11/20/2006

Newton and Wittgenstein -- long lost cousins?

As I was preparing for my History of Scientific Thought class tomorrow, I noticed the following line in Newton's Principia: "the meaning of words is to be determined by their use." (It's in the 14th paragraph of the Scholium to the Definitions, if anyone cares.) This is a revolution in Wittgenstein historiography! We obviously need to re-write all the history textbooks: Wittgenstein should no longer be seen as making a radical break with tradition, but rather advocating a return to orthodox Newtonianism...

But seriously: does anyone else know of other clean expressions of the Wittgensteinian 'meaning is use' slogan in the centuries before Wittgenstein?

Labels: ,

5 Comments:

At 20/11/06, Blogger Ian said...

"Since common use first discovered these words ['true' and 'false'] which were only afterwards used by the philosophers, it seems pertinent for anyone who inquires into the first meaning of a word to see what it denoted in common use, especially in the absence of other causes which might be drawn from the nature of language for the purposes of the investigation."

That's Spinoza, trans. by F.A. Hayes in Spinoza, Earlier Philosophical Writings. My more recent translation, (Sam Shirley, Spinoza: Complete Works) has a much less Wittgensteinian take on the boldface passage: "it seems relevant for one who seeks the original meaning of a word to enquire what it first denoted among common people" (my italics). I don't have the Latin with me, but I trust Hacking's scholarship.

 
At 20/11/06, Blogger Ian said...

Oops - I found that first quote in Ian Hacking's Why Does Language Matter to Philosophy?

 
At 24/11/06, Blogger Kenny said...

I would think that this shouldn't be too surprising. I would say that it's a platitude that meaning is determined by use. The controversial claim that Wittgenstein seems to be pushing for is that meaning is identical to use (or something like it), as opposed to truth-conditions (which most people will agree to be at least somehow determined by use).

 
At 24/11/06, Blogger GF-A said...

Kenny --

Half an hour or so after I posted this, I had more-or-less exactly the thought you did. Though I then did wonder how many people would accept that meaning is determined by use, and not merely 'constrained' by it -- i.e., that once the use of an expression is given, the meaning is fully or completely given.

 
At 2/12/06, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Greg, I think that "determined" is ambiguos in Newton's quotation. I migkt be taken in either a metaphysical sense, or an epistemic sense. In the metaphysical sense it means that meaning is constituted by use, which is closely to what Wittgenstein meant. In the epistemic sense it means that one can know the meaning of a word by examining its use, which is compatible with the negation of what Wittgenstein said.

 

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home