Meaning, Use, and Time


Meaning, Use, and Time



I propose to do a Kripke: I will describe an argument that was prompted by reading Wittgenstein—which I neither attribute to Wittgenstein nor endorse myself.  [1] I think it fits many of the things he says, and I also think it is interesting and compelling; but I don’t want to defend it as an interpretation by engaging in elaborate exegesis, and neither do I wish to give it a full defense as an independent argument. (In fact, just between us, I believe it isWittgenstein’s argument, and I also think it is basically sound, but it is not my intention here to establish these propositions; so let’s keep my real opinion hush-hush for the moment.)  The argument has to do with the relation between meaning and use, and centers on how both relate to time. Put very simply, it says that use is spread out over time while meaning exists at a time, so that meaning cannot be use; and yet meaning must be use, there being nothing else it could be. So we have a puzzle, a paradox: meaning must be what it cannot be; in its very nature it cannot be what it intrinsically is. This is a situation calling for philosophical treatment, possibly quite radical treatment; some major surgery is going to be required. I take it the paradoxical element is clear: it is paradoxical to claim that meaning is extended use over time and also that words mean what they do at particular times irrespective of what might be true earlier or later. That does not require elaborate argument; what is less obvious is the truth of the two propositions that lead to the paradox. I will venture to quote a section from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations that expresses the paradox I am interested in (strictly the reader should interpret “expresses” weakly in this sentence given my official position): “But can’t the meaning of a word that I understand fit the sense of a sentence I understand? Or the meaning of one word fit the meaning of another?—Of course, if the meaning is the use we make of the word, it makes no sense to speak of such ‘fitting.’ But we understand the meaning of a word when we hear or say it; we grasp it in a flash, and what we grasp in this way is surely something different from the ‘use’ which is extended in time!” (138) Other sections that return to, and elaborate on, this initial formulation include 139, 141, 184, 187, 188, 191, 193, 194, 196, 197, 198, 199, and 204. Here we see stated the apparent conflict between the use conception of meaning and the fact that we understand a word at a given time—entirely not just partially. We don’t have to wait to know the future use in order to know what the word means now as the meaning unfurls over time; yet the temporally extended use is the meaning. How can both of these things be true?

            It is very important to see that use is extended over time; this is not disputed by Wittgenstein but simply accepted as obvious by him. We find him being quite explicit about this in sections 198 and 199 (which I won’t quote in full): use is always extended use, repeated use, recurrent use. This is because rules cannot be followed just once: “a person goes by a sign-post only in so far as there exists a regular use of sign-posts, a custom.” (198) In section 199 we read: “It is not possible that there should have been only one occasion on which someone obeyed a rule. It is not possible that there should have been only one occasion on which a report was made, an order given or understood; and so on.—To obey a rule, to make a report, to give an order,  to play a game of chess, are customs(uses, institutions).” We should really speak of the extended use theory (conception, picture) of meaning; a single isolated use just won’t cut it, according to Wittgenstein. Of course this is quite correct empirically: linguistic use isspread out over time, often a very long time. Notice that Wittgenstein is not saying that meaning and rule-following consist in abilities to use or dispositions to use; he is saying that that meaning consists in repeated use itself (compare the locution “Is he still using?” asked of a drug addict). To understand a word is not to have an ability or disposition to use a word in a certain way over time—that might be possessed at or time or be manifested only once—it is actually to use it regularly over time. That is, meaning is matter of actions performed repeatedly over time: how many such actions must be performed is hard to specify, but a decent number is required. Meaning is something temporally distributed, like a habit or a fitness regimen or a custom. Some facts (things, properties) exist at a time in temporal isolation, while others are essentially spread out in time; meaning is of the latter type. As examples of the former type we might list: shape, size, color, mass, modal status, spatial occupancy, function, geometric relations (such as isomorphism), and picturing. The last item is of special significance because in the Tractatus Wittgenstein compared meaning to picturing, construed geometrically (lines of projection etc.); and picturing is an at-a-time type of fact. Most properties are like this: temporally isolated, punctate, of the moment. They don’t go on through time indefinitely; they can be instantiated just once, requiring no other times for their existence. But meaning, according to Wittgenstein, is different, belonging as it does to the more rare category of the temporally extended. It isn’t the only such property—we also have rule following in general as well as some non-rule-following facts (habits etc.)—but it is an instance of the rarer type.  [2]

            What else can we say of meaning if it consists of extended use? Well, what is a use? Wittgenstein gives us little guidance, but I think the following must be uncontroversial: uses are actions, and these actions are utterances. They are acts of speech, which are utterances (generally vocal but sometimes gestural). The acts occur in certain contexts and circumstances, and they have a history as well as future consequences: meaning consists in such situated utterances, according to Wittgenstein. We may then deduce that meanings are given by specific concrete acts of utterance—generally sounds made by mouths. To say that meaning is use is to say that meaning is, or includes, sound (or possibly hand movements in the case of deaf speakers). What else could linguistic use be? Intentional purposive sound, to be sure, situated-in-a-form-of-life sound, community sound if you like—but still sound. What is sound? We might construe it subjectively as auditory impressions, or we might construe it objectively as physical waves in the atmosphere—in either case meaning is being explained in terms of sounds (along with their “surroundings”). We might then reasonably wonder whether meaning itself has anything to do with sounds, as opposed to the expression of meaning: do meanings sound like anything, can they be measured by a speech spectrograph, what has meaning got to do with the sounds coming out of people’s mouths? But Wittgenstein does not raise such concerns; they suggest the possibility of a category mistake. What he does bring up is the question of at-a-time meaning: how can it be true that I understand a word when I hear or say it? The meaning seems to be right there then not to be in the process of unfolding itself over time: it seems to be present in the instant, hermetically cut off from anything past or future. Some theories of meaning acknowledge this fact: the image theory, Frege’s sense and reference theory, dispositional theories, Gricean intention-based theories, the picture theory, and others. But a use theory cannot acknowledge it in any straightforward way, or so it seems: it apparently has to deny an apparently obvious fact. Hence the paradox, since this fact is not seriously deniable. Something therefore has to go: either meaning is not use after all, or common sense is in error in supposing that meaning can exist whole and entire at a given time. Wittgenstein tries to remove the paradox having first presented it (shades of Kripke’s Wittgenstein): it is a kind of skeptical paradox and it receives a skeptical solution. What that solution is supposed to be I have not ventured to explain, and I think Wittgenstein’s remarks on the subject are obscure, as well as fleeting. The closest he comes to anything you can get your teeth into is section 187, which concludes with these enigmatic words: “When you said “I already knew at the time…..” that meant something like: “If I had then been asked what number should be written after 1000, I should have replied ‘1002’.” And that I don’t doubt. This assumption is rather of the same kind as: “If he had fallen into the water then, I should have jumped in after him”.—Now, what was wrong with your idea?” But I won’t attempt to penetrate this fog here; my concern is with the apparent paradox that leads up to it. For it certainly does seem as if we have a real puzzle before us: there is a definite clash between the use theory of meaning and the temporal facts of meaning. How can meaning exist ata time and yet only exist over time?  [3]

            It might be thought that there is a way out: simply claim that meaning determines use, and is determined by it, without being use. That is, something obtains at a given time that fixes future use but it isn’t identical with future use. We thus modify the original formulation of the use theory to read as follows: meaning consists in an at-a-time fact that determines future use. This seems like our commonsense view: there is something about me now that fixes, anticipates, entails how I will subsequently use my words—and this is what meaning is. The use is contained in the meaning, inherent in it, uncoiling as I make my linguistic journey through time. But famously this is what Wittgenstein contests (at least in the form in which we are tempted to think of it) and which Kripke’s exposition emphasizes: there is no current fact capable of this kind of determination. Or if there is it is not of the kind that philosophers have supposed and common sense seems to assume. Thus the paradox has no evident solution: the inescapably correct extended use theory is inconsistent with the obvious fact of at-a-time meaning. We are stuck with two apparent truths that are inconsistent with each other. This was Wittgenstein’s worry, what he struggled with in the relevant sections of the Investigations (at least this is the interpretation that might naturally occur to one upon reading these difficult pages). Not that there is no fact of meaning at all (as in Kripke’s interpretation) but that there is no present fact: extended use is a type of fact and it suffices to capture meaning (Wittgenstein assumes), but it won’t help us understand how meaning can exist during short intervals of time. It can’t be the fact of meaning if meaning can occur in its absence, i.e. ahead of all those repeated uses. Meaning can’t be extended andcompacted, spread out over time and yet squeezed into a moment. It can’t relate to time in both these ways. It seems to be both like shape or color or picturing and like a habit or a custom or a practice: but that is not possible. It must be one thing or the other. This is what makes meaning paradoxical and philosophically challenging. This is why we need a new meta-philosophy to handle the problem. This is why the Tractatus was barking up the wrong tree: it didn’t just propose a false theory of meaning; it failed to grasp the underlying problem.

            Compare the pragmatist theory of truth. Suppose we say that truth consists in usefulness. Then we add that usefulness is a matter of how things turn out in the future (“in the long run”). It will follow that truth is spread out over time. Truth is a matter of ongoing success not a matter of current correspondence or momentary coherence. Pragmatism is a future-looking doctrine, because it stresses human action, which is distributed in time. And it is not the doctrine that truth determines success, as if it is another property merely correlated with success; it issuccess—usefulness, desire-satisfaction. Truth looks ahead, and it depends on what happens in the future. The result is that nothing can be said to be true (or false) at a time before the proposition in question has had a chance to demonstrate its usefulness. There can’t be at-a-time truth. This looks like a problem for the pragmatist theory, though the bullet-biting pragmatist may opt to declare that the consequence is acceptable—truth can never really exist before usefulness has been exemplified. Given that the use theory of meaning is a type of pragmatist theory, we can see how such theories tend to produce these kinds of problems and puzzles: use and usefulness are cross-temporal facts, because actions are spread out in time. If I were to say that perception is a matter of actions, we would have the same result: nobody could ever perceive anything in a temporally isolated way. If to see something red now consists in what the perceiver goes on to do in the future, then obviously no one could see something red now unless such a future exists. This kind of theory seems obviously false given the facts of perception, but in the case of meaning things are not so clear, because meaning is not so phenomenologically striking. If a property holds in virtue of future facts, then clearly there have to be such facts for it to hold (this is obvious for the utilitarian view of the good, for example). We might try going dispositional in these cases, but that will raise problems of its own (explored by Kripke). The recent popularity (and obscurity) of this kind of approach is testament to the severity of the underlying problem.  We really do need to appeal to actual use, but then we are saddled with the time problem (we could call it the “time-meaning problem”). How is meaning related to use-in-time? Are they identical, or are they distinct and contingently correlated? Is there a determination relation between them (supervenience)? Is the link real but mysterious, or is meaning perhaps illusory? This is a characteristic philosophical problem with the usual range of options. In a way Wittgenstein is doing traditional philosophy in raising it, however unconventional his own response may be.

            Kripke compares Wittgenstein’s skeptical paradox to Hume’s treatment of causation. I see a similarity too, but a different one. If causation were a necessary relation, it could intelligibly hold at a specific time, since modal properties are at-a-time properties. But if we despair of finding such causal necessitation, plumping instead for constant conjunction, then again we get a problem with time. For constant conjunction occurs over time; and then we have to suppose that causation can’t be an at-a-time property. For one event to cause another at time t is for other similar events to cause similar events in the past and future: so there can’t be one-off causation and causation must be temporally dispersed. We try to find something observable for causation to be, but all we can find is future constant conjunctions; so causation turns out to be extraneous to what is happening at a given moment of causal interaction. Meaning, too, turns out to reside in uses that lie in the future relative to the present act of meaning, thus rendering problematic the very notion of meaning-at-time. Regular uses are like constant conjunctions—at some distance from the fact they are supposed to encompass (as judged by what is known at the time). There is obviously a general problem here with certain philosophical tendencies or theses, with meaning just one (striking) example.

            I actually think there are several distinct strands in Wittgenstein’s discussion of meaning in these sections of the Investigations, intertwined in complex ways; the theme I have extracted is just of them, though a central one. The problem doesn’t have to do with facts versus non-facts, or the individual versus the community, or the inner versus the outer; it has to do with the conflict between meaning-as-use and meaning-as-known. Linguistic use is spread out over time, but linguistic knowledge is of the moment: how can those two truths be reconciled? I have not tried to delve into Wittgenstein’s attempted resolution (a daunting task), being content to have articulated the problem he raised.

  [1] See Saul Kripke, Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language (1984)

  [2] It is noteworthy that Wittgenstein makes very little play with the notion of a disposition in these sections of the Investigations, not even considering it as a possible resolution of his puzzle (in this he contrasts sharply with Kripke’s interpretation of him). I think this is because he simply didn’t take it seriously as an account of what meaning and understanding might be. There are many reasons why he might have taken this view, but surely it sacrifices a great deal of what he finds attractive in the actual-extended-use theory. Also, it is just plain obscure: how can my knowledge of what I mean now consist in knowledge of what I am disposed to do in the future, even assuming there is such a thing? Why is what I do in the future determined by my current dispositions? We have become far too sanguine about the notion of a disposition in the period following Wittgenstein’s Investigations. The positivists would have regarded the notion as positively mystical, and certainly not usable as a basic philosophical tool. What (the hell) is a disposition?  

  [3] The puzzle would affect analyticity: how can a sentence be analytic at a certain time, given that its meaning is fixed by what happens later? Wouldn’t we have to wait to see how the words are used in the future? And nothing presently available can fix this. So analytic truth starts to look problematic—a central plank of positivist philosophy (and not only that). And how can analyticity consist in conventions if conventions are human practices that are spread out in time?

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