On Meaning, Words, Games, and Problems

I recently read a conversation on Facebook about the conscience – this conversation went on for a good many posts, but it was ultimately an exercise in time-wasting. Why? Because terms were not defined. Not once in the lengthy thread were the terms under consideration defined or even really discussed. This means that the conversation was basically about nothing. It may as well have not have happened.

Sure, that’s a bit extreme of me to say, but I say it to illustrate what I believe to be the most important thing you can do in life: define your terms. What does X really mean? So much of what is said has no meaning simply because meaning is assumed. Don’t assume that the word has some innate meaning, because it doesn’t. But, the objection goes, then everything just becomes (as I typed the word ‘becomes’ I saw that I had typed ‘because’ instead and had to erase it) word games. Yes! Exactly!

It should be no secret to readers of this blog that Wittgenstein is my favourite philosopher, not because he was ‘right’ or whatever, but because of his method – letting the fly out of the bottle by kneading and working through the fogs and mists of our language to show us that the problems of philosophy really aren’t problems at all. I’m convinced that most problems, and not just in philosophy, are problems of language and meaning. By this I don’t mean I’m a logical atomist. I mean that our words and language games do more to hinder us than help us when we try and get to the root of a problem and that if we work through the game, we can often get to the real nub of the issue – maybe even to a solution. Maybe not, though – I don’t believe that philosophy is necessarily about trying to get to a set of certain doctrines. But if we can simply clear away or clear up the conceptual ground, perhaps we can discover that there isn’t really a problem after all – maybe we’ll even find an answer.

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4 thoughts on “On Meaning, Words, Games, and Problems

  1. Witty Ludwig March 3, 2014 / 7:15 am

    “Because terms were not defined. Not once in the lengthy thread were the terms under consideration defined or even really discussed. This means that the conversation was basically about nothing. It may as well have not have happened.”

    I find it surprising you say this; this sounds distinctly un-Wittgensteinian. To the extent you need to define terms to have a meaningful discussion.

    Exacerbated by this:

    “What does X really mean? So much of what is said has no meaning simply because meaning is assumed.”

    Do you really think that it Wittgenstein commented on the sentence: “That Mr Barlow fellows is a good chap” that he would say the sentence is meaningless to the recipient on the basis that ‘good’ hasn’t been defined but only assumed? That the person hasn’t specified whether he meant it, for instance, in a normative sense or not?

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    • whitefrozen March 3, 2014 / 1:10 pm

      I should distinguish between normal, day-to-day conversations and more technical discussions. In ordinary communication, obviously we don’t have to set out linguistic first principles every time we talk. But when a discussion hinges on a specific term, then it’s critical to get definitions right.

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      • Witty Ludwig March 3, 2014 / 1:37 pm

        Aha, I think I see what you mean. I think the way you express it sounds quite Socratic– if we’re on the same wavelength, then I think you mean that the word belongs to the correct language game? I.e. Language hasn’t ‘gone on holiday’ in the discussion?

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        • whitefrozen March 3, 2014 / 1:59 pm

          Exactly. Now, obviously, like I said, in normal conversation, hey, how you doing, we don’t need to establish linguistic first principles. There is a sense in which ‘everyone knows what that means’. To me, it’s when discussions become a bit more focused and narrow that the language games, and the rules of the games become more important.

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