What if we asked someone, “In what sense are these words a description of what you see?” — and he answers: “I mean this by these words.” (Perhaps he was looking at a landscape.) Why is this answer “I mean this . . .” no answer at all?
How does one mean, with words, what one sees before one?
Suppose I said “a b c d” and meant thereby: the weather is fine. For as I uttered these signs, I had the experience normally had only by someone who, year in, year out, used “a” in the sense of “the”, “b” in the sense of “weather”, and so on. — Does “a b c d” now say: the weather is fine?
What should be the criterion for my having had that experience?

I have hard time understanding this excerpt. My attempted interpretation is like this: Suppose a man stands before a landscape and shouts "The landscape is magnificient". The man cannot mean the landscape by these words, for his utterance does not refer to the landscape, but expresses the magnificience of the landscape. However, I am very suspicious of whether my interpretation is correct.

Also, does "a b c d" do indeed say "the weather is fine"? What is Wittgenstein's opinion on this?

  • 1
    His main argument here is the inevitable ostensive linguistic meaning people often ask such as what is "the landscape", "this paper" is like a game's rules which are public and objective only in a given context or inter-culture, absolutely strictly speaking they're like beetles in a box without a fixed meaning. For example even you point to a paper and claim "this paper is white" I could counter-claim it's nonsense since I can interpret you're point at its material quality or its weight or its content, not its color as most likely assumed... Commented Sep 26, 2022 at 1:32
  • IMO ii is not about "ostensive language" but about the (controversial for W) triangle: "object-symbol-meaning". When I use a symbol (an expression) to express an experience ("I see...") the meaning is related to my experience, and this is not something objective (something that I can share with others). Meaning instead, is usually considered objective (at least: intersubjective). Commented Sep 27, 2022 at 11:12
  • Are you aware that Wittgenstein is considered by professional logicians to have a key lack of understanding of logic? Moreover, he himself didn't even bother to try fixing his own conceptual errors. So there is really little benefit to trying to figure out what opinions he had.
    – user21820
    Commented Dec 24, 2022 at 7:45

1 Answer 1


One way to take W's point here is to focus on the "a b c d" example. The idea is that sentences and utterances of sentences do not mean what they mean in virtue of the private (or shared) subjective associations individual people might have. They mean what they mean because of a shared way of using language by a group of people. Subjective associations are typically private and could be entirely idiosyncratic. Language is public. W's final remark (question) underscores this point by turning attention to what happens when we use public language to describe inner experiences. In effect, it's the other way around. Because there is already a shared way of using words in a language, which people are automatically trained in early on, it is then possible to describe the idiosyncratic inner experience of someone who, having been trained to use the individual words of a language such as "weather", "fine", "the", etc. can then use these same words, with their usual intended meanings, to describe their experiences. They can certainly use these public words to describe private associations but their utterances are intelligible to us in the first place because they know how to ordinarily use these words like the rest of us (viewing fine landscapes outside). This meaning "like the rest of us", in turn, is accomplished without any special subjective acts of intention to associate any mental representations with other mental representations. There is just the common way of using words. The subjective is the wrong level of analysis of language.

You must log in to answer this question.

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