Main Philosophy of language and linguistics : the legacy of Frege, Russell, and Wittgenstein

Philosophy of language and linguistics : the legacy of Frege, Russell, and Wittgenstein

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This collection brings together contributions by philosophers, logicians and linguists, offering a variety of interdisciplinary approaches to crucial problems in the contemporary philosophy of language and linguistics. Individual chapters concentrate on different aspects of the influence of Frege, Russell and Wittgenstein. These articles offer new insights into the historical developments and current issues in philosophy and language studies.  Read more...
Year: 2014
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Piotr Stalmaszczyk (Ed.)
Philosophy of Language and Linguistics

Philosophische Analyse /
Philosophical Analysis

Herausgegeben von / Edited by
Herbert Hochberg, Rafael Hüntelmann,
Christian Kanzian, Richard Schantz, Erwin Tegtmeier

Volume / Band 53

Philosophy of
Language and
Linguistics
The Legacy of Frege, Russell, and Wittgenstein

Edited by
Piotr Stalmaszczyk

ISBN 978-3-11-034258-1
e-ISBN 978-3-11-034275-8
ISSN 2198-2066
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
A CIP catalog record for this book has been applied for at the Library of Congress.
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Contents
Philosophy of Language and Linguistics: The Legacy of Frege,
Russell, and Wittgenstein. Preface
Piotr Stalmaszczyk ............................................................................... 1
Mapping the Ancient City: Historical Linguistics and
Conceptual Clarification
Joachim Adler .................................................................................... 11
Russell and Wittgenstein on Proposition, Judgement, and Truth
María Cerezo ...................................................................................... 29
How to Talk (Precisely) about Visual Perception? The Case of
the Duck/Rabbit
Paweł Grabarczyk .............................................................................. 53
Priority of Thought or Priority of Language
Arkadiusz Gut ..................................................................................... 71
On the Ambiguity in Definite Descriptions
Thomas J. Hughes .............................................................................. 99
Proceduralism and Ontologico-Historical Understanding in the
Philosophy of Language
Carl Humphries ............................................................................... 115
Quine’s Criticisms of Semantics
Gary Kemp ....................................................................................... 139
Who Wants to Be a Russellian about Names?
Siu-Fan Lee ...................................................................................... 161
Bradley, Russell, and the Structure of Thought
Gabriele M. Mras ............................................................................ 181
Logic and the Pursuit of Meaning
Jaroslav Peregrin ............................................................................ 193
Objects, Concepts, Unity
Ulrich Reichard ............................................................................... 213

vi

Contents

The Legacy of Frege and the Linguistic Theory of Predication
Piotr Stalmaszczyk ........................................................................... 225
Russell, Wittgenstein, and the Notion of False Propositions
Piotr K. Szałek ................................................................................. 255
Categorial Grammar and the Foundations of the Philosophy
of Language
Mieszko Tałasiewicz ........................................................................ 269
Index ................................................................................................... 295

Piotr Stalmaszczyk
University of Łód
piotrst@uni.lodz.pl

Philosophy of Language and Linguistics:
The Legacy of Frege, Russell, and
Wittgenstein. Preface
It is a task of philosophy to break the power of words over the
human mind.
Gottlob Frege, Begriffsschrift
All philosophy is a ‘critique of language’.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
Before we can understand language, we must strip it of its
mystical and awe-inspiring attributes.
Bertrand Russell, An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth

0. Introduction
The present volume investigates selected aspects of the legacy of Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein in contemporary
philosophy of language and linguistics. These three philosophers are
considered to be the most important founders of analytic philosophy; at a
later stage they shaped and inspired various philosophical approaches to
the study of language.1 It would be difficult to imagine research on, for
example, truth, sense and reference, proper names, meaning and use,
presupposition, without the achievements of Frege, Russell, and Wittgenstein. They have influenced technical discussions on such topics as
context, propositions and predication, definite descriptions, and philo-

1

For a concise overview, see Baldwin (2006) and García-Carpintero (2012).

2

Piotr Stalmaszczyk

sophical and linguistic inquiries into the limits of language and sense,
and the relations between language, mind, and the world.
Michael Potter has recently observed that the principal contribution of
Frege, Russell and Wittgenstein to the philosophy of language was not
so much connected with the fact that “they applied philosophical methods
to the study of language”, but rather that “they applied linguistic methods
to the study of certain problems in philosophy” (Potter 2013: 852). At
the same time, however, Frege, Russell, and Wittgenstein (both in the
Tractatus and in the Philosophical Inquiries) expressed highly critical
remarks about the nature of language, and considered spoken language
to be an instrument inadequate for the science of logic. Within this context, Frege pointed to the need for creating a language made up of signs,
precise and clear of any double meaning (such as his Begriffsschrift),
and Russell postulated a hierarchy of languages.
Wittgenstein, in his Preface to the Tractatus, claimed that the problems of philosophy are posed because “the logic of our language is misunderstood” (Wittgenstein [1922]: 3). Later he observed that “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of
language” (Wittgenstein [1953], §109), and that philosophers “bring
words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use” (Wittgenstein
[1953], §116). However, the trouble is that “this battle can be refought
only by language” (Arendt 1975: 115); hence the need for ‘reforming’
language for the purposes of philosophical and logical inquiries, either
through devising necessary formalism, or through elucidations of meaning and focus on language use.2 The influence of Frege, Russell, and
Wittgenstein resulted in the development of at least three traditions: that
of formal logic, of ordinary language philosophy, and of contemporary
linguistics, even though the three philosophers were not interested in linguistics and considered language only from the perspective of logical
and philosophical inquiries. Nevertheless, within contemporary linguistics, formal and formalized approaches to language analysis, inspired by
the work of Frege, Russell, and Wittgenstein (and also by the next generation of scholars, such as Carnap, Tarski, Ajdukiewicz, Quine) are par2

For an introductory discussion on different turns in philosophy of language, see
respective prefaces in Stalmaszczyk, ed. (2010a, 2010b, 2011).

The Legacy of Frege, Russell, and Wittgenstein. Preface

3

ticularly characteristic of categorial grammars, Montague grammar, and
generative grammar.
Studies gathered in this volume aim to show that the results of the research programs advocated and developed by Frege, Russell, and Wittgenstein are still of utmost importance, and that the three philosophers
have significantly contributed to the linguistic turn in philosophy and the
philosophical turn in the study of language, contributing at the same time
to another movement in modern philosophy, a movement which began:
[…] when Kant exchanged the structure of the world for the structure of the
mind, continued when C. I. Lewis exchanged the structure of the mind for
the structure of concepts, and that now proceeds to exchange the structure
of concepts for the structure of the several symbol systems of the sciences,
philosophy, the arts, perception, and everyday discourse. This movement is
from unique truth and a world fixed and found to a diversity of right and
even conflicting versions or worlds in the making. (Goodman 1978: x)

1. Contents of the volume
The collection brings together contributions by philosophers, logicians
and linguists, offering an interdisciplinary approach to crucial problems
in philosophy of language and contemporary linguistics, concentrating
on different aspects of influence of Frege, Russell and Wittgenstein. Also the mutual connections and further implications are discussed.
Joachim Adler observes that one of the most important claims of 20th
century philosophy of language was that the meaning of any linguistic
expression is its use. Wittgenstein and ordinary language philosophers
inferred from this that philosophical entanglements can only be dissolved by clarifying the misleading concepts. Of course, such conceptual
clarifications invariably refer to the present use of a word and not to any
historical account of language. Except for a few remarks in Austin’s
Plea for Excuses, etymology has never been considered as relevant for
ordinary language philosophy. Adler’s aim is to establish historical linguistics as a useful instrument for conceptual clarification.
María Cerezo presents the evolution of Russell’s theory of judgement
from 1903 to 1913, and discusses the problems that his theory encoun-

4

Piotr Stalmaszczyk

tered under its three versions in The Principles of Mathematics (1903),
On the Nature of Truth and Falsehood (1910) and Theory of Knowledge
(1913). Cerezo shows the stimulating effect that these problems had on
the development of some Tractarian ideas which can be interpreted as
something of a return to early Russell in certain aspects, together with
other crucial innovations. The chapter focuses on Wittgenstein’s revision
of the notion of logical form and its symbolic capacity, and on his truthconditional theory of sense.
Paweł Grabarczyk is concerned with visual perception and the celebrated case of the duck/rabbit. In Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology Wittgenstein used ambiguous illusions to investigate the problematic relation of perception and interpretation. Grabarczyk uses this problem as a starting point for developing a conceptual framework capable of
expressing problems associated with visual perception in a precise manner. Throughout the chapter he explicates some of the common notions
associated with perception such as “to look at”, “to have an impression
of…”, “to react as if one had an impression of…”, “to convince oneself
that what one sees is…”. His principal aim is to create a precise and unequivocal conceptual framework capable of expressing problems and
solutions connected with the phenomenon of visual perception.
Arkadiusz Gut observes that Frege’s view concerning the thoughtlanguage relationship contains inner tensions. They arise from the fact
that in Frege’s writings two inconsistent statements can be found, namely that the structure of sentence serves as the structure of thought, and
that two structurally different sentences can express one and the same
thought. Gut starts with Dummett’s three partial claims leading to the
conclusion that Frege supports the hypothesis of the priority of language
over thought. Next, he shows that the three statements lead to a general
rule which, according to Dummett, says that for Frege and all the later
analytic philosophers the characteristics of a thought may be obtained
through a philosophical characteristics of a sentence (or more broadly –
of language). Gut also provides a set of arguments showing that the view
suggested by Dummett encountered many lines of criticism, and demonstrates that Frege’s project advocates rather the thesis that two sentences
with different predicative structure can express one and the same
thought.

The Legacy of Frege, Russell, and Wittgenstein. Preface

5

Thomas J. Hughes defends the thesis that definite descriptions should
receive an attributive semantics only in those instances where they fall
under the scope of certain semantic operators. The ambiguity defended
is not the one noted by Donnellan and Kripke, as it will not recognize an
ambiguity in one and the same proposition. In the approach advocated
by Hughes, each and every proposition receives a single semantics for
every occasion of use, and this semantics will be informed by the grammatical configuration of the expressions. Hughes combines semantic investigation with exploration of contemporary generative grammar.
Carl Humphries devotes his chapter to proceduralism and ontologico-historical understanding in the philosophy of language. Since
Frege, analytical philosophers have mostly construed language proceduralistically, treating reference and assertion as largely uniform procedures for re-identifying entities and proposing states of affairs as true.
Their conviction that these procedures make sense as such typically presupposes a broadly Kantian intuition that they reflect some larger selfvalidating normative sphere. This, according to Humphries, faces two
objections: that it misconstrues the role of ahistorical, ontologically significant commitments/contexts, and that it ignores cases involving radically historical understanding. Each objection captures something, but it
seems that one cannot embrace both on pain of inconsistency, as they
entail conflicting readings of the existential quantifier. A third position,
explored by Heidegger and the ‘third’ Wittgenstein, rejects the disjunction between ahistorical-ontological and historical-contingent forms of
commitment and context, thus avoiding having to choose between these
two readings. This, however, involves a quietistic stance regarding the
distinguishability of ahistorical-ontological and historical-contingent
forms of commitment and context, which is sometimes counterintuitive.
Humphries sketches a possible alternative, involving the notion of ontologico-historical understanding.
Gary Kemp focuses on Quine’s criticisms of semantics. Kemp
demonstrates that Quine’s interest in semantics was subservient to his
epistemological agenda, and his overarching aim was to identify the real
presuppositions, and to sketch the main lines of a naturalistic and scientific account of the whole of human knowledge. Quine had a number of
general criticisms of the discipline or science known as semantics. Kemp

6

Piotr Stalmaszczyk

tries to separate them into the interlinguistic and intralinguistic, suggesting that semantics can survive the interlinguistic criticisms, but that
some of the more piecemeal intralinguistic criticisms remain.
Siu-Fan Lee discusses Russell’s theories of names. Russell had two
such theories and one theory of description. Logically proper names are
Millian names, which have only denotation but no connotation. Ordinary
names are not genuine names but disguised definite descriptions subject
to quantificational analyses. Only by asserting that ordinary names are
definite descriptions could Russell motivate his theory of description to
solve three problems for Millian names, namely, Frege’s puzzle, empty
reference and negative existentials. Whereas critics usually discuss Russell’s theories of names and his theory of description separately, Lee’s
paper takes a new perspective and presents a dilemma for the overall
project, arguing that it is hard to be a Russellian about names coherently.
The central issue is whether contextualisation is semantic or pragmatic
in nature, an issue very much alive in contemporary debates.
Gabriele M. Mras observes that Russell’s multiple theory of judgement is commonly regarded as a failure. This is so because any attempt
to appeal to some entity as that in virtue of which an ascription of properties is true, inevitably invokes a regress. But Russell could have
known this all along. He was familiar with this objection from Bradley’s
work and he used a “regress argument” himself while he still was philosophizing in the tradition of British idealism. Mras shows that the reason
why Russell, despite his own insistence that no ‘third thing’ could unite
the items of a sentence, ends up with a view that makes the appeal to
such a thing necessary has to do with what is commonly held against
him: Russell’s particular way to rely on the notion of structure led him
astray as a critique of Bradley.
Jaroslav Peregrin shows how the ‘linguistic turn’ of philosophy of the
twentieth century led to the overestimation of the role of logic in the process understanding of meaning and in the consequent ‘dissolution’ of traditional philosophical problems. He stresses that the role logic can sensibly play is the Wittgensteinian role of helping us build simplified models
of natural language (with all possibilities and limitations models have), not
the Carnapian role of reducing meanings, without a remainder, to logicomathematical constructs. Peregrin tries to shed some new light on this sit-

The Legacy of Frege, Russell, and Wittgenstein. Preface

7

uation in terms of distinguishing two perspectives: the expression-as-object perspective (looking at the relation between an expression and its
meaning as a contingent, a posteriori matter) and the expression-as-medium perspective (looking at this relation as something necessary or a priori).
Ulrich Reichard discusses some aspects of Fregean ontology, in
which the most fundamental distinction is that between concepts and
objects. The famous ‘paradox of the concept horse’ has often been taken
to be devastating for Frege’s ontological distinction between objects and
concepts. Reichard argues that if we consider how the concept-object
distinction is supposed to account for the unity of linguistic meaning, it
transpires that the paradox is in fact not paradoxical.
Piotr Stalmaszczyk focuses on possible approaches to linguistic
predication inspired by the philosophy of language, and distinguishes
‘Aristotelian’ (or concatentaive) predication, and ‘Fregean’ (or functional) predication. His chapter investigates the relevance of Fregean
semantics for contemporary linguistics, in particular generative grammar. Though Fregean semantics is not concerned with natural language
categories, Frege’s line of reasoning may be fruitfully applied to analyzing predication understood as a strictly grammatical relation. Finally,
the paper offers a preliminary classification of predication types into
thematic, structural and propositional.
Piotr Szałek deals with one of the major puzzles for the Wittgensteinian picture theory of language: if sense of propositions is determined by
picturing the possible state of affairs, how then can false propositions
have sense if their corresponding state of affairs does not exist? In order
to answer the question, Szałek reconstructs the main structure of the argument for the theory in the context of its relation to Bertrand Russell’s
view on judgments. The paper argues that the Wittgensteinian solution
to the problem of the false propositions relies on the notion of the intrinsic symbolic (syntactic) structure of the proposition in virtue of the analogy to the pictorial representation and possible configuration of its components.
Mieszko Tałasiewicz addresses the issue of categorial grammar and
the foundations of the philosophy of language. He presents a new approach to explaining productivity of language, a feature that is crucial for

8

Piotr Stalmaszczyk

constructing a credible logic of natural language and elucidating many
key issues in the philosophy of language. The starting point of the proposed approach is a combination of Fregean idea of functoriality and the
idea of bi-modal intentionality. These two ideas are dealt with in a way
inspired by Strawson, notably by his idea that categories are roles rather
than kinds of expressions, and that the logical syntax of language is to be
founded in some transcendental features of our thinking about the world.
As a result, the new approach reveals philosophical foundations of Categorial Grammar (far deeper than Ajdukiewicz ever explicitly acknowledged) and shows, among other things, that Categorial Grammar should
not be considered as more or less accurate description of acceptability
judgments, which constitute the empirical base of linguistics, but rather
as a calculus of intentional structure of human cognition.
Acknowledgments
I am grateful to Mr Ryszard Rasi ski for comprehensive editorial assistance, and to
Dr Piotr Duchnowicz who prepared the final manuscript. I wish to thank Dr Rafael
Hüntelmann for professional advice and encouragement for the project, and especially warmly to Ms Olena Gainulina for the final formatting assistance.

References
Arendt, Hannah 1978. Thinking. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Baldwin, Thomas 2006. Philosophy of Language in the Twentieth Century. In: E.
Lepore and B. Smith (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Language.
Oxford: Clarendon Press, 60-99.
Frege, Gottlob [1879] 1997. Begriffsschrift (translated by M. Beaney). In: M.
Beaney (ed.), The Frege Reader. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 47-78.
García-Carpintero, Manuel 2012. Editorial Introduction: History of the Philosophy
of Language. In: M. García-Carpintero and M. Kölbel (eds.), The Continuum
Companion to the Philosophy of Language. London and New York: Continuum, 1-25.
Goodman, Nelson 1978. Ways of Worldmaking. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing
Company.

The Legacy of Frege, Russell, and Wittgenstein. Preface

9

Potter, Michael 2013. Frege, Russell, and Wittgenstein. In: G. Russell and D. Graff
Fara (eds.), The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Language. New York
and London: Routledge, 852-859.
Russell, Bertrand 1940. An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth. London: George Allen
& Unwin.
Stalmaszczyk, Piotr (ed.) 2010a. Philosophy of Language and Linguistics. Volume
1: The Formal Turn. Frankfurt am Main: Ontos Verlag.
Stalmaszczyk, Piotr (ed.) 2010b. Philosophy of Language and Linguistics. Volume
2: The Philosophical Turn. Frankfurt am Main: Ontos Verlag.
Stalmaszczyk, Piotr (ed.) 2011. Turning Points in the Philosophy of Language and
Linguistics (Łód Studies in Language 21). Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig [1922] 1995. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (translated by
D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuiness). London and New York: Routledge.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig [1953] 2001. Philosophical Investigations, 3rd ed. (translated
by G. E. M. Anscombe). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Joachim Adler
University of Zurich
joachim.adler@uzh.ch

Mapping the Ancient City: Historical
Linguistics and Conceptual Clarification
Abstract: It was one of the most important claims of 20th century philosophy of
language that the meaning of any linguistic expression is its use. Wittgenstein and
ordinary language philosophers inferred from this that philosophical entanglements
can only be dissolved by clarifying the misleading concepts. In order to do this, one
has to re-collect the ordinary use of the concepts in question. Of course, such conceptual clarifications invariably refer to the present use of a word and not to any
historical account of language. Except for a few remarks in Austin’s Plea for Excuses, etymology has never been considered as relevant for ordinary language philosophy. My aim in this paper is to establish historical linguistics as a useful instrument for conceptual clarification. After having outlined my notion of the method of conceptual clarification, I shall first examine why historical linguistics has
been constantly neglected in this very method of analytical philosophy. I will then
put forward two reasons why integrating a diachronic perspective on language can
advance the pursuit for linguistic and philosophical clarity. Finally, my conclusion
will show that diachronically enriched conceptual clarification does not lead philosophy into mere empirical sciences.
Keywords: Wittgenstein, conceptual clarification, conceptual analysis, diachronic
historical linguistics, semantics, ordinary language philosophy
Our language can be regarded as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, of houses with
extensions from various periods, and all this surrounded by a
multitude of new suburbs with straight and regular streets and
uniform houses.
Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §18

12

Joachim Adler

0. Introduction
Due to the famous linguistic turn, philosophy finally took notice of language. More than ever before, so-called linguistic philosophers now emphasised the importance of language. They strived to make progress in
their philosophical pursuits by concentrating on the linguistic form in
which it is couched. In the first half of the 20th century, linguistic philosophy split into ideal language philosophy on the one side and ordinary
language philosophy1 on the other. And although Ludwig Wittgenstein
(together with his followers at Cambridge) is not to be counted as a proponent of either of the two, he was certainly much closer to the latter.
They shared important points, most notably in methodology. Contrary to
the ideal language movement, philosophy should not try to substitute ordinary language by some sort of logical calculus, but rather elaborate the
subtleties in our everyday parlance by examining and clarifying the involved concepts (in the next section of this essay, I will sketch the method in more detail).
The heydays of ordinary language philosophy (as well as those of ideal language philosophy) may well be over. What has lasted to this very
day though is its method of conceptual clarification.2 In the last few
years, one could even speak of a renaissance, as hotly debated topics
(especially in the philosophy of mind) have seen promising attempts to
progress by clarifying the concepts in this manner. Apart from such good
news, this comeback has also reawakened former doubts about this
method. Since its early dawning, linguistic philosophy has repeatedly
1

2

I use the label ordinary language philosophy for the philosophical tradition
which goes back to Oxford in the 1960s and was championed by scholars like
John Austin, Gilbert Ryle and Peter Strawson. The important differences between their and Wittgenstein’s conception of philosophy notwithstanding, I will
neglect the differences in the following. For further reading, see Hacker (1996:
162-182) and Glock (2008a: 34ff).
The term conceptual analysis seems to be slightly more common. Despite this, I
shall refer to the method as conceptual clarification. While both terms are metaphors and hence carry the risk of confusion, I find the latter less captious. As
Ryle pointed out, philosophical problems cannot be analysed like chemicals. It is
better to compare the task of the philosopher with that of a cartographer than that
of a chemist or detective (Ryle 1957: 385).

Mapping the Ancient City: Historical Linguistics and Conceptual…

13

been attacked in various ways. Most of all, the objections focussed on
the allegedly intuitive basis of conceptual clarification and its speculations in a lay quasi-linguistic fashion (see, for instance, Mates 1958 and
Gellner 1959 for two early criticisms). Quite a few commentators doubted whether the grand questions of philosophy could really be answered
by observing the ordinary man’s speech. But even if ordinary language
could actually furnish the solution for philosophical entanglements, what
qualifies a philosopher to state how ordinary language is used? On what
basis does he pick out the concepts which are to be examined? And how
does he know whether his grasp of a certain concept is common and ordinary? Unfortunately, these reservations were apparently vindicated by
two of the most famous proponents of ordinary language philosophy.
Ryle and Austin independently from each other examined the use of voluntarily. But alas, their respective notions of the concept diverged essentially. The mocking thus was foreseeable:
If agreement about usage cannot be reached within so restricted a sample as
the class of Oxford Professors of Philosophy, what are the prospects when
the sample is enlarged? (Mates 1958: 165)

Following this line, Daniel Dennett (2007: 82f) recently called the procedure of conceptual clarification “naïve auto-anthropology”. Observing
linguistic actions of a social group, he claims, would pass as anthropology. But to take only into account one’s own linguistic actions without
even assessing them critically, is, in his view, just naïve. Others (e.g.
New 1966: 380f) have claimed that fundamental features of language
such as changes of meaning are constantly neglected and that, in this
sense, the system of language is too dynamic to deduce any philosophical conclusions from it. At least, if one refers to past philosophers, one
has to be aware of the possibility that many a concept was used differently at that time. This danger of conceptual anachronism leaves us with
two alternatives: either one discards the history of philosophy in total, or
one has to discriminate all the different uses of a singular expression, albeit being formally identical (examples will follow below).

14

Joachim Adler

Thus, it seems that conceptual clarification would eventually turn into
a Sisyphean challenge.3 To be sure, both charges have a point. Since philosophy is often conceived as a discipline which is only concerned with
the a priori, methodological autism is spotted here and there. In matters
of linguistic philosophy, however, such a restriction would be blatantly
unproductive. If language is seriously to be taken into account, one must
not ignore the discipline of which language is the object of study.
Among the different concerns about the method of conceptual clarification, I will answer only two of them by introducing historical linguistics as a tool for conceptual clarifications. The integration of a diachronic perspective on language will prove to be an appropriate way to
enrich this method with linguistically coherent devices, so that the objection of lay linguistic methods can be repudiated. Moreover, this tool
enables us to deal with language change adequately, which will, as will
be shown, eventually turn out as grist to the mill for ordinary language
philosophy. This also helps us also refer to past philosophers considering
their use of the concepts in question. Before answering these objections
however, I will also examine why it seems fairly reasonable that proponents of the method of conceptual clarification have hardly ever considered a diachronic perspective on language. I will then put forward two
reasons why integrating a diachronic perspective on language can nevertheless advance the pursuit for linguistic and philosophical clarity. At
that point, I will have to forestall two misunderstandings which are quite
common in matters of language change in philosophy of language. Finally, my conclusion will show that diachronically enriched conceptual
clarification does not reduce philosophy to empirical linguistics.
Apparently, there are two crucial labels in this essay: historical linguistics and conceptual clarification. What I mean by the latter shall be
discussed in the paragraph below. Historical or diachronic linguistics
seems to be a rather diffuse etiquette even for linguists,4 let alone philosophers. The term diachronic linguistics was coined by Ferdinand de
3

4

For further discussion of the relevance of the history of philosophy, see Glock
(2008b).
Even though diachronic might seem more precise and less biased than historical,
the linguistic discipline I refer to is usually labelled as historical linguistics.
Speaking of this specific discipline, I shall thus follow this convention.

Mapping the Ancient City: Historical Linguistics and Conceptual…

15

Saussure, and the locus classicus for its definition is to be found in the
Course of General Linguistics:
What diachronic linguistics studies is not relations between coexisting
terms of a language-state but relations between successive terms that are
substituted for each other in time. (Saussure 1959: 140)

Diachronic linguistics is concerned with the phenomenon of language
change. Every part of language changes: phonetically, as sounds change;
grammatically, as inflexional paradigms evolve or even collapse; syntactically, as word orders vary; and, of course, semantically, as meanings
change. And since this is perhaps the most striking feature of language
change and easily observable also for laypersons within one lifespan,
historical linguistics is often reduced to historical semantics. Indeed, semantic change is the main aspect I intend to focus on in the following.
For it is the meaning of philosophically contentious expressions that
conceptual clarification seeks to elucidate. However, if language change
is to be considered in the pursuit of dissolving philosophical problems,
one has to incorporate all other aspects of language as well. In fact, semantic change cannot be isolated from phonetic changes. For the history
of a word and its meaning can only be traced back if one is able to reconstruct its phonetic shape through the different stages of a language.
1. Conceptual clarification as a method
At the beginning of the 20th century, language took centre stage in philosophy. Although there have been and still are various disagreements on
what role exactly language should play, it has never lost its importance
since then. Arguably the most sustained and uncompromising turn towards language – namely, as the focus of every philosophical venture –
was taken by Wittgenstein and, similarly, by ordinary language philosophy. They agreed in the basic idea that philosophical problems arise
from linguistic delusions. And these arise when we become puzzled by
words used in an unordinary way so that we do not understand what they
mean in a certain context. In order to dissolve such conceptual entan-

16

Joachim Adler

glements, one has to clarify the misleading concepts by taking them back
to their ordinary use.
In Peter Hacker’s criticism of the neuroscientific terminology (see
Bennett and Hacker 2003), we find several examples for this method.
For instance, if we become puzzled by questions like “Can consciousness be located in the brain?”, “Is consciousness essentially private?” or
“Does the phenomenon of consciousness resist naturalization?”, we first
have to work out what those question actually mean – and, relatedly,
what kind of answer there is to be given. After all, consciousness is not
just a technical term that has been invented and concisely defined, nor is
it only used in uncontentious situations without any philosophical relevance. Conversely, while it is a word of ordinary language, it is also the
hot potato in the dispute between neuroscientists and philosophers. So
which context should be the reliable one in our search of the legitimate
use of consciousness? Since we do not seem to stumble over its definition in our everyday parlance, it is the ordinary context we should first
look to. We say He’s conscious when somebody has passed out and is
now opening her eyes again, or I’m perfectly conscious of the risks I’m
taking which means that I am well aware of the risks, that I am taking
the risks into account. We can hardly find any kind of substance which
these two sentences refer to, nor a certain area in our brain. Eventually,
we shall find that certain neurophilosophical claims do not use the term
as it is supposed to, and this is what often results even in plain nonsense.
We do not use consciousness as a name for some Cartesian inner theatre.
Thus, there seems to be something awry in the quest for consciousness.5
To sum up, the method discussed here is as follows. One collects the
problematic expressions in a given context, examines their use in ordinary language, compares this use with the given context and delineates
the bounds of sense in respect of that very language game.6 Conceptual
clarification strives for an overview, for clarity (Übersichtlichkeit, as the
original reads, see Philosophical Investigations §122). Certainly, in our
5

6

I cannot put forward a sustained argument here, but see Bennett and Hacker
(2003: 237ff) and also Kenny (2009: 250-263).
Wittgenstein’s term “language game” (PI §23) is, for reasons of simplicity, to be
understood here as a certain context, or, in Austin’s diction, as an “area (of discourse)”. See Urmson (1967: 233).

Mapping the Ancient City: Historical Linguistics and Conceptual…

17

everyday speech, competent speakers hardly become confused by language, just as we are not lost in a city we have known since childhood,
although we might not be able to draw a map of that city. As expressed
by Wittgenstein in the quotation at the beginning, natural languages –
opposed to, say, Esperanto or the interpreted logical calculi envisaged by
‘ideal language philosophers’ – are not built only of rectangular streets
and uniform houses. In the alleys of language lurk many traps which we
are able to avoid simply because we have trained it more than anything
else in our life. Still, in our quest for philosophical insights we easily fall
into such traps or run into dead ends. In a remark from 1931, Wittgenstein’s metaphor runs as follows:
Language sets everyone the same traps; it is an immense network of easily
accessible wrong turnings. And so we watch one man after another walking
down the same paths and we know in advance where he will branch off,
where walk straight on without noticing the side turning etc. etc. What
I have to do then is erect signposts at all the junctions where there are
wrong turnings so as to help people past the danger points. (Wittgenstein
1980: 18e)

In the following, I do not wish to dwell on a defence for this method, as
much as it would deserve one. Rather, I shall explicate in which way it
can be enriched by historical linguistics. Armed with the vigour of linguistic data, one may find the conclusions of conceptual clarification
even more compelling.
2. Why the past might not matter
At first sight, to combine the idea of conceptual clarification with a historical perspective on language seems highly problematic.7 For when
Wittgenstein famously claimed that “the meaning of a word is its use in
the language” (PI §43), one clearly has to understand use here as present
use. The use of a word changes constantly; most words are not used the
7

This impression may partly derive from a common prejudice against analytic
philosophy as being a- or even anti-historical. See Glock (2008b) for a detailed
discussion of the mismatch between analytic philosophy and history.

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Joachim Adler

way they were several hundred years ago. Even middle-aged people
know of some expressions that are used differently nowadays than in
their youth. But clearly, one cannot arrive at the actual meaning by exploring etymology. For instance, the fact that etymology derives from
Greek étymos ‘true’ does not imply that etymology is about elucidating
the true meaning of a word. Today, etymology is the discipline which
describes the origins of a word, without any normative power. Despite
its name, etymology has shed the idea of a true meaning.
Still, academia apart, etymology is consistently exploited for language
policies, in some quarters language change is still conceived as some
sort of decay. But how – and why – should one want to turn the clock
back in matters of meaning, anyway? Consider someone prompting,
“Meet me at noon”. Another might know that noon derives from Latin
nona (hora), originally ‘the ninth hour from sunrise’ (see ODEE 614),
but that would, of course, hardly justify his showing up only at 3 p.m.
Regardless of its meaning until the 14th century, noon is used nowadays
only to refer to 12 o’clock in the day; one cannot use it for any other
hour without being misunderstood.
Admittedly, meanings do not always change as unambiguously as in
the case of noon. Former uses very often loom into the present through
secondary use or by tinging the primary. These cases, of course, are the
interesting ones for the method discussed here.
Saussure and Wittgenstein compared linguistic acts with moves in
chess.8 Both activities are guided by rules which have a constitutive
power. Chess rules are constitutive in two ways. On the one hand, they
constitute the game that is played as chess. You only play chess if you
move your pieces according to the rules of chess. And indeed, these
rules have evolved through the centuries just as linguistic ones, but there
is only one set of rules that you have to stick to if you play chess these
days. If one would bring dice into the game, one could not be said to
play chess anymore, although it was played with dice in the beginning.
On the other hand, chess rules also constitute the individual pieces. It is
not the shape that defines them, but rather the rules that confine their
8

Saussure (1959: 22); PI § 31. Further interesting parallels between Saussure and
Wittgenstein can be found in Harris (1988).

Mapping the Ancient City: Historical Linguistics and Conceptual…

19

movements: the piece that is allowed to move only horizontally or vertically through any number of unoccupied squares is called the rook.
These rules build a synchronic, ahistorical system, which has to be accepted as a whole when one wants to engage in a chess-game.
Similarly, in order to take part in a language community, one has to
follow the rules that build the synchronic, ahistorical system of every
language.9 So, of course, if one wants to understand the meaning of a
word, one simply has to look at its present use. Thus it seems that, however perplexing a philosophical problem may be, the former meanings of
the expressions involved simply do not play any role both for the reasons
and the solution of our problem. Why then should we bother about historical linguistics at all? I want to present two reasons why we should.
3. First reason: clarifying the starting point
The first reason leads us back to the initial phase of the clarification process and also to a weighty objection against this method. In this section,
I will answer the demurs about the lay linguistic attitude which has been
rightly detected in several works of ordinary language philosophers.
When we are to describe the relations and dependencies between concepts in a certain area of discourse we have to struggle mostly with the
synchronic disorder in our everyday language. The sheer number of
near-synonyms, derivations and loanwords makes it very difficult to collect all the relevant expressions, let alone to examine their subtle differences and nuances. Taking the diachronic perspective into account,
we can understand the reasons behind those oddities much more easily
and have the area of discourse arranged more appropriately.
Consider, for example, knowledge. The conceptual entanglements are
well known. Philosophers have wrestled with the problem of an adequate definition for ages; dozens of books and presumably hundreds of
articles have been published about it. Several linguistic philosophers
(Wittgenstein, Ryle, and Austin) dealt with it too. The heterogeneity of
9

For reasons of space, I will not discuss the well-known qualms whether or not
language is a rule-governed activity. As a defence for the position that is taken
here, see Glock (2008c).

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Joachim Adler

the expressions involved is mentioned quite regularly – which actually
means, grasping all the relevant concepts, confining the area of discourse, turns out to be at least one of the fundamental parts of the problem. For, as many a failed definition shows, knowledge is related to concepts like consciousness, conscience, wise or witty, which are likely to
be overlooked but may yet reveal insights into the language game in
which knowledge is embedded (see, for example, Bennett and Hacker
2003: 148ff, and Hanfling 1985). Not least, because of these ties, the
concept of knowledge has turned out to be too ramified for any concise
definition. Rather, the different uses of knowledge are a decent example
of a Wittgensteinian family resemblance: “a complicated network of
similarities overlapping and criss-crossing” (PI §66).10 But how to cope
with all these strands? Synchronically, the formal variety of the aforementioned expressions entails the danger of limiting the investigation to
knowledge and to know. However, the diachronic perspective readily uncovers the relations to conscience and consciousness, as they trace back
to Latin scire ‘to know’ and con-scire ‘to share knowledge with somebody’ or ‘to be privy with another or oneself’ (see ODEE 205f, 508f). A
few etymological insights further, one has to recognise that any clarification of knowledge must not neglect consciousness, and vice versa. While
dealing with consciousness, Bennett and Hacker state:
Transitive consciousness lies at the confluence of the concepts of
knowledge, realization (i.e. one specific form that acquisition may take),
receptivity (as opposed to achievement) of knowledge, and attention caught
and held, or given. (Bennett and Hacker 2003: 253)

And as complex or even desperate as this statement may sound, the interrelated histories of these expressions not only prove it to be correct,
but explain also how this came about.
Behind every confusing arrangement of expressions lies a bundle of
word histories that are well capable of being explained clearly. Of
course, there are still plenty of etymologies that linguists have been unable to discover. But due to the ongoing progress of linguistic research,
10

Ernst (2002) does not share this view in his monograph about knowledge. Referring to Hanfling (1985), he basically distinguishes two major uses.

Mapping the Ancient City: Historical Linguistics and Conceptual…

21

more and more expressions can be traced back to their roots. Moreover,
the still obscure prehistoric stages with no written accounts are of low
interest for the issue discussed here. For since western philosophy
emerged centuries after the invention of writing, these stages could not
have had an immediate impact on philosophical concepts. And as for any
indirect traces, there is just no way of telling. By contrast, the more relevant stages, covering the last few centuries, provide us with a vast number of written records, at least in the case of the major European languages.
What is more, etymological pathways cross language borders incessantly. Tracing back word histories across different languages does not
just affect conceptual clarification in one language, but in many. Despite
their different developments, genetically related languages like English
and German still share a considerable amount of cognate words. Certainly, many of them are so-called false friends, which means that, in spite
of their similar form, the two related words have reached different meanings in the respective languages. Still, how a word is used in German, for
instance, is often highly informative for the clarification of its cognate in
English. For instance, some former meaning may have survived in one
language while it has been abandoned in the other, but it may still be relevant for the understanding of the specific development of use. Apart
from cognates and loanwords, languages with similar cultural backgrounds can also simply serve as objects of comparison (Wittgenstein
occasionally mentioned the use of a Vergleichsobjekt, see, for instance,
PI §131). For what is formally muddled in one language can be much
clearer in another, whereas the conceptual framework beneath is always
the same. The aforementioned relation between knowledge and consciousness may well serve as an example here. Since the German words
Gewissen ‘conscience’ and Bewusstsein ‘consciousness’ were not, as it
is the case for English, borrowed from Latin, the close connection to
wissen ‘to know’ is even formally evident. And this, of course, reinforces the supposed relevance of the relation between these two concepts.
Language-crossing kinship thus often reveals interesting insights too,
and is the object of so-called external reconstruction, which is a standard
procedure of historical linguistics in order to reconstruct poorly documented language stages or to track nebulous etymologies.

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Joachim Adler

4. Second reason: understanding language change
The second point shows another advantage of a diachronically enriched
clarification, but also rules out a misconception of language change
which I shall mention first. Critics have occasionally argued that the
method of conceptual clarification must fail due to semantic change. The
attack runs as follows. The ordinary language philosophers’ pretence of
distinguishing uses of expressions that make sense from those that do
not turns out to be mere linguistic conservatism. Meanings change constantly and therefore it is principally impossible to fix the rules for the
use of an expression. This strand of objection was taken up by Dennett
(2007) in his reply to Bennett and Hacker (2003), even though they had
already discussed it in this very book. Dennett claims that linguists
would hesitate in stating any grammatical rules as these would virtually
change the moment they are written down. And since continuous change
is conceived as an essential feature of any living language, linguistic
conservatism would either be in vain or even restrict the required development of a certain vocabulary.
Dennett may be right in his statement that at least some ordinary language philosophers have undeniably been inattentive towards language
change (but Hacker is certainly not to be included).11 However, he is
wrong in his view both of language change as some sort of chaotic destructive force and of linguistics throwing in the towel in the face of linguistic change. Dennett claims that, as an example, linguists would refrain from calling The cat climbed down the tree an abuse of the verb to
climb (Dennett 2007: 84). Given that it originally expressed an ascending motion, should the combination with down count as a mistake or as a
semantic change? Pace Dennett, linguists do not have any difficulties in
describing the phenomenon (e.g., see Wierzbicka 1990: 363ff).
The term to climb down is not be taken as a contradictio in adjecto
making linguists shudder; it is simply a nice example of a semantic extension. To climb is a cognate of German (er)klimmen, which is indeed
11

It has to be noted that in his famous and programmatic Plea for Excuses, Austin
explicitly took etymology into account as part of the method he envisaged (see
Austin 1956). In spite of that, only a few of his disciples followed his example.

Mapping the Ancient City: Historical Linguistics and Conceptual…

23

only used to express an ascent. And without the adverb down, the English verb is restricted to the very same use. The cat climbed the tree
means that the cat is now up in the tree, not that it just descended it. In
combination with down, the meaning of climb has been generalised from
‘move horizontally upwards (by hands and feet)’ to ‘move horizontally
(by hands and feet)’. What is more, contrary to Dennett’s contention,
this is not an example of recent semantic change; the expression to climb
down is documented since the early 14th century, and the evidence is
readily accessible in the OED.
To be sure, much more dramatic meaning changes are legion. Consider, as a single example, English nice, deriving from Latin nescius ‘ignorant’; one seemingly has to conclude that semantic change is a completely arbitrary process. But what would that mean for ordinary language philosophy? Irritating expressions like My brain is conscious –
notably the bone of contention between Hacker and Dennett – could
simply be justified by referring to spontaneous meaning change. And
this would make it possible to ascribe the term conscious not only to
persons, but also to brains, computers and anything you like.
Before giving in, however, the “arbitrariness” of this process is worth
looking at more closely. For if one does not just settle for shuffling the
starting and ending points, but rather aims at a reconstruction of the history step by step, the emerging picture is that of a much more comprehensible process. The Latin nescius evolved into Catalan neci ‘ignorant’
which was incorporated into Middle English as nyce ‘foolish’. By the
15th century, the meaning had become ‘coy, shy’ and via ‘fastidious,
dainty’; the present meaning of ‘agreeable, delightful’ was eventually
reached in the 18th century (see ODEE 609). It is the instruments of historical linguistics that provide an insight into the black box of language
change. Seemingly arbitrary developments like the aforementioned result from the alignment of well-known processes such as specialisation
of meaning, generalisation, amelioration, and so on. Impressions of arbitrariness and unpredictability often result from the scope of the diachronic perspective: over the centuries, meanings may indeed take impressive and surprising leaps. But if we dwell on the details of a continuous process, there is no mysterious lottery anymore, no etymological
miracle. At the very most, there are unexplainable meaning shifts be-

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Joachim Adler

cause of word histories that have not yet been uncovered. But semantic
change itself is not a quodlibet. With the exception of explicit stipulations, meanings do not leap, they move slowly. For semantic change is
always constricted by synchronic comprehensibility: if the majority is
unable to make sense of a new use, it cannot be established.
At this point, I shall try to forestall two misunderstandings. First, language change is for the most part an unpredictable process – the achievements of post festum diachronic linguistics concerning the explanation
of changes in the past notwithstanding. However, while we cannot tell
how the meaning of a certain word may evolve, it is quite reasonable to
predict what shift in meaning an expression will not undergo, considering its development and present use. Secondly, I am not suggesting
that language change is or should be subject to any normative claims.
Linguistics is not a normative discipline. Intentionally transferring a
word to an unfamiliar context is by no means to be condemned; it is evidence of a living language. Even more to this point, metaphors, as much
as loanwords, are the language’s fountain of youth. If scholars manipulate ordinary language though, we have to be cautious. Whatever happens to language within laboratories and philosophy departments may be
jolly good, whether their jargon contains technical terms, everyday expressions or codes. Still, even though scientists claim to understand each
other’s terminology, many an example shows that, due to conceptual entanglements, they seem to draw the wrong conclusions from their data.
For scientific language, as elaborated as it may be, is impregnated with
ordinary language, and so are the questions about, say, consciousness.
The conceptual confusions vitiate the speaking and thinking of experts.
However, it is even more harmful if this idiosyncratic lingo should convey scientific findings to laypeople. For whenever scholars want to make
their results and findings available to the public, they have to bridge a
gap of knowledge, and this is not to be done by introducing linguistic
innovations without explaining them. Consciousness may be a shibboleth for whatever neuroscientific theory, but if neuroscientists talk in the
same way in popular scientific articles and books, it should be made

Mapping the Ancient City: Historical Linguistics and Conceptual…

25

clear that this cannot possibly mean the same as it does in ordinary language.12
Considering the historical depth of language must not lead us to any
sort of linguistic inertia. But, as so often, history provides us with a critical reminder of recent trends. And so we might then reject certain metonymies like “thinking brains”, because they do not fill a gap in our
everyday language, nor do they explain anything. Rather, they cause
confusion.
5. Conclusion: philosophy as an appendix of empirical linguistics?
In the previous two sections, I tried to rebut two objections against conceptual clarification by showing the advantages of a diachronic perspective. I argued that intuitive reasoning can and should be replaced by
proper linguistic assessments, including an adequate historical perspective on the concepts which are to be clarified. The second objection concerning language change turned out to be a strong argument for the integration of historical linguistics, provided that we understand the principles of meaning change. Of course, in order to profit from these linguistic tools, substantial empirical data is indispensable.
Ever since Russell’s early criticism, ordinary language philosophy has
been suspected of dissolving philosophy into empirical linguistics. Furthermore, others have claimed that if philosophy has to bite the bullet of
turning empirical it should at least abstain from armchair reasoning and
engage in proper empirical linguistics. In this vein, hotly debated experimental philosophy has tried to prove or disprove – if not to improve
– the former results of ordinary language philosophy (e.g., see Knobe
and Nichols 2008).13
12

13

It is well noteworthy that the communication between science and the public has
increasingly attracted attention. The journal Public Understanding of Science is
just one outcome of this movement, several publications and conferences have
been devoted to this hotly debated topic.
Sandis (2008) has set out vividly the differences between ordinary language philosophy and experimental philosophy and why conceptual clarification cannot be
replaced by polls.

26

Joachim Adler

The fears are baseless. Etymological investigations can no more replace philosophy than sociolinguistic surveys can. Empirical data typically
cause frowns in philosophy conceived as referring only to the a priori.
But just as in epistemology or philosophy of biology, philosophy of language also must not ignore the empirical basis. Of course, data cannot
replace any kind of conceptual clarification or philosophical argument.
But it is probable that they help us set the agenda for a certain philosophical pursuit. With regard to conceptual clarification, linguistic data
may circumscribe the scope of the area which is to be examined. Different linguistic tools, of which I consider the historical ones only as some
among others, provide us with data or premises for philosophical deliberation. When Austin habitually read through the whole dictionary (see
Urmson 1967: 234), he collected data for his premises. Thus, what we
find in ordinary language, be it that of today or of yesterday, be it by
armchair reasoning or by philology, “is not the last word”, as Austin famously declared, but “it is the first word” (1970: 133).14
References
Austin, John L. 1956. A Plea for Excuses. Reprinted in 1970 Philosophical Papers,
Oxford: Clarendon, 123-152.
Bennett, Maxwell and Peter M. S. Hacker 2003. Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience. Malden: Blackwell.
Bennett, Maxwell, Daniel Dennett, Peter Hacker and John Searle (eds.) 2007. Neuroscience and Philosophy: Brain, Mind and Language. New York: Columbia
University Press.
Dennett, Daniel C. 2007. Philosophy as Naïve Anthropology. In: M. Bennett et al.
(eds.), 73-95.
Ernst, Gerhard 2002. Das Problem des Wissens. Paderborn: Mentis.
Gellner, Ernest 1959/2005. Words and Things. London: Routledge.
Glock, Hans-Johann 2008a. What Is Analytic Philosophy? Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.
Glock, Hans-Johann 2008b. Analytic Philosophy and History: a Mismatch? Mind. A
Quarterly Review of Philosophy 117, 867-897.

14

I wish to thank Hanjo Glock, Stefan Riegelnik and Peter Hacker for comments
and discussions on several topics that appear in this essay.

Mapping the Ancient City: Historical Linguistics and Conceptual…

27

Glock, Hans-Johann 2008c. Meaning; Rules and Conventions. In: D. Levy and E.
Zamuner (eds.), 156-178.
Glock , Hans-Johann and John Hyman (eds.) 2009. Wittgenstein and Analytic Philosophy. Essays for P. M. S. Hacker. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hacker, Peter M. S. 1996. Wittgenstein’s Place in Twentieth Century Analytic Philosophy. Oxford: Blackwell.
Hanfling, Oswald 1985. A Situational Account of Knowledge. The Monist 68, 4056.
Harris, Roy 1988. Language, Saussure and Wittgenstein. London and New York:
Routledge.
Kenny, Anthony 2009. Cognitive Scientism. In H.-J. Glock and J. Hyman (eds.),
250-262.
Knobe, Joshua and Shaun Nichols (eds.) 2008. Experimental Philosophy. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.
Levy, David and Edoardo Zamuner (eds.) 2008. Wittgenstein’s Enduring Arguments. London: Routledge.
Mates, Benson 1958. On the Verification of Statements about Ordinary Language.
Inquiry 1: 1, 161-171.
New, Christopher 1966. A Plea for Linguistics. Mind, New Series, 75 (299), 368384.
Onions, Charles T. (ed.) 1966. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. Oxford: Clarendon Press. [ODEE]
Rorty, Richard (ed.) 1967. The Philosophical Turn. Recent Essays in Philosophical
Method. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
Ryle, Gilbert 1957. The Theory of Meaning. Reprinted in 2009, Collected Papers,
Vol. 2. London and New York: Routledge, 363-385.
Sandis, Constantine 2010. The Experimental Turn and Ordinary Language. Essays
in Philosophy 11, 181-196.
de Saussure, Ferdinand 1959. General Course in Linguistics. Translated from the
French by Wade Baskin. New York: Philosophical Library.
Tsohatzidis, Savas (ed.) 1990. Meanings and Prototypes: Studies in Linguistic Categorization. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Urmson, James O. 1967. J. L. Austin. In: R. Rorty (ed.), 232-238.
Wierzbicka, Anna 1990. ‘Prototypes Save’: On the Uses and Abuses of the Notion
of ‘Prototypes’ in Linguistics and Related Fields. In S. Tsohatzidis (ed.), 347367.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig 1980. Culture and Value. Translated by Peter Winch. Oxford:
Blackwell.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig 2009. Philosophical Investigations. Revised 4th edition by P.
M. S. Hacker and J. Schulte. Malden: Blackwell.

María Cerezo
University of Murcia
mmcerezo@um.es

Russell and Wittgenstein on Proposition,
Judgement, and Truth*
Abstract: In this paper I present the evolution of Bertrand Russell’s theory of
judgement from 1903 to 1913 and discuss the problems that his theory encountered
under its three versions in The Principles of Mathematics (1903), On the Nature of
Truth and Falsehood (1910) and Theory of Knowledge (1913). I intend to show the
stimulating effect that these problems had on the development of some Tractarian
ideas which can be interpreted as something of a return to early Russell in certain
aspects, together with other crucial innovations. In particular, I will focus on Wittgenstein’s revision of the notion of logical form and how it symbolizes and on his
truth-conditional theory of sense.
Keywords: Russell, Wittgenstein, judgement, truth, falsehood, sense, logical form,
propositional unity, bipolarity, assertion

0. Introduction
Recent work on the objection that Wittgenstein raised to Russell’s theory
of judgement in the unfinished version of Theory of Knowledge (1913,
henceforth TK) has revived discussion on the particular problems that his
theory had. The received view was that the problem derived from its
conflict with the Principia’s theory of types (Griffin 1985, 1985-1986),
but subsequent work by Hochberg (1996), Stevens (2004, 2006), Hanks
(2007), Carey (2007), Landini (2007), Pincock (2008) and Connelly
(2011-2012) has brought new hypotheses into the picture. Hanks looks
*

Special thanks are due to the late Angel d’Ors, with whom I discussed some of
the issues of the paper during many years. I also want to thank for the funds received from the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation and the Ministry of
Economy and Competivity [FFI2009-13687-C02-01/FISO].

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María Cerezo

for a difficulty internal to the Russellian theory of judgement itself, rather than one that derives from its conflict with other Russellian theories.
He claims that Wittgenstein’s objection was a version of the classic
problem of the unity of a proposition. Stevens also thinks that Russell’s
problem was related to this unity and the need to account for the right
constituents that can be combined to form a proposition. This point is
also stressed by Hochberg when he offers his interpretation of Wittgenstein’s criticism, but Hochberg also insists on the need to account for the
connection between a representing and a represented complex. Carey’s
detailed analysis of the writing and contents of TK attempts to show that
Russell abandoned it because he was not able to account for the bipolarity of a proposition within the framework of his theory of judgement.
This line is also followed by Pincock, who focuses on what he calls “the
correspondence problem”, that is the question about what must be the
case for a belief to be true and what must be the case for it to be false.
Landini thinks that Wittgenstein’s difficulty had to do with the presence
and role of logical forms in the analysis of judgement. Finally, Connelly
defends a reading of the objection in line with Griffin’s reading, but with
a different interpretation of the conflict internal to Russell’s proposal, a
conflict deriving from the requirement of a significance constraint on
judgements together with some facts about logical inference.
Most of these discussions approach the relation between Russell’s and
Wittgenstein’s ideas from the perspective of the paralyzing effect that
Wittgenstein’s criticism had on Russell. In adopting this point of view,
the discussion centres on determining which difficulty caused the paralysis. In this paper, my perspective is different. I will not focus on the
paralyzing effect of Wittgenstein’s criticism on Russell, but rather on the
stimulating effect that Russell’s difficulties had on Wittgenstein’s own
development. On the one hand, a similar perspective has perhaps been
attempted recently in Stevens approach (2006). Even though he centres
his attention on Russell’s theory, he also seeks to account for the way in
which the picture theory tried to solve the problems encountered in the
Russellian theories. However, Stevens concentrates mainly on the features of the general picture theory (TLP 2.1-2.225), and does not pay
sufficient attention to the particular way in which that theory is applied
to propositions in the Tractatus. Hochberg’s reading (1996) has a similar

Russell and Wittgenstein on Proposition, Judgement, and Truth

31

limitation: he thinks that Wittgenstein did not provide a complete solution to the problem of correlation of representing with represented complexes, since the correlation of the constituents was not sufficient to account for it. However, once one takes into account not only the general
picture theory, but its application to truth-functional propositions, new
light can be shed on the issue. On the other hand, due to their stress on
bipolarity, which is a crucial feature of the Tractarian doctrine, I do
share much of Carey’s and Pincock’s flavour, but I also pay attention to
the contribution that the Tractarian truth-functions theory makes in tackling Russell’s problems.
In Section 1, I focus on the evolution of Russell’s theory of judgement
and its problems. Section 2 presents and briefly comments on the texts in
which Wittgenstein explicitly mentions and criticizes Russell’s theory.
Wittgenstein’s moves to solve these problems are displayed in Section 3
and the last section summarises the problems and moves and provides
some final textual evidence for my approach.1
1. The evolution of Russell’s theory and its problems
Russell’s clearest difficulty in developing his theory was the necessity to
account for how the sense of a proposition is independent of its truth.
This required accounting for the truth and falsehood of a proposition and
for its meaning in different ways. In general, his proposals were developed along two lines:2
Line 1: To consider truth and falsehood as properties of propositions
which are conceived as some sort of independent complex entities
whose unity should be ontologically guaranteed. This is the view in
The Principles of Mathematics (1903, henceforth PoM), and I will
refer to it as the PoM-Theory.
1

2

Table 1 at the end of the paper is provided to help the reader follow the presentation of Russell’s problems and Wittgenstein’s moves.
For a useful account of the evolution of Russell’s views about judgement, see
Candlish (1996). Stevens (2006), Hanks (2007) and Johnston (2007) also offer
clear reports of that evolution.

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Line 2: To consider truth and falsehood as properties of judgements,
so that the judging mind was in charge of unifying the objects of belief. The unity of true and false judgements was then accounted for
similarly, since it was grounded in the act of judging. The existence/
non-existence of complex entities corresponding to beliefs was then a
means of accounting for truth/falsehood. This idea is realized in different ways in both versions of Russell’s multiple relation theory of
judgement in On the Nature of Truth and Falsehood (1910, henceforth OTF), which is in general terms the same in Principia Mathematica (1910) and The Problems of Philosophy (1912), and in the
unpublished TK (1913). I will refer to these two views as the OTFTheory and TK-Theory, respectively.
It is crucial that in Line 1, propositions are primitive with respect to psychological relations. Russell offers a theory of objective true and false
propositions, and explains judgement as a psychological relation of the
mind to propositions. The problems to which this theory gives rise make
Russell invert the account in Line 2: psychological acts are primitive. As
we shall see, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus can be viewed as a return to Line
1, with a more complete theory of propositions, and a revision of the
analysis of psychological relations.
PoM-Theory (1903)
There are three important features of Russell’s conception at this early
stage of development: the ontological nature of propositions and the relation of language to them in terms of indication; the nature of truth and
falsehood, and finally the issue of the unity of a proposition.
Russell conceived the relation between language and world as one of
indication, that is, a direct relation between linguistic items and world
entities. Words indicate terms and sentences indicate propositions. There
are two kinds of terms: things and concepts, which are indicated by
nouns and by verbs and adjectives, respectively. Propositions are complex entities, whose constituents are terms. Thus, for example, the sentence (1) indicates the proposition (2) below (I will represent entities by
placing them in square brackets):

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(1) Obama is younger than Bush
(2) [Obama is younger than Bush]
where (2) is composed of the following constituents: the things [Obama]
and [Bush] and the concept [being younger than]. But these constituents
can be combined in different ways to give rise to different propositions,
like the different propositions that are indicated by (1) above and (3) below:
(3) Bush is younger than Obama
This is the way of combination of constituents problem (Problem 1),
which has two sides: the way in which the constituents combine (Problem 1.1) and their being actually combined (Problem 1.2).
Russell thinks that there is only one kind of relation of language and
world, indication. There is no difference in the relation between a word
and a term and the relation between a sentence and a proposition, except
for the fact that the latter is a complex entity. This fact generates the
need to account for truth and falsehood in a different way with respect to
reference and lack of reference. If the relation between names and terms,
and sentences and propositions is the same, then it seems that if a sentence has meaning (if it indicates a particular complex entity in the
world), then there is no way to differentiate between the sense of a sentence and its truth, and thus to account for falsehood (Problem 2: falsehood problem).
Of course, one can account for truth and falsehood in other ways, and
that is what Russell does: there are objective true propositions and objective false propositions. The difference stems from an important extra
primitive quality that true propositions have, namely, assertion. Russell
distinguishes between psychological assertion and logical assertion. According to Russell, psychologically, propositions can be merely considered or thought of, or they can be actually asserted. True and false
propositions can be equally asserted in this psychological sense, but only
true propositions are logically asserted:

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True and false propositions alike are in some sense entities, and are in some
sense capable of being logical subjects; but when a proposition happens to
be true, it has a further quality, over and above that which it shares with
false propositions, and it is this further quality which is what I mean by assertion in a logical as opposed to a psychological sense. (Russell, PoM:
§52)

Both true and false propositions, as entities, have being, but in the case
of the former their being is being true (that is, being asserted). The proposition indicated by (1) is true, its constituents are actually related by
the relation [being younger than], and this is what assertion consists in.
Assertion, discussed below, will play further roles in Russell’s proposal,
giving rise to new tensions.
Therefore, there are two different complex entities (propositions) indicated by (1) and (3) above. Both have the same constituents ([Obama],
[Bush], [being younger than]), but the former is asserted and the latter
unasserted. The relation of each of these propositions to their truth or
falsehood is internal. Russellian propositions are monopolar: they are
either true or they are false, but it is not so that they can be true and they
can be false.
Logical assertion is also responsible for the unity of propositions with
that quality and it thus solves Problems 1.1 and 1.2, but only in the case
of true propositions. Due to (2) having the quality of being asserted, it is
the relation [being younger than] that actually relates the constituents.
Russell insists on the idea that logical assertion, even if it is a quality of
propositions, is not one of its constituents. If assertion were a further
constituent in charge of relating the two terms and the relation in (2),
there would arise a risk of a possible infinite regress, since a new relation would be necessary to relate such constituent (assertion) to the rest
of the constituents. The peculiar character of assertion, which is not a
further element, can join together the constituents, without running such
a risk. Conversely, the analysis of (2) into its constituents, insofar as a
proposition dissolves into its parts and stops being an asserted proposition, makes the relating relation into a non-relating relation, [being
younger than].
The monopolarity of propositions raises two further problems. The
first one is explicitly recognized by Russell. Since both true and false

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35

propositions are entities, the difference between a proposition being actually true from what it would be as an entity if it were not true lies in its
being asserted when actually true. And then we have Problem 3: assertion-truth problem:
[…] if assertion in any way changed a proposition, no proposition which
can possibly in any context be unasserted could be true, since when asserted
it would become a different proposition. (Russell, PoM: §38)

In order to grasp the problem at which Russell is pointing here, we need
to pay attention to his further development of the notion of logical assertion. Assertion is the quality belonging to propositions in verbal form,
like [Caesar died] as opposed to propositions in verbal-noun form, like
[the death of Caesar] or [that Caesar died].3 The latter can appear in contexts like “p implies q”, as for example in (4):
(4) [That Caesar died implies that a new emperor was needed]
Therefore, the proposition indicated by “Caesar died” when it is not embedded in another and the proposition indicated by “Caesar died” in (4),
where it is unasserted, are two different propositions. Similar reflections
apply to “Obama is younger than Bush” embedded in the context “John
judges that …” in (5) below.
(5) John judges that Obama is younger than Bush
The fact that logical assertion accounts for the unity of propositions and
also for the truth of true ones makes the problem of false propositions
stronger (Problem 2). The proposition indicated by (3) is false. It is thus
unasserted, and hence its constituents are not unified as they are in (2).
The second problem that arises as a consequence of the monopolarity
of a proposition is related to negation. In denying a sentence, like “aRb”,
3

This is why Russell is sometimes read as if one of the constituents (the verb)
were responsible for the unity of the proposition. The verb as a verb (in verbal
form) is precisely logical assertion, but the verb is also present, as constituent (a
concept) in verbal-noun form expressions, which are not asserted.

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which indicates a true or false proposition, its truth-value changes, but
we do not have any clue to help us figure out how the world is according
to the negating sentence “~aRb”. In other words, Russell can account for
the way in which negation affects the truth-value of the sentence, but not
for the way in which it affects its meaning (the indicated complex entity). In particular, if “aRb” is true, Russell cannot account for the meaning of “~aRb”, because due to the asserted character of “aRb” its constituents happen to be related in such a way that there is no complex entity indicated by “~aRb”(or at least we do not know how to determine
it). And, if “aRb” is false, it is not asserted, and therefore its constituents
are not related, but there is no way of determining the complex entity
indicated by “~aRb”. This is the yes-no direction problem (Problem 4),
which is closely related to Problems 1-3.
At this stage judgement, as a psychological relation, is a dyadic relation for Russell: a relation between a subject and an unasserted proposition or propositional concept. Russell’s view about judgement at this
time might be symbolized as follows:
(6) J (S, aRb)
where “S” stands for the subject, “J” for the judgement relation and
“aRb” for the judged (unasserted) proposition.
Once all these elements are taken into account, it is possible to see
that, in the case of false propositions, Problem 1 and 2 have not really
been solved, that Problem 3 appears in judgement, as in (5) above, and
that Problem 4 has been left untouched. The root of the problems is that
being asserted has come to be identified with being true, and therefore it
is not possible to account for sense with independence from truth.
OTF-Theory (1910)
The series of problems just described led Russell to try to account for
truth and falsehood in a different direction, namely, as properties not of
propositions, but of judgements or beliefs, and to make the subject responsible for their unity, if either true or false. Truth then was correspondence with a further complex entity.

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37

In his 1910 version of the multiple relation theory of judgement, Russell denied the existence of a proposition as an entity independent of the
judging act, and stated that the judgement relation itself established the
unity of the belief. Russell’s view might be symbolized as follows:
(7) J (S, a, R, b)
where “S” and “J” stand for the subject and judgement relation, and
where “a”, “R” and “b” stand for the objects of judgement, which are
entities of the world. Beliefs are entities whose unity is psychological,
and therefore the unity of true and false judgements is accounted for in
the same way. Truth is then conceived as the fact that there is a complex
corresponding to the judgement.
In this way, Russell thinks he has solved the problem of false propositions (now false judgements), in the specific forms in which it appears in
Problems 1, 2 and 3.4 Notice however that there are no elements in the
OTF-Theory to solve Problem 4.
In addition, a new problem arises. Given that [Obama], [being younger than] and [Bush] are actual terms, world entities, with which the mind
is acquainted, and it is the mind that unites them into a belief or judgement, then relations are assimilated to things, since they are not in
charge of actually relating the relata in judgement. [Obama], [Bush] and
[being younger than] are all on equal terms in their relation to the unity
action of the subject. This generates a new problem: the right-constituents problem (Problem 5). [Obama], [Bush] and [Clinton] are on the
same terms in their relation to the unifying action of the mind as
[Obama], [Bush] and [is younger than] are.

4

Candlish (1996) thinks that in the OTF-theory Russell did not solve Problem 2. I
will not discuss this issue here. It is sufficient for my purposes that the
OTF-theory did not solve all the problems, and this is even truer if Candlish is
right. Furthermore, the new version of the multiple theory of judgement to be developed in 1913 shows that Russell was not satisfied, and Wittgenstein’s criticisms of both versions confirm that the solution was inadequate. More on this
later.

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TK-Theory (1913)

In 1913, Russell has recourse to logical forms to solve the problems inherited from his previous theories (in particular, Problems 1, 2 and 5):
Suppose now that someone tells us that Socrates precedes Plato. How do we
know what he means? It is plain that his statement does not give us acquaintance with the complex “Socrates precedes Plato”. What we understand is that Socrates and Plato and “precedes” are united in a complex of
the form “xRy”5, where Socrates has the x-place and Plato has the y-place.
It is difficult to see how we could possibly understand how Socrates and
Plato and “precedes” are to be combined unless we had acquaintance with
the form of the complex. (Russell, TK: 99)

We can now formulate Russell’s difficulty more clearly: the sense of the
belief is not established by the determination of the meaning of its parts.
Russell thinks that logical forms can play the role of combining the constituents into something that can correspond to an actual combination in
the world when the belief is true, and logical forms can also relate constituents which are not so related in the world (Problem 2).
Logical form is what remains when all constituents have been removed from a complex. In (2), for example, if [Obama], [Bush] and [being
younger than] are removed, a logical form remains, which in this case is
the form of a “dual complex”, represented as “xRy”. Russell insists that
logical forms are not further constituents of the complex to avoid the risk
of infinite regress. His view about judgement can now be symbolized as
follows:
(8) J (S, a, R, b, xRy)
The constituents designated by “a”, “R” and “b” are real objects, constituents of actual complexes with which the subject is acquainted; the
5

In this Section I use the italic “R” in “xRy” to express the fact that here “R” is a
variable that stands for any particular relation [R]. Russell did not use the italics,
only “R” to express this, and he used particular examples of relations, like “similarity”, “precedes” to express particular relations between particular objects like
[Socrates] and [Plato] or [a] and [b].

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39

logical form represented by “xRy” is that common to all dual complexes
with which the subject is also acquainted.
The recourse to logical forms allows us to solve Problem 2, but only
partially, since old related problems reappear and new ones arise. The
difficulty to account for the way in which constituents combine (Problem 1.1) reappears because it is necessary to specify the position of “a”
and “b” in “xRy” in order to determine what is being judged. Russell offers a technical account of how this could work, whilst being fully aware
of the limits of his explanation (Hanks 2007, Carey 2007). Furthermore,
Problem 5 remains: judgement has an undesirable freedom which allows
it to combine different objects with logical forms, and there is nothing in
the theory that prevents the combination of any two things with any relation, unless further requirements are specified. The status of logical
forms, on the other hand, remains unexplained and problematic, and
Wittgenstein reacts to it, by insisting that if it is not a further constituent,
it can be neither named nor expressed. For if named, it would be a constituent; if expressed, it would be a proposition, and the problem of accounting for its logical form would arise again (N 20.11.14). (Problem
6: status of logical forms problem)
In addition, Problem 4 remains as it was: the recourse to logical forms
does nothing to explain why a proposition can be true and can be false,
or in Wittgenstein’s words in the Notes on Logic (1913, henceforth NL),
we must not only know that p implies “ “p” is true”, but also that ~p implies “ “p” is false” (Wittgenstein, NL: 94). Russell’s struggle with positive and negative facts in Appendix B.I, “Props” of TK verifies that this
was one of his concerns.6
2. Wittgenstein on Russell’s Theory of Judgement
There are three series of texts in which Wittgenstein explicitly reacts to
Russell’s theory of judgement. The first of these is the letter written by
Wittgenstein to Russell in June 1913, after visiting him, which is said to
have paralyzed Russell.
6

For further details of the content of TK, see Carey (2007).

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Text 1:
I believe it is obvious that, from the prop[osition] ‘A judges that (say) a is
in the Rel[ation] R to b’, if correctly analysed, the prop[osition] ‘aRb v
~aRb’ must follow directly without the use of any other premiss. This condition is not fulfilled by your theory. (Wittgenstein, 1913)

An immediate reaction is to notice that since “aRb v ~aRb” is a tautology, from the perspective of the theory of inference, it does follow from
any proposition, and therefore it should also follow from ‘A judges that
a is in the Rel[ation] R to b’. But this is too obvious a fact for Wittgenstein to have overlooked it. Fortunately, in NL, Wittgenstein offers a clue
to help understand what he meant.
Text 1.2:
I understand the proposition “aRb” when I know that either the fact that
aRb or the fact that not aRb corresponds to it; but this is not to be confused
with the false opinion that I understood “aRb” when I know that “aRb or
not aRb” is the case. (Wittgenstein, NL: 104)

Wittgenstein is pointing out Problem 4 which is precisely the problem
that not only remains unsolved but is not properly addressed in the three
Russellian theories presented above.
Problems 1 and 5 seem to be the target in the explicit criticism of Russell’s theory in the Tractatus:
Text 2:
The correct explanation of the form of the proposition, ‘A makes the
judgement p’, must show that it is impossible for a judgement to be a piece
of nonsense. (Russell’s theory does not satisfy this requirement.) (Wittgenstein, TLP 5.5422)

Again NL helps us here, since Wittgenstein claims that Russell’s theory
cannot explain what makes it impossible for us “to judge that this table
penholders the book” (NL: 103). Wittgenstein claims that some conditions are required on the structure of “p”, so that for example, “Obama
Bush”, “is younger than multiplying” or “Obama multiplies Bush” are
excluded.
A further explicit mention of Russell’s theory of judgement in NL is
the following:

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41

Text 3:
There is no thing which is the form of a proposition, and no name which is
the name of a form. Accordingly we can also not say that a relation which
in certain cases holds between things holds sometimes between forms and
things. This goes against Russell’s theory of judgement. (Wittgenstein, NL:
105) (See also N 20.11.14.)

Here Wittgenstein points to Problem 6, and thus challenges Russell’s
solution in TK, which required unification in thought to consist in the
joining of forms and constituents.
Bearing in mind the Tractarian theory of a proposition, helps to understand Wittgenstein’s criticism better. The following text, also from NL,
is an example of an attempt to address Problems 2, 3 and 4 and amend
Russell’s theory along the lines pointed out in texts 1 and 1.2:
Text 4:
In “a judges p” p cannot be replaced by a proper name. This appears if we
substitute “a judges that p is true and not p is false”. The proposition
“a judges p” consists of the proper name a, the proposition p with its two
poles, and a being related to both of these poles in a certain way. This is
obviously not a relation in the ordinary sense. (Wittgenstein, NL: 95)

Wittgenstein develops this idea in a longer text in NL. He even draws a
diagram of the relation of the subject to the two poles of a proposition.7
Text 4.1:
When we say “A believes p”, this sounds, it is true, as if here we could substitute a proper name for “p”; but we can see that here a sense, not
a meaning, is concerned, if we say “A believes that ‘p’ is true”; and in order
to make the direction of p even more explicit, we might say “A believes that
‘p’ is true and that ‘not-p’ is false”. Here the bi-polarity of p is expressed,
and it seems that we shall only be able to express the proposition “A believes p” correctly by the ab-notation; say by making “A” have a relation to
the poles “a” and “b” of a-p-b. The epistemological questions concerning

7

The similarity of this diagram with the diagrams in the manuscript “Props”, Appendix B.1 of TK has been stressed by Hanks (2007) and Carey (2007), who offer it as evidence that Wittgenstein’s difficulty to TK was related to the bipolarity
of the proposition.

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the nature of judgement and belief cannot be solved without a correct apprehension of the form of the proposition. (Wittgenstein, NL: 106)

In any case, in NL Wittgenstein often insists that in order to understand a
proposition we must know, not only how the world is when it is true, but
also how it is when it is false, and he refers to this feature as the sense of
the proposition. Therefore, Russell’s difficulties provided the required
stimulus to develop the truth-conditional notion of sense proper to the
Tractatus.
3. Wittgenstein’s moves under the stimulus of Russell’s problems
Russell had explained the relation of judgement as a relation between a
subject (a mind, a simple object) and further objects (a proposition in
PoM-Theory, constituents of propositions in OTF-Theory, and constituents of propositions and logical forms in TK-Theory). Wittgenstein’s
crucial idea to overcome the series of problems to which Russell’s theories had given rise is to understand the relation of judgement as the relation of saying, that is, the relation between a proposition and what a
propositions says, and to give an account of propositions and of what
they say in terms of depiction. As he pointed out to Russell in his letter
of 22nd July 1913, the objection he had raised to Russell’s theory of
judgement could “only be removed by a correct theory of propositions”.
The (Russellian) relation of indication between language and world is
replaced by two more complex relations: that of naming, between names
and objects, and the relation of depiction, between propositions and what
they say. The Tractarian truth-functions theory offers the required conceptual framework to account for sense in terms of truth-conditions. By
means of being a picture and a truth-function, a proposition can account
for all the desiderata that Russell’s difficulties involve. Let us now revise
Wittgenstein’s moves in more detail.
In Text 4, a pre-Tractarian text, Wittgenstein also conceives the relation of judgement as a relation between an object, a, and a further entity,
p, and he focuses his attention on a particular characteristic that the latter, p, must have so that the theory of judgement can avoid Problem 4. In
the Tractatus, Wittgenstein takes a further step, making a crucial move

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in overcoming Russell’s difficulties. Instead of relating an object (the
subject or the mind) with further objects, depiction is a relation between
facts (propositional signs) and depicted facts (what is declared to be the
case), which are the sense of propositions.8 Wittgenstein’s move is then
summarized as follows:
It is clear, however, that ‘A believes that p’, ‘A has the thought that p’, and
‘A says p’ are of the form ‘ “p” says p’: and this does not involve a correlation of a fact with an object, but rather the correlation of facts by means of
the correlation of their objects. (Wittgenstein, TLP 5.542)

Text 2 is precisely one of the reasons why the judgement relation must
be accounted for as depiction: if the judgement relation is explained as
depiction, it shows why it is impossible for us “to judge that this table
penholders the book” or any other piece of nonsense.9
But the move made by Wittgenstein, namely, to conceive of judgement as a relation between facts, is a complex one, a move that is
composed of further novelties and adjustments. The first novelty is a recourse to the pair possibility/factualness to account for the determination
of sense with independence of truth. Instead of having the same constituents in judgement and in judged fact with two different ways of combining them in thought and reality (like in OTF-Theory and TK-Theory),
leaving sense undetermined, Wittgenstein distinguishes between constituents of the depicting and the depicted fact and requires them to share
their logical form, that is, their possibility of combination into states of
8

9

A further contrast between Russell’s and Wittgenstein’s theories concerns the
belief statement. In Russell’s accounts, the judgement relation (“J” in (6), (7) and
(8) above) is an external relation whose holding can be meaningfully reported in
a statement of the form “A believes that p”. However, the depiction relation is an
internal relation: in the Tractatus the relation between a depicting and depicted
fact is not a further fact of the world, and thus cannot be depicted. Belief statements are therefore pseudo-propositions, since they attempt to say what cannot
be said (depicted). For further details on this issue and a revision of the literature
on this matter, see d’Ors and Cerezo (1995).
As we shall see below, this is solved by the Tractarian idea of isomorphism, i.e.
the idea that representation takes place by means of reproduction of structure.
See also Hochberg (1996).

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affairs (TLP 2.014-2.0141). Depicting facts and depicted facts are correlated because they are in a particular internal relation: even if they are
composed of different objects, they have the same form.
The Tractarian isomorphism thesis establishes that there are two networks of objects that share their form, their possible combinations to
other objects (TLP 2.16-2.161). This relation of identity of form between
language and world grounds the connection between the constituents of
language and those of the world. A combination of names (a proposition) can thus present a possible combination of objects, since the connection of the propositional components is a possible connection for the
represented things (N 5.11.14; see also N 30.9.14; 29.10.14).
Language constituents, names, contain all its possibilities (all possible
combinations of names into propositions) and, given isomorphism, any
combination represents a possible way in which the corresponding objects could be combined in the world, even if they are not so combined.
This allows us to account for the sense of false propositions, and to solve
Problem 2; but it also solves Problem 5, because now logical form is internal to language, and any permissible expression represents a possible
state of affairs (TLP 5.473-5.4733). Isomorphism is thus the conceptual
tool in solving the problems which Wittgenstein pointed out in Text 2.
Since as a consequence of isomorphism any possible combination of
names represents a possible combination of objects, it is impossible for
us “to judge that this table penholders the book” or any other piece of
nonsense. “A thought contains the possibility of the situation of which it
is a thought. What is thinkable is possible too” (TLP 3.02).
Furthermore, being internal to language, logical form is neither named
nor represented in a proposition; it is rather shown (mirrored, displayed)
in language (TLP 4.12-4.121). As a consequence, Problem 6 is avoided,
and the Tractarian theory can escape the difficulty indicated in Text 3.
However, the elements of the picture theory so far introduced cannot
solve Problem 1, and in particular Problem 1.2. Given isomorphism, any
proposition or possible combination of names represents how things can
be combined in the world, and not how they are combined. In order to
account for judgement, it is necessary to account for its aim at truth, for
its assertive character. After having descended into simples and possibilities to ground logical form, Wittgenstein needs to ascend back to fac-

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tualness. Propositions are the possibilities of language, but they are actualized when a propositional sign is used and projected onto the world.
Propositions do not contain their sense, but only the possibility of expressing it by means of a propositional sign, which is not a possibility,
but a fact (TLP 3.1-3.144).
Since propositional signs are facts, their constituents (the words) stand
in determinate relations to one another (TLP 3.14). Propositional signs
are not sets of words, but they are articulate (TLP 3.141-3.142). And it is
the fact that their constituents are related in a determinate manner that
says that the corresponding objects are also thus related (TLP 3.1432).
Problems 1.1 and 1.2 are solved because the propositional signs “aRb”
and “bRa” are two different facts (Problem 1.1) and because they are
facts (Problem 1.2): in “aRb” and “bRa” the constituents a, R and b
stand in (Problem 1.2) determinate (Problem 1.1) relations to one another.10 Notice also that Problem 3 does not arise in the Tractatus since assertion is not a property exclusive to true propositions. Any propositional sign that declares that something is the case is asserted and it
can be true and false. Russellian monopolar propositions are replaced in
Wittgenstein’s theory by bipolar ones.
There are two components of sense, which I refer to as sense-1 and
sense-2. By isomorphism a proposition (a picture) represents a possible
state of affairs by reproducing its structure; it shows that other objects
can be combined in the same way as the elements of the picture are
combined (sense-1). The second component of sense accounts for the
assertive character of depiction. Pictures depict facts: they do not only
represent possibilities; they also say (sense-2) that the world is as it is
represented (sense-1) in the picture. This duality is captured in TLP
4.031-4.0311 by means of the difference between representing (darstellen) and presenting (vorstellen) a state of affairs, and it is explicitly declared in T 4.022:
A proposition shows its sense.
A proposition shows how things stand if it is true. And it says that they do
so stand. (Wittgenstein, TLP 4.022)
10

This is the part of Wittgenstein’s move on which Hanks (2007) focuses in his
analysis.

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Pictures present how things can be combined (sense-1), but propositions
can say how the world is and how the world is not (sense-2). In the Notebooks (henceforth N), Wittgenstein is aware that a picture, on its own, is
not able to account for the yes-no direction proper to propositions:
Can one negate a picture? No. And in this lies the difference between picture and proposition. The picture can serve as a proposition. But in that case
something gets added to it which brings it about that now it says something.
In short: I can only deny that the picture is right, but the picture I cannot
deny. (Wittgenstein, N 26.11.14)

Wittgenstein conceives affirmation and negation as the two ways of
symbolizing (Bezeichnungsweise) that must be attached to the picture for
it to determine sense-2. This is a first step in order to solve Problem 4:
the state of affairs that is represented by “aRb” and “~aRb” is the same,
even if what they say (sense-2) is different.
If a picture presents what-is-not-the-case in the aforementioned way [negative way], this only happens through its presenting that which is not the
case. For the picture says, as it were: “This is how it is not”, and to the
question “How is it not?” just the positive proposition is the answer. (Wittgenstein, N 3.11.14; see also TLP 4.023)

But how is sense-2 determined? In the Tractatus Wittgenstein describes
the determination of sense-2 as a demarcation of a place in logical space
(TLP 3.4-3.42), and the truth-functions theory offers him the tool to account for it. The idea that a proposition is a truth-function of elementary
propositions allows us to combinatorially define all the possible truthfunctions of a given set of bases, as in the standard truth-table method
(TLP 4.2-4.45). In order to account for determination of sense in a way
that takes into account the possible yes/no direction of a proposition,
Wittgenstein combines the picture theory and the truth-functions theory.
By this combination, Wittgenstein identifies the linguistic l