Wittgenstein’s error – the meaning in language


Leandro Castelluccio

This essay contains modified extracts of my work “Proposiciones” (currently only in Spanish language – see in link).

What gives meaning to language in philosophicalterms? How is it constituted? The philosopher Wittgenstein had some answers to these questions. In my work “Proposiciones”, I develop certain notions about how meaning and comprehension are generated, at the same time that I make several criticisms of Wittgenstein’s expositions, of which I depart in several aspects. In the following essay, some of these developments and criticisms are raised which can be found with more details in the previous work.

Meaning as associations of things

The process of association in the mind of the subject is what gives meaning to things, associating entities with each other, which are ultimately based on what is perceived in reality or in internal states (such as emotions or mood states). If someone shouts: “fire!”, the understanding of that word depends on the situation, given that we have certain associations of that expression according to the situation and the perceived; “fire!” can mean a fire if we are in a closed place in a building, it can also be an order telling a soldier to shoot his gun. Is the use that gives meaning to the word? How do we know what is its use? All knowledge about the use implies a learning of the same and all learning implies an association of things, reason why it is this (the association of things) the basis of the meaning of the expression. If knowledge is based on associations of things in our mind, the association of things from other associations that our brain can produce results in knowledge.

Before the proposition “there is no absolute truth outside of mathematics”, how can I establish that this is the case and not otherwise if the proposition itself would seem to have no meaning? That is, what it establishes includes the proposition itself denying it: as it does not refer to mathematics itself, it does not express an absolute truth, so it can happen that there are no absolute truths in mathematics and that such truths exist outside mathematics. That there is no absolute truth outside of mathematics is contradicted, denied, cannot be valid.

According to logical empiricism, propositions with meaning, either refer to empirical propositions, capable of being checked empirically, or are analytical, they refer to logic and mathematics (Creath, 2011). But this notion itself, this proposition about meaningful propositions, is a proposition without sense, apparently. However, I argue that a proposition has no meaning if we do not have anything associated with the terms, which establish a certain relationship between them. That is, the proposition is only worth considering to the extent that the terms of it that establish a relationship have meaning as they are associated with other things. A proposition that designates something like the previous one, has a limit, the associations of things associated with the proposition and its terms, that is what sustains the meaning of it (and ultimately its comprehension), and ultimately implies a limit that is reality.

The limit is reality, that which is ultimately perceived. And the associations of things can represent a relationship that is in reality or not, be valid or not, in terms of referring or not to relationships of things in reality. If only the empirical and analytical have a meaning, which ultimately implies an object, and this refers to reality, and as it refers to this implies a possible validity, truth or falsity, if the relationship in reality is or not, if it is only in those aspects, the association denies its possibility because it does not designate the postulate itself, because only the other would make sense. This is a contradiction and the very nature of reality that is the standard of truth, the valid, excludes this possibility.

It is true that the empirical and analytical makes sense, but it is not the only thing, something more encompasses them and the very postulate that the empirical and analytical make sense, which means that it is not “only” the empirical and analytical. The sense of refers to the meaning of something. The meaning of something implies things associated with that something. The associated implies, in the associations of that something, a limit in something that is perceived in reality, or an internal state. The reference of associations to a relationship in reality, for example, implies the validity, truth or falsity of that something according to this criterion. Meaning is maintained by associations of things, associations imply meaning and validity, meaning comes in this way. The associations are what support the proposition. The previous postulate represents knowing. The postulates reflect the epistemological action of the subject who knows, the proposition “knows”, describes, in a certain way.

I would establish, on the other hand, that there are absolute truths outside of mathematics, according to my consideration, because the logic that manifests itself in mathematics manifests itself in the world, in reality. Thus, propositions only have meaning in terms of the relations of things that they establish, the associations of things to which their terms refer, the relation between them, and the associations to which the proposition itself can be linked, all based on ultimate instance in reality, both externally and for the internal states of the subject.

I am not saying that only what is perceived by the senses, for example, is valid, without being integrated into associations of things, nor that the associations of things in our mind are exclusively valid without the material provided by the senses, given that we would not have associations of things. What I try to establish refers to that it is the associations of things, which involve the expression of the sensory or internal states and their respective associations, which gives meaning to a postulate. If “only” the empirical and the analytical have meaning and can be true, this phrase does not have it, many think. Saying that only the empirical and the analytical has meaning or could make sense and be true, one can object, to the extent that it refers to an argument based on what is perceived in reality and associated on the basis of why “only” the empirical and analytical makes sense. But based on the above, it is not really the empirical and analytical that makes sense, because it does not validate the association of things, which is what gives meaning to the phrase that says “only” the empirical and analytical make sense, and that allows to give meaning to the empirical and analytical. What implies associations, which involve something perceived or an internal state, implies meaning.

From what has been said above about the proposition and the association of things, it is not possible that a statement that denies itself (including itself) is valid, it cannot be because it is a contradiction, what the proposition designates or describes cannot be denied, if it does it is a contradiction and therefore has no validity.

Many thinkers have affirmed that “we can not know things or the truth”, but this association of things that is an affirmation about the truth denies the affirmation itself, at the most I can say that one aspect of reality is unknowable, but I must have reasons and an aspect of reality must be knowable in order to provide information that allows that affirmation, otherwise it is not valid. There must be a knowable place in reality from which one can make an affirmation about the impossibility of knowing a certain aspect of the world, otherwise one could not even say anything about it. If I say “all propositions are false” I conclude that since that is a proposition, “it is false”. If it is false, it cannot be that “all propositions are false”. The meaning of an affirmation, as a non-contradictory meaning, lies in the association of things, which does not imply a contradiction in the form of negation when it is included.

In this sense one faces the limit of validation. One can not say that truth does not exist as reality, or knowledge is impossible, or the only thing that exists is change and becoming in reality, not absolutes, or rather, such propositions are not valid, since they clash with the limits. In order to make such affirmations, there must necessarily be a knowable point in reality from which I can make such an inference or any inference, and when such a point exists, such propositions are contradictory. Knowledge, at least up to certain limits, is possible, truth is knowable. And if, as Wittgenstein said, meaningful propositions have to reflect a possible state of things, this own Tractatus does not represent propositions with meaning, and therefore, capable of being true or false (Reguera, 2002, Wittgenstein, 2003).

 If we leave the possibility open for such inquiries: why not open the door for all kinds of inquiries that do not reflect a possible state of affairs? This is my main criticism of Wittgenstein. A proposition to be true cannot contradict itself. There is something else that has to give meaning to the propositions of the Tractatus, although that means that what the Tractatus establishes is not correct.

What then gives meaning to propositions? Well, the associations of things. In the first place, what we call meaning or sense depends on associations. The understanding of meaning itself requires associations. The understanding of something is given by associations of things, and therefore of associated things, that imply something perceived in reality, or internal states, only then there is understanding and meaning. Truth or falsehood also depends on associations of things, because to understand such notions we must have certain things associated with the terms truth or falsehood. The associations will take us to a level with reality, something that is perceived, for example, and therefore belongs to the realm of reality. Whether something is true or not depends on the stated criteria of truth. I have stated that truth is existence, it is the real, the logical. But I have stated that all propositions are existent, in the sense that they exist at least in the minds of individuals as associations. Another question is the propositions that refer to relationships in reality, according to the criterion of relationship that I established in the introduction to my work “Proposiciones”. That is the truth according to the criterion (association) that the association of things of the proposition expresses a relationship in reality, to the extent that the terms of the proposition refer at a certain point in turn to associations with perceived objects, for example. 

It is not the case of a use of words as Wittgenstein posed in “Philosophical Investigations” (Reguera, 2002). What is before anything is the meaning, this allows the rest of the notions as truth or validity. The meaning refers to the associations of things, not that the meaning of something refers to the use, this may be an element more associated with the term, but not the only factor that refers to the meaning of something or its understanding, we also have images, sounds, internal sensations, for example. The very notion of use is a term that requires associations first of all for its understanding. The use of a term constitutes associations of things in the mind of an individual, it is these that allow notions such as use, meaning or validity. Thus, it is said about the second Wittgenstein that a word and its meaning does not imply a direct correspondence with an object in reality, but the use given to it, as when “fire” is said to fire weapons (Reguera , 2002). But what is behind are associations, fire is simply taken as a substitute for shoot, and shoot is associated with the action of triggering weapons, that is, a relationship in reality (although I do not say that the meaning depends on correspondence, but on associations), with this last one thing we have understanding, according to my criterion, as I have stated in my work “Proposiciones”, the meaning of fire are the things associated with fire, the “shoot” is one of them.

Perhaps Wittgenstein was referring to what I mentioned as understanding what he mentions as meaning in the use of the word, but precisely this understanding is not given only by use, but by other things, associated images, sounds, internal sensations, etc. Words continue to have meaning, not by the use itself, but by the things associated with them, the use arises from what is associated with the word, that is, arises from its meaning and not vice versa, as it might seem to be. Probably someone decided to use “fire” to indicate the action of firing, due to the fact that there is combustion, fire, when guns are fired, precisely called “fire guns”. It would not be a use that could be called random, but it has its proximity to that. Then people associated that fact, and from there that word began to be used in such a way. That is, the emergence of use depends on associations of things, and then the use is learned as a situation, the use is associated with a particular situation, the situation that one keeps in one’s memory, is now part of one of the various elements associated with the term, so I propose that the use would be one of the elements that refer to the meaning of the words, but not the only one, and in turn, that to reach a particular use there must be a generation of meaning before, to put it in a way, that implies other things, before a use, that can be associated with a term.

In this way the use of a term is given by what a word is associated with in a given context, context in which one learned what a word is associated with, but which could present another association in another context, thus the use is based on certain associations of things, that is, the use depends on meaning, not meaning depends on the use. If one never associated that in a certain context a word is associated to a certain thing, the mention of that word in that context could be as one of little sense, the use is not just another expression of associations of things, it is the associated things those that represent the meaning of a term. A word associated with a context implies another association to an object or action for example. Thus, a term is associated to something determined in a certain context, and therefore such term is used or not, the word is used or not, where it can have something else associated in another context. First certain associations are established, a certain meaning is given, then a term is used, or a gesture. For Wittgenstein the meaning of a word would presuppose its use, according to my thought is the opposite, the use of a word presupposes its meaning, the things that exist associated with the word.

On the other hand, a proposition that is said to have no meaning, is not that it does not have it, there may be few things associated with such a proposition. The meaning increases, it is quantitative, since it represents a number of things associated with something, and when we think of something or establish a proposition it is difficult to see things separated from others. Another thing is comprehension.

The truth according to my criteria used here, depends on associations of things that refer to relationships in reality, although in principle refer to other qualia (subjective experience), which we say refer to entities of a reality, and these entities of reality that we say they refer qualia, they can be what we perceive outside of ourselves, as well as internal states, like emotions, in terms of the subjective sensations they imply.

In these matters and others I disagree and separate myself from Wittgenstein’s thought about truth and meaning. I have certain associations of a word that give it its meaning, among them may be the use in a given context, and such use and context requires associations, and multiple associations may be possible for the same term. Now, apart from the fact that every proposition exists as such in the mind of a subject as an association, there is also the criterion that an association can reflect a relation of objects in reality (according to the criterion of relationship established in the introduction of“Proposiciones”). As I have stated, a definition exists in the mind of a subject but does not represent something that exists as a relation of objects in the world (outside the subject as a relation), only what is associated with the term can represent such a relation. If I say, “a glass is a container to contain liquids” I am proposing a criterion of what a glass is, but I can propose another. If such a thing as a glass is something real in the world as a physical object, it depends on the glass criterion. The truth or falsity in this sense is for one criterion, but it may not be for another, if the associations of the term do not represent relations in reality that refer to physical objects. The meaning depends on the associations of things, and these involve a sensory experience, subjective, or an internal state, a state of mind, for example, but that is not transmissible, the experience is particular of the subject. On the other hand, we must bear in mind that the associations implied by my saying that the definition exists in the mind of the subjects, not in reality, refer to things that are the case, or in any case I consider true, that is, what they reference to given the things associated with the terms of which I speak, are things that can be true or not. Such propositions are not without meaning and possible validity, and it is the associations of things that allow such notions.

According to the Tractatus, a proposition that manifests as “The world is the totality of facts not of things” would not make sense since it does not refer to a possible state of things, according to the author’s own notions (Wittgenstein, 2003). But since propositions depend on associations according to what I have stated, in the first place, whether it makes sense or not depends on what we call sense, what are the associations of the term. That what is associated with meaning is valid or not depends on what we call valid, what are the associations of the term.

“Propositions imply associations”, this proposition is in turn an association of things, so I do not fall into a contradiction or affirm something that denies itself, because everything I say are associations. The arguments raised, what I have said about sense as meaning, and that this is given as associations that refer to something perceived in reality or an internal state, and the truth according to the associations given that imply relationships in reality and associations of existence in the mind of the subjects represents things that are the case, that exist.

Moving this to the previous proposition, that the world be the totality of facts is a criterion of the term “world”. The truth or falsehood, according to my criterion, outside of what exists in one’s mind, is for associations of “world”, not about the criterion itself. What one would ask is: what do we mean by “facts”? And if such a thing as the facts refer to something that is the case, in the sense that it refers to associations that pose relationships in reality, that refer to something perceived in the world, such a world association would refer to something real outside the mind of the subject. If associations of “fact” express something that is not the case, it would not be true (according to such criteria).

The sense, as meaning, would be given by associations that imply something perceived in reality or an internal state (although we must remember that both things are qualia or the cerebral states associated to them at all times, from the mental or cerebral point of view), although the way in which we associate such things that imply the perceived reality, for example, may not be reflecting relationships in reality, and therefore not represent something true (according to that criterion of truth). Many of the propositions of the Tractatus what they do is establish criteria of what something is, by means of an association, the problem of it is that its criterion of meaning does not include the propositions of the Tractatus itself, for which there is a contradiction. In addition, I would start from another metaphysics, the one that I propose in these propositions (those of my work “Proposiciones”), that the world is reality, and reality is the same as existence, but this is a limit, I can only understand the notion of reality and existence at the level of association with what one perceives, by observation of things, for example, but I can not escape from reality to define it, I can not go beyond this, it is the limit, so all the definition contents themselves would include the notion of reality.

If Wittgenstein were interpreted in terms of what he mentions about what gives meaning to a proposition, a state of affairs, an empirical fact, a proposition that describes a situation of tangible things, so to speak, as if it could be applied to propositions about propositions, that is, they refer to things in a particular situation, which would be the world of our language, how it works, then the Tractatus would make sense, there would be no contradiction, under such notion, that is, there should be a reevaluation about what it refers to in itself the states of things, and expand that notion to include the propositions of the Tractatus. But it seems that Wittgenstein’s description is more limited and restricted. So if we consider that the propositions about what makes sense of the Tractatus contradict the propositions of the Tractatus themselves, if in fact deny their meaning, we should look for another parameter that makes sense of things.

To avoid a contradiction, the nature of what gives meaning to a proposition must be manifested in the proposition about the proposition, if a proposition establishes what gives meaning to a proposition but this element does not include the proposition itself over what makes sense, then there is contradiction. No claim of validity, indeed, can be for the Tractatus under such a discrepancy, taking into account the Tractatus itself, as to what is really spoken, because in part depends on there being a factual correspondence with something possible, you could say that there is a use of the classical notion of truth, but restricted to the more tangible empirical, but if the propositions of the Tractatus do not refer to something like that, then they can not be true. 

If it is said that this does not represent a problem, then we can talk about anything under that criterion, even that of what the Tractatus says we should not talk about. And according to the criteria that I have really adopted, bearing in mind that I do consider that the propositions of the Tractatus have meaning, given that the meaning for me refers to associations of things, I do not consider that the main postulates of the Tractatus are true, because for me, as I said, the meaning refers to something else, we can talk about ethics, aesthetics or metaphysics, etc., and raise truths about these issues. On the other hand, even if it were considered under the criterion of the states of things that the propositions of the Tractatus make sense, I would say that rather than referring to a state of things, they refer to qualia or associations of things, maintained at the cerebral level, from which the behavior of establishing that they refer to things in reality is generated. The associations of things refer to this, first of all. Meaning refers to that, and understanding depends on such associated things. In this, I also turn away from Wittgenstein’s thinking. I would agree that a proposition can refer to something true if it refers to something in reality, only if we expand that reality to include as real our internal world of sensations, for example, certain behaviors, ethics, aesthetics, etc., because for me all this is real in the empirical sense (the things associated with the criteria of these things, and the knowledge of the fact that such criteria exist in the minds of the subjects, as part of the things that make up the so-called world).

In this way, when we ask ourselves questions such as what is matter, the only answer will be in the associations of things that we have of “matter” or associations that can be formed of the term “matter”, since our understanding of the notion of matter, part of our observation of reality and the relationships of things we can grasp, the answer, the meaning, the understanding, is in the associations, but there is no answer that escapes the world, a response beyond, we can not escape the associations that we have of matter, these make up the only possible understanding.

Or if I state: “this painting is beautiful”, I am not necessarily raising a pointless issue. Let’s see, what are the associations I have of these terms? At some point they will refer to something real, although that real thing that I call beautiful does not manifest that property in itself, but that designation would be saying something about the world, particularly the world of my psychology, that exists. This proposition would be talking about my psychology, my world, it has a meaning, a meaning in something real, because it is the expression of an attraction that I manifest towards an object, for example. Or I can establish the criterion of what I consider beautiful and say A and B together turns out to be beautiful, for me. A and B would represent properties of physical objects, for example, and if I establish the criterion that what is valid is the association of things that expresses a relation of things in reality, and A and B are in fact given as a relation in reality, according to the criteria or relation established in the introduction (of my work “Proposiciones”), then I can say that what is associated with beautiful is the case, this association is true: what is associated with beautiful, but not the criterion itself, since this is only real in the mind of the subject, not outside it, another criterion can be established.

I cannot express through language the subjective experience that I manifest with the term beauty, only designate it, such experience is beyond language. But it does not mean that such an expression about “the beautiful” has no meaning because such a thing in reality as “the beautiful” outside the subject is not the case. The criterion is not the case in reality, such an association is maintained in the subject’s mind, that is, what one calls beauty depends on one, on one’s designation of the term, on the things that one associates with the term, the criterion does not refer to something directly perceived in reality, but that does not mean that what is associated with the term can not be the case, I can establish objectively if something is beautiful for the criterion of beauty that arises, given that the term’s associations can refer to something real. As I just said, I can say A and B together it’s beautiful for me. A and B would represent properties of physical objects, and if these are the case in a perceived object, I can say that it is beautiful, for such a criterion.

A proposition about morality or ethics may also make sense. It does not turn out that the ethical does not make sense, one can establish objectively if something in reality is ethical or not for the criterion of the term that one determines through associations, the error would be to translate the criterion itself to reality and say that it is something existing independently of the subject that maintains the association.


Castelluccio, L. (2017). Proposiciones. Independently published.

Creath, R. (2011). Logical Empiricism. Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2011/entries/logical-empiricism/

Wittgenstein, L. (2003). Tractatus logico-philosophicus. Editorial Alianza.

Reguera, I. (2002). Ludwig Wittgenstein: un ensayo a su costa (Vol. 12). Edaf.

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