Ludwig Wittgenstein said:

The difficulty of my theory of logical portrayal was that of finding a connection between the signs on paper and a situation outside in the world. I always said that truth is a relation between the proposition and the situation, but could never pick out such a relation.

Latter he abandoned this approach. From this I am gathering at least Wittgenstein thought no such relation exists. Does that conclusion hold today? If the function of a linguistic entity is not to refer to something in the world then what is it's function?

  • 1
    Hi, and Welcome to Phil.SE! Is this quote, by any chance from Wittgensteins Philosophical Investigations? Commented Nov 14, 2015 at 3:02
  • It's from Notebooks. Commented Nov 14, 2015 at 5:14

6 Answers 6


There's three basic answers you're going to run into in philosophy.

First, there's a Platonist answer where what we encounter in the world are echoes of ideas -- not words. And thus, things correspond to more real ideas. These are the Forms in Plato's philosophy and they are eternal and unchangeable. I wouldn't say this view is too popular.

Second, there's an Aristotelian answer where things have essences or souls (in the case of living things) that guide what they are. We in turn perceive these through our senses, and ideally our linguistic terms refer to these essences. Again, the main philosophical element in these views will not be words. Instead, words will be terms for these things we capture (or words for things we mis-capture)

Third, there are views that take words to belong to us and then to somehow relate to things in the world. Goodies' answer is largely about one version of this. What these views share is a belief that terms are in our head. One of the older versions of this is "nominalism" which was the medieval view that the primary thing we are working with is names rather than essences or forms.

I would say most contemporary philosophers have some version of the third view. As far as I'm aware, there are roughly speaking three versions of the third view.

One version follows the logical positivists to some extent in analyzing language into pieces. Some followers of this view will talk a lot about "language games" (following Wittgenstein) Others may speak about "rigid designators" and how our words pick out particular things across all possible worlds (following Kripke). A third view looks at "speech acts" and the performative role of language in our cultures.

A second version follows Kant in believing that ideas are in our head but have a normal arrangement as a function of the sort of rational beings we are. (I take it that this would capture the views of language of Marcia Baron, Christine Korsgaard, O'Nora O'Neill)

A third version follows Hegel and thinks that ideas are shaped by our thought but that the arrangement is dynamically changing. (Contemporary followers of this sort of account may also pay homage to the second variation. I'd put Seyla Benhabib and Jurgen Habermas here)

I take most of the followers of these versions to believe our words do have some relation to reality but this may not be true for each individual in each camp. For instance, Rorty seems to think our words have a merely arbitrary relation to reality and he's a descendent of the first variation on this third one.

Some "post-modern" interpretations -- so called -- in part because they reject this is that our words have no relation to anything. How true this is of any person any labels "post-modern" is unclear. But at certain moments Derrida seems to be doing this.

  • @ Virmaior -Before deciding any relationship between words and objects, it is necessary to sort out the categories of words/thoughts in our minds. By doing so we can separate out those that are imaginary: zombies, unicorns, square circles, etc and then those words which stand for actual objects and things in the real world: trees, people, buildings, books, etc. By doing this we can see that there is a potential for suggesting a correlation between thoughts and things. Seems simple minded, but it is a starting point for describing metaphysical values.
    – user37981
    Commented Sep 6, 2020 at 18:15

@virmaior gave a nice overview of positions on this question, and as is the usual case in philosophy, there is not a single answer, and no agreement among philosophers.

Therefore, since you began with Wittgenstein, you might as well continue with him into his Philosophical Investigations.

I have recently started reading it, and you can consider this attempt at an answer, an exercise in wrapping my head around it:

If I understand him roughly, we may say the relation between a linguistic entity as you call it, and reality is not one that can be expressed by a general rule or logic or an essence or an explanation.

(108) We see that what we call “proposition”, “language”, has not the formal unity that I imagined, but is a family of structures more or less akin to one another. —– But what becomes of logic now? Its rigour seems to be giving way here. — But in that case doesn’t logic altogether disappear? — For how can logic lose its rigour? Of course not by our bargaining any of its rigour out of it. — The preconception of crystalline purity can only be removed by turning our whole inquiry around.

Whether it is a word, or a sentence, its meaning and its relation to things in the world is not something intrinsic to the word, or the sentence, but also depends on the context, its use, its application, or what Wittgenstein calls language games - and there are many language games, and there are no sharp boundaries between them, or a common set of rules that explains how they all work.

(117) I am told: “You understand this expression, don’t you? Well then a I’m using it with the meaning you’re familiar with.” As if the meaning were an aura the word brings along with it and retains in every kind of use.

You can investigate how a word is used in a particular circumstance, but you should realize that what you come up with is good for that circumstance, that use.

And he advocates against our tendency to look for a hidden metaphysical essence of language, and its relation to reality.

(113) “But this is how it is — — —”, I say to myself over and over again. I feel as though, if only I could fix my gaze absolutely sharply on this fact and get it into focus, I could not but grasp the essence of the matter.

(114) Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (4.5): “The general form of propositions is: This is how things are.” —– That is the kind of proposition one repeats to oneself countless times. One thinks that one is tracing nature over and over again, and one is merely tracing round the frame through which we look at it.

In short, linguistic entities relate to the world in many many different ways, not a single one; we can "survey" those ways, not explain them with a principle.

Wittgenstein begins the book by investigating how names correspond to things in the world - I have recently posted a question about it here: Wittgenstein on names and paradigms.

EDIT - here is a good video of Searle and Bryan Magee discussing Wittgenstein's view on this question - https://youtu.be/kl-iLxleHaw


The text you quoted from the Notebooks most probably does refer to the tension, in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, BETWEEN the aim of building an ideal perfect language, in accordance with an austere extensional scheme governed by the necessary laws of logic, AND the evidence that many linguistic expressions which have indubitably sense don't comply with that scheme. This tension was very probably one of the reason why he changed his philosophy in his intermediate period, which culminated in the Philosophical Investigations, and stopped thinking in terms of syntax and semantics, focused on MEANING (1): he started thinking in terms of pragmatics, focused on USE of language (2).

(1) First Wittgenstein: Syntax and Pragmatics look for the MEANING of linguistic sentences.

What is the relation if there any between a linguistic entity and things in the world?

the relation between a linguistic entity and things in the world is the theory of a proposition as a picture (the picture theory, considered the main theory in the Tractatus Logico-Philoosophicus): propositions, for being projections in words of situations which can be thought of (/logically depicted), share with the thoughts the status of being picture of the reality, in other terms they represent the world.

More specifically, each sentence, in order to have a sense, must represent a fact, which is a given disposition of object in the world. It can do that because it shares with reality the pictorial form, therefore each one of the constituents of the meaningful declarative sentence must be proxy for each one of the component of the depicted situation. It is equivalent to say that each name which occurs in the sentence must have a reference (bedeutung). Just to be clear, if I'm looking at a dog and a chair in this moment and I say "The dog is under the chair", it is a meaningful declarative sentence, since both "dog" and "chair" have a reference, which are the existent objects I'm looking at. It can be either true or false (since the fact that the dog is under the chair it's contingent, not necessary), but the point is that I AM ABLE to establish if it's either true or false (i.e. its truth-value) by virtue of this correlation between the disposition of the names in the proposition and the disposition of objects in the fact.

On the other hand, for instance, the quote from Nietzsche "If you look long enough to the abyss, the abyss will look back to you" is senseless in the tractarian perspective, because the sense which I grasp doesn't depend on a correlation between names and objects, so it is nonsensical (unsinnig sätze).

The backround of this assumptions is the solder and austere scheme governed by the necessary / tautological laws of logic (and mathematics, which is a logical method). This syntactical aspect is closely connected with the SEMANTICS because what corresponds to the general form is MEANINGFUL (and also Wittgenstein was basically concerned with propositional logic since it is decidable and therefore it complies with the requirements of a pure truth-functionality, since the understanding of the meaning is based on the knowing the truth-conditions).

This has implications on the theory of knowledge as well: in the tractarian viewpoint I don't understand wether a sentence is true and THEN decide what it means, BUT I FIRSTLY understand its MEANING and then decide if it's true or not by virtue of mechanical decisions (truth-tables)

This importance assigned to MEANING in accordance with logical crieteria belongs to the part of his philosophy which is contextualized in the so called "Early/first Wittgenstein" phase. But, as you sayed,

later he abandoned this approach

in fact ->

(2) Second Wittgenstein: Pragmatics look for USES of language

The second phase of "later/second Wittgenstein" is mainly represented by the Philosophical investigations (1953), in which the working out of all the consequences of a total rejection of dogmatism culminated. The second Wittgenstein criticized his own Tractatus itself for being dogmatic, in the sense that it pretended to reduce all the linguistic expression to an abstract general form (([p-, ξ-, N(ξ-)]), according to which they are all equal. But let's considere again the quote from Nietzsche:

"If you look long enough to the abyss, the abyss will look back to you"

The tension was: How to justify the fact that such kind of sentences hold a sense, although they don't have a meaning in logical terms? Or on the other hands how to deny that they have a sense, although it is undeniable that they have it? The answer provided by the second Wittgenstein can be summed up somewhat like the following: "dont' look for the MEANING, look for the USE". So such a sentence has a sense depending on its uses in a specific context (/on the rules of a "language-game") instead than on a logical decisional procedure: the linguistic context in this case is that of a group of philosophers who are talking not about Wittgenstein but about Nietzsche, and then we have an interpretation of it. I'm no longer worried about the references (bedeutung) of its names, since the rule of calculus-correctness doesn't hold in this other linguistic context.

To answer your last question synthetically,

If the function of a linguistic entity is not to refer to something in the world then what is it's function?

The relation between a linguistic entity and the world is fundamental but with regards to technical linguistic problems only, if we analyze language in the perspective of calculus-correctness. In the wider perspective of Philosophical Investigartions there are other "perspectives" (infinite language-games) we are allowed to refer to in order to be able to understand the sense of a sentence, in a sense.


Words, of course, have no intrinsic meaning (platonism aside). We give them meaning by using them repeatedly in certain contexts. As with any animal, humans learn by the repeated association of related, causally or otherwise, stimuli. When someone says "there is a red car," we know exactly what they mean. Why is that?

Each of these words has an associated usage with past experiences of our lives.
~ "There" is an adverb/preposition depending on context. It tells us the location or state of something.
~ "is a" tells us the state of a single object
~ "red" has been associated with a certain perception of wavelengths of light
~ "car" is an everyday object with which we have a lot of experience and for which we have many prototypes.

This is a very easy example because we have all seen a red car at some point in our lives and it's easy to understand how a repeated assosciation of the words with the object can be made. However, the relationship turns interesting when we discuss an object that has never been known to exist or one with which we have never associated. For example, I will describe the following mythical animal:

"A bipedal fish-like creature who can walk on his fins and speaks fluent latin while holding an inside-out umbrella."

This is something that does not, and essentially could not, exist as I have described it. And yet it is probably very easy to picture such a creature because we have concepts of each of these individual words. A Gestalt psychologist might find something interesting here. Linguistic entities do not inherently map to reality, but to concepts and perceptions, and our minds can create new concepts of entities based on already understood attributes (bipedalism, spoken language, umbrella-carrying) that have associated words/descriptions.

Words/symbols do not map to reality so much as they map to our own concepts, which in turn may map to reality, partially or fully.


The difficulty of my theory of logical portrayal was that of finding a connection between the signs on paper and a situation outside in the world.

The 'signs on paper' can be a letter, or a sentence, or a proposition written down; and the 'situation outside in the world' are states of affairs, or when thought through to irreducible components - atomic facts.

I always said that truth is a relation between the proposition and the situation

This is the Correspondance theory of Truth.

Generally, when people are unreflective (which is no bad thing, as they might be reflecting on other things of greater personal or immediate import - a murder perhaps or why the dog did not bark) they conflate the 'words on paper', the sentence with the concept the sentence contains; here, for Wittgenstein - this is the proposition.

but could never pick out such a relation.

This does not neccessarily mean that there is no relation, but that it is difficult to pin down completely and with the exactitude that Wittgenstein might wish and desire.

The extract could conceivably be before he wrote the Tractatus, which goes about settling this problem (and does actually settle it - according to Russell's introduction); or after, when he turns against his specific programme - or finds it problematic; or insufficient.


It is virtually impossible, after the centuries we have spent trying (cf Virmaior's and Goodies's outlines; Plato to Kant to Frege, Quine to Davidson, Putnam and Kriptke),to say with any degree of certainty how our words/sentences/propositions noninferentially "hook up to" reality/the world (also cf. Wittgenstein's word/world movement from the atomistic/reductionistic "picture theory" of the Tractatus [a technical/logical correspondence theory] to the "rule application" and "use theory" of the Investigations). As Putnam observed, "There is no fact of the matter as to what any of our terms refer to." (Words and Life, 1994, p. 279). One could trivially say, with James, that our words, if "true", "agree with" (leaving the term "agree" undefined) reality/the world, or, with Rorty (via the [Darwinian] early pragmatists), that confronted with specific aspects of the world we [our brains] are causally disposed to use certain words in certain ways in order to "cope" with those aspects of reality/the world. After thousands of years, little more can be said.

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