In a short paper all I can do is whet your appetite, if you have a taste for philosophical investigations. In other words, the best I can do is tease you. By ‘a taste for philosophical investigations’, I mean a fascination with certain questions-questions about ultimate meaning, but whose meaning is, ultimately, the question. For example, “What is truth?”; “What is reality?”; “What is knowledge?”; “What is the self?”; “What is meaning?” These are philosophical questions, both because the answers we give to them will shape the way we live our lives (and in that sense are ultimately meaningful), and because they are questions whose meanings are themselves so puzzling. After all, they are questions about words which are quite familiar to us, and-if we are native speakers of English-have long been a part of our vocabulary. How is it that we (now) find ourselves apparently asking about the meaning of words we have been using most of our lives?
It is in this connection that one well known Cambridge man began a series of lectures by asking, “What is the meaning of a word?”; and another well-known Cambridge man, only a few years later, began a series of lectures investigating the uses of some of these well-known words “as an aid to more accurate reading . . . and for the light they throw on ideas and sentiments.” Both of these men were intensely concerned with rightly understanding the meanings of words. But I think we can also say that for both of them, this concern was subordinate to a greater concern: coming to understand the meaning of life. Not life as a mere word, but life as a person, as a soul. This greater concern is not with the meaning of the word, ‘life’, but with the meaning of my life. This ultimate concern, we might say, is not the meaning of a word, but, rather, the meaning of The Word.
So, let the teasing begin. Let me first tickle you with several quotes (from the first Cambridge man):
Think of the tools in a tool-box: there is a hammer, pliers, a saw, a screwdriver, a ruler, a glue-pot, glue, nails, and screws. The functions of words are as diverse as the functions of these objects. (And in both cases there are similarities.)
Of course, what confuses us is the uniform appearance of words when we hear them spoken or meet them in script and print. For their application is not presented to us so clearly. Especially when we are doing philosophy!
It is like looking into the cabin of a locomotive. We see handles all looking more or less alike. (Naturally, since they are all supposed to be handled.) But one is the handle of a crank which can be moved continuously (it regulates the opening of a valve); another is the handle of a switch, which has only two effective positions, it is either off or on; a third is the handle of a brake-lever, the harder one pulls on it, the harder it brakes; a fourth, the handle of a pump: it has an effect only so long as it is moved to and fro.
For a large class of cases-though not for all-in which we employ the word “meaning” it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.
The author of these passages is reminding us, by means of the analogies with the tools and the handles, that words have many various uses. A hammer may be used to pound nails, but it may also be used to pull them out, or to straighten them. It may also be used to crush stones, to tap a die, or to find a beam behind a wall. It may even serve as a paper-weight. Similarly with the other tools mentioned. In addition, each tool is different from the others in its range of possible uses. With the handles, the reminder is similar: though they are all handles, their functions are various and quite different from each other.
And why does this author remind us of these things? Because, as he says, “the uniform appearance of words when we hear them spoken or meet them in script or print” can confuse us. Let’s take, for example, the word “have”-a word as common in most people’s vocabulary as a hammer is in most people’s tool-boxes. Compare the function of the word “have” in the following sentences: “I have a house and two cars”; “I have a wife and two children”; “I have a headache”; “I have an idea.” Is the word “have” used in the same way in all of these sentences? Is it used the same way in any two of them? Clearly not. Yet, the word itself is the same. Would there be confusion if we took one meaning of the word to be the only one, and then tried to understand the other sentences with that meaning? Yes.