Wittgenstein's language game concept holds that the meaning of a word can only be derived from its usage. However, some philosophers contend that some words have meanings other than that implied by their usage. What evidence is there to this effect? Wittgenstein, however, repudiated the idea that language is separate from reality. Language and action are interwoven.

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    Words have meanings based on how they were once used, but are not anymore, and there are multiple language games played by different communities giving them different meanings based on how they are used ("substance" in chemistry and in philosophy mean different things). There are non-Wittgensteinian conceptions of meaning that would attach "compositional" meanings to some compound words even if they are not (so far) used by anyone. This is how people neologize by attaching prefixes and suffixes to existing words, for example.
    – Conifold
    Commented Oct 27, 2023 at 19:12
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    Surely words mean whatever people take them to mean. Commented Oct 27, 2023 at 19:54
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    there is the difference between langue and parole, the latter meaning use as opposed to rules of language. i tend to think of the signifier as arbitrary, but that may be slightly hyperbolic, if only becasue you do need to be understood
    – user67675
    Commented Oct 27, 2023 at 23:43
  • Adding to Conifold's point, words can be used in ways that are quite different from their meanings, e.g. in metaphors, or when saying something ironically, or perhaps within a joke. Once a word has a conventional meaning, speakers can exploit the convention to convey something else.
    – Bumble
    Commented Oct 28, 2023 at 8:32
  • Wittgenstein (requiescat in pace) himself, perhaps in sagacious anticipation of such queries, goes out of his way to furnish us with at least one explanans. No?
    – Hudjefa
    Commented Oct 28, 2023 at 8:58

2 Answers 2


Meanings of words are attributed to them by humans. One consequence is that you can never be sure whether the meaning of a word intended by the person who utters or writes it is the same as the meaning assumed by a person who reads or hears it. A case in point is the word usage which appears in your question. I cannot be sure whether you intended it 1) simply as a synonym for use, or 2) in the narrower sense to denote the way in which words are normally used. Another is the word meaning itself- are you limiting its scope to indicate 3) the kind of meaning that is defined in dictionaries, or are you including 4) the wider significance a word might have? For example, 'Birkenhead' might be taken to mean the name of a town in Merseyside, but the word could have all kinds of connotations to a person raised there. The word 'askmplet' found carved on a tree might have no dictionary meaning, but it would still convey the meaning 'someone carved this'.

If you meant 2) and 3), then clearly words can have meanings that are not the same as their dictionary meanings. On the other hand, if you meant 1), 3) and 4) then the answer is no- words have no meaning outside the meanings attributed to them by people.

  • +1. I like the categorization of "use" here. I was implicitly assuming something along 4 in my answer but veered into can we know vs does it happen.
    – Annika
    Commented Oct 28, 2023 at 19:29

Every word at some point had to acquire its current meanings. But the question is which came first? Did meaning come first and then we apply a word to it so we can refer to the meaning. Or did we just notice that a sound we randomly babbled happened to be correlated with some external object or some concept that was near the speaker at the time? Clearly the former makes more sense but linguists would probably know for sure.

I don't understand how we can know a word can has a meaning if it has never been used that way. How would you establish that such a word has acquired that meaning?

Even saying "Term X now has a new meaning Y" would count as a usage of the word, hence go back to the usual definition.

An argument for "hidden meaning agnosticism" could be structured as such:

  1. [Premise] A word X has meaning Y iff such a mapping between X and Y has existed at some point in time.
  2. [Premise] Not all mappings between words and meanings are externalized via writing or speaking.
  3. [Premise] People cannot know each others mappings between words and meanings unless they are externalized.

Therefore, if there are meanings other than those expressed in written or spoken language for a given word X, we cannot know it.

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