Home > Book Review, Philosophy > Notes On Wittgenstein: “Ostensive Teaching Of Words” & “Picture Meaning Of Words” – Part 2.

Notes On Wittgenstein: “Ostensive Teaching Of Words” & “Picture Meaning Of Words” – Part 2.

We will now continue our discussion on Wittgenstein – in our last post we just touched on his concept of language games (for our other study notes blogs see here, here, here, here, here, here), he continues that concept, when he states:

One thinks that learning language consists in giving names to objects. Viz, to human beings, to shapes, to colours, to pains, moods, to numbers, etc. To repeat – naming is something like attaching a label to a thing. One can say that this is preparatory to the use of the word. But what is it a preparation for? (Wittgenstein, p. 88, Philosophical Investigations, 1963)

We see that to Wittgenstein the ostensive teaching of words, that is attaching a label to something, or directing someone to an object is not sufficient to convey the full meaning of the text to someone, hence why Wittgenstein states that naming something is preparatory. Wittgenstein has been showing us how specific and different language-games play out to demonstrate his point, which we have more or less skipped over here (it is far too nuanced for our purposes), but briefly, to Wittgenstein the ostensive teaching of words, is a language-game, one a child learns, and propagates. Ostensive teaching of words runs into difficulties when we try to ascribe numbers to proper names, and attempt to point to them, for example as when we point to two nuts and say “that is two”, one must know what “two” is to know that it stands for the two nuts, hence they must require an understanding of the language used prior to ostensive teaching (it is similar when we use the point to things as say “this”, or “that”). To Wittgenstein then ” an ostensive definition can be variously interpreted in every case.” (Wittgenstein, p. 89, Philosophical Investigations, 1963)  Ostensive teaching can be useful to explain meaning or use of a word once we have a prior understanding of language.

Here Wittgenstein states the objection of an interlocutor for which he plays the part of, they object that it is in fact not true that we must already master language in order to understand ostensive definition- all you need to know (or guess) what the person is pointing to, for example “the shape of an object”, or “to its color”, or “its number” (p. 90). Wittgenstein asks though, what does pointing to the above consist in? We learn these things differently, we can point to the shape, but not the color of an object, which he calls “characteristic” in that they happen often (not always) when shape or number are ‘meant’.” There is not any one bodily action which we call “pointing to the shape” (as opposed to the color), there is a mental activity that corresponds to the words.

Wittgenstein now offers another critique of the ostensive teaching of words, he states that we could point to the sword “Excalibur”, which consists of parts, and say “Excalibur has a sharp blade”, this makes sense – even if those parts are broken up. However under an ostensive teaching of words, if the sword is broken into pieces and no longer exists as  “Excalibur” – the sentence “Excalibur has a sharp blade” no longer has any meaning. Wittgenstein would argue it still does make sense, hence “there must always be something corresponding to the words of which it consists.” (p. 91) To clarify Wittgenstein states that we must not confuse the meaning of the name with the bearer of the name – for example, the bearer of the name in our example is Excalibur, to say that Excalibur is destroyed implies the bearer is destroyed, but not the meaning of the word. Wittgenstein would say that meaning of a word can be defined as “is its use in language” (p. 92), whereas the meaning of a name is “sometimes explained by pointing to its bearer.” (p. 92)

Again he turns to himself as an interlocutor who questions him:

You take the easy way out! You talk bout all sort so language-games, but have nowhere said what the essence of a language-game, and hence language is: what is common to all these activities, and what makes them into language or part so of language. So you let yourself off the very part of the investigation that once gave you yourself most headache, the part about the general form of propositions and of language. (Wittgenstein, p. 97, Philosophical Investigations, 1963)

Wittgenstein agrees that this is true, he hasn’t produced anything common to language, and that is his point, he is saying that there is not one thing common which makes us use the same word for all, he is talking about relationships that result in language. Much like all the commonalities between different types of games (board-games, Olympic-games etc) we come to see a “complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities in detail.” (Wittgenstein, p. 98, Philosophical Investigations, 1963) To him games “form a family” which is how he uses the word “game”.


Wittgenstein, Ludwig. (1963). “Selection. I” Trans, G. E. M. Anscombe. Philosophical Investigations. Second Ed. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. Pp. 88, 89, 91, 97, 98

Categories: Book Review, Philosophy
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