Thursday, March 30, 2006

Please Visit Last Days of a Great City ...

Hello, dears! I was invited by Felix del Campo to group blog with his wonderful colleagues at Last Days of a Great City. I can promise you a great deal of brain candy if you stop by...

Saturday, September 17, 2005

The Meaning of a Word

Fellow blogger Ravi Vesely asks this very tantalizing question:

I've been thinking about “language-games” lately, and sometimes I wonder if how [Wittgenstein] thought of a word’s meaning as being understood through its own network of other words isn’t the same problem as the “infinite signifiers” problem that Derrida pointed out …
If I had had more students like Ravi, perhaps I never would have retired from teaching. When I was a student, we must have spent days arguing about that famous passage from the Philosophical Investigations:

For a large class of cases—though not for all—in which we employ the word “meaning” it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.
It never struck me at the time how utterly postmodern Wittgenstein’s suggestion might be: it has the form of a definition, but it’s also part metaphor and does appear to suggest Derrida’s “play of signifiers.”

There were some who never bought the idea that Wittgenstein was offering a kind of “meaning as use” theory (see, for example, The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Given my training, I was always doggedly concrete about these things, wanting to pin Wittgenstein down like one might pin a frog to a dissecting table. As we’re mastering a language, we provide evidence that we’ve learned the meaning of a word by using it properly. In my very narrow view, the process of learning the meaning of a word involves the unconscious construction of a mental representation of its semantic content (see, for example, Jackendoff’s Semantic Structures). My representation might evolve over time as the community of language users extends, narrows, or even shifts the use of a particular word and I catch wind of these changes in use. It therefore makes perfect sense to me that lexicographers hire “usage panels” to adjudicate between contested meanings of a word.

To put it in starkest terms: The use of a word helps determine my mental representation of its content. I now use the word, perhaps in novel ways, and thus affect how others represent its content. My own views are very Chomksyan in their details.

As for what Derrida meant, I can’t really say. I must leave that question to greater minds. If his was partly a thesis about the inability of language ultimately to connect with the world—to refer, in some unproblematic way—then I suspect that he and Wittgenstein would have needed to part company. A deeper understanding of meaning and reference was one of the great legacies of analytic philosophy, and I don’t believe the possibility of reference was ever in question for Wittgenstein. The idea that words ultimately derive their meanings from other words, that they “float free” unanchored to the world in some way—this, I believe, would have been an unspeakable heresy to him.

If, on the other hand, Derrida was making a point about word connotations, about the fecundity of meaning in language, about the ability of texts to call other texts—“semantic frames,” in my parlance—to mind, then yes, I suppose they could have been kissing cousins.

I do hope there are others out there in the blogosphere who might chance on this post and put us all straight.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Lost Fragment of Wittgenstein's Tractatus

Hello, dears. I retired from teaching philosophy ten years ago and only recently took to reading it again. God, philosophers are clever! I was, however, surprised to find that nobody had solved the problem of consciousness these past ten years. I suppose that was always the most puzzling question—or set of questions—of them all.

I did manage to rummage through my father’s old papers, and I found this. Looks like a fragment that never made it into Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. My father knew Wittgenstein, so I assume it’s genuine.