3. ‘Meaning is Use’ in the Tractatus

It has long been standard to attribute to the later Wittgenstein a “use theory” of meaning, a theory which is supposed to have replaced the “metaphysically realist” meaning-theory of theTractatus . Having become skeptical of theTractatus account of meaning as mirroring between language and the world, so the standard story goes, Wittgenstein replaced it, in theInvestigations , with a pragmatic description ofintersubjective communicative practice, a description he partially developed through the suggestive but puzzling concepts of “language games” and “forms of life.” I shall argue in this chapter that this interpretation of Wittgenstein’s development is misleading, and that we misunderstand his role in the history of the analytic tradition if we accept it. For the early Wittgenstein was actually more closely an adherent of the doctrine expressed by the slogan “meaning is use” than was the later Wittgenstein; and an understanding of the central role of this doctrine in the theory of theTractatus is essential, as well, to understanding Wittgenstein’s decisivecritical reaction to it in thePhilosophical Investigations . The central notion of the Tractarian theory ofmeaning , the notion of “logical form” shared between meaningful propositions and the states of affairs they describe, itself depends on theTractatus ’ theory of themeaningfulness of signs as arising from their syntactical application according to logical rules of use. In seeing linguistic criticism as grounded in reflection on the use of expressions, the theory already captures one of the most pervasive themes of the analytic tradition’s consideration of language overall. But after 1929, Wittgenstein would also come to see it also as a characteristic expression of themythological picture of language as a regular calculus that the “rule-following considerations” of thePhilosophical Investigations directly aims to dispel.


TheTractatus has long been seen as articulating a jointly semantic and metaphysical “picture” theory of meaning that treats the meaning of a sentence as a function of its specific “logical form.” But just as important to Wittgenstein’s concerns in theTractatus is an account of themeaningfulness of signs, an account of the possibility that otherwise inert written or spoken signs have meaning at all. He provided this account by appealing to the concept of theuse - or, as he put it in theTractatus , the “logico-syntactical employment” - of a sign in accordance with logical rules. By examining the set of remarks in section 3 of theTractatus in which Wittgenstein articulates the first version of a “meaning is use” doctrine explicitly formulated within the analytic tradition, we can understand the relationship of this central strand in Wittgenstein’s philosophical method to the reflection on meaning from which it arose, and thereby begin to understand its decisive relationship to some of the most important critical and interpretive practices of analytic philosophy.

It is well known that theTractatus articulates a “picture” theory of meaning, according to which a proposition has the meaning that it does in virtue of sharing an abstractstructure orform with a possible state of affairs.[^107] Just as a visual picture, in order to depict a situation, must share itsspatial form, any proposition whatsoever, in order to depict, must share with the possible or actual state of affairs for which it stands its “logico-pictoral” or “logical” form.[^108] A proposition is said to share the logical form of a state of affairs when there is an isomorphism between the relational structure of the proposition and the relational structure of the state of affairs; thefact that the elements of the proposition are related in a particular way represents thefact that things are related, in the state of affairs, in the same way.[^109] Wittgenstein emphasized that the logical structure of a proposition can be shown clearly in the arrangement of its constituent signs; we can imagine using physical objects, rather than written signs, in various spatial arrangements to depict possible situations.[^110] But propositions as they are written in ordinary language do not always show clearly the relational structure of their logically simple elements.[^111] One task of philosophical criticism or analysis, accordingly, is to articulate these elements by rewriting ordinary-language propositions in a perspicuous notation thatshows through its symbolism the logical relations that propositions express.

Many commentaries on theTractatus are content to leave matters here, with the Tractarian picture theory of meaning explained as a metaphysical theory of the meaning of propositions in terms of their articulation as relational structures of signs.[^112] In so doing, although they often appeal to the analogy that Wittgenstein suggests between the spatial form of an ordinary picture and the logical form of a proposition, they typically leave the metaphysical underpinnings of the central notion of logical form somewhat obscure. A proposition’s meaning is said to consist in an “abstract” or “formal” correspondence between the relational structure of signs in a proposition (once these are logically articulated by analysis) and the relational structure of simple objects in a state of affairs. But it is not said what this correspondence amounts to, or how to recognize when a proposition has been articulated, through analysis, enough to make it perspicuous.

It is in this connection that Wittgenstein’s theory of themeaningfulness of signs , generally missed by standard interpretations, proves to be an especially important part of the Tractatus theory of meaning. The theory unfolds in a series of remarks at the thematic center of the Tractatus , in the immediate context of the development of the picture theory and the introduction of the idea of a perspicuous notation capable of clarifying the logical structure of ordinary propositions. It begins with a distinction that Wittgenstein draws between signs - mere perceptible spoken sounds or (token) written marks [^113] - and symbols , which are signs taken together with the ways in which they signify:

3.32 A sign is what can be perceived of a symbol

3.321 So one and the same sign (written or spoken, etc.) can be common to two different symbols - in which case they will signify in different ways.

3.322 Our use of the same sign to signify two different objects can never indicate a common characteristic of the two, if we use it with two different modes of signification. For the sign, of course, is arbitrary. So we could choose two different signs instead, and then what would be left in common on the signifying side?

In these remarks, Wittgenstein characterizes symbols as signs together with their “modes of signification,” their “use[s] with a sense,” or their “logico-syntactical employment.”[^114] Prior to an understanding of their logico-syntactical employment, signs themselves are inert, incapable of defining by themselves a logical form in virtue of which they could correspond to possible states of affairs. For it is, of course, arbitrary that a particular orthographic or audible sign should be chosen for a particular expressive purpose within a particular language; what makes arbitrary signs capable of signifying the states of affairs that they do - what gives them meaning - are the logical possibilities of their significant use:

3.326 In order to recognize a symbol by its sign we must observe how it is used with a sense.

3.327 A sign does not determine a logical form unless it is taken together with its logico-syntactical employment.

3.328 If a sign is useless, it is meaningless. That is the point of Occam’s maxim.

(If everything behaves as if a sign had meaning, then it does have meaning).

We cannot understand the logical form of a symbol without understanding the ways in which the signs that comprise it are significantly used. Wittgenstein goes so far as to suggest that these possibilities of significant use define theessence of a symbol.[^115] At the same time, the possibility of understanding the uses of symbols in a proposition, what Wittgenstein calls “recognizing the symbol in the sign,” is also one of the metaphysical preconditions for the possibility of meaning. For it is only by having significant uses that sequences of signs mean anything at all. Wittgenstein’s theory of meaningfulness - his theory of the conditions under which signs have meaning at all - therefore plays an essential role in his general picture of meaning. It is only insofar as signshave significant uses that they have logical forms at all; and it is, of course, only in virtue of their logical forms that they can embody meanings.

For Wittgenstein, then, the sense of a sentence is defined not simply by the way in which its simple signs are combined, but by the relational structure of its signsagainst the backdrop of their possible uses in the language If a sentence has a sense, it is because its constituent signs have significant uses that allow their combination to express that particular sense; we do not understand the sentence unless we grasp these possibilities of use. The correspondence at the basis of the meaning-making isomorphism between propositions and states of affairs is not a correspondence between signs and objects, but between symbols and objects. It is essential to grasping the logical form of a sentence - to understanding its meaning - that its simple signs be understood, not only in their combinatorial structure, but together with their possibilities of significant use or application. If there is a question about the sense of a sentence - if its logical form is not understood, even though all of the verbal or written signs are given - clarification of sense can only amount to clarification of the ways in which those signs are being used, in the context of the sentence, to signify.


The central Tractarian concept of logical form, then, cannot be understood except in conjunction with Wittgenstein’s use-doctrine of the meaningfulness of signs. But this doctrine of meaningfulness as use also immediately suggests a process of semantic clarification whereby confusions common in ordinary language are exposed and remedied through the development of a logically purified notation:

3.323 In everyday language it very frequently happens that the same word has different modes of signification - and so belongs to different symbols - or that two words that have different modes of signification are employed in propositions in what is superficially the same way.

Thus the word ‘is’ figures as the copula, as a sign for identity, and as an expression for existence; ‘exist’ figures as an intransitive verb like ‘go’, and ‘identical’ as an adjective; we speak of something, but also something’s happening.

(In the proposition ‘Green is green” - where the first word is the proper name of a person and the last an adjective - these words do not merely have different meanings: they are different symbols.).

3.324 In this way the most fundamental confusions are easily produced (the whole of philosophy is full of them).

3.325 In order to avoid such errors we must make use of a sign-language that excludes them by not using the same sign for different symbols and by not using in a superficially similar way signs that have different modes of signification: that is to say, a sign-language that is governed by logical grammar - by logical syntax.

(The conceptual notation of Frege and Russell is such a language, though, it is true, it fails to exclude all mistakes.)

Philosophical and ordinary confusions typically arise, Wittgenstein thinks, from the unrecognized use of a single sign to signify in two or more different ways; accordingly, analysis proceeds by recognizing distinctions in use that are not clear at the level of everyday language and expressing them in an improved symbolic notation. In the logically perspicuous notation that Wittgenstein envisions as the endpoint of analysis, identity of use is represented by identity of sign.[^116] Each sign has exactly one use, and this use is shown, in each case, in the combinatorial rules that govern the sign’s possibilities of significant combination with other signs in the perspicuous notation. Wittgenstein calls the complete set of such rules “logical syntax” or “logical grammar;” their role in analysis is to exhibit the patterns of usage that are implicit in ordinary language, making them explicit as combinatorial rules for the significant appearance of signs. The logical notation not only renders philosophical confusions impossible, but exhibits the patterns of use that are the implicit foundation of ordinary-language meaning.

In thus describing the basis for the meaningfulness of signs in the possibilities of their significant use, Wittgenstein therefore provides a substantially new answer to the ancient question of the relationship of material or lexicographical signs to what we intuitively or pre-theoretically understand as theirmeanings or referents. [^117] As it functions in the Tractatus , the new conception, and its role in philosophical criticism, depends both on the thought that meaning is intelligible only in reflection on use and the further claim that use is itself explicable through a systematic clarification of the rules governing it. Thus, while the ordinary relationship between signs and “meanings” might have been specified, in an earlier age of philosophical thought, as consisting in the capacity of repeatable signs to evoke similar ideas or images in the minds of their speakers and hearers, Wittgenstein’s conception of the systematicity of language and the origination of possibilities of error inherent in its use led him to reject any such subjectivist picture and replace it with the direct critical inquiry into the uses of terms that he suggests here. Indeed, while philosophers at least since Locke had criticized our tendency to assume that identity of sign implies identity of meaning or reference, it is only through his conception of the systematicity of the rules of use for a language as a whole that Wittgenstein is able to transform this piecemeal and opportunistic criticism of use into a wholesale doctrine of the meaningfulness of language overall. [^118]

Though he is not completely explicit about the scope and character of logical syntax, Wittgenstein proceeds to work out an instructive example of how the elucidation of its rules can dissipate one important philosophical error, Russell’s mistake of supposing it necessary to augment the logical theory of propositional signs with a theory of ordered types. A perspicuous notation that exposes the logical structure of language, Wittgenstein argues, will by itself show that there is no need for the theory of types; for it will show that Russell’s paradox, to which it answered, cannot arise. Wittgenstein makes the point by considering how a case of the paradox might be symbolized:

3.333 The reason why a function cannot be its own argument is that the sign for a function already contains the prototype of its argument, and it cannot contain itself.

For let us suppose that the functionF (fx ) could be its own argument: in that case there would be a proposition ‘F (F (fx ))’, in which the outer functionF and the inner functionF must have different meanings, since the inner one has the formf (fx ) and the outer one has the formy (f (fx )). Only the letter ‘F ’ is common to the two functions, but the letter by itself signifies nothing.

This immediately becomes clear if instead of ‘F ( Fu )’ we write ‘( $ f ): F ( f u ). f u = Fu ’.

That disposes of Russell’s paradox.

This argument against Russell’s theory follows directly from the use-based theory of the meaningfulness of signs that we explored in the last section. It operates by showing that the attempt to express the paradox results in a series of signs which have not yet been given a tolerably clear sense. Our attempt to formulate the paradox necessarily uses the same sign two different ways; if we disambiguate them, giving each sign a univocal sense, the (appearance of) paradox dissolves. It is important to note that it is no part of Wittgenstein’s argument toprohibit (conventionally or stipulatively) the embedding of a propositional sign within itself; the perspicuous notation simplyshows , when we try to express such an embedding in it, that we cannot unambiguously do so. When we writeF (F (fx )), the notation shows clearly that the two occurrences ofF havedifferent forms; they are being used in different ways and according to different rules. Once we see this, we see that there is nothing in common to the two occurrences except that they use the same letter. As often happens in ordinary language, we have used the same sign in two different ways; the difference is simply that the logical notation, unlike ordinary languages, immediately shows the difference in form through its expressive syntax. The thought that a proposition can make a statement about itself, the thought that led to Russell’s paradox, is exposed as arising from a notational confusion: it is only because we use the same orthographic sign for what are in fact two different symbols that we are led to think the paradox possible. But once we see clearly that the symbol expressed by a sign is determined by its possibilities of significant use, we can also see that the attempt to state the paradox is doomed from the outset.

This criticism of Russell exemplifies the philosophical method that, Wittgenstein thought, could disarm philosophical and ordinary confusions by exposing their roots in our temptation to use the same orthographic sign in a variety of different ways. On the method, reflection about the various uses of an ordinary sign suggests its replacement with one or more distinct signs; ultimately, we develop a notation in which each sign is used in exactly one way. The form of this perspicuous symbolism then shows the logical rules that govern meaningful linguistic use. Wittgenstein insisted that these rules of logical syntax must treat only of signs themselves, and never involve reference to their meanings.[^119] In other words, there ought never, in the process of analysis, be any occasion to stipulate the possible uses of signs by referring to the meanings that we want them to have; Wittgenstein objected that Russell had done just this in his theory of types, and that this alone showed the invalidity of the theory. [^120] Instead, reflection on the uses that signs already have in ordinary language must suffice to develop all the distinctions expressed in the structure of the logically perspicuous symbolism. The introduction of a new sign can, accordingly, only be justified by the recognition of a previously unrecognized use; the new use will then naturally be codified in combinatorial, syntactical rules governing the possible appearances of the new sign. In this way, the logical analysis of language proceeds from ordinary observations about significant use to the notational expression of these observations, yielding clarity about the meanings of signs by exhibiting perspicuously their use .


Thus understood, Wittgenstein’s theory of the meaningfulness of language suggests an ambitious program of meaning-analysis or clarification that would terminate in the elimination of all philosophical confusions by way of the elimination of all confusions about the use of signs. It may be clear enough how this kind of grammatical clarification can prevent philosophical errors in the straightforward examples of ambiguity that Wittgenstein gives (“Green is green” and the various uses of the words “is,” “exist,” and “identical”), but we might legitimately wonder how general Wittgenstein actually intended the program to be. How widely applicable is the method of clarifying the meaning of propositions by identifying and elucidating the uses of their simple signs? Clearly, the answer to this question depends on specifying just how we should understand the “use” of a sign, how we should identify which features of ouractual employment of signs we should consider relevant to the philosophical practice of clarifying meaning.

My suggestion is that the program iscompletely general; for its foundation is not any specific theoretical conception of meaning, but rather the general theory of the meaningfulness of signs that we have already examined. The general theory of the meaningfulness of signs expresses what appeared to Wittgenstein at this time to be the relevance to the determination of meaning of the systematic structure of a language as a whole. Commentators have, in fact, often underestimated the comprehensiveness and generality of the program of analysis that Wittgenstein suggests in theTractatus . For insofar as they have discussed the concept of logical syntax at all, they have generally supposed that the rules of logical syntax, to be shown through the practice of meaning-analysis, are intended to be in some way limited or restricted with respect to the totality of rules of use that determine meanings in ordinary language. Anscombe, for instance, interprets the phrase “logico-syntactic employment” as meaning “the kind of difference between the syntactical roles of words which concerns a logician” rather than gesturing toward “‘role in life,’ ‘use’, [or] ‘practice of the use’ in the sense ofPhilosophical Investigations .”[^121] But actually there is no reason to think that Wittgenstein intended the scope of the rules of logical syntax shown by logical reflection on the use of symbolism in ordinary language to be any smaller than the total range of possible meanings in ordinary language. Wherever, in ordinary language, there are distinctions of meaning, there is presumably the possibility of a notation that shows those distinctions; if this is right, then logical clarification, in Wittgenstein’s sense, can proceed according to the clarificatory question “what does that mean?”regardless of the subject matter of the proposition or claim in question.

With the nature and scope of Wittgenstein’s Tractarian program of analysis thus clarified in its connection with his use-doctrine of meaning, we can begin to see that program not only as a much more direct antecedent of thePhilosophical Investigations conception of grammar, but also of a variety of significant subsequent innovations in the history of analytic philosophy. First, theTractatus ’ use-doctrine of meaningfulness means that its project of analysis is alreadyholistic . There is no way to clarify the meaning of a sign without clarifying its use; but the use of a sign is identified withall of its possibilities of significant appearance in propositions of the language. It follows that there is no complete analysis of the meaning of a sign that does not determine all of these possibilities. The clarification of the meaning of a sign must take into account all of the contexts in which it can appear significantly, and the combinatorial rules of logical syntax thereby revealed will govern, for each sign, the possibilities of its appearance in conjunction witheach of the other potentially significant signs of the language. It follows that there is, in an important sense, no such thing as the analysis of asingle term in isolation. The only way to give acomplete analysis of any term is to give an analysis of the whole language. In this sense, the project of theTractatus already expresses the claim, usually associated with the later Wittgenstein, that “understanding a sentence means understanding a language.”[^122] The holistic semantic dependence of one term upon all of the other terms in the language is bound to be implicit in ordinary discourse, but analysis makes it explicit in its progress toward a logically perspicuous notation.

Additionally, there is a second, deeper way in which theTractatus program of analysis anticipates the commitments of much later, and even contemporary, projects. Because it begins with ordinary judgments of the meaning of propositions, and proceeds from identifying the semantic relations of propositions to identifying their logically distinct terms by their uses, the program of the Tractatus embodies what might today be called an inferentialist program of analysis. [^123] Wittgenstein emphasizes, just before stating the use-doctrine of meaningfulness, that only propositions have sense; a name has meaning only in the nexus of a particular proposition. [^124] Judgments of meaning must begin as judgments of the meaning of propositions; it is only on the basis of the judgment that a proposition is meaningful - and has the meaning that it does - that we can begin to understand the meanings (uses) of its constituent symbols. To identify the logically simple parts of a proposition (parts that, of course, may not be shown perspicuously by the symbolism of ordinary language), we begin by considering a class of propositions, all of which have something in common that is essential to their sense. [^125] The class of propositions that have some component of their sense in common, then, share a “propositional variable;” by stipulating values for the variable, we can recover the original class of propositions. [^126] If a sentence’s significant terms are all replaced by propositional variables, its logical form is shown. [^127] In this way, beginning with logical relations of semantic similarity among propositions , the analysis works toward the segmentation of those propositions into their logically simple parts. There is no way to access these parts, however, other than by first comprehending the logical and inferential relationships among propositions as a whole. The logical or inferential relationships of sense among propositions themselves define their logically simple parts; so there is no alternative, in the analytic process of articulating a proposition into its logically simple parts, to beginning with its semantic relations to a large variety of other propositions. [^128]


Wittgenstein’s Tractarian conception of analysis therefore already involved, as we have seen, the determinative claim that the analyst’s work consists in determining and symbolizing the specific rules that govern linguistic usage in a language as a whole. These rules are conceived as implicit, in any case, in ordinary patterns of usage, but the imperfections of our ordinary explicit understanding of them are to blame for a wide variety of errors and confusions. The possibility of linguistic or philosophical criticism depends on the gap between what we infact do, on particular occasions of utterance, and what the actual rules of usage require of us; in particular, these rules establish identities of usage where we are tempted to use one and the same sign in more than one particular way. The assumption that language as a wholecould be portrayed as a total corpus of rules determining distinct uses therefore governed, at this time, both Wittgenstein’s conception of language and his sense of the work of philosophical criticism of it. But the underlying instabilities of this conception, which became apparent to Wittgenstein only after his return to philosophy in 1929, would also demand a deep transformation in his conception of this work. For as Wittgenstein would come in stages to appreciate after 1929, the conception of a language as a systematic calculus involves an untenable conception of what is involved in its learning or understanding.

Wittgenstein’s transitional works show clearly how the Tractarian picture of logical syntax began to cede to a more pluralistic and nuanced conception of the grammatical foundations of meaning. In thePhilosophical Remarks composed in 1929 and 1930, Wittgenstein considered in detail the possibility of clarifying the grammatical structure of ordinary language in virtue of which it allows for various perceptual and experiential possibilities; he called this project “phenomenological.”[^129] TheRemarks explicitly retained theTractatus conception of philosophical criticism as the critique of failures to give signs a univocal sense; but Wittgenstein was now less certain that the truth-functional notation that he had suggested in theTractatus would be adequate to the clarificatory task.[^130] Propositions concerning colors and quantities, for instance, proved recalcitrant to the symbolization in terms of simple propositions that theTractatus had suggested. Nevertheless, Wittgenstein continued to think that “phenomenological” relationships such as the incompatibility between red and green must be expressible in a logically perspicuous symbolism that captures the grammatical form of our language, even though our ordinary language does not show this form explicitly:

  1. How is it possible for f(a) and f(b) to contradict one another, as certainly seems to be the case? For instance, if I say ‘There is red here now’ and ‘There is green here now’?…

  2. If f(r) and f(g) contradict one another, it is because r and g completely occupy the f and cannot both be in it. But that doesn’t show itself in our signs. But it must show itself if we look, not at the sign, but at the symbol. For since this includes the form of the objects, then the impossibility of ‘f(r).f(g)’ must show itself there, in this form.

It must be possible for the contradiction to show itself entirely in the symbolism, for if I say of a patch that it is red and green, it is certainly at most only one of these two, and the contradiction must be contained in the sense of the two propositions.

That two colours won’t fit at the same time in the same place must be contained in their form and the form of space.

As in theTractatus , Wittgenstein distinguishes between sign and symbol; ordinary language fails to show the structure of exclusion that characterizes the sense of propositions about colors and that a perspicuous symbolism could reveal. But the fact that this structure is non-truth-functional - two of its simple propositions can be mutually contradictory without being negations of one another - led Wittgenstein to conclude that the connection between the possibilities expressed in its symbolism and the possibilities for the combination of objects in the world must be more complicated than theTractatus had held.

On the new conception, the correspondence that makes a proposition true is not simply a correspondence between that proposition and the world, but a correspondence betweenthe entire system of propositions in which it figures and the world.[^131] The propositions “the surface is red” and “the surface are green” are only contradictory because they designate different positions in the wholesystem of propositions expressing colors, and a perspicuous notation would have to express this whole system, capturing the exclusivity of different positions within it. The exclusive relationship between red and green is a feature of an entire articulated system; and it is the relationship between this whole system and the states of affairs in the world that makes any single proposition about color true. Translating into the language of theTractatus , we can put this recognition as the discovery that recognizing the symbol in a sign, by means of a clarification of the use of terms in a proposition, requires the elucidation of the whole logical system in which that proposition figures. Accordingly, it becomes harder to imagine that such recognition could culminate in anything like a single, unique analysis of any sentence.

At about the same time, and partially as a result of the discovery of the non-truth-functional nature of certain kinds of logical form, Wittgenstein began also to reconsider the central question of the relationship of theuse of a sign to its meaning. In thinking about what is involved in using a sign meaningfully, we can easily be tempted, Wittgenstein now thought, by a kind of “mythology,” a notion that themeaning of the sign is itself a kind of shadowy, mysterious accompaniment to it, for instance a mental process or state that endows the otherwise inert and meaningless sign with a sense.[^132] In his exposition of this line of critique in thePhilosophical Remarks , Wittgenstein’s direct target is primarily Russell’s theory of judgment, according to which the correctness of a judgment consists not only in the relationship between the judgment and a fact, but also in a subjective experience of correctness.[^133] The theory was objectionable in that, in addition to describing the “internal” logical relationship between a judgment and the fact it adduces, it introduces also a third event which, even if it existed, could only be “externally” related to this logical relationship and so must be completely irrelevant to its description.[^134]

The temptation to introduce such intermediaries, Wittgenstein says here, has its root in a “danger of giving a mythology of the symbolism, or of psychology: instead of simply saying what everyone knows and must admit.”[^135] The mythology threatens, for instance, when we explain “how a picture is meant” in terms of the psychological reaction it tends to elicit, or the state of mind that is supposed to accompany my meaning or intending it a certain way. We avoid the mythology only be recognizing that, as Wittgenstein puts it, “the intention is already expressed in the way Inow compare the picture with reality” and not in any other item, inner or outer, mental or physical, thought to accompany this present application.[^136]

Even if we recognize that clarification of the meaning of a sign means clarification of its significant uses, we can be tempted, under the influence of this mythology, to think that the “use” is something somehow present, all at once, alongside or behindeach significant employment of the sign. Wittgenstein’s increasingly explicit criticism of the confusion implicit in such accounts, in line with the critique of psychologism that Frege had first developed, culminates in the diagnosis of their central assumption that he offers in the Blue Book:

The mistake we are liable to make could be expressed thus: We are looking for the use of a sign, but we look for it as though it were an object co-existing with the sign. (One of the reasons for this mistake is again that we are looking for a ‘thing corresponding to a substantive.’) (p. 5)

Wittgenstein thus recognized the Russellian theory as an objectionable instance of psychologism and opposed it, as he had opposed psychologism more generally in theTractatus , by way of an immanent reflection on theuse orapplication of pictures, in this case to judgments of truth or falsity. But as the subsequent development of his thought would make even clearer, Wittgenstein had already begun to see at least the rudiments of the mythology of meaning as having existed, also, in theTractatus’ conception of use itself. For although theTractatus had steadfastly avoided psychologism by refusing to describe the psychological or mental accompaniments of the regular use of a sign, its conception of themeaningfulness of signs, as we have seen, nevertheless pictures their application in practice as a matter of adherence to systematicrules of use, intelligible in their totality to philosophical elucidation and description.

Were one to give a psychological description of the actual practice of using a language, in accordance with this conception, one could only portray it as a matter of our grasping or understanding rules of use on some conscious or unconscious level. The rules, or their symbolic expressions, would then, again, amount to additional items thought to be present “behind” one’s current use and adduced to explain it; and this is just the mythology of symbolism that Wittgenstein now opposed. It is true, of course, that theTractatus , in order to avoid psychologism, avoided giving any such description of thepsychology of grasping or understanding rules; but its conception of correct language use asdetermined by rules presupposes that the correctness or incorrectness of a linguistic performance, on a particular occasion, depends on its adherence or failure to adhere to such rules nonetheless. As such, this conception repeats the mythology of meaning that Wittgenstein now criticized in Russell. It accounts for the meaningfulness of signs in the practice of a language only by introducing a conception of this practice that repeats, rather than answering, the underlying question that it purports to address.

The critique of psychologism that Wittgenstein inherited from Frege began by attacking theories that explain the possibility of meaning or understanding a term by reference to the presence of a mentalobject oritem accompanying it. But in this more extended application, Wittgenstein brought the critique to bear as well against theories that, like his own earlier one, explain this possibility as a matter of the presence of a systematic corpus ofrules intelligible to philosophical analysis. Against such theories, Wittgenstein continues to recommend that we look for theuse of terms, but warns us against seeing this use as consisting in anything like an item, object, or structure potentially present to mind. In theInvestigations , in the course of a complicated reflection on what is involved in our determination, in actual cases, that a student or an interlocutor has “gone on” to use a word in the right way, that she has “grasped” its sense, Wittgenstein considers specifically the picture that holds that such grasping consists in bringing to mind theentirety of the use of a word:

‘It is as if we could grasp the whole use of the word in a flash.’ Likewhat e.g.? - Can’t the use - in a certain sense - be grasped in a flash? And in what sense can it not? - The point is, that it is as if we could ‘grasp it in a flash’ in yet another and much more direct sense than that. - But have you a model for this? No. It is just that this expression suggests itself to us. As the result of the crossing of different pictures. (PI 191) [^137]

The objection that Wittgenstein formulates here plays a central role in the detailed considerations of rule-following and private language that form the two main critical movements of theInvestigations . For the roots of the various mythologies that he criticizes, in both cases, can be found in the attempt to explain the meaningfulness of a language’s terms by reference to rules thought to be grasped or present to mind in the regular practice of a language. This attempt itself has its root in the mistake that he criticizes in theBlue Book , namely the tendency to look for the use of a sign as an “object co-existing” with it thatexplains its being used the way that it is.[^138]

As we have seen, theTractatus ’ conception of the practice of logical analysis envisioned the logical identification and adumbration of the distinctuses of signs as leading to a clarified notation that would prevent philosophical confusion. With this conception of a clarified notation that coordinates each sign to exactly one use, the project depended crucially on the possibility of an overall determination and segmentation of the varied application of signs in an ordinary language into distinct and describable uses; each of these was pictured, in particular, as governed by the determinate rules of the “logical syntax” that the practice of analysis sought to display. But as Wittgenstein had come to appreciate already in the transitional texts, the diversity and heterogeneity of ordinary contexts of use makes it implausible that any such (simple and unified) rules actually exist and can be described.[^139]

Going even further, indeed, the “rule-following” considerations of the Philosophical Investigations, especially through their articulation of the ‘paradox’ of PI 201, raised the decisive critical question of what application such rules could have, even if theycould be described. The Tractatus conception of analysis, as we have seen, relied for its force in application to the criticism of ordinary language on the possibility of distinguishing between performances judged correct, with respect to the rules of “logical syntax,” and those that, in misusing terms or confusing distinct uses, violated them. The distinction was supposed to be underwritten by the theorist’s ability to discern, within the heterogeneity of ordinary usage, the right or correct rules of syntax for a language; but the Tractatus conception of meaningfulness already gave the theorist no resource for determining these rules beyond what is involved in this ordinary use itself. As Wittgenstein would come to see later, this rendered any description of the rules of logical syntax essentially arbitrary with respect to the ordinary use it was supposed to explain. Some rough schematization of regularities or normal patterns “implicit” in ordinary usage might still be possible; but the force of the rule-following paradox of PI 201 was to show that any such schematization would itself remain open to the question of its own normative or critical application to individual linguistic performances, and so would fail to capture the (unique) rules underlying meaningfulness in the language as a whole.

Although he would continue to insist that the clarification of meaning depends on reflection on usage, the paradoxical gap Wittgenstein now saw as existing between the signs of a language and their application therefore meant that this reflection could no longer be supported by what he now recognized as a mythology of silent, determinate rules underlying ordinary linguistic performance. In connection with other, parallel results of the analytic tradition, as we shall see over the next several chapters, Wittgenstein’s identification and diagnosis of this mythology indeed marks one of the most significant lasting critical results of the tradition’s inquiry into the form and structure of the language that we speak and the problems of our ordinary access to it. It opens the space of a critical reflection on the varied and complicated implications of this access for the form of a linguistic life and the possibilities of meaning it permits.