Wittgenstein’s Context Principle Essay

2542 words - 10 pages

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 compositionality. However, I will argue that we can form new propositions with familiar names once we have seen how they behave within a proposition. In fact, we will see that not only does compositionality not conflict with statement 3.3, but that our ability to form meaningful propositions with familiar expressions and to determine which propositions are not meaningful constitutes evidence for Wittgenstein’s context principle.
The context principle was first articulated by Gotlob Frege in his Foundations of Arithmetic as the imperative that one should not attempt to determine the meaning of an isolated word but only do so in the context of a proposition. Frege’s motivation in introducing the context principle is to explain our use of numbers and to account for the fact that we can entertain thoughts containing numeric terms. In this essay, I will not elaborate Frege’s development of this idea. For my purpose it will suffice to note that Frege's choice of words indicates that the context principle is first and foremost intended as a methodological principle- a maxim one ought to abide by when going about the analysis of a meaning of a word. It is possible to adhere to Frege’s version of the context principle while...

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