Aphorism 21-30 from
Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations
with commentary on the right by
Lois Shawver
(Emphasis in bold in Wittgenstein's text has been inserted by Shawver to enhance commentary.) 
Shawver commentary:
21.    Imagine a language-game in which A asks and B reports the number of slabs or blocks in a pile, or the colours and shapes of the building-stones that are stacked in such-and-such a place.---  Such a report might run: "Five slabs". Now what is the difference between the report or statement "Five slabs" and the order "Five slabs!"?---  That is, what is the difference between "Five slabs" (in language-game 21) and ("Five slabs!" in language game 8?  ) 


Well, it is the part which uttering these words plays in the language-game. Emphasis mine.  But isn't the important thing that "Five slabs!" in (8) causes the worker to bring 5 slabs?  While "five slabs" in (21) only causes the supervisor to have information?
No doubt the tone of voice and the look with which they are uttered, and much else besides, will also be different. But we could also imagine the tone's being the same---for an order and a report can be spoken in a variety of tones of voice and with various expressions of face---the difference being only in the application. (Of course, we might use the words "statement" and "command" to stand for grammatical forms of sentence and intonations; we do in fact call "Isn't the weather glorious to-day?" a question, although it is used as a statement.) We could imagine a language in which all statements had the form and tone of rhetorical questions; or every command the form of the question "Would you like to. . .?". Perhaps it will then be said: "What he says has the form of a question but is really a command",---that is, has the function of a command in the technique of using the language. (Similarly one says "You will do this" not as a prophecy but as a command. What makes it the one or the other?)  On the surface the difference might be a matter of how it is voiced.  But we could imagine them being voiced with the same intonation.  The intonation is, after all, only a clue as to what the differences are, not the difference itself. 

Besides, we could imagine a language in which everything stated or commanded was put in the form of a question. 


22.  Frege's idea that every assertion contains an assumption, which is the thing that is asserted, really rests on the possibility found in our language of writing every statement in the form: "It is assert that such-and-such is the case."---  But "that such-and-such is the case" is not a sentence in our language---so far it is not a move in the language-game. And if I write, not "It is asserted that . . . .", but "It is asserted: such-and-such is the case", the words "It is asserted" simply become superfluous.  Still, there is the dream (such as Frege had) of including some sort of notation in the body of the sentence saying how it was used.  For example, one might include a statement such as "It is asserted that" and complete the sentence any such way.  Or, alternatively, one might do the same thing by saying "It is asserted:" and complete the sentence any way. 

But isn't it clear, at least in the last case, that the notation "It is asserted:" is superfluous? 

We might very well also write every statement in the form of a question followed by a "Yes"; for 
instance: "Is it raining? Yes!" Would this shew that every statement contained a question? 


Besides, there is nothing to guarantee that a notation "It is asserted:" will in fact be attached to an assertion.  After all, don't we use questioning grammatical forms to make statements?  Don't we say "It is a wonderful day, isn't it?" Even when we use formulations that seem to tell us how a sentence is being used, they need not accurately do so.
Of course we have the right to use an assertion sign in contrast with a question-mark, for 
example, or if we want to distinguish an assertion from a fiction or a supposition. It is only a mistake if one thinks that the assertion consists of two actions, entertaining and asserting (assigning the truth-value, or something of the kind), and that in performing these actions we follow the prepositional sign roughly as we sing from the musical score. Reading the written sentence loud or soft is indeed comparable with singing from a musical score, but 'meaning' (thinking) the sentence that is read is not. 

Frege's assertion sign marks the beginning of the sentence. Thus its function is like that of 
full-stop. It distinguishes the whole period from a clause within the period. If I hear someone say "it's raining" but do not know whether I have heard the beginning and the end of the period, so far this sentence does not serve to tell me anything. 

But we can try to construct language so carry such a notation accurately.  The mistake is in thinking that it is the notation that makes it so.  What is in question is whether the sentence is a question, and the notation does not make it so. 
The notation is only a label and a label can be correct or misleading. 

This means, when we determine that a statement is an assertion or a question, it is not enough to look to see what the notation (or punctuation) tells us.  This information is not contained in the words, but in the way these words are being used in the language-game. 

Frege's notation that a sentence is an asssertion is like the full stop of a period at the end of string of words.  Just as a period does not assure you that the sentence functions as a statement, however, so Frege's notation does guarantee that the sentence functions as the notation says. 

See inserted comment of LW's.

23.   But how many kinds of sentence are there? Say assertion, question, and command?--- There are countless kinds: countless different kinds of use of what we call "symbols", "words", "sentences". And this multiplicity is not something fixed, given once for all; but new types of language, new language-
games, as we may say, come into existence, and others become obsolete and get forgotten. (We can get a rough picture of this from the changes in mathematics.) 
The rules of language games are not unchangeable laws.  There is a continuous evolution not only in how many language games there are, but evolution, too, as to the kind of language games thee are. 
Here the term "language-game" is meant to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of 
language is part of an activity, or of a form of life. 


We have seen this concept of langauge being woven in a form of life before.  In (19), he said that to "imagine a language meant to imagine a form of life."  And in (2) he pointed out that the slab language of that language-game involved not only words but activities, specifically, the activity of fetching objects on command. 
Review the multiplicity of language-game in the following examples, and in others: 


Now that LW has taught us something about "language-games" he is going to give us samples to count.  This serves as a kind of ostensive definition of language games, although, note, these examples differ from the primitive language games he talked about in 7 (which was illustrated by the slab language of 2
* Giving orders, and obeying them--- 
* Describing the appearance of an object, or 
   giving its measurements--- 
* Constructing an object from a description (a 
* Reporting an event--- 
* Speculating about an event--- 
* Forming and testing a hypothesis--- 
* Presenting the results of an experiment in 
   tables and diagrams--- 
* Making up a story; and reading it--- 
* Play-acting--- 
* Singing catches--- 
* Guessing riddles--- 
* Making a joke; telling it--- 
* Solving a problem in practical arithmetic--- 
* Translating from one language into another--- 
* Asking, thanking, cursing, greeting, praying. 

    ---It is interesting to compare the multiplicity of the tools in language and of the ways they are used, the multiplicity of kinds of word and sentence, with what logicians have said about the structure of language.( Including the author of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.) 

It is a useful exercise to imagine a sentence of any sort functioning in several of the different language games.  When it does this, it takes on a different meaning.  For example, "There was a storm today."  Imagine how a sentence like this might function in "reporting an event" "speculating about an event" "presenting results from an experiment" "play acting" "singing catches" and so forth.  Some sentences, of course, do not make sense in all language games, but whenever they do, they mean something different in different language games. 

Of course, Wittgenstein is himself the author of the Tractatus-Logico-Philosophicus.  And, in that book, as well as in works by other authors of that era (e.g., Russell) language was seen as much more stable and finite. 


24.    If you do not keep the multiplicity of language-games in view you will perhaps be inclined to ask questions like: "What is a question?"---Is it the statement that I do not know such-and-such, or the statement that I wish the other person would tell me. . . .? Or is it the description of my mental state of 
uncertainty?---And is the cry "Help!" such a description? 


Questions such as these, LW tells us, come about from the Augustinian (Platonic and confused) understanding of language that is our heritage.  Why is this confused? 

In my reading LW, it is because a "question" is just a grammatical form.  It does not get at the activity of "asking".  We can ask with cries such as 

Oh, I wish I had someone to go to the movies with! (wink). 
And a sentence in the form of of a question might not be an asking. 
Would you mind going to get me a slab?
We want to get beneath such grammatical form (which LW calls "surface grammar") and move  down to the depth, that is something more important than language than the form we use to express it. Asking "What is a question?" betrays a concern with the way things look on the page, or sound in the voic, and not a concern with the deep structure, that is, the way the language is working and having an impact on what is happening. 
Think how many different kinds of thing are called "description": description of a body's 
position by means of its co-ordinates; description of a facial expression; description of a sensation of touch; of a mood. 
If asking what a question is reveals a hidden confusion, what about asking what a description is?
Of course it is possible to substitute the form of statement or description for the usual form of 
question: " I want to know whether . . . ." or "I am in doubt whether . . . ."---but this does not bring the different language-games any closer together. 
Here, too, with descriptions, we find there is a surface form that does not tell us much about how the sentence is being used.  Just as practically anything can be put in a questioning formt, so practically anything can be put in a descriptive format.
The significance of such possibilities of transformation, for example of turning all statements into sentences beginning "I think" or "I believe" (and thus, as it were, into descriptions of my inner life) will become clearer in another place. ( Solipsism.)  LW gives an account of pain language later that I think this refers to, but it is too early to get into this now.  The important thing now to feel at home in his distinction between the surface of language (such as "What is a question") and the questions about the depth of language (how is the sentence functioning in the language game?) 

25.    It is sometimes said that animals do not talk because they lack the mental capacity. And this  means: "they do not think, and that is why they do not talk." But---they simply do not talk. Or to put it better: they do not use language---if we except the most primitive forms of language.---  Commanding, questioning, recounting, chatting, are as much a part of our natural history as walking, eating, drinking, playing. 


Here, LW is looking back at this cultural imagery that he has been deconstructing.  According to this imagery, to be able to "talk" one must be able to think -- because "talking" is the expression of our internal ideas. 

Don't try to deconstruct this imagery at this moment.  Just notice that it is a natural thing to think here.  Dogs do not talk, because they do not think internal thoughts. 

But note the parenthetical that I have emphasized.  A dog can be taught to fetch on command, just as the worker in (2) could fetch slabs on command.  Why are we leaving this kind of language outside the scope of "language"?  Because this is an aporetic voice, the voice of the fly-bottle. 

Still, we are indlined to say that "dogs do not talk" and by this we mean that they also "do not think."

26.  One thinks that learning language consists in giving names to objects. Viz, to human beings, to shapes, to colours. to pains. to moods, to numbers, etc.  To repeat-naming is something like attaching a label to a thing. One can say that this is preparatory to the  use of a word. But what is it a preparation for?  What is naming a preparation for?  Imagine a culture that could only name.  It had no other use for language.  People simply sat around and named things, or else they did things without language.  All that this culture would lack in its language is what naming is a preparation for.

27.  "We name things and then we can talk about them: can refer to them in talk." 'As if what we did next were given with the mere act of naming. As if there were only one thing called "talking about a thing". Whereas in fact we do the most various things with our sentences. 


Isn't this exactly what the Augtinian picture of language in (2) implies?  We name things and then we can talk about them.  It is as though this is all that is required. 

But naming things, we have come to see, does not show us what to do with them.  The workers might be able to name the beams, pillars, blocks and "slabs" and still not know to fetch them.  Language is not just the uttering of words.  It is the use of words in the activity of language. 

Also, the illusion that all we need to do to be able to talk is name things neglects how few of the words we use are actually names.

Think of exclamations alone, with their completely different functions. 
* Water! 
* Away! 
* Ow! 
* Help! 
* Fine! 
* No! 
 Are you inclined still to call these words "names of objects"? 

In languages (2) and (8) there was no such thing as asking something's name. This, with its
correlate, ostensive definition, is, we might say, a language-game on its own. That is really to say: we are brought up, trained, to ask: "What is that called?"-upon which the  name is given. And there is also a language-game of inventing a name for something, and hence of saying, "This is ...." and then using the new name. (Thus, for example, children give names to their dolls and then talk about them and to them. Think in this connexion how singular is the use of a person's name to call him!) 

Look at exclamations.  Are these just names of objects?  Do you want to say that there is something internal that these words name?  Of course, someone uttering an exclamation like this might have a image, but are they required? 

In (2) and (8) the worker simply brought the objects required.  There was no language for asking what something was called.  Pointing and naming is a language game of its own.  One must learn how to do this. 

And, in addition to learning to give the existing name of an object, one can learn how to invent names. 


28.  Now one can ostensively define a proper name, the name of a colour, the name of a material, a numeral, the name of a point of the compass and so on. The definition of the number two, "That is called 'two' "--pointing to two nuts-is perfectly exact. --But how can two be defined like that? The person one gives the definition to doesn't know what one wants to call "two"; he will suppose that "two" is the name given to this group of nuts! He may suppose this; but perhaps he does not. He might make the opposite mistake; when I want to assign a name to this group of nuts, he might understand it as a numeral. And he might equally well take the name of a person, of which I give an ostensive definition, as that of a colour, of a race, or even of a point of the compass. That is to say: an ostensive definition can be variously interpreted in every case.  Where, for example, is this hand pointing?  Is it pointing to both of the diamonds?  Or one?  Or is it pointing to the color red?  Or is it pointing to the side of one of the diamonds?
Wittgenstein says that in every case the object being pointed to is ambiguous.  Can you think of an exception?  If not, does this not undermine Augustine's picture of how we learn language?

29.   Perhaps you say: two can only be ostensively defined in this way: "This number is called 'two' ". For the word "number" here shews what place in language, in grammar, we assign to the word. But this means that the word "number" must be explained before the ostensive definition can be understood. 


   1   2   3   4   5
     This number is called "two". 
Does that solve the problem of how we might ostensively define 2?  There are several problems with it. First the child must learn what "number" means in order to understand what is being pointed to. 
--The word "number" in the definition does indeed shew this place; does shew the post at which we station the word. And we can prevent misunderstandings by saying: "This colour is called so-and-so", "This length is called so-and-so", and so on. That is to say: misunderstandings are sometimes averted in this way. But is there only one way of taking the word "colour" or "length"?-Well, they just need defining.-Defining, then, by means of other words! And what about the last definition in this chain? (Do not say: "There isn't a 'last' definition". That is just as if you 
chose to say: "There isn't a last house in this road; one can always build an additional one''.) 


Still, you might say, the 2 is in the right place.  One can see where 2 sits in the series of numbers.  And misunderstandings can sometimes be averted by pointing like this.  But how can we define number? 

Can we do it by example?  Should we use a figure like this: 

     This number is called "two". 
Or will the student be confused by this ambiguity, too?  And if we tried to get around this problem of ambiguity by defining the words, how shall we define them without their being ambiguous, too? 
    Whether the word "number" is necessary in the ostensive definition depends on whether 
without it the other person takes the definition otherwise than I wish. And that will depend on the circumstances under which it is given, and on the person I give it to. 


But perhaps someone learns what two means in a particular context, even without a completely adequate explanation for all contexts.  I ask for a ball and the child learns to fetch a ball: 
Then I ask for two balls and the child learns to fetch two balls.   This always pleases me. 
l l
   And how he 'takes' the definition is seen in the use that he makes of the word defined.  But, if he "takes" it in the right way it will become a powerful and reinforcing tool.
30.    So one might say: the ostensive definition explains the use--the meaning--of the word when the overall role of the word in language is clear. Thus if I know that someone means to explain a 
colour-word to me the ostensive definition "That is called 'sepia' " will help me to understand the word. 
 In 30, Wittgenstein continues to investigate the Augustinian model and its problems as the total explanation for our developing language.  This model, you'll recall, is based on the picture of words being defined ostensively, that is by naming and pointing. 
--And you can say this, so long as you do not forget that all sorts of problems attach to the words "to know" or "to be clear". 


Someone from another country wants to teach you a word in her native language.  She points to a pillow and make a strange sound "upapal" and your question is, "What is she pointing to?  Is it the pillow or the shape of the pillow, or what?"  But if you knew somehow that she was pointing to the color of the pillow, then that would make all the difference in the world.  But that is because you know what "color" means.  Imagine, then, how difficult it must be to learn a color word from an ostensive definition if you don't even have a concept of color.  And, of course, all of us were in that place initially.  isn't it remarkable that we learned anything at all from the experience? 
 One has already to know (or be able to do) something in order to be capable of asking a 
thing's name. But what does one have to know? 


If I already am quite clear about what a color word is, then I can begin to ask what the color of something is.  If I know the term for color and my teacher knows the term for "color", too, then I am indeed a smart student.  Just pointing and saying "that is the color sepia" should surely do it.  But without those tools, things are going to be a lot tricker. 

Could one define the word "red" by pointing to something that was not red? That would be 
as if one were supposed to explain the word "modest" to someone whose English was weak, and one pointed to an arrogant man and said "That man is not modest". That it is ambiguous is no argument against such a method of definition. Any definition can be misunderstood. 

    But it might well be asked: are we still to call this "definition"?-- For, of course, even if it has 
the same practical consequences, the same effect on the learner, it plays a different part in the calculus from what we ordinarily call "ostensive definition" of the word "red".

Next page

Return to Table of Contents
Return to PMTH NEWS
You are visitor  to this page!