Maybe , we can undermine this stance by looking at what "meaning is use" implies or requires.

How do we determine the correct usage in a context or do the words decide the context ? This would lead to a circular definition in any case. Every language game certainly has some rules but do we have rules for following such rules ? These questions do not have a satisfactory answer.

Are there any other ways to argue against the concept "meaning is use" . There should be plenty.

  • 1
    Language is holistic and context-dependent. The holistic part means there is no circularity. Have you read any relevant literature on that or is this merely your whim?
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Aug 14, 2020 at 4:50
  • 1
    @Philip Klöcking I didn't say that it should be independent of any context. How does it relate to the context in which it is used ? Are there arguments against the position taken by Wittgenstein. I could have phrased it better but in my opinion "meaning is use" is wrong. How do we determine the correct usage, are there rules for the usage. Commented Aug 14, 2020 at 5:30
  • 1
    @Philip klöcking Does the language we speak shape our reality or does reality shape our language? How is this question not important. If we take Wittgenstein's idea , it implies that language shapes reality but at the same time it also says that we must take meaning as use BUT use can only be decided in a context. I hope you get my point, l have read Wittgenstein's books ( Tractatus and PI ) but l can't say if l understand them totally. Commented Aug 14, 2020 at 6:17
  • 1
    A popular modern derivative of "meaning is use" is inferentialist semantics, criticisms of which are discussed by IEP. See also related thread What criticisms of Wittgenstein's philosophy of language have been offered?
    – Conifold
    Commented Aug 15, 2020 at 9:00
  • 1
    @gonzo Indeed. "What a thing means is simply what habits it involves", Peirce, How to Make Our Ideas Clear (1878). "The sound h-a-t gains meaning in precisely the same way that the thing ‘hat’ gains it, by being used in a given way", Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916). Wittgenstein only came to "meaning is use" in Blue Book (1933).
    – Conifold
    Commented Aug 15, 2020 at 9:09

2 Answers 2


You have hit upon one of the constituting tenents or dogmas of post-positivism. For instance, in his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, the neo-pragmatist, post-positivist and post-modernist, Richard Rorty, claims that:

"To say that something [a word, for instance, or a sentence] is better 'understood' in one vocabulary than another is always an ellipsis for the claim that a description in the preferred vocabulary is more useful for a certain purpose... we shall say that all inquiry is interpretation, that all thought is recontextualization... thinking of the entire culture, from physics to poetry, as a single, continuous, seamless activity in which the divisions are merely institutional and pedagogical."

Being a naturalist, he admitted that our language was somehow “shaped” by the environment, but vigorously and repeatedly denied

“that it is explanatorily useful to pick and choose among the contents of our minds or our language [word/term/sentence] and say that this or that item ‘corresponds to’ or ‘represents’ the environment in a way that some other item does not.” (Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth.)

In fact, he denied that knowledge was a matter of “getting reality right,” but rather it was a matter of “acquiring habits of action for coping with reality.” (Id., p. 1). In order to understand how we got to this point, and to competently criticize the “meaning is [nothing but] use” slogan, you might start by perusing these articles:







  • 2
    In fairness, as far as analytic philosophy of language goes, including pragmatists, Rorty is an outlier. Wittgenstein, and especially Peirceans and later Wittgensteinians, are more plausibly interpreted as saying that the shaping of language by reality is mediated by communal practices, which adds a conventional aspect to it but does not remove the correspondence, see e.g. Child, Meaning, Use, and Supervenience. Moreover, Rorty's cultural relativism is happily shared by post-structuralists, to whom meaning is not use, so that is an independent dogma.
    – Conifold
    Commented Aug 15, 2020 at 8:41
  • Rorty may be an outlier to respectable journeymen philosophers such as yourself, who prefer more nuanced, moderate pragmatists/post positivists like Quine, Davidson and Putnam. But the talking head pundits and social studies/science academics, who inform the volk, the hoi polloi, of what they are justified in believing, much prefer Rortian hyperbole (cf Zammito). But, point taken. I was actually also going to tie in Piercean "habits", but decided not to go there. Was mainly concerned with disabusing the OP of the idea that "meaning is use" is an exclusively Wittgensteinian notion.
    – gonzo
    Commented Aug 15, 2020 at 15:25

In Wittgenstein philosophy of "meaning is use" corresponds to our undrestanding about space-time.

Wittgenstein’s statement “The meaning of a word is its use in the language. Therefore, statements of this type about a relation between the meaning of words and their use are of direct relevance for this method of dissolving philosophical problems.

As Wittgenstein notes, the use is always extended in time .

Something extended in time is, in the mind, present in its entirety at one moment. The thought about a tune is present as timeless

Language is a “spatial and temporal phenomenon”

When using ordinary objects of perception we move around in space and time.

meaning as an object of thought is a general mental entity that is present to the mind as a whole in one moment of time. A general entity is timeless, and its mode of existence is different from that of particular objects and uses of sign-vehicles.

Meanings as objects of thought exist in a way that makes them timeless in spite of the fact that the definition “meaning is use” refers to actual and thus temporal uses of words and other sign-vehicles.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .