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Wittgenstein’s Context Principle

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In his Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, Ludwig Wittgenstein makes the following claim “…only in the nexus of a proposition does a name have meaning” (TLP 3.3). This claim is a version of what has come to be known in the literature as the context principle and is taken to assert simply that a word has meaning only when it is within a sentence. An intuitive objection to this principle is that it conflicts with a trait of language called compositionality. Compositionality describes the ability we possess to form new sentences, with new meanings, using familiar words. This is the characteristic of language that Wittgenstein is clearly alluding to when he tells us that “A proposition must use old expressions to communicate a new sense” (TLP 4.03). The conflict between compositionality and the context principle is the matter of how we are able to form meaningful sentences out of words when words, when they stand on their own, do not have any meaning. Since Wittgenstein asserts a version of the context principle while acknowledging compositionality, it would seem that he is holding on to a problematic account of meaning. In this paper I will explain why Wittgenstein claims statement 3.3, and show that it is in fact possible to maintain his context principle in light of compositionality. I will argue that this statement is entailed by Wittgenstein’s account of meaningful propositions as pictures of facts. We will see that names are only meaningful thanks to the position they occupy in a proposition thus rendering names meaningless when they appear on their own. In light of this account it is evident that completely isolated names could not be used to form new propositions since the former lack meaning. This is the apparent clash with com... ... middle of paper ... ...ty requires a certain qualification on the combination of names in a proposition. This requirement cannot be fulfilled by any model of meaning that does not incorporate Wittgenstein’s context principle. Wittgenstein is acutely aware that to say how the character of the name restricts its use in a proposition is impossible. Consequently, he argues that this can be seen in the behavior of names in a proposition; by observing names in the context of a proposition, we learn their meaning without it being told to us in the manner that the aforementioned models attempt to do. Works Cited: 1. Wittgenstein L. Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, Trans. D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness, Routledge, London & New York 2002 2. Wittgenstein L. The Collected Works of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, Ed. G.H. von Wright & G.E.M. Anscombe, Blackwell, Oxford 1998
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