Yes, Virginia, Meaning Really is Use

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 language.

-Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §43

This feels right, but what does it mean? “Use in language” here and elsewhere in Philosophical Investigations clearly refers to something expansive. A word’s meaning is not its dictionary definition (the layman’s view) or some bit of set-theoretic formalism (the professional semanticist’s view). These are both just mappings of language onto other language. “Use” seems to touch on something extra-linguistic, but what?–speaker mental states, rules of social deportment, a catalogue of every meaningful utterance of a given word by anyone who can be said to know it? Wittgenstein tries1 to throw light on the subject by giving examples of simple language games–e.g. a construction worker pidgin that consists solely of words like “block”, “pillar”, “slab”, “beam” and presumably all the pointing and facial expressions one can muster. This is helpful to a point, but also too simple. In a four-word language where the only topic is fetching and the only paralinguistic information is an expression of either pleasure and displeasure, a word’s “use” is not much more complicated than its dictionary definition. Make your world too small and it crystalizes back into a formalism.

Let’s make things more complicated in the hopes of gaining traction. Instead of a word, consider the meaning of a phrase. And not just any phrase, but a metaphor. A canonical example of a metaphor would be something like “John is a firecracker”.

John is a firecracker.
Literal Meaning John is a small explosive device.
Metaphorical Meaning John has an exuberant personality.

This is a clean room sentence, simpler than the metaphors that infuse our daily speech without us even realizing it2, but serves to illustrate a point. The literal meaning is what you would come up with if you looked up each word in a dictionary then chained the definitions together. You could imagine an ESL student doing exactly this and then being confused until you explained to them that what the phrase really means is that John has an exuberant personality.3  By explaining how the expression is used, you have gotten to the heart of the matter.

The Wittgenstein quote above may be easier to grasp then if, instead of equating “meaning” and “use”, we we throw the latter into relief by distinguishing between them. If this helps, it helps, but we do nothing substantive by asserting that “meaning” = “literal meaning” and “use” = “metaphorical meaning”. We are just shuffling terms around in the hopes that something clicks. To this end, the field of linguistics provides a bit more helpful jargon. Instead of presenting literal/metaphorical meaning as an unanalyzed dichotomy, linguists say that the former arises when we treat the only the individual words as being present “in the lexicon” and arrive at the small explosive device meaning “compositionally”. The metaphor, on the other hand, arises when the schemata “X is a firecracker = X has an exuberant personality” is retrieved from the lexicon en bloc.4 Linguists also often reserve the term “meaning” for literal meaning, and put usage/social function/aesthetics/metaphor under the heading of “pragmatics”, which is often just a fancy way of saying “the stuff we don’t know how to explain”, but it’s nice to have a word for that too.

Wittgenstein claims an equivalence between two things–meaning and use–so in order to move beyond mere nomenclature we’re going to have to draw a table with more than two entries. The textbook metaphor above doesn’t fit the bill, but one captured in the wild just might. Recently I proposed an analysis of the expression “That’s how we roll”, as in “You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us–that’s how we roll”. The literal meaning of the phrase has something to do with things rolling, but the phrase is used to convey a particular variety of resolve. However, to focus on just literal and metaphoric meanings misses part of what is going on here. There is at least a third level, which I present like so.

That’s how we roll.
Literal Meaning Wheels roll.
Metaphorical Meaning We ride in wheeled vehicles.
Use We possess the steely resolve of people riding in wheeled vehicles with serious intent.

I’m fudging the right-hand column because the Metaphorical Meaning and Use apply to the entire phrase while the Literal Meaning is just of the verb “roll”. I am also not proposing any sort of general three-tired theory of semantics. Instead I am making the narrow claim that for this expression it is possible to identify two kinds of non-literal connections: the first between wheels and wheeled vehicles, and the second between wheeled vehicles and steely resolve. Since the first of these is a synecdoche (rolling wheels are a stand-in for the vehicle’s entire motion) I call it metaphorical, but I’m not particularly attached to that bit of nomenclature either. What I do claim is that the Use here is distinct from both the Literal and Metaphorical meanings, and furthermore that it is the essence of the phrase. In this way “That’s how we roll” can serve as an easily-grasped example of what it means to say that meaning is use.

Wittgenstein compares words to tools. The relationship between tools and their use is easy to grasp. A hammer is fundamentally a thing that pounds in nails; a wrench is fundamentally a thing that loosens and tightens bolts, and so forth. Tools also have component parts. Hammers have heads and peens. Screwdrivers have handles and blades. We recognize these parts, may even make taxonomies of them, or divide tools into bladed and non-bladed, but there’s no danger of confusing a tool’s part with its use. In language the constituent parts of expressions’ meanings are their form, syntax, literal and metaphorical meanings and so forth. These are also distinct from use, but the distinction is harder to see.

1Hermeneutic corollary to my standing caveat: when I claim that Wittgenstein says such-and-such I really do believe I know what he’s getting at. However, Wittgenstein–in both the gnomic Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and the deceptively plain-spoken Philosophical Investigations–is often difficult to understand, so strictly speaking I should hedge on this claim, but I won’t actually write the hedging words because they would get tiresome to read, and anyway I don’t in the end care what Wittgenstein thought. What is actually happening in these posts is that I come up with an idea on my own, and only as I am working through it do I realize that it sounds like something I read in Philosophical Investigations. So in the interest of maximal modesty let me propose the following ground rule: all correct ideas here are Wittgenstein’s, and all errors are my own.

2For example, the metaphor-as-tea image evoked by “infuse”.

3At which point the ESL student will say, “Oh I see: firecracker.” Metaphors are not hard to understand. What’s difficult for ESL students is our damn prepositions. Is the car “out” of gas or “under” gas? Why does one lie “in” bed instead of “over” it? They’ll try to puzzle things out and inevitably pick the wrong word. In this instance you have to tell them to shut off their finely-attuned human sense for metaphor and just memorize by rote.

4See, for example, Ray Jackendoff’s Foundations of Language for a discussion of these more complex lexical entries. Syntactic theories such as Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar have developed quite lovely formalisms for expressing this variable notion of compositionally in a precise way.

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