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The Purpose of a Word: a note on PI section 6

 

Wittgenstein, in attempting to upend the picture-in-the-mind theory of meaning writes rather innocently:

Well, it may mean various things; but one very likely thinks first of all that a picture of the object comes before the child’s mind when it hears the word. But now, if this does happen�is it the purpose of the word?–Yes, it may be the purpose.–I can imagine such use of words (of the series of sounds). (Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination.) But in the [bring me a slab] language of section 2 it is not the purpose of the words to evoke images. (It may, of course be discovered that that helps to attain the actual purpose).

–Philosophical Investigations, section 6

There are a few problems here. One is that is that the word “purpose” is not included in the block-pillar-slab-beam primitive language game Wittgenstein is referencing, so to speak definitively of what is and is not the “purpose” of an action is really to superimpose our description upon it. The word “purpose” does not exist in that world.

Secondly, the entire idea of purpose, as it relates to instrumentality, depending upon the models of mind being used, varies with each model, as it is so conceived. I might push a button so as to cause an explosion, and one might say that the purpose of my pushing of the button is to cause that explosion, but if the button is stuck and doesn’t move, it makes little sense to say that the purpose of pushing on the button is not to get the button to depress. If I push the button and it does not move, my original purpose to make move will be exposed as I push at it again and again. In just this way, if the model of the mind one is working with is that of thinking that one gets a picture in the mind before being able to match a word to its object, it makes little sense to say that the purpose of using a word is not to bring a picture of the object before the child’s mind. In fact, like the button/explosion example, if the desired result does not occur, I might go about trying to get the child to hold just such a picture (for instance I might draw the object, or mime its outline), just as I might press repeatedly at a button that does not move.

Thirdly, since language games could be seen to be historically contingent, and a particular teacher might very well be under the according to Wittgenstein mistaken view that the child must hold a picture in the mind before being able to identify the word to its object, then it certainly can be asserted that the purpose of stating a word is indeed to put a picture of the object before one’s mind. In fact, if the picture-before-the-mind model of language is as pervasive as some might think, one could argue that it is exactly such a purpose that is present in many of everyday uses of language (that is the assumed button that almost always depresses).

It seems that speaking about the purpose of an action is fraught with the difficulty of assembling a description, and each description is itself a framing of the action. Ultimately there is no “purpose” actual or otherwise, that does not rely upon some description of purpose as such.

[written September 20, 2006]

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