welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please


Rules, Language & Reality

George Wrisley considers how some of Wittgenstein’s later ideas on language relate to reality.

Two of the perennial questions in 20th century analytic philosophy have been “How we are able to say or mean anything with signs, symbols, and sounds?” and “What exactly is the meaning of those signs, symbols, and sounds?” But why in the world would philosophers become so focused on language and meaning? Let me mention two very general reasons. One reason is that an enormous range of issues are touched by looking at language, and important philosophical insights can be won by doing this. Another reason is the immense influence a number of philosophers who were interested in language had on everyone else doing philosophy, especially in Britain and America.

Let me say a few words about the first reason first. The importance of Immanuel Kant for later philosophy can’t be over-emphasized. One of his legacies was philosophy’s focus on the relationship between the mind and the world; that is, the connection between subjective consciousness and the objective world outside of consciousness. Kant ultimately explained the relation between the two in terms of the conceptual categories we must all possess in order to have any meaningful experience of the world. However, he didn’t think of these categories and concepts in linguistic terms – for Kant they certainly would have been prior to language. But over time philosophers slowly shifted the emphasis from categories supplied by the mind to concepts supplied by language: philosophers began to look at the role of language in the connection between mind and world and language’s role in mediating our experience of the world. Aside from Kant, a further driving force behind 20th century philosophy’s focus on language was the idea that if we can get clear about the logic of language, and if we can analyse our statements so that we aren’t misled by their ‘surface grammar’, then we will be able to answer all sorts of exciting philosophical questions, or (on another view) be able to show that they are pseudo-problems.

As to the second reason for the focus on language: those giants who set the agenda for 20th Century analytic philosophy, for example Frege, Russell, Moore, and Wittgenstein, in one way or another all focused on some kind of philosophical analysis of our language. Because of their influence the next generation of philosophers, such as Quine, Putnam, and Davidson, also spent a great deal of time and effort investigating various aspects of language and issues concerning meaning and reference.

Language plays an enormously important role in our interaction with other people and with the world. We employ various words and concepts to talk about objects (tables and flowers), properties (colors and shapes), and relations (the flower is on the table, the pain is in my arm). We express feelings, ask questions, give commands, tell jokes, tell stories, sing songs, and so on. So let’s return to our initial questions: How is that we’re able to do all of these things with language? How is it that certain signs, symbols, and sounds are meaningful, and what exactly is their meaning? Is the word ‘cat’ meaningful because of what it refers to – namely, those furry, meowing fleabags many of us have as pets? Is the meaning of ‘cat’ just those animals themselves? Further, does the world determine what our concepts are to be? That is, with language do we simply try to mirror the various kinds of objects, properties, and relations that exist, or is the world ‘open’ to different ways of conceptualizing it?

Such questions as these vexed Wittgenstein. He tried to answer them in his first work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. He later came to see a number of shortcomings in that work’s answers. He expressed his changing ideas in a variety of notebooks and unfinished manuscripts which were eventually published in the decades after his death. The best-known is the Philosophical Investigations, a book he was preparing for publication at the time of his death in 1951, but I’ll draw on all his later writings in this article.

The Normativity of Language and Rules of Grammar

Linguistic meaning is in an important sense normative. That is, there are right and wrong ways to use words. If we use words in the wrong way we may fail to say anything meaningful. For example, if I say, “The window was dog,” then I’m misusing either ‘window’ or ‘dog’ in such a way that I’m talking nonsense. Normativity plays an important role for Wittgenstein’s later views on language.

Wittgenstein in his later writings notoriously related the notion of linguistic meaning to the notion of our use of language. The exact nature of the relationship he saw between meaning and use is hotly debated, but I will try to steer around the need to decide such exegetical matters. At the very least, we can say that for Wittgenstein there is an important connection between our use of language – what we do with it, when and where we say what we say – and the meaning of the sounds that we make and the symbols that we write.

For Wittgenstein our use of language is constrained in a way analogous to the way the movements of a game piece are constrained by the game’s rules, for example, for the king in chess. So in his later philosophy he appeals to the notion of a linguistic rule, or what he (somewhat confusingly) calls a rule of grammar. ‘Grammatical rules’ are the standards by which we evaluate whether someone has spoken meaningfully. Their evaluation, however, need not be explicit. Insofar as you and I have learned the same language and belong to the same community of speakers, I ‘evaluate’ your use of language by either understanding or failing to understand what you say. If you move the rook in chess in accordance with the rules we make nothing of it: I understand your move. Nevertheless, the rules are there, in the background. If you were to move your rook diagonally, the rules would be brought forward and explicitly cited. Similarly, if you were to misspeak, I might either correct you, or ask you what you mean, and your answer might entail explicitly bringing forward the rules of grammar. But what exactly does Wittgenstein mean by a rule of grammar?

Wittgenstein maintained that he was using the term ‘grammar’ in its ordinary sense. However his examples of rules of grammar certainly aren’t ones to be found in your usual grammar book. Some of his examples of rules of grammar are “4 meters is a length,” “A sofa is longer than a chair,” “This is red (said while pointing at something red),” and “Believing is not thinking.” Part of the idea here is that rules of grammar are the kinds of things we tell others when explaining the meaning of a word or an expression to them. If we’re talking to a child and we tell her that something is 4 meters, and she asks whether 4 meters is heavy, we might very well say “4 meters is a length.” Or if we are trying to get clear on what exactly we mean by ‘believing’ something, we might note that there is a difference of use between ‘believing’ and ‘thinking’ and so indeed there is a difference between believing and thinking: one can believe something while not thinking about it and one can think about something without believing it. For Wittgenstein the rules of grammar normatively constrain what we mean by words and expressions. They’re the conditions of linguistic meaning.

Another aspect of grammar connected to its importance for meaning is the way it sets up the conditions of speaking sensibly about the world. To use one of Wittgenstein’s later metaphors, grammatical rules function as channels for our talk about the world in the way that a river bank channels water. As he remarks in the Philosophical Grammar (written in 1930-33), part of the idea here is that grammatical rules do not determine the truth or falsity of our statements about the world. The role of grammar is instead to provide the conditions for comparing our empirical propositions with reality in order to determine whether they are true or false.

We should note a few things in order to avoid confusion. First, following the rules of grammar and speaking meaningfully does not require knowing all of them, or even being able to state all the grammatical rules for any given word. For one thing, it doesn’t make sense to speak of a totality of grammatical rules, since linguistic meaning is often not constrained in every direction or case, and many words leave open how they may be used in future contexts. Second, a remark or statement is a grammatical rule not because of some particular form or context-free status, but rather because of how it is used in a given context. For example, when a child is learning the names of different colors, she might ask us what color red is. We can then find a sample of red and point, saying, “This flower is red.” In this case, we have given a grammatical rule. But if we are talking to someone who is red-green color blind and he asks us what color a shirt is and we say “This shirt is red,” we haven’t given him a grammatical rule, but instead an empirical proposition – a proposition describing some feature of the world we experience.

Third, the notion of language games plays a huge role for Wittgenstein’s later philosophy. By a ‘language game’, he means the way words, phrases, gestures, and facial expressions, and other actions are habitually used by people to communicate in a particular kind of situation. If you look at the development of Wittgenstein’s post-Tractatus writings, there is a shift of emphasis from talk of grammar to talk of language games when issues of meaning are discussed. However, Wittgenstein’s appeal to the notion of language games is still motivated by a recognition of the normativity of language and the importance of grammatical rules. As such, the shift of emphasis from grammar to language games does not betoken a rejection of the former. The rules of grammar are seen as an essential part of language games; the shift of emphasis is a shift to a more open-ended view of language use, and the recognition that our words are meaningful even if not perfectly constrained by rules.

The Arbitrariness of Grammar and the Role of Reality

Wittgenstein’s tying of meaning to use here has a number of important consequences. Earlier I posed the question as to whether the word ‘cat’ gets its meaning in virtue of referring to the familiar creatures many of us love. It’s tempting to think that since language is representational – it is about things – then it is the things that language is about (cats, tables, thoughts, feelings) that make language meaningful. Wittgenstein rejects this view of language. We do talk about and refer to a whole host of things, but language is not meaningful because of the things themselves. Language is meaningful because of how we use words in particular contexts and because there are right and wrong ways of using words and expressions: again, language use is normatively constrained by the rules of grammar. This use is socially upheld, like the rules of a game.

A number of interesting insights come out of this way of looking at language and meaning. One result is Wittgenstein’s emphasis on the public nature of language. A good deal of the normativity that provides for meaning comes from the admonishments, requests for clarification and corrections of others when we speak, especially when we are learning a language. A further aspect of this is that much of our language is meaningful only as a result of its public context. While we can ask ourselves questions and give ourselves commands, it is not always obvious how meaningful such behavior is. A related question is whether a private language is possible; this involves thinking about what we mean when we talk about sensations we experience [see the article by Richard Floyd in this issue]. The point I want to focus on however, is the idea that the rules of grammar aren’t answerable to any objective reality. In Wittgenstein’s words, grammar is arbitrary and language is autonomous.

There are a number of things that Wittgenstein means when he says that grammar is arbitrary. I want to focus on the idea that grammar, and thus meaning, is not answerable to reality. If you were to tell me there are albino tigers and I didn’t believe you, you could bring me an albino tiger, point and say, “That is an albino tiger.” You would thereby justify your claim that there are albino tigers. Wittgenstein thinks that one cannot give this kind of justification for the rules of grammar. What does he mean and why is it important?

Let’s take the mundane rule of grammar “Sofas are longer than chairs” which shows part of what we mean by ‘sofa’. How might you go about justifying that rule? You might try to explain to me what a sofa is and what a chair is; such an explanation might involve your pointing out that you can lie on a sofa but not really in a chair, so a sofa must be longer than a chair. Alternatively, you might try pointing to a chair and a sofa to try to get me to see that sofas are indeed longer than chairs. However, either attempt at justification hits the same problem. If the words you speak or the pointing gesture you make are to be meaningful, the rules of grammar for ‘sofa’ and ‘chair’ must already be in place and working. Remember, for Wittgenstein, the rules of grammar provide the conditions for speaking meaningfully about the world. If they aren’t already in place then there is no meaningful talk and thus no meaningful explanations of what a chair and sofa are. The idea then, is that if the rules of grammar are providing for meaningful language use and thus presupposed, then there is no question of justifying them by appealing to reality. How would you make the appeal?

Let’s look again at the scenario of your pointing to the sofa and chair, and the claim that this presupposes the grammar to be working. Such pointing is often referred to as an ostensive definition: the thing a word or expression refers to is in front of you, you point and say “That is a sofa.” Wittgenstein treats the notion of ostensive definitions at some length. One thing Wittgenstein interpreters generally agree on is that he wants to remind us that such pointing is meaningful only in the context of a language game. That is, in order to point at, say, the shape of an object instead of its color, one must already know certain things about colors and shapes; one must understand something about what shape is and what color is. The pointing alone is ambiguous. When you point to a ball sitting on a table, there are any number of things you could be pointing out: the ball itself, the ball and table, the space occupied by the ball and table, the texture of the ball, its shape and so on. To remove this ambiguity and make clear that you are indicating the ball’s shape and not its color, language needs to be in place. So, in the case of the sofa and chair, the rules of grammar concerning sofas and chairs need already to be in place in order for the pointing to be a pointing unambiguously at a sofa and a chair.

So language is autonomous because it is not accountable to reality. But in what sense does this mean grammar is arbitrary? Importantly it does not mean that grammar and meaning are a matter of caprice, unconstrained by anything. What it does mean is that objective, non-human reality does not determine, that is, utterly necessitate, our concepts and our ways of speaking. Rather, given our physiology and our relationships to our complex world and to others, we have particular needs and desires which help shape our language and the concepts we construct to speak about the world and about ourselves. If certain aspects of our physical and social lives were different then we might not use the same concepts.

We talk about rocks, tables, chairs, books, feelings, governments, etc. We divide the world into different kinds of things. It can seem that there is a right and a wrong way to do this. There really are cats and there really are dogs, and cats really are different from dogs. There really are atoms and there really are suns and stars. We have those concepts precisely because by way of them we accurately represent the way the world really is. This attitude is part of what Wittgenstein seems to be arguing against. The world does not, so to speak, naturally carve itself into objects. Grammar is arbitrary in the sense that it is only constrained by our needs, desires, and, in some sense, the way we perceive basic facts concerning our environment and how we are situated in it. We might divide the world up differently if our needs were different, or if certain facts about the way we are situated in or perceive the world were to change.

This understanding of the arbitrariness of grammar leaves us in an awkward situation in several ways. On the one hand it seems to go against what we might call the goal of science: to inquire into the objective nature of reality and develop a theory that best explains that reality. So for example, we have discovered that water molecules are made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom (H2O). Regardless of how we speak, water really is H2O. On the other hand, there’s a more basic philosophical concern.

In Section 373 of the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein writes, “Grammar tells what kind of object anything is.” However, it is unclear how strong we should understand the arbitrariness of grammar to be in this context, and how much it is we and not the world who determine what objects there are. Does it somehow mean that what exists is dependent on our language so that without language and thus without us there would be no shape to the world? This seems unlikely. It runs into the problem that grammar itself seems constrained by the world; by certain basic facts of our physiology, needs, and environment. If all those things were to require our grammar to construct them, then they wouldn’t be able to constrain grammar. Does this mean, then, that there is a world independent of language, independent of us, but in some sense malleable and accepting of different ways of carving it up into things? It isn’t clear what it might mean to say that the world is ‘malleable’ in this way. If the world exists at all prior to our use of language, then it seems it must have some kind of independently determinate nature. What would it mean for that determinate nature to be malleable?

As we try to understand what Wittgenstein was up to with his talk of the arbitrariness of grammar and the importance of grammar for meaning, I think we will go astray if we try to pin him down on the issue of in what sense reality itself is relative to our language. That is indeed an important question, but Wittgenstein, at least in some moments, doesn’t want to solve such philosophical problems. He would prefer to show that they rest on misunderstandings engendered by language. From Wittgenstein’s perspective there are more important lessons to be learned from the arbitrariness of grammar. For example, language is not meaningful because it mirrors reality; meaning is not the result of the objects and things to which language refers; language is meaningful because of how and where we use it, in accordance with the rules of grammar and in the various everyday situations in which we find ourselves. Further, because it is we who in some sense determine what objects there are through our use of language, when we want to investigate those objects and their characteristics – for example, important philosophical ‘objects’ like thought, meaning, knowledge, or belief – we should look at how we use language. We can’t isolate the objects themselves and establish their characteristics independent of language.

© George Wrisley 2006

George Wrisley is completing his PhD at the University of Iowa.

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X