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Why Wittgenstein is Wrong about Language and Meaning

10/24/12

Permalink 11:15:00 pm, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 644 words   English (US)
Categories: Words and Meanings

Why Wittgenstein is Wrong about Language and Meaning

This post continues the series on language and meaning. In prior posts, I laid out the case that language has meaning based on the ideas that we have in mind when we communicate, and that this meaning is socially constructed but it also ultimately derives from conceptual atoms that are innate to the mind. Complex concepts are constructed in our minds through a system that can be understood as a language of thought that can be called “mentalese”

As was explained in an earlier post, Ludwig Wittgenstein argued that the concept of a private language is incoherent. Wittgenstein came to this conclusion based on the understanding that a private language is one that is understandable to only one person and cannot conceivably be understood by anyone else. This definition, however, is inconsistent with what is known about mentalese. As was explained in an earlier post, it is not possible to have an objective understanding of other people's thoughts, but it is possible to formulate an intersubjective understanding. This task was partially done in the posts leading up to this one. So it is possible for mentalese to be understood by multiple people because we all have the same conceptual atoms and the same rules through which more complex concepts are constructed from these atoms.

Wittgenstein's thought experiment about the “beetles” in each person's box is without merit because it would be possible in this situation for the different people to discuss amongst themselves the properties of their “beetle” and from this to figure out if they are similar objects or not. If multiple people had similar contents in their respective boxes, then through communication they could formulate an intersubjective understanding of what a “beetle” is. Similarly, multiple people can discuss the properties of any sort of first person experience, including pain, happiness, etc. and from this they can form an intersubjective understanding of these experiences. People can also have a shared understanding of the atoms of thought and how they relate to the linguistic symbols with which we communicate.

This system of mentalese involves the possibility that a system of logic could be formulated that is a close approximation of how people actually think. Some have argued that there are paradoxes that seem to show that logic is fundamentally flawed. One such paradox, which can be traced back to the ancient Greek philosopher Eubulides of Miletus, is the so-called liar paradox, which is “this statement is false”. If that statement were false, then it would intuitively seem that it is true. Conversely, if the statement were true then it would intuitively seem that it is false. This paradox can be solved if one remembers that the meaning of all statements lies in the ideas that one has in mind when they say them. The mentalese that results when this statement is interpreted would have to include a token of the atom that refers to another thought, since this is how one is able to analyze language and meaning. As was explained in last week's post, however, thoughts cannot actually refer to themselves. You just can't think about the same thought that you are thinking. If that doesn't make sense, well then that kind of illustrates the point that a self-referring thought is impossible. As such, any statement that contains the phrase “this statement” or something of this sort is nothing more than a nonsense statement. It seems reasonable that all logical paradoxes should be solvable by analyzing the mentalese that results when one attempts to understand the statement.

So in conclusion Wittgenstein is wrong in his contention that a language of thought is impossible. It has taken quite a few posts to get to this point but there is still one more left. Next week I will try to bring together the theory of mentalese with some modern science about how the brain works.

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