Wittgenstein’s Definition of Meaning as Use

Review of Metaphysics 26 (1):160-161 (1972)

The purpose of this book is to examine and explicate a definition given in Philosophical Investigations. The definition of the meaning of a word is that "the meaning of a word is its use in the language." Hallett understands this as a definition in the strict sense of the word. In Chapter I, the author looks to the Tractatus for its treatment of the picture theory of meaning and the Bedeutung/sinn distinction. The conclusion which he pulls from the early work is that, for Wittgenstein, meaning was already in a proposition by way of the meaning of names. Yet, only in the use or application, i.e., in a proposition with sense is meaning revealed. Although the Tractatus is far from saying that meaning is use, certain guiding themes are elaborated and carried into later works; namely, the search for meaning, the impossibility of meaning outside use, and meaning as revealed by use. Chapter II, III, and especially IV bear the brunt of establishing Hallett’s thesis that Wittgenstein presented a significant and sound definition. He begins by showing what Wittgenstein proved meaning not to be: meaning is not images, objects, mental referents, nor feelings. All of these theories have convincing confirmation in certain respects, yet analysis, i.e., observation of the actual working of language, shows each to be too narrow. In making his transition to the true definition, the author shows Wittgenstein elaborating the theses that meaning is to be found in the system or context of language. These are elaborated only to be cast aside as were the previous suggestions. The pattern elicited from these examinations is that meaning is use and, hence, defined as such. To explicate the definition, Hallett presents and examines seven characteristics of use: complexity, regularity and utility, abstraction, openness, vagueness, variety, and family resemblances. The book concludes with a consideration of the major objections to Wittgenstein’s definition. There are too many objections presented to be handled justly. For the most part, the argument is superficial, usually presuming a familiarity with the issue, and with but an indication of how the objection could be handled. The strength of the book is that it gives an organization to Wittgenstein’s later thinking, especially by way of the above-mentioned seven characteristics. In identifying and elucidating them, Hallett does Wittgenstein students a great service. Its chief weakness, although pale in regard to the overall worth, is that the main thesis is not firmly established. To say that a precise and complete definition is given is contrary to what is maintained throughout the Investigations, and perhaps a serious misreading of the German word, erklaren, as the precise English phrase, "to define." There are extensive notes and an adequate index.—W. A. F.
Keywords Catholic Tradition  Contemporary Philosophy  General Interest
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ISBN(s) 0034-6632
DOI revmetaph1972261118
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