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  • Writer's pictureTashroom Ahsan

Wittgensteinian Slabs

Philosophical arguments do nothing more than make a question more poignant, either by declaring or questioning. If we take this to be the case, then in remarks 19 and 20 Wittgenstein makes an argument. He raises the problem of what we mean by a sentence or word. He does this by playing with a language, one for which an imperative takes on the form of a word. By asking us what “Slab!” means, he sets us on the path of asking about the sense of words, and where sense bifurcates into possibility. Following along his inquiry, we will come to the new questions he raises.

Wittgenstein begins remark 19 by telling us that we can easily and typically conceive of a simple language—one in which each word and sentence has a unitary function. The language of remark 2 does this, wherein “Slab!” just signifies for an assistant to bring a slab to their worker. But in conceiving of this simple language, we quickly run into a problem. In the language of remark 2, one word signifies an imperative. When we conceive of an imperative, we think of a sentence. Yet the imperative “Slab!” consists of just one word, and we cannot explain it further in the bounds of the language of remark 2.

To this problem, Wittgenstein writes, “Why should I translate the call “Slab!” into a different expression in order to say what someone means by it? And if they mean the same thing, why shouldn’t I say, ‘When he says ‘Slab!’ he means ‘Slab!’?’” The ‘analysis’ of the word falls apart, for Wittgenstein, because the sense of the term—the imperative—lacks an essential linguistic form. We cannot go further than “Slab!” We can say ‘Slab!’ or ‘bring me the slab,’ and neither is more apt than another in expressing the same sense—they are simply different, incommensurable languages, meeting at this one sense. Wittgenstein seems to be gesturing towards the sense of the word, or sentence, as being its use, and that the units (whether words or sentences) for giving the sense are arbitrary. Whether the sentence is expanded or shortened is irrelevant to the sense given—both forms, in different languages, cause the same understanding as depicted through use. Still, we do not know what is more right: “Slab!” or “bring me the slab”.

The question, more abstractly, is this: what is the essential way of expressing the sense of a communication? This problem is akin to using a base number system for the expression of numbers. One can refer to the value 8 in base 10 by saying that the value 8 consists of one set of 8 sets of 100. The same value can be expressed, though, by saying the value 8 consists of 1 set of 23, 0 sets of 22, 0 sets of 21, and 0 sets of 20, thus being expressed as 1000 in a binary number system. ‘8’ is analogous to the sense of “Slab!”. Both lack an essential expression for their communication. Multiple forms of numbers refer to the same value depending on the system, just as the same sense has a ‘truer,’ or less analyzable, expression depending on the language. The analyzed “Slab!” imperative is more apt in the grammar rules of German or English; the mere “Slab!” declaration is more apt (in fact, the most apt, as it cannot be analyzed further) in the language of remark 2.

In remark 20, Wittgenstein furthers the problem. He says that we contrast ‘bring me the slab’ to different sentences that could be analyzed from ‘Slab!’ such as such as “Hand me a slab,” “Bring him a slab,” etc. Yet these different sentencs come to mind because “our language contains the possibility of those other sentences.” The content of our analysis is determined by what our language ascribes as potential meaning for this term. The declaration “Slab!” does not contain a multiplicity of sentences. Rather, our language projects the word into a multiplicity of possible uses, thus of possible senses, by virtue of the way that we conceive of sentences in general. Since, in this instance, we think of “bring me the slab” as the primordial expression of the sense given by the imperative “Slab!” we can think of other expanded sentences for which “Slab!” is a shortened version of. The ‘truer’ expression in our language is the long sentence—it contains fewer possibilities in our language than “Slab!” does. A given language projects a multiplicity of more primordial expressions, and thereby a multiplicity of senses, onto nonprimordial expressions—but just as well, a given term can be the primordial form of an expression for a given language. “Slab!” can mean just “Slab!” in the language of remark 2, but in English, it is not primordial; it can signify many sentences. But if we have a multiplicity of more primordial expressions for a given nonprimordial expression, how can the latter refer to one given ‘sense?’ How can “Slab!” in English align with the sense of “Slab!” in language 2?

Wittgenstein enters a dialogue with an interloctuer in remark 20 to address this question. His interlocuter remarks, “You grant that the shortened and unshortened sentence have the same sense. —What is this sense, then? Isn’t there a verbal expression for this sense?” Wittgenstein answers with, “But doesn’t their having the same sense consist in their having the same use?” Here, Wittgenstein raises the problem of the ‘sense’ of a phrase, as discussed earlier with remark 19. Now, he directly questions whether the sense of an expression consists in its use. The use of the phrase, as we have stated earlier, gestures towards a common understanding. A phrase cannot have a use without some understanding between those uttering and those hearing the phrase. But the form of this understanding is as yet unclear. Imagine we have two assistants—one knows English, the other knows the language of remark 2. Both are told “Slab!” and both retrieve a slab. Yet the one who knows English understands “Slab!” to hold a potentiality of meanings and can quickly learn that “Slab!” could mean a different command. The one who knows the language of remark 2 only understands “Slab!” to mean “Slab!” and for “Slab!” to mean anything else would make “Slab!” incorrect. Because the two assistants view the word “Slab!” as operating at different levels with respect to the primordiality of expression, they have a different understanding of the imperative. The use is the same—but the use is not as easily shifted between the two. The ‘sense’ may consist in the use, but the rigidity of the sense consists in the structure of the language used.

The question we are left with is whether or not the language of remark 2 resembles anything like the language we have. Do we have primordial expressions? Earlier I stated that “bring me the slab” is the more primordial expression beneath “Slab!” for the English language, since it further limits the possibility of what “Slab!” can mean. But even “bring me the slab” can be further analyzed, giving new possibilities to the sense of the sentence: it could mean “retrieve the slab and haul it to me,” “steal the slab and place it at my feet,” and so on. These sentences possess even further possibilities. Do the possibilities of a sentence continue ad infinitum, such that we never get to an expression which cannot contain more than its one sense? In English, is there genuinely something more primordial about “bring me the slab” as opposed to “Slab!”—that is, does the former sentence actually have fewer possibilities than the latter? Does analysis get us anywhere closer to the ‘truer’ expression?

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