Lewis and Wittgenstein on Facts and Meanings

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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?”[1]; 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.”[2] 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.[3]

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.

Here is another example: the word “event.” Consider the following sentences: “Upcoming events at the Performing Arts Center include . . .”; “Coming to Oxbridge has been one of the greatest events of my life”; “In the event of flooding, seek shelter in an upper storey”; “Astronomical events, such as supernovae and the formation of black holes, are rarely seen from earth”; “Research on the workings of the brain is shedding light on mental events, such as remembering, decision-making, and imagining.” Is the use of the word “event” the same in all of these cases? The last sentence is particularly puzzling, for it seems to cross the boundary of the sensible uses of the word “event”: that is, it doesn’t quite seem right to think of memories, decisions, and imaginings as “events.” But, perhaps, this unseemly feeling might itself be simply another “event”!

In any event, as the author also reminds us, what we need in order to avoid this sort of confusion is a clear presentation of the application of the word; we need the word’s “use in the language”; we need a context. This author has noticed that such confusion is especially prominent in doing philosophy, for it is common to find amongst philosophers a “craving for generality” or a “contemptuous attitude toward the particular case.” That is, rather than looking at the differences between particular uses of these words, the tendency is to want to know what these words mean “in general.”

Now, here are more ticklers from another author (the second Cambridge man):

As everyone knows, words constantly take on new meanings. Since these do not necessarily, nor even usually, obliterate the old ones, we should picture this process not on the analogy of an insect undergoing metamorphoses but rather on that of a tree throwing out new branches, which themselves throw out subordinate branches; in fact, as ramification. The new branches sometimes overshadow and kill the old ones but by no means always. … When we use one word in many different senses we avail ourselves of the results of semantic ramification. [But] we can do this successfully without being aware of them. … Each new speaker learns his native language chiefly by imitation, partly by those hurried scraps of amateur lexicography which his elders produce in answer to the frequent question, ‘What does that mean?’ He does not at first-how should he?-distinguish between different senses of one word and different words. They all have to be learned in the same way. … It is this most important principle that enables speakers to give half a dozen different meanings to a single word with very little danger of confusion. … What seems to me certain is that in ordinary language the sense of a word is governed by the context and this sense normally excludes all others from the mind. … It is of course the insulating power of the context which enables old senses to persist , uncontaminated by newer ones. Thus, train (of a dress) and train (on the railway), or civil (courteous) and civil (not military), or magazine (a store) and magazine (a periodical) do not interfere with one another because they are unlikely to occur in the same context. They live happily by keeping out of each other’s way.[4]

Notice, first of all, the remarkable similarity of this author’s comments with those of the first author. Perhaps you do not find it remarkable. After all, the main point is obvious. (Perhaps this is why it is so often overlooked.) But the similarity goes quite deep. Both authors recognize the distinctively different uses of the same word: there need be no drawn or conscious connection between one use and the other. This implies that there is no single “primary” or “literal” sense of a word: two different uses of the same word might be as distinctive as two different words. Thus, as both authors also recognize, danger lurks when a word is abstracted from its particular context-from its uses in ordinary language-and then investigated for its “meaning.” To do so would be analogous to looking at the hammer, setting in the tool-box, and asking, “Well, what is the function of that hammer now, when it’s not being used for anything? What is it doing when it’s not doing anything?” The danger here is to suppose that this is a sensible question-or, in order to avoid confusion myself, perhaps I should say, to suppose it makes sense as a question. Such abstracting of well known words from their use in particular contexts and then looking for their “meaning” is the source of many so-called “philosophical problems.” And the danger involved in trying to give “solutions” to such problems is the same as what gives rise to them in the first place. For, as our second author says,

When a word has several meanings historical circumstances often make one of them dominant during a particular period. The dominant sense of any word lies uppermost in our minds. Wherever we meet the word, our natural impulse will be to give it that sense. When this operation results in nonsense, we see our mistake and try over again. But if it makes tolerable sense our tendency is to go merrily on. We are often deceived. In an old author [or in another context] the word may mean something different. I call such senses dangerous senses, because they lure us into misreadings.[5]

And this reminds me, too, of what our first author says of such problems:

These are, of course, not empirical problems; they are solved, rather, by looking into the workings of our language, and that in such a way as to make us recognize those workings; in despite of an urge to misunderstand them. The problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have always known. Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.[6]

Last, but certainly not least, we find a similarity in our two authors when they speak of what results when the confusion between the various senses of words is purposely provoked or explicitly recognized. Our second author says,

The proof of this [i.e., that the context shows the sense in which a word is used] is that the sudden intrusion of any irrelevant sense-in other words the voluntary or involuntary pun-is funny. It is funny because it is unexpected. There is a semantic explosion, because the two meanings rush together from a great distance; one of them was not in our consciousness at all until that moment.[7]

And our first author says, “Let us ask ourselves: why do we feel a grammatical joke to be deep? (And that is what the depth of philosophy is.)”[8]

And what, then, is the aim of each of these men in investigating the meanings of words (and, as I will presently point out, of sentences, paragraphs, whole books)? Our second author says that one of his aims is “to facilitate, as regards certain words, a more accurate reading of old books.”[9] It is fair to suppose that this aim is part of a larger aim: to facilitate accurate reading of any or all books. Our first author has famously said that his aim is “to show the fly the way out of the flybottle.”[10] On the supposition that any reader of his books is at least competent enough to know a metaphor when he or she reads one, we can safely interpret this remark to mean that his aim, too, is to help his readers escape misunderstandings, misreadings-that is, to become good readers and listeners.

Thus, we find our authors aiming at the same end.

For those of you who are familiar with the debate our second author once had with a student of our first author, you will no doubt remember that the debate was focused precisely on the question of the uses of such words as ‘rational’, ‘irrational’, ‘cause’, ‘reason’, ‘explanation’, ‘valid’, ‘invalid’, and ‘naturalism’. This debate has been gone over with the fine teeth of many combs, with varying results, but invariably producing a good amount of static energy. I do not propose to add to the static. Instead, without much in the way of explanation and throwing about my words wildly, I would simply add these two important reminders: First, that the student of our first author, in debating our second author, was not defending the naturalist hypothesis. She herself says, “I do not think that there is sufficiently good reason for maintaining the naturalist hypothesis about human behavior and thought…”[11] Rather, she merely desired to show that “someone who does maintain [the naturalist hypothesis] cannot be refuted as you try to refute him.” Secondly, remember that our second author did, in fact, extensively revise his original refutation of the naturalist hypothesis as a consequence of the debate. Seriously asking the question, “Which of them won?” seems to me to betray a deep misunderstanding of what it was all about.

I really ought to let sleeping dogs lie . . . but I can’t help myself. I have to add two more cents in order to make more sense of this debate. I know it is penny ante. I’m betting it’ll do some good, but it could also make things worse. So it’s a gamble.

In the debate, Miss A reminds Mr. L of just the thing that Mr. L (as we have seen) already knows: that the same word, in different contexts, means very different things, and that nearly all words, if removed from their ordinary contexts for use, appear to be so ambiguous as to be able to mean nearly anything-that is, nearly nothing. Thus, a familiar word can be used in such a way as to appear to make sense without actually making sense. We might call these sorts of cases, “disguised nonsense.” Miss A’s critique of Mr. L’s refutation of the naturalist hypothesis shows that a defender of the naturalist hypothesis, by picking and choosing what he might mean by ‘rational’, ‘cause’, ‘explanation’, ‘knowledge’, and ‘nature’, can escape the traps of any refuter. This might seem like good news to the defender of the naturalist hypothesis. It might seem to him that Miss A is an ally. But it is not so, for her critique cuts both ways: the cost of escaping refutation is nonsense disguised as sense. For such a defender relies on the variety of possible meanings of the very terms he uses in stating his hypothesis, with the result that he cannot know what he himself means.

Suppose, for example, some defender of the naturalist hypothesis counters Mr. L’s refutation as follows: “Mr. L’s refutation involves the view that thoughts, such as inferring the conclusion of an argument, are mental events, mental phenomena, on the same order as physical events. His whole refutation hinges on this view, for these are precisely the sorts of ‘events’ that he argues cannot be accounted for by the naturalist hypothesis without involving the naturalist in self-contradiction. But, as Miss A reminds us, the meanings of a word can be various and distinct. This is the case with the word ‘event.’ Though we might use this word in connection with both nature and thought, the uses are distinct. Thus, so-called ‘mental events’ are not necessarily (nor actually) a part of what I mean by ‘nature,’ and therefore cannot be used as a basis for refuting the naturalistic hypothesis.”

I take it that this is an adequate response to the refuter. But, of course, it involves giving a definition of nature which may be different from what the refuter had in mind. And is there anything to prevent the defender from giving such a definition? No. Not in this case, for there are contexts in ordinary language where the word ‘nature’ is used in the sense in which it excludes so-called ‘mental events.’ The refuter, at this point, would have to concede that the refutation has failed, but he is also likely to be irked. He may say, “Yes, I concede the point: nature can be defined in the way you’ve defined it. But if that’s what you mean by ‘nature,’ then there’s really nothing to argue about. You have simply removed the problem by stating something like a policy-a policy that stipulates what you and your fellow defenders will and will not mean by ‘nature.’ If you had simply presented your hypothesis as a statement of policy on how you will use the word ‘nature’ rather than as an hypothesis about nature and how it must be known, we could have avoided this philosophical mess.” And the refuter would be quite right. What looked like an hypothesis was not really being used as an hypothesis. This is why it can neither be proven true nor proven false: that’s not how you judge policies. But both defender and refuter were bewitched by the form of the statement into thinking it was an hypothesis. Not a scientific hypothesis, of course, but what we might call-oxymoronically-a ‘metaphysical hypothesis.’ That is, an ‘hypothesis’ for which there is no criterion of proof.[12]

But enough about the debate. My purpose in discussing it was this: just as the various meanings of individual words are seen and differentiated by the particular contexts and occasions of their use, so it is with sentences, paragraphs, and even larger portions of language. If there is danger in falling under the illusion that a word is being used meaningfully, sensibly, when, in fact, it is not being so used, then there is also danger in falling under the illusion that a sentence is being meaningfully, sensibly used when the surroundings that would give it a clear sense are lacking. And what is the danger? The danger is misunderstanding. I should point out that not all such misunderstandings are equally dangerous. When my wife returns from the grocery store and says to me, “The groceries are in the trunk,” and I take her to be merely giving a report (“FYI”), my misunderstanding may be dangerous. She may scowl at me. But it is not as dangerous as similarly misunderstanding the man who (truthfully) says “There’s a bomb in the closet!” The most dangerous misunderstandings are those that are costliest-not those that lead to the loss of bodily life, but those that would lead us astray or prevent us from living our lives meaningfully and happily-the loss of life in the moral or spiritual sense. Thus, as both of our authors are keenly aware, it is essential to not misunderstand-i.e., to rightly understand-the words, sentences, speeches, books and so on of those who can and desire to lead us into such a life. These authors therefore are concerned to show us how to read, how to listen, for it is this capacity to rightly understand that makes it possible for us to learn what it means to live as we were made to live.

The examples I have already given will help illustrate why this is the case. Following my wife’s suggestion that I carry the groceries in (or was it more of an order?) or heeding the warning of the man who says there’s a bomb in the closet will, of course, contribute to my quality of life. They have each given me some kind of instruction for my good, but not for the good of my soul. How much more important would instructions-and, I may add, encouragements, expressions of concern, reminders, and warnings-that were meant for the good of my soul, my life as a human creature, be? Such sentences are at least as susceptible to misunderstanding as the others: what was meant as an instruction-or an encouragement, an expression of concern, a reminder, or a warning-is mistaken for a statement of the facts. So, instead of following the instruction, the misunderstander embarks on a quest to see if (or prove that) the statement is true or false. After all, isn’t that what we should do with purported statements of fact? The particular insight of our first Cambridge man was to recognize that it is just these sorts of sentences, mistaken as statements of facts, that are common in philosophy. Ironical, isn’t it-that so much of what we call ‘doing philosophy’ is precisely a misunderstanding of those questions that are philosophical?

Our second author illustrates the danger of this kind of misunderstanding with respect to the sentence, “God exists.” He  says:

To believe that God-at least this God [of Christianity]-exists is to believe that you as a person now stand in the presence of God as a Person. What would, a moment before, have been variations in opinion, now become variations in your personal attitude to a Person. You are no longer faced with an argument which demands your assent, but with a Person who demands your confidence.[13]

Again, what appears to be a statement of fact-and may, in fact, be a fact-is not, in ordinary circumstances, used to state a fact.

There are countless cases like this everyday. Think of the uses of these sentences:

“The building is on fire!”

“I don’t have any money.”

“You saved my life.”

“She left me. I’m all alone now.”

“Bush won the election.”

“It’s a boy.”

“I’ve told you a hundred times to pick up your things.”

“I’ve been up all night, writing this paper.”

“There’s no law against charging high interest.”

“And in those days, everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”

This last sentence you may recognize as being from Scripture. Like all the other examples, the sentence is (or was) true. It might be seen as a statement of fact, and if it were looked at as a statement of fact, it could be judged to be either true or false. And, I am perfectly ready to admit, it was true. It may even be a true description of certain portions-perhaps even large portions-of our own societies and times. But the meaning of the sentence does not lie in its correspondence with the facts. What does it mean? And in what does its meaning lie?

Perhaps the first thing we ought to note is who said it. Who is speaking (or writing)? Well, the author of the book of Judges. And who was that? Joshua? God himself? Yes. Joshua wrote what God inspired him to write, and that inspiration enabled him to convey both the facts and the meaning in what God had to say. I make a point of this here because, even though Joshua might have said such a thing all on his own and been right about it, the meaning of it would not quite be the same if it were merely Joshua’s word and not God’s as well. For the meaning of a sentence or a word often depends a great deal on who says it. This sentence is from God: pay attention!

Another important determinant is who is hearing what is said. To whom was God speaking (and to whom was Joshua writing) when he said what he said here? Well, to His people, to those of his people who came after. It is part of the historical account of the Hebrews during the time of the Judges. “In those days. . .” here is what happened: “everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” This is the fact. But who is-or ought to be-interested in such a fact? Is it enough to just be a Hebrew? What we learn from the New Testament is that God’s people (the “true Hebrews”) are those who “believe God,” who “have faith,” who “follow Him,” “fear Him,” who say “not my will, but Thy will be done.” We are also told that God’s people were, and are, “chosen by him.” God meant what he said to His people, and he meant it for them, so it is his people who are best able to know what he meant. And, again, this is almost always the case: what a word or a sentence means is known best by the person or persons to whom it is spoken. So, what does the sentence mean to God’s people? At the very least, it is a warning to them (us). “Do not think that what is right in your own eyes is what’s right. Do not be proud!”

But there is also the context surrounding the words or expressions: when it is said, and what has gone on before, and what has just been said or not said, and the tone of voice, and the facial expressions and gestures that may or may not accompany the saying, and so on. We do not speak in a vacuum: if we did, we wouldn’t mean anything. Even when a person talks to himself, he can make sense only in a context. Think of Hamlet’s great soliloquy, “To be or not to be. . .” -or any of David’s psalms, spoken or written in private: they each have their context. Hamlet is near despair because of the murder of his father, the King, by his uncle; because of his mother’s credulity and the horror of her recent marriage to this murderer; because he understands the practical and moral impossibility of exposing the truth; and because of the terrible burden of having to act like a king without yet being one. We understand what he means, and what he is doing in speaking aloud to no-one. Do I dare say that the meaning of what he says can be understood even better if you think of him as speaking to God? Yes, I dare. And this is clearly helpful in understanding David’s psalms. There is a context for each of them, too. David was afraid, running for his life, when he wrote psalms 54, 57, 59, and 63. He was ashamed, humbled, and horrified by his own sins of adultery and murder when he wrote psalm 51. Could we possibly know the depth of meaning of Jesus’ words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” without knowing that he says this from the Cross upon which he was dying?

And here it strikes me that these are all the ways that Scripture becomes meaningful to us, too. We do not and cannot know its meaning unless we realize that through the Scriptures it is God who is speaking, and it is to me (or you) that he is speaking, and-if that is not amazing enough-he speaks to each of us within the context of our own lives and circumstances. That is, the meaning of what God says in any given portion of Scripture is understood best when I find myself to be in just the same kind of circumstance, or the same frame of mind or body, or with the same spirit, as those people of God to whom God’s messengers were originally writing. This is why certain portions of Scripture, even portions we may have long been familiar with or read many times, suddenly become more meaningful to us. This is what it means to say that the Word is “Living”: it is never out of date. Isn’t that amazing! Not many authors (or speakers) can write (or speak) in such a way, both universally and individually, and across the ages. Plato, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, perhaps Wittgenstein, Lewis, Chesterton, or Solzhenitsyn. But Scripture stands far above them. Its author is still living.

So, now, here is where I hope this talk will be of some help, both to you and to me: A right understanding of Scripture, a correct reading of it, would take into account not just (nor even primarily) the facts contained in it, but also the meaning of it. This would also, I think, be the right approach to establishing doctrine. For example, the doctrine of Creation. What does God mean when he tells us, through Moses, that in six days He created the heavens and the earth? Do we really know all the “facts” here? And if God meant only to give us the facts, why wouldn’t he give us all of them? Genesis does not give us a cause and effect explanation of how the universe came to be as it is; it tells us a Who, not a how: “And God said, ‘Let there be firmament’; and there was firmament.” This does not give us a clue as to how firmament was created, but it does tell us who created it-that is, it tells us its value. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” gives us the value of the heavens and the earth in that, being created by God, they are divine. It points to how we are to care for our earthly home and all of its contents.

Or take the doctrine of the infallibility of Scripture. What is the meaning of this doctrine? Is it intended primarily to tell us that the stories, histories, natural processes and psychologies described in the Bible are factually true? Again, do not get me wrong: I would be perfectly willing and happy to admit this. But this is not the full meaning of the doctrine. Here is how O.K. Bouwsma put it:

The doctrine of Scriptural infallibility is obviously not “scientific” in any sense, nor is it the result of any sort of investigation, nor subject to any sort of proof. Its function is not to establish the truth of anything. It is easy to see how the doctrine works. It cultivates an attitude towards the Scriptures, the Sacred Word. It is very much like the attitude towards many other sacred objects. Certain sacred objects are not to be touched (the Ark), and certain others are not to be seen. They are to be approached in a reverential attitude. With respect to the Scriptures this means not that they are not to be read, but rather that they are not to be read in a critical spirit, in a disputatious frame of mind. One is not to ask, for instance, “Is this really true?” Even where one has difficulties one asks only, “What does this mean?” And when there are seeming contradictions or dark passages one can only say that one does not understand. In this way clearly the Scriptures are hedged by a doctrine which, so long as the doctrine is taught, secures them like a fortress, like a refuge. In this way too the Scriptures are retained like a well, ever-flowing; like a tree, ever-bearing; like a treasure, ever-golden. It is the guardian against doubt, against uncertainty, against questioning.
It is the Scriptures that speak, and so: “Thus spake the Lord.” Now one is ready to believe, to fill one’s mind, so that one’s heart too may be full of the Sacred Word. The doctrine of infallibility is the open door to the love of the Word-“burning in our hearts.” The first step is to read with a receptive mind. The doctrine has the effect of: “Keep off!” “This is Holy Ground on which thou standest.”[14]

The point I want to emphasize here is this: to those who believe it, a doctrine has more of an affect than merely confirming a fact-it also shapes their souls and directs their ways. You might even say that it is this latter that is the more important, since, religiously speaking, that’s what it means to believe it.

But I will end now with this thought. I am quite convinced, as I hope you are, that God’s will for us regarding the Scriptures is for us to find out what He means. For His words are meant for our life and our good. This, then, is the ultimate question we must each, individually, ask: “What is the meaning of The Word?”

[1] Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Blue and Brown Books, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1958, p. 1.

[2] C. S. Lewis, Studies in Words, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960, p. vii.

[3] Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Oxford: Blackwell, remarks 11,12, and 43.

[4] Lewis, Studies in Words, pp. 9-12.

[5] Ibid., p. 13.

[6] Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, remark 109.

[7] Lewis, Studies in Words, pgs. 11-12.

[8] Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, remark 111.

[9] Lewis, Studies in Words, p. 3.

[10] Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, remark 309.

[11] G. E. M. Anscombe, “A Reply to Mr. C. S. Lewis’s Argument that ‘Naturalism’ is Self-Refuting”, in Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Mind, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1981, p. 231.

[12] For an excellent discussion on naturalism along these lines, see O. K. Bouwsma’s essay, “Naturalism” in his Philosophical Essays, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965. Bouwsma’s essay is from an address he gave in 1947, a year before the Lewis/Anscombe debate.

[13] Lewis, “On Obstinacy in Belief” in The World’s Last Night and Other Essays, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1960, p. 26.

[14] O. K. Bouwsma, from an unpublished manuscript.