Aphorism 31-38 from
Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations
with commentary on the right by
Lois Shawver
(Emphasis is bold is inserted by Shawver to enhance commentary.) 
Shawver commentary:
31.    When one shews someone the king in chess and says: "This is the king", this does not tell him the use of this piece-unless he already knows the rules of the game up to this last point: the shape of the king. You could imagine his having learnt the rules of the game without ever having been strewn an actual piece. The shape of the chessman corresponds here to the sound or shape of a word.  Suppose someone showed you an Xray and said to you, "see that tumor?"  It might be evident to all who have learned to read Xrays, but just pointing to it is not enough to enable this kind of seeing.  So it is with handing a child a chess piece and saying "This is a king."  The background for making sense of this pointing and naming has not be laid down.
   One can also imagine someone's having learnt the game without ever learning or formulating rules. He might have learnt quite simple board-games first, by watching, and have progressed to more and more complicated ones. He too might be given the explanation "This is the king",-- if, for instance, he were being strewn chessmen of a shape he was not used to. This explanation again only tells him the use of the piece because, as we might say, the place for it was already prepared.  Or even: we shall only say that it tells him the use, if the place is already prepared. And in this case it is so, not because the person to whom we give the explanation already knows rules, but because 
in another sense he is already master of a game. 


The emphasis in this passage is mine.  It represents a key concept, the concept of an ostensive definition being made possible by the place for the definition being prepared. 

But the primary point, I believe, is that if we knew the rules of the chess game, knew that losing your king meant that you lost the game, for example, or how the king can move within the rules of the game, then having someone say, "This is the king in a chess set" would mean a lot more, would clarify more, than if you had never heard of chess or board games.  Sometimes, one does not know enough about a subject to even ask useful questions. 

Consider this further case: I am explaining chess to someone; and I begin by pointing to a chessman and saying: "This is the king; it can move like this, .... and so on." -- In this case we shall say: the words "This is the king" (or "This is called the 'king' ") are a definition only if the learner already 'knows what a piece in a game is'. That is, if he has already played other games, or has watched other people praying 'and understood'-and similar things. Further, only under these conditions will he be able to ask relevantly in the course of learning the game: "What do you call this?"--that is, this piece in a game. 

We may say: only someone who already knows how to do something with it can significantly 
ask a name. 

There are a family of ways one might go about preparing a person to understand "This is a king" when showing them a chess piece.  It would help, perhaps, if a person knew how to play checkers and knew, in addition, that in chess, losing the king meant losing the game.  Still, this would not prepare the listener to understand his statement as much as if he learned to play chess with pieces that had a different kind of king. 


And we can imagine the person who is asked replying: "Settle the name yourself"-and now the one who asked would have to manage everything for himself. 


If you did not have the concept of what is being named, that is, if the place for this name is not prepared, then perhaps it would be as well for you to name it for yourself.  Learning the "name" of something (instead of naming it) is important precisely in those cases that learning the name will connect with what we already know and allow us to learn what we are seeing more completely. 

Say you go to the doctor with a skin rash and ask, "What is this called?"  And suppose the doctor gives you an unintelligible technical name.  Not helpful.  But suppose the doctor says, "This is a measles rash."  Then, because you have an idea as to what measles is, you have learned quite a bit.  But if you didn't have the concept of measles, things would be different.  You could call it whatever you wanted.  It would be just as meaningful to you.  However, it might prepare you less well for talking with others. 

32.  Someone coming into a strange country 
will sometimes learn the language of the 
inhabitants from ostensive definitions that they give him; and he will often have to 'guess' the meaning of these definitions; and will guess sometimes right, sometimes wrong.
I remember Harry describing learning a foreign language like this.  He was in a foreign country and people would teach him the names of things by pointing and naming. This seems like a very easy way to learn the names of things in a foreign tongue.
And now, I think, we can say: Augustine describes the learning of human language as if the child came into a strange country and did not understand the language of the country; that is, as if it already had a language, only not this one. Or again: as if the child could already think, only not yet speak. And "think" would here mean something like "talk to itself". 


Isn't it so?   Augustine describe this kind of pointing and naming as the way that the child learns language?  But we have been working on why this explains so little in the learning of language, and noticing the limits to this kind of learning, for example, that pointing and naming "blue" doesn't mean that the hearer recognizes what we are naming -- even if the hearer then can point at the blue object and say "blue." 

Also, such an ostensive definition can hardly expain how we learn the word "the" or "for" or, in fact, most words.  Look back at this paragraph and see how many words could be taught to the child by ostensive definition.

The problem is that the young child, in the beginning  (picture baby Augustine), does not have a place prepared for learning by pointing. 

What kind of background is necessary to prepare such a place?  How would you train a child so that it understood that you are naming a chess piece, for example?  Or the color "blue"? 

33.    Suppose, however, someone were to object: "It is not true that you must already be master of a language in order to understand an ostensive definition: all you need --of course!-- is to know or guess what the person giving the explanation is pointing to. That is, whether for example to the shape of the object, or to its colour, or to its number, and so on." -- And what does 'pointing to the shape', 'pointing to the colour' consist in? Point to a piece of paper. --And now point to its shape -- now to its 
colour -- now to its number (that sounds queer). --How did you do it? --You will say that you 'meant' a different thing each time you pointed. And if I ask how that is done, you will say you concentrated your attention on the colour, the shape, etc. But I ask again: how is that done? 
Here LW is luring us back into the muddle and it is good to let ourselves go there for a moment, knowing it is a muddle but letting ourselves feel the pull.  In this muddle he continues to ask, how can an ostensive definition teach the meaning of a term?  How does the student know what we are pointing to.  There is ambiguity in the pointing in every case we can imagine.
Suppose someone points to a vase and says "Look at that marvellous blue-the shape isn't the  point."  --Or: "Look at the marvellous shape-the colour doesn't matter." Without doubt you will do something different when you act upon these two invitations. But do you always do the same thing when you direct your attention to the colour? Imagine various different cases. To indicate a few:  What we do when we "attend to the color' of something seems, when you think about it,  rather nebulous. 


*  "Is this blue the same as the blue over there? 
    Do you see any difference?" 
*  You are mixing paint and you say "It's hard 
    to get the blue of this sky." 
*  "It's turning fine, you can already see blue 
    sky again." 
*  "Look what different effects these two blues 
*  "Do you see the blue book over there? Bring 
    it here. " 
*  "This blue signal-light means ...." 
*  "What's this blue called.'-Is it 'indigo'?" 
Consider all these contexts in which you "attend to the color" of blue.  Isn't there something different about each?


   You sometimes attend to the colour by putting your hand up to keep the outline from view; or by not looking at the outline of the thing; sometimes by staring at the object and trying to remember  where you saw that colour before. 

    You attend to the shape, sometimes by tracing it, sometimes by screwing up your eyes so as not to see the colour clearly, and in many other ways. I want to say: This is the sort of thing that happens while one 'directs one's attention to this or that'. But it isn't these things by themselves that make us say someone is attending to the shape, the colour, and so on. Just as a move in chess doesn't consist simply in moving a piece in such-and-such a way on the board-nor yet in one's thoughts and feelings as one makes the move: but in the circumstances that we call "playing a game of chess", "solving a chess problem", and so on. 

Although there are surely typical things you actually do when you attend to the color, it is not the things you actually do that are in fact what we mean by the "attending to the color."  There are a variety of things people might actually do in the process of "attending to the color."

34.  But suppose someone said: "I always do the same thing when I attend to the shape: my eye follows the outline and I feel....". And suppose this person [were] to give someone else the ostensive definition "That is called a 'circle' ", pointing to a circular object and having all these experiences[,[ cannot his hearer still interpret the definition differently, even though he sees the other's eyes following the outline, and even though-he feels what the other feels?  In 34, the question is: "How does the student know what the teacher is pointing to?  What if the teacher points to the shape and says, 'This is the shape?'  How will we know that the teacher is not pointing to the color?  Would it help to notice that the teacher makes some moves of her hand to suggest she is pointing to the shape? 


That is to say: this 'interpretation' may also consist in how he now makes use of the word; in what he points to, for example, when told: "Point to a circle".- 


Even when you point at the blue circular image to me and say, "circle" very carefully, and follow the edge of the circle with your eyes, maybe even run your finger around the edge of the circle, and even when you are possessed of a 'circle-feeling', I can still misinterpret what you are pointing to.  Is that not true? 
For neither the expression "to intend the definition in such-and-such a way" nor the expression "to interpret the definition in such-and-such a way" stands for a process which accompanies the giving and hearing of the definition. 


If you intend your pointing to the shape to be a definition of the circle, that is all well and good, but there is no mental accompaniment of this act that we call "intention" that is required for it to be an ostensive definition.  Ostensive definition is just the pointing and naming of something.  It is pointing to the blue circle and saying "circle", regardless of inner intention.  (Think of someone who does this so routinely that it can be done 'without thinking about it' in the moment.)  And the same is true for the student's interpretation of the ostensive definition.  Imagine the student paying meager attention to the teacher and, neverthless,  picking up on the definition correctly, or, as another example, incorrectly.  If the student failed to understand correctly, would that make the definition any less of a definition? 

35.    There are, of course, what can be called "characteristic experiences" of pointing to (e.g.) the shape. For example, following the outline with one's finger or with one's eyes as one points.  --But this does not happen in all cases in which I 'mean the shape', and no more does any other one characteristic process occur in all these cases. --Besides, even if something of the sort did recur in all cases, it would still depend on the circumstances --that is, on what happened before and after the pointing --whether we should say "He pointed to the shape and not to the colour".   
 For the words "to point to the shape", "to mean the shape", and so on, are not used in the same way as these: "to point to this book (not to that one), "to point to the chair, not to the table", and so on.  --Only think how differently we learn the use of the words "to point to this thing", "to point to that thing", and on the other hand "to point to the colour, not the shape", "to mean the colour", and so on. Wittgenstein is distinguishing two related language-games of pointing.  One in which you point to the thing and give its name, and another related one in which you point to the shape or the color and give its name.  Both cases require only that you point in the same physical way.  There may be differences in the way people point in these two language games, but these differences only help us distinguish between them.  These different ways of pointing are not inevitable and they are not required. 
To repeat: in certain cases, especially when one points 'to the shape' or 'to the number' there are characteristic experiences and ways of pointing-'characteristic' because they recur often (not always) when shape or number are 'meant'. But do you also know of an experience characteristic of pointing to a piece in a game as a piece in a game?  association
All the same one can say: "I mean that this piece is called the 'king', not this particular bit of wood I am pointing to".  (Recognizing, wishing, remembering, etc. ) 


Here LW is saying that the sentence ": "I mean that this piece is called the 'king', not this particular bit of wood I am pointing to" is itself ambiguous.  "Mean" can mean "reccognizing, wishing, remembering, etc."  For example, the above sentence might be paraphrased, "I recognize that this piece is called the 'king'..." or "I wish this piece were called the 'king'..., and so forth.  All these different paraphrases have different meanings. 

Thus, this concept of introspective pointing to the shape or color to teach shape and color remains a puzzle. 

36.  And we do here what we do in a host of similar cases: because we cannot specify any one bodily action which we call pointing to the shape (as opposed, for example, to the colour), we say that a spiritual (mental, intellectual) activity corresponds to these words. 

Where our language suggests a body and there is none: there, we should like to say, is a spirit.

36. When we point to the ball there is a physical object we are pointing to.  When we point to the color, what we are pointing to is much more nebulous.  In these cases, LW says, we tend to do something quite peculiar.  We imagine that there must be something that we are pointing to, even though it is hard to see or even imagine, and this "something" we imagine ourselves pointing to is "spirit."
I don't think this concept of "spirit" necessarily implies anything religious, although it sometimes might.  What he means by "spirit" is more subtle and available only by introspection.  One points to the blue circle and mean "blue".  How does one do this.  LW is saying that it feels like we are doing it "spiritually".  Remember, LW is not saying that we are doing it spiritually.  He is saying that we all have a tendency to think of it this way.  It is as though there is something "spiritual" involved in  forming a "meaning" in our minds and that this "meaning" that we form in our spirit somehow corresponds to the words that we are thinking. 

When do we do this?  He says we tend to do it when our language says there is a body we should be referring to, and where, in fact, there is none.  The language suggests that "blue" is a body, but, in fact it is not, so it seems we are pointing spiritually. 

Let's imagine another example.  I say 

             "It is raining." 

Our language suggests there should be a body to correspond with the 'it' in this sentence.    Notice, however,  that it is hard to find a body although our language suggests that there is one.  Here is a case, then, that we might be tempted to say that the "it" that is raining is spirit. 

Here are some more examples: 

* I have a hard time keeping all these numbers 
   in my mind." 
* What about the word "numbers"? 
* It's time to go. 

Is there a body to correspond to these nouns? 
What about the word "mind"?  Is there a body to correspond with that?  What about "numbers"? Or the word "It's"?  Do you want to say that "it" is "time" in this sentence?  Then ask yourself what you oint to when you point to time. 

In cases like this, LW is saying, we are inclined to think that what is being referenced is spirit, or something spiritual or mental. 

. In #36  Wittgenstein noted that we cannot identify a distinctive action that we call pointing to the shape (or pointing to the color) and because of that we tend to see this kind of pointing as "spiritual." 
37.  What is the relation between name and 
thing named?  Well, what is it?  Look at 
language-game (2) or at another one: there 
you can see the sort of thing this relation 
consists in.  This relation may also consist, 
among many other things, in the fact that 
hearing the name calls before our mind the 
picture of what is named; and it also 
consists, among other things, in the name's 
being written on the thing named or being 
pronounced when that thing is pointed at. 
`When we consider the matter more imaginatively, as Augustine did in #1 when he imagined that he had been taught language by being taught to name things, we might well think of the name bringing up a mental image of that originary lesson.  Supposedly, according to this imaginative picture, we know what the other person is talking about (e.g., a slab) because, having learned the name of slab ostensively, we now have mental images of a "slab" every time we hear the word.  This is particularly compelling because we have all experienced mental images when things are named.    Still, a little introspection shows that we do not have a mental image for every word we hear. 

Alternative to the theory of mental images assisting understanding we sometimes imagine objects having labels attached.  Still, we do not often write the word "chair"on our chairs.  So, in the end, these two theories of language do not work very well when we think about them. 

But, that does not mean we give them up.  What we do, sometimes, is imagine that the images (or the labels) are there but in a fuzzy and spiritual way.  In this fuzzy and spiritual way we point to things and name things in our mind. 

But then LW asks us to look at #2.  You remember in #2 , we had the simple game of the worker and his supervisor.  The supervisor called out "beam!" and the worker brought it.  What is the relationship between the name and the thing in that particular instance?  It simply causes the worker to fetch what the supervisor wants. Need there be mental images here?  Remember our talking about the way I might teach a gorilla to hand me a banana when I said "banana"?  And that this would be a kind of trick.  It wouldn't need to be the case that the gorilla actually understood what the banana was apart from this particular context of handing one to me.  Here, we might say, that the 'name' of the object does not function merely as a name.  It functions more as a command, although the word we think of as a name has a role in making the command clearer. 

So, can you see that in spite of our models of language (pointing spiritually, or attaching a label spiritually) these models do nt seem entirely satisfactory.  Aside from the problematic metaphysics of a spiritual pointing and naming, we have the fact that in the language game the term "slab" is not just a name of an object.  It is a command to fetch a slab.  That activity around which the word gets pronounced is not accounted for by naming and pointing. 

Are the mental images required for this activity of fetching?  No. Not logically.  The worker is just trained to do something at the sound of the name. The supervisor does not require him to create a mental image of the object first.  Of course he might do so anyway, but this is not required. 

This shows how problematic our notion of naming is, and how much we try to patch it up with notions of fuzzy spirits doing the work. 

37. We have been talking about the relationship between a name and the thing named and we have studied two cultural models.  In one, the name is metaphorically "attached" to the thing (like a label might be inscribed on the thing it names) and in the other model the word we use "points" spiritually to the thing it names.  These are the vague models we use for how words "attach" to things.  But Wittgenstein is leading us through a critical reflection on these models because these models lead us to think we have the problem solved when in fact they are in many ways unsatisfactory models that lead us astray. 

Wittgenstein continues to deconstruct these old models of language.  Here in 38, he is going to remind us, again, that the models are only satisfactory when we think of certain kinds of words.  Then, he points to terms for which it is hard to use one of the two models above. 

38. But what, for example, is the word "this" the name of in language-game (8) or the word "that" in the ostensive definition "that is called ...."? 


"This" and "that" are very difficult words to understand if we stay within the  models above., of teaching something by attaching labels or pointing.  How could you attach the word "this" to everything you call "this"?  And if you point spiritually to a particular "this" with your hidden soul, then what on earth does this "pointing" have to do with the word "this" in a more general sense.  One might illustrate an apple or a dog by pointing to one, but can one illustrate a "this" just by pointing?
--If you do not want to produce confusion you will do best not to call these words names at all.--  Yet, strange to say, the word "this" has been called the only genuine name; so that anything else we call a name was one only in an inexact, approximate way. 

This queer conception springs from a tendency to sublime the logic of our language-as one 
might put it. 

If we call "this" a name, then it is a name that can be applied everywhere.  It offers no specificity at all.  Yet, at a certain point in doing philosophy it seems like the only legitimate name.  To call something a "chair" classifies it with other often dissimilar objects.  But what can be purer than just calling it a "this." 

This is a way of trying to make our logic more lofty, our statements more pure.  And when we do this, it leads to queer conceptions. 

The proper answer to it is: we call very different things "names"; the word "name" is used to characterize many different kinds of use of a word, related to one another in many different ways;-but the kind of use that "this" has is not among them. 


Here LW is introducing us to an important puzzle that he will clarify later.  He wants us to notice that diverse kinds of things are called "names' and that we have no golden thread to tie them all into a neat conceptual bundle. 

And, at the same time, he is showing that it will be problematic for us if we try to include "this" and "that" within this diverse bundle of words that we call names.

    It is quite true that, in giving an ostensive definition for instance, we often point to the object  named and say the name. And similarly, in giving an ostensive definition for instance, we say the  word "this" while pointing to a thing. And also the word "this" and a name often occupy the same  position in a sentence. But it is precisely characteristic of a name that it is defined by means of the demonstrative expression "That is N" (or "That is called 'N' "). But do we also give the definitions: 
"That is called 'this' ", or "This is called 'this'"? 
This seems to devastate the notion that you can ostensively define "this" and "that".  How can one point to anyplace and say "that" is "that".  Or, if one does, how does this explain to the hearer what "that is." 


    This is connected with the conception of naming as, so to speak, an occult process. 


 When LW talks of the notion of naming as a kind of occult process he is criticizing the picture of naming that he feels our culture teaches us.  It is the picture of naming being a kind of spiritual pointing. 
Naming appears as a queer connexion of a word with an object. --And you really get such a queer connexion when the philosopher tries to bring out the relation between name and thing by staring at an object in front of him and repeating a name or even the word "this" innumerable times. For philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday. And here we may indeed fancy naming to be some 
remarkable act of mind, as it were a baptism of an object. And we can also say the word "this" to the object, as it were address the object as "this"-a queer use of this word, which doubtless only occurs in doing philosophy. 
 This sentence "For philosophical problems arise when language 'goes on holiday'," is a famous sentence in Wittgenstein.  It means that language is taken out of context and philosophized about it becomes "confusing".  It reminds me of a time when I was a child that I said "butterfly" over and over.  Isn't it strange, I thought, that we say "Butter-fly" as though butter were to fly away, or "but -er -fly" and by the time that I had said this 15 times or so, the word no longer seemed to mean "butterfly" in the simple way it had.  Often when one philosophizes about a concept the concept has "gone on holiday".  We have lost our grounding in concrete examples.  We know very well how to use the word "virtue" in a sentence, for example, but when we scratch our heads and wonder what "virtue" really means, then the word "virtue" is on holiday.  We are just thinking about the word, not using it in the natural way that our language allows us to use it. 

Do you have any experience with language going on holiday?  Ever said a word a few times, a familiar word, and then sort of lose the meaning of it as you reflect on what this word means? 

And what do you think about "that" and "this"?  Do they seem like names to you? 


What is it to mean the words "That is blue" at one time as a statement about the object one 
is pointing to  --at another as an explanation of the word "blue"? Well, in the second case one really means "That is called 'blue' ". --Then can one at one time mean the word "is" as "is called" and the word "blue" as " 'blue' ", and another time mean "is" really as "is"? 

Paraphrase like this can help us be clearer about what language game is being played.
It is also possible for someone to get an explanation of the words out of what was intended as a piece of information. [Marginal note: Here lurks a crucial superstition.]  Of course.  I might say, "How do you like my new sepia couch."  This might give you an unintended explanation of the word 'sepia."
Can I say "bububu" and mean "If it doesn't rain I shall go for a walk"? --It is only in a language that I can mean something by something. This shews clearly that the grammar of "to mean" is not like that of the expression "to imagine" and the like. This is a critical point that should be puzzled about at this moment rather than clarified.  Can one say "hello" to mean goodbye?  Without somehow creating a special code for others to interpret?  Or does the meaning that we spin with our words have to cooperate, somehow, with their more standard cultural use?

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