Wittgenstein: Description by Example

Wittgenstein: Description by Example

June 27, 2021 Off By Felso

Despite all of Wittgenstein’s warnings, some of us might think that names are fundamental to language and that if we can give an explanation of the process of learning names, we can develop a theory that encompasses the whole of language. Names are essential to the language and we learn the names in a certain way and teach them to the language learners. This method is the identification method by exemplifying (showing).

This is the first method that comes to mind if we want to teach a child who is just learning the language the word “apple”, “red” or even “five”. We take an apple in our hands or place it in front of the child and point to it and say “apple”. We hope he repeats it or saves it in his memory. We can hope to teach the number five by putting five apples side by side and saying “five”, and by putting a red and a green apple side by side and saying “red apple” and “green apple” different colors.

Wittgenstein does not think that a general theory of meaning can be developed using this method:

Now one can identify a specific name, the name of a color, the name of a material, a numeral, the name of a direction of a compass, and the like by example. It is very precise to define the number two, “This is called ‘two,'” by pointing to the two nuts. But how can the two be defined in this way? The person to whom the definition is presented does not know what to call “two”; will assume that the name given to this group of nuts is “two”. (…) an exemplary definition can be interpreted differently in each case (Philosophical Investigations, 28).

So how does identification by example work? When I’m teaching someone the word “apple”, I can get up and say, “Here’s the fruit on the table called “apple.” In this case, he will understand what the word “apple” is used for. Provided you understand the other words I’m saying, of course. This is exactly what Wittgenstein wanted to emphasize. Wittgenstein thinks that learning the word in question depends on understanding the role that the word plays in the language game in which it is used, and in this respect, definition by example cannot be the basis for language.

An exemplary definition only works in a language game. Wittgenstein gives an example of this from chess. If you show the king to someone who does not know the rules of the game and say, “This is called “the king.” say, that person only associates the shape of the king with the word “shah”. However, someone who knows the rules of the game can ask the name of a stone meaningfully (Philosophical Investigations, 30-31).

In this case, it may be asked how language games begin? If language games have priority to describe by example, how can a language be learned? Wittgenstein states that the teaching of language does not primarily involve the explanation of the language, but a kind of instruction (education). A child is taught the relationship between the word “apple” and apples in an educational process. At first, what the child understands from the word is perhaps just a simple command. Hearing the word “apple”, he tries to grab a round red thing nearby. As the child learns about apples and tongues and other things over time, he comes to understand more and more. The door of language is thus education, not explanation.

Prepared by: Sociologist Ömer YILDIRIM
Source: Omer YILDIRIM’s Personal Lecture Notes. Atatürk University Sociology Department 1st Year “Introduction to Philosophy” and 2nd, 3rd, 4th Grade “History of Philosophy” Lecture Notes (Ömer YILDIRIM); Open Education Philosophy Textbook