Home > Book Review, Philosophy > Notes On Wittgenstein: “Ostensive Teaching Of Words” & “Picture Meaning Of Words” – Part 1.

Notes On Wittgenstein: “Ostensive Teaching Of Words” & “Picture Meaning Of Words” – Part 1.

We now move to Ludwig Wittgenstein in excerpts from his book Philosophical Investigations. He opens with a quote in latin from Augustine, which to him tells us something very specific about language:

In this picture of language we find the roots of the following idea: Every word has a meaning. This meaning is correlated with the word. It is the object for which it stands. (Wittgenstein, p. 83, Philosophical Investigations, 1963)

To Wittgenstein meaning, at least as it is so in the philosophical concept has its place in a “primitive idea of the way language functions. But one can also say that it is the idea of a language more primitive than ours.” (p. 83) A child uses such primitive forms of language when learning to talk, and as such Wittgenstein will use the term “ostensive teaching of words” instead of “ostensive definition”. Ostensive teaching of words consists of teachers pointing to objects, directing the child’s attention to them and uttering a word (the example Wittgenstein uses is “slab”) as they point at the shape. The reason Wittgenstein is using the definitions he is is because a child cannot yet use the language for which it is being taught to ask what the name it is being given is.

The ostensive teaching of words can be said to establish an association between the word and the thing. But what does this mean? Well, it may mean various things; but one very likely thinks first of all that a picture of the object comes before the child’s mind when it hears the words. But now, if this does happen – is it the purpose of the word? Yes, it may be the purpose. – I can imagine such a use of words. (Wittgenstein, p. 84, Philosophical Investigations, 1963)

Wittgenstein asks us, if ostensive teaching has this effect, does this mean you have the complete understanding of the word? He would say you do not. The ostensive teaching helps to bring the above about, but it is not sufficient; only if it is brought together with “a particular training” do we get the complete meaning. After all, given different training the “same ostensive teaching of these words would have effected quite a different understanding.” (p. 84)

It is here that Wittgenstein states his famous phrase; “language-games”, in which he means several different things (1) the process of naming objects and of repeating words after someone (he asks that we think of most of the words in ring-a-ring-a-roses), (2) “the whole, consisting of language and the actions into which it is woven.” (p. 84) Wittgenstein runs us through several different language games, such as the teaching of numerals, and of “there” and “this”, and it is here that he discusses language as signification:

When we say: “Every word in language signifies something” we have so far said nothing whatever; unless we have explained exactly what distinction we wish to make. (Wittgenstein, p. 85, Philosophical Investigations, 1963)

He states that “to signify” is used straightforwardly in that the object signified is marked with the sign, moreover he thinks that within philosophy it often proves useful to say that “naming something is like attaching a label to something.” (p. 85) We can surmise then from this that Wittgenstein does not think that the ostensive teaching of words, using one might assume the “picture language of meaning” (as proposed in his earlier work, the Tractatus) is not sufficient to convey meaning, hence he is not really critiquing Augustine as such, but rather, himself. Wittgenstein likens language to the suburbs of our town, when he asks if our language is ever complete:

Our language can bee seen as an ancient city; a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses. (Wittgenstein, p. 85, Philosophical Investigations, 1963)

Wittgenstein moves to a discussion of Frege, who says that every assertion contains an assumption which is the thing being asserted; to Wittgenstein this rests on the possibility in our language of phrasing every statement in the form “It is asserted that such-and-such is the case.” To him the “such-and-such” is not a sentence in our common language, or rather it is not a “move” in the language-game, but to write “It is asserted such-and-such is the case”  the “It is asserted” become superfluous. We could, according to Wittgenstein write every statement in the form of a question followed by a “Yes” (the example he uses “Is it raining? Yes”), but would this show that every statement contained a question? He thinks of course we can use an “assertion sign” or a question mark if we wanted to determine the statement from fiction or supposition. The mistake for Wittgenstein comes when

…one thinks that the assertion consists of two actions, entertaining and asserting (assigning truth-value, or something of the kind), and that in performing these actions we follow the propositional sign roughly as we sing from the musical score. Reading the written sentence loud or soft is indeed comparable with singing from a musical score, but ‘meaning’ (thinking) the sentence that is read is not. (Wittgenstein, p. 87, Philosophical Investigations, 1963)

Wittgenstein asks us how many sentence structures there are? Assertions? Questions? Commands? He states there are countless kinds and countless different uses of symbols, words, sentences and that this is not fixed, or given “once and for all” (p. 87). New types of language and language-games appear while others become obsolete and forgotten (the example he offers are the changes in mathematics, but we can imagine something like a dead metaphor). He notes that here we see that speaking a language is part of an activity, or form of life, inherent to the term language-game used here.

We’re at about 1,000 words, why don’t we leave it there for today, and pick it up from here, next time. I hope you are enjoying this series. I’ve got a few more blogs on Wittgenstein, then Husserl, then I can begin writing my assignment.


Wittgenstein, Ludwig. (1963). “Selection. I” Trans, G. E. M. Anscombe. Philosophical Investigations. Second Ed. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. Pp. 83, 84, 85, 87.

Categories: Book Review, Philosophy
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