In Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language, the idea of use of very important: he says that for most of the ways in which we use the word “meaning”, “the meaning of a word is its use in the language” (Philosophical Investigations section 43). How are we to understand this claim? His examples, both explicit and embedded in his method, suggest that when we are looking at a speciic word or phrase and asking ourselves “what does this mean?” we need to turn, not to a dictionary or a definition provided by a single person, but to the ways in which fluent speakers of the language actually use the term. This might include ourselves, and Wittgenstein sometimes invites us to think about the ways in which we ourselves would use a term. Because natural language is complex and multilayered, these patterns of use usually turn out to be complex and multilayered, and a single word can have a variety of uses – and, hence, meanings.
(For example, think about the word ‘mouse’. What are the ways in which you use this word? “I saw a mouse in the kitchen.” “Do you remember that red rollerball mouse that came with our first computr?” Sometimes it won’t be instantly clear whether we’re talking about a rodent or a digital input device, but it will almost always become clear if we take into account the whole context of what is being said. This points us back to the importance of context, discussed in a previous post.)
“Meaning is use” is, in a way, very clear, and some scholars are opposed to extending or explaining it too much. However, it doesn’t, unfortunately, fit in with a very common use of the word “meaning”, which often conjures a picture of something like a halo around a word or something above and behind it which gives force to it. To get over this, I often start non-academic discussions by asking people how they think a word gets its meaning (most actually arrive at a Wittgensteinian view without a lot of effort, talking about learning from others and community agreement – this saves a lot of time if we don’t need to debunk ideas about stating definitions first!). Meaning consists in regular and comunally agreed uses. Mistaken uses are possible, but can become part of the meaning if repeated; a mistaken use can eventually become accepted, at which point it is no longer mistaken (“10 items or less”).
I also extend the analysis of use beyond words and phrases to look at structures within language – lists are my big example, but we could also look at the use of nouns and verbs, or metaphors, in much the same way. The question here is always: how does this community use this structure? The community – the context within which the linguistic structure is being used – is always as important to this analysis as the use itself. Meaning is use, which is always within a context.