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  • Writer's pictureTashroom Ahsan

What Does Use Illuminate About Language?

Children, like adults, are puzzled by language. They are simply more transparent about it. Unlike adults, they have yet to grasp how to use words. Their failures unfold quite clearly in the eyes of the perplexed schoolteacher, struggling to comprehend how a child could write the sentence “You and we going to eat the reds” with a conviction of its sense.

Wittgenstein, towards the beginning of his Philosophical Investigations, writes, “For a large class of cases of the employment of the word ‘meaning’ — though not for all — this word can be explained in this way: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.” The difference between the puzzled child and the puzzled adult is that the adult can both use and describe language, while the inner workings of the child struggle to do both. The adult philosophizes—the child stumbles. But why does the meaning of most words consist in their use? What does that mean? Wittgenstein spends the rest of his late work, in both the Philosophical Investigations and On Certainty, to illuminate this question. He discusses “hinge propositions,” which are judgements that give meaning to other statements. These judgements cannot be doubted and form our background and world-picture. Yet which judgements form our background depend upon what ‘makes sense’ in communication. By socially shifting what ‘makes sense,’ men can shape each other’s world picture, changing the indubitable. In using a word, or any statement, one must understand how a word operates—one must see both the word and its background and how the two fit together. The use of a word determines its meaning, not because words mean whatever we say they mean, but because the way we use a word both reveals and shapes the way the world appears to us.

We shall use the sentence “white tulips rustle in the wind” as an example of a statement which makes sense. It tells us something that we can understand and know, verifying it against experience. Wittgenstein clarifies why this sentence makes sense by describing the structure of language. For him, there are judgements at the “rock-bottom” of everything we can know. He writes, “At the foundation of well-founded belief lies a belief that is not well-founded.” There are judgements which are not subject to doubt. Wittgenstein writes, “the questions that we raise and our doubts depend on the fact that some propositions are exempt from doubt, are as it were like hinges on which those turn.” In order for doubt to make sense at all, there must be some judgements against which doubt can have meaning. Doubt cannot penetrate these judgements, for doubt would lose its own basis. In writing, “My life consists in my being content to accept many things,” Wittgenstein claims that life itself needs these indubitable judgements to “consist.” To verify our experience of white tulips rustling in the wind, we must admit of Newtonian mechanics, the existence of tulips and wind, the content of the color white, and many other systematic judgements which allow the sentence to have sense. We can call the view arising from this set of judgements our “world-picture,” since we understand the world through these judgements. We can verify whether or not tulips rustle because of these systematic judgements; we can see they do not rustle in the wind, while other things do. We cannot, however, doubt Newtonian mechanics, as this would fundamentally shift our world-picture. We cannot imagine going about our world without Newtonian mechanics, so we do not doubt it.

Doubting we have two hands, however, is an example of a statement which does not make sense. For Wittgenstein, we (two people with two hands, presumably) cannot meaningfully doubt whether or not we have two hands. He writes: “All testing, all confirmation and disconfirmation of a hypothesis takes place already within a system. And this system…belongs to the essence of what we call an argument. The system is…[where] arguments have their life.” Our sentence about tulips makes sense because it is contained within the system of our physical world. It operates as a hypothesis in a particular context. “I doubt I have two hands,” however, lacks a system in which it has life. Under what conceivable system can we doubt our two hands? We could doubt the entire external world, or our own body, but this system lacks the ability for confirmation and disconfirmation. Wittgenstein writes, “If someone says ‘I have a body’, he can be asked: ‘Who is speaking here with this mouth?’” One cannot answer this question without calling into question the existence of the body. The doubt penetrates a judgement too close to our world for us to doubt it. It fails to enable verifiability, so this system is no system at all. Our “doubt” is doubt only in name.

On the basis of our indubitable judgements, we communicate. Wittgenstein writes, “It is not only agreement in definitions, but also (odd as it may sound) agreement in judgements that is required for communication by means of language.” When I say “white tulips rustle in the wind,” another person can understand me because we both agree about Newtonian mechanics, the existence of the world, whiteness, etc. Unsaid, indubitable, systematic judgements form the “background” of life, creating the world-picture through which we make sense of the world. They are the rules of the language game; that is, they form the system in which communication has meaning. Communication needs a shared background to make sense.

The background is indubitable, allowing for certainty in other judgements to have sense. But the background itself is uncertain. Though it forms the “rock bottom” of our convictions, Wittgenstein clarifies that “one might almost say that these foundation-walls are carried by the whole house.”2 Somehow, the statements made on the foundation of the background carry it, make it stable. This is because our background does not belong to us alone. For instance, we cannot doubt that we have two hands, “but it isn’t just that I believe in this way that I have two hands, but that every reasonable person does.” The agreement of what makes sense determines the stable, systematic judgements used by each individual. Wittgenstein writes, “What men consider reasonable or unreasonable alters.” Men, not one man, determines the system under which we assert that some statement is ‘reasonable’ or not. There can, eventually, be a system in which we doubt we have two hands, because men consider this doubt reasonable. We would then go about communicating with one another, taking the whole system that gives life to that doubt for granted when we speak. We currently lack such a system, so this doubt makes no sense—yet it could. Backgrounds create the rules of a language game, but “a language-game does change with time,” and men can initiate this change. Through a shift in the imagination—the conceivability of doubt—we can change our background.

We find ourselves in a vicious circle. On the one hand, all of our statements about the world rest on indubitable judgements that allow us to have certainty, doubt, and communication. On the other hand, these indubitable judgements are socially contingent, determined by what is said. What comes first: the shared background or communication?

Before we address this circle, we must first clarify the difference between knowing and understanding a word. Wittgenstein writes:

‘I know’ has a primitive meaning similar to and related to ‘I see…’ ‘I know’ is supposed to express a relation…between me and a fact…This would give us a picture of knowing as the perception of an outer event through visual rays which project it as it is into the eye and the consciousness…And this picture does indeed show how our imagination presents knowledge, but not what lies at the bottom of this presentation.


“Knowing” expresses a relation between me and a fact. A fact, like “white tulips rustle in the wind,” can be verified against the background. To know is to have acquired a fact, a loose statement without a background. Knowledge needs the background, but does not offer it. For Wittgenstein, ‘knowing’ something like the tulips rustling presupposes a picture with an assumption of how light enters the eye, creating consciousness. The picture depicts the mechanism through which our ‘knowledge’ makes sense. I could imagine a different mechanism, like that my eye projects light out and illuminates everything that I see. Nothing would change about how I fundamentally deal with the world. The ‘picture’ which knowledge needs merely describes the mechanism, a mechanism which makes sense because of the background which goes unsaid. That “what I see is there” is a tacit judgement underlying knowledge, which a fact does not give.

Understanding, on the other hand, contains the background. Wittgenstein writes, “[When he understands] he can ‘fill out the picture’ in this way. (And this ability is part of understanding what I tell him).” Understanding ‘fills in’ the world picture—it includes the background. When we understand a word, we grasp its role and the background against which it has meaning. We can see the puzzle piece along with the entire puzzle. Knowing points out the ‘fact’ against a background. It does not acknowledge the background. Understanding takes the fact in, with the background, and makes it meaningful enough to use.

We must understand what we are communicating in order to communicate. This goes for both words and sentences. We can ‘know’ a word or statement by a definition: for instance, that tulip is white—in other words, white is an aspect of that tulip. But only when a child points out multiple tulips, all of which are white, and calls them white; then points at a white wall and calls it white; then points at a blue bottle, and declares it to not be white; only when one demonstrates their understanding through use do we say that one understands what white is. The same child may not be able to describe white, or define it in any way, but he can make use of it. “From a child up I learnt to judge; this I got to know as judgement,” writes Wittgenstein. By refusing to state how judgement develops from childhood, Wittgenstein points out that the reader can recognize ‘this.’ We know what it is to judge—for we have grown from childhood and speak to others. In speaking, we have already learned judgement. We show it through use.

Using a word demonstrates the understanding which makes a word meaningful. Analyzing the use of a word tells us all we need to know about it. The use gestures towards the background that gives the word sense and the context where its definition is applied. By declaring the meaning of the word to consist in its use, Wittgenstein tells us that understanding arises socially. Using a word needs one to have both the background and to communicate. One knows the meaning of a word through use—by seeing multiple moves in the language game the word operates, one sees the rules of the game, thereby understanding the word. Use brings the background forth. Though the background must exist before one uses a word—the rules must be set before the game is played—different uses of a word can change the rules. An illegal move can become legal. Use, then, shapes the background by demonstrating what is permitted. The background cannot be doubted, but it can be brought forth differently, shaped by the way a word is used.

The limits of what makes sense in communication fundamentally shapes the limits of human imagination. For example, by stating that “mankind has landed on the moon,” and this making sense, we have fundamentally altered the range of what we can doubt. Before this made sense, we could not conceive of mankind landing on the moon—our systematic judgements and understandings of physics did not allow for this. Wittgenstein, writing before man has landed on the moon, claims that we cannot conceive of how one could get on the moon. But now this idea makes sense—we can conceive of it happening with a big rocket—so now we can doubt whether or not we’ve been near earth our entire lives. This doubt may not have much fodder, given other aspects of our background (like us being poor, non-astronauts), but the doubt makes sense when it did not before.

Through communication with others, one comes to understand a word. Understanding the word draws out the background in which the use of words makes sense. Our systematic judgements, the indubitable, gains meaning from the very things that it gives meaning to.

What can be known must be known against a background, for that is what gives knowledge life. Yet what is drawn from the background rests on what is said. Wittgenstein asks us to look at the use of a word to understand it because use reveals the word’s background and its particular roles within the background. It is not that a word can change use however anyone would like, but rather that a word, through its use, unveils the whole background against which it has sense. By looking at one word, one can see all the tacit judgements needed to make it meaningful in its immediate use.


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