Wittgenstein originally put forward the 'picture theory of meaning', which propagated that a given sentence or word is meaningful insofar as it corresponds to a fact or 'picture' of the world. The only statements that could be meaningful were true statements, and the only way a statement could be true is if it corresponded to some 'picture' or facts.

Wittgenstein would later substitute this view of language in favor of a semantic system with more pragmatic overtones. So instead of a sentence or term possessing meaning in virtue of it referring to some picture, it possessed meaning insofar as it possessed a certain use. And use, unlike reference, is context-dependent.

This inevitably leads to what Quine would later philosophize about the nature of meaning, that it is indeterminate. If it is by the context of our behavior (or any other context for that matter) that meaning is determined, then there are countless ways that we can interpret any meaning. The test seems to have the consequence that meaning is not truly determined in an absolute way, that there simply are no truth-conditions for any given sentence.

But it seems questionable that this analysis is exhaustive, especially considering its cost. We can imagine, for example, that we instead follow the medieval school of logic, which divides signification (the act of meaning) from supposition (the act of reference).

The medieval theory held that reference, unlike meaning, was context-dependent. Whereas earlier Wittgenstein seems to have believed that meaning could be hashed out in talk of reference alone, the medieval theory always thought, with later Wittgenstein and typical modern thought, that reference was an insufficient determinant of meaning.

But unlike later Wittgenstein and his proceeding troop of followers, the medieval theory held that meaning was determined immediately by the concept of an object and mediately determined by the ultimate significatum, which is the object itself. Reference, or supposition, could vary according to what meaning one had in mind, be it immediate or mediate. To say that meaning is 'context-dependent', for medieval thinkers, would be to confuse what 'meaning' is, for the meaning of a thing, insofar as it is, is known instantaneously in the very fact that the thought of it is entertained; meaning for the medievals, to put it another way, was inseparable from the act of meaning, the principle act of thought and understanding. This differs from modern presumptions which seem to believe the only way meaning can be determined is by a theory of reference.

Aside: What then, it might be asked, influenced Wittgenstein to believe a pragmatic semantic theory could account for meaning? In the hands of Quine it has been found that it can't. And long before Wittgenstein it was held that reference wasn't the main determinant of meaning anyway (and neither was context-dependent 'use' either), so it seems that there aren't only two possible determinants of meaning, be it rigid reference or context-dependent use. There is the option to believe that meaning lacks a condition under which it is known, not because meaning is indeterminate, but because the relation between thought and object of thought is not contingent; meaning under this semantic theory simply is.

To bring in the original and more modest question, does Wittgenstein think that his treatment of meaning is exhaustive? Or does he allow (at least in theory) that one can have a different approach to meaning, holding that it is neither reference nor use that determines a given statement's meaning?

  • And yeah I know this is a cray-cray amount of wordage. If that obscures what is being asked then just let me know and I can try to slim the fat.
    – Esse
    Apr 23, 2016 at 18:27
  • Two quibbles: first, I suspect late Ludwig would object to the suggestion that he proposed a "system" of anything, let alone semantics. Second, I suspect he would object to the idea that sentences or terms "possess" anything. Whatever practical significance they have is not due to some property or quality they (intrinsically) posess, but to they we use them. And we can use them however we please.
    – user20153
    Apr 23, 2016 at 19:47
  • Quine arrived at his conclusions independently of Wittgenstein and along a different route, I am not sure what "in the hands of Quine it has been found that it can't" refers to. If this is a reference to his behaviorism Kripke's "Wittgenstein" showed that the indeterminacy conclusions are independent of that. That is perhaps the most thorough attempt at interpreting what Wittgenstein might have "thought" circuitdebater.wikispaces.com/file/view/… Medieval theory lacks resources to answer Wittgensteinian sceptical arguments.
    – Conifold
    Apr 23, 2016 at 22:41
  • @mobileink Poor choice of words on my part then. I didn't intend to give off the impression that Wittgenstein held that sentences/terms were intrinsically meaningful. I am probably guilty of believing that Wittgenstein was offering a positive semantic system however (which I think is largely debatable).
    – Esse
    Apr 23, 2016 at 22:55
  • @Conifold I understand ol' Willard arrived at his conclusions independent of Wittgenstein. There is a pragmatic relation between the two however. And my 'reference' to Quine determining meaning to be indeterminate was a reference to Quine's conclusion that meaning is indeterminate in light of there being no one-on-one pairing between a word and our experiential import. Of course, Kripke has showed us that it is not only 'experiential' import that is indeterminate, but also any contextual action and use. And I'd be interested in hearing what 'resources' you think medievals lacked...?
    – Esse
    Apr 23, 2016 at 23:04

1 Answer 1


I don't think late Wittgenstein would have agree that he was presenting a positive theory of meaning, exhaustive or otherwise, so the answer to your question is "no". On the contrary, I suspect he would have thought of his late works as demolishing the very idea of an exhaustive theory of meaning, or any "theory" of meaning, for that matter. "Meaning is use" is not a theory, really. It's not a definition of meaning; it's more of an admonition - if you want to know what something means, ask how it is used.

Regarding the medievals: maybe the pragmatic equivalent is the notion that meaning is instituted by use. So meaning is coeval with use, or emergent, or whatever, but in any case it is not some separate, antecedently available "thing".

Or to put it another way: the distinction between context and meaning is a false dichotomy. Ditto for the semantics/pragmatics distinction.

P.S. I don't think Late Luddy thinks there is a pragmatic test for meaning. That would imply that you have some thing that you examine to discover if it has a meaning. That's not at all what meaning as use means, IMO.

  • So, just for funsies, would you say that your understanding of late Wittgenstein is that he isn't offering 'use' as a determinant or condition for meaning but as a replacement of meaning?
    – Esse
    Apr 23, 2016 at 21:21
  • 1
    Sorry for the delay. First, big diff. between "determinant" and "condition". I'm thinking ol' LW might go for the latter but definitely not the former. "Relacement"? I can't see it - the very idea suggests there is something to be replaced. "Subversion" is more like it; I read W as saying sth more like "stop looking for for this mythical beast 'meaning'! Its a monstrous waste of time, there's nothing there, there!" Look to usage, which is always local - grand universalisations are a pipedream. Something like that, anyway. hth.
    – user20153
    Apr 25, 2016 at 20:38
  • Thanks. I think your reading (as far as my little knowledge of Wittgenstein carries me) is a good one. Wittgenstein is notoriously difficult to translate and pinpoint though. Nevertheless, bravo.
    – Esse
    Apr 26, 2016 at 22:55

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