein (Blackwell, 1986) remains one of the best introductions. 





1  See Saul Kripke, Naming and Necessity (Blackwell, 1972). These three lectures stimulated a renewed interest in essentialism. 


2  See The Holy Bible, King James Version, Genesis, chapter 1, verses 3 to 5 ; and chapter 2, verses 19 to 20. 


3  See W V Quine, Word & Object (MIT, 1960. This is the major statement of influential ideas that Quine reworked throughout his career. 


4  See John Searle’s contribution in Bryan Magee, The Great Philosophers (OUP, 1988). Searle maintains a representationalist view of language. 


5  See W V Quine, From a Logical Point of View (Harvard, 1953), particularly Two Dogmas of Empiricism. This collection of previously published early work is more accessible than his Word & Object (see note 3 above). 


6  See Gottlob Frege, On Sinn and Bedeutung (Uber Sinn und Bedeutung, in Zeitschrift für Philosophie und philosophische Kritik, 100, 1892). You can find this in Michael Beaney, The Frege Reader (Blackwell, 1997), which includes most of Frege’s major work. 


7  See Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (Critik der reinen Vernunft, Johann Friedrich Hartknoch, 1781). 


8  See Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Logisch-Philosophische Abhandlung in Annalen der Naturphilosophie, 1921) 


9  See W V Quine, Philosophy of Logic (Harvard, 1970, second edition, 1986). The sentence on snow is Quine’s example, citing Tarski. 


10  The venerable words of Joseph Butler. 


11  See Quine’s attack on analyticity in Two Dogmas (note 5 above) which underpinned his naturalised version of empiricism. 


12  See Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics (Cours de linguistique générale, Payot, 1916). The Course has been immensely influential, as the source text for structural linguistics, structuralism in general, and hence post-structuralism. Saussure’s splitting of the sign into signifier and signified had major consequences. 


13  See Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology (De la grammatologie, Les Editions de Minuit, 1967). Or see Derrida’s Writing and Difference (L’écriture et la différence, Editions du Seuil, 1967). Derrida took the supposed indeterminacy of signs to an extreme conclusion. 


14  See Alain Badiou, Being and Event (L’être et l’événement, Editions du Seuil, 1988). This is the major statement of Badiou’s idea that mathematics is ontology and that set theory explains everything. 


15  See Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind (Hutchinson, 1949). Ryle introduced the idea of the category mistake. 


16  See P F Strawson, Individuals (Routledge, 1959). Strawson’s aim is to lay bare the most general features of our conceptual scheme with words. 





For ma wee hund, Taters Andronicus. May he wander at peace the streets of the City of God.



Peter Holmes


First published as Track Taters, Log Ego, Fill Oesophagus 2009

Uploaded here  May 2016