Thursday, March 08, 2007

3.261 Every defined sign signifies via the signs through which it can be defined; and the definitions show [weisen] the way.

Two signs, one primitive and one defined by primitive signs, cannot signify in the same way. One cannot analyze names through definitions. (Nor any sign that has meaning on its own, independently.)

Working backwards through this: Signs have meaning only in the context of propositions, so there are no such signs anyway (see 3.22). Names cannot be analyzed by means of definitions or by any other means, since they are quite simple. Primitive signs (names) signify (get meaning) by some means other than definition, since they cannot be defined. Others have the meaning they are defined as having. So can primitive signs have meaning at all? It is hard to see how they could, and so hard to see how the other signs supposedly defined by means of them could be defined either.

It is hard at this point, in the terms the Tractatus gives us, to see how meaning is possible at all. Language (signs, etc.), conceived as something distinct from the world, seems to be incapable of being hooked up to it.

The “Nor any” in the last sentence is Wittgenstein’s translation. See Letters to Ogden p. 59.

Consider in this connection the fact that Frege’s goal is to get away from the ambiguities and misleading qualities of ordinary language. Hence he cannot say precisely in ordinary language what the terms of his system mean. We have to look at the system and see how they operate there. Can a sign have meaning on its own? In Frege’s view, the meaning of a word is not the mental picture associated with it, nor anything merely psychological. We should not consider the meaning of a word in isolation, but within the context of a proposition. If the proposition makes sense, then the words that make it up do. See Foundations of Arithmetic. Also see Russell’s Logical Atomism: “It is exceedingly difficult to make this point clear as long as one adheres to ordinary language, because ordinary language is rooted in a certain feeling about logic, a certain feeling that our primeval ancestors had, and as long as you keep to ordinary language you find it very difficult to get away from the bias which is imposed upon you by language.” (p. 205)


wonderer said...

Am I right in thinking that what W. refers to by primitive signs and signs-having-meaning-on-their-own are not necessarily the same? Isn't the meaning of a primitive sign the object corresponding to it (3.203)? If so, why is it hard to see that it has meaning?

Duncan Richter said...

What puzzles me is the idea that the meaning of a primitive sign is the object corresponding to it combined with the idea that signs have meaning only in the context of a proposition. There isn't a contradiction here, but if the first idea is true, why is the second? I suppose I need to re-read this part of the book to see both what I was puzzled about and how the puzzle might be solved.