Philosophical Investigations

According the Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations,[1] the purpose of philosophy is “not to resolve a contradiction by means of a mathematical or logico-mathematical discovery, but to make it possible for us to get a clear view of the state of mathematics that troubles us: the state of affairs before the contradiction is resolved” (Wittgenstein, 50). Language, like mathematics, comprises an agreed-upon set a rules which we must follow in order to understand one another; language as a whole is a kind of “game” and the rules of language comprise the mechanism or “technique” necessary for it to function. However the imperfect nature of these rules is such that we tend to get “entangled” in them; we try to express ourselves accurately but the method at our disposal, that is to say language, only allows for an approximate expression of meaning and occasionally produce contradictions. For Wittgenstein, the philosophical problem is not to resolve these contradictions but rather to understand the particular rule entanglement that caused them to appear in the first place.

Wittgenstein points out that when the single word “Slab!” means the same thing as the sentence “Bring me a slab!,” this meaning is derived in contrast to the meanings of other possible sentences containing the word “slab” such as “Hand me a slab,” “Bring him a slab,” or “Bring two slabs” (Wittgenstein, 9).  It is a feature of our language that we are able to produce different sentences using the same word (“slab”), each with different meaning, and it is because of this available variety of sentences and their associated meanings that we are able to select the one particular combination of words (“Bring me a slab!”) which in contrast to all the others has the same meaning as the single word (“Slab!”). As Wittgenstein points out, “someone who did not understand our language, a foreigner, who had fairly often heard someone giving the order: “Bring me a slab!”, might believe that this whole series of sounds was one word corresponding perhaps to the word for “building-stone” in his language” (Wittgenstein, 9). The foreigner would not conceive of “Bring me a slab!” as a sentence with multiple words because to him there would not be other combinations of the word “slab” with different meanings. To the foreigner, “Bring me a slab!” is a single thought or idea; he sees no need to break the sound down into multiple words. But Wittgenstein questions whether even those who master the language are conscious of the fact that the sentence “Bring me a slab!” contains four words as they are actually uttering it. For Wittgenstein, the thought comes first; then we express the thought by arranging words in a specific order according to the rules of language (Wittgenstein, 108).The fact that the single word “Slab!” and the word for “building-stone” in the foreigner’s language can mean the same thing as the four-word sentence “Bring me a slab!” suggests that mastery of language may be entirely unrelated to the ability to derive meaning from utterances.

Meaning, as Wittgenstein also points out, is indestructible, “for it must be possible to describe the state of affairs in which everything destructible is destroyed. And this description will contain words; and what corresponds to these cannot then be destroyed, for otherwise the words would have no meaning” (Wittgenstein, 27). There is a distinction here between the meaning of the word and the actual person or object that the name or word refers to in the real world. What the word corresponds to – its meaning – must not be the same as the actual thing referred to since the word still has meaning even when the thing referred to by the word no longer exists. For Wittgenstein, the meaning of the word is not the actual thing it refers to but rather what makes it such that the word is useful as an instrument of our language or a “paradigm that is used in connection with the name in the language-game” (Wittgenstein, 27).

For Wittgenstein, “to have understood the definition means to have in one’s mind an idea of the thing defined, and that is a sample or picture. So if I am shown various different leaves and told ‘This is called a leaf’, I get an idea of the shape of a leaf, a picture of it in my mind” (Wittgenstein, 34). But Wittgenstein then rightfully asks: “What does the picture of a leaf look like when it does not show us any particular shape, but what is common to all shapes of leaf?” We tend to think we understand what a simple thing like a leaf is but this understanding is composed of pictures of leaves in one’s mind which are only samples or particular instances of the shape of a leaf; none of these mental images convey what is common or essential to all leaves. As Wittgenstein further explains, “If you look at them you will not see something common to all, but similarities, relationships” (Wittgenstein, 31). The meaning of “leaf” is in fact “a complicated network of similarities, overlapping and criss-crossing,” which Wittgenstein refers to as “family resemblances” (Wittgenstein, 32).

[1] Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical investigations;. New York: Macmillan.



In Hermeneutics,[1] Stanley Porter describes deconstruction as “the theory, method, or hermeneutics for reading that seeks to uncover hidden assumptions (not necessarily meaning) and contradictions that shape texts” (Porter, 194). Deconstruction is something of a malicious enterprise insofar as its prime motivation is to demonstrate how any semblance of meaning or truth is illusionary. Deconstruction always seeks out internal inconsistencies within any interpretational construct and uses them to generate confusion, doubt and instability. From the deconstructionist perspective “there is no transcendental signified of the sort traditional metaphysics has attempted to disclose. There is only an endless ‘play’ that connects signs to other signs. Meaning is always contextual, deferred, provisional, and incomplete because it is structurally instable” (Porter, 195). Deconstruction’s main operating premise is the denial of essential truth; it is profoundly critical of the metaphysical mindset and deeply suspicious all truth claims. Deconstruction serves as a constant reminder to us that we can’t know anything absolutely. The raw material of our thought processes consist of signs (“signifiers”) that have a strictly representational value or purpose; deconstruction contends that we cannot reasonable equate these signs with the objects or concepts they signify because to do so would be to presume that we have access to the essential nature of those signified objects or concepts. Our knowledge is always limited by the fundamental disconnectedness between the signifier and the signified. For the deconstructionist, it is not so much that the signifier cannot truly equate to the signified; rather, it is that we cannot know about the true nature of this relationship since we only have access to one side of the equation, the signifier. All our intellectual constructs are merely specific configurations of the raw materials we are given to work with. We combine the various signs at our disposal to build what appear to be stable conceptual units but the deconstructionists warn us that this stability is merely an illusion because the essential nature of the building blocks themselves is not known. Furthermore, as Porter explains, “whatever defining constructs are used are themselves subject to further de-structuring, dismantling, and re-arranging to expose something else, something different” (Porter, 195). Hence, the assembled building blocks of the conceptual unit always have the potential to be configured otherwise, resulting in a different, perhaps even contradictory meaning. This in fact describes the structuralist perspective – the one according to which meaning is created from the limited inputs at our disposal and which cannot achieve an ontological or metaphysical status. The deconstructionist approach goes one step further than this, arguing that structuralism “becomes another way of making metaphysical truth claims and putting a center, order, and ground (structure) where there is none. For example, whereas structuralists view binary oppositions as stable in a more or less formal and logical structure, Derrida sees them as always unstable and unbalanced” (Porter, 197). Deconstructionists not only object to metaphysical truth claims, they also object to any kind of formal or logical structure, even if we set metaphysical considerations aside as the structuralists do. For the deconstructionists, the structures themselves are metaphysical (and therefore problematic) because they privilege a certain center and a specific order. Even if we deny the metaphysical status of the structure, the deconstructionists will argue that in merely creating these structures we are still employing the binary language of metaphysics and is so doing, legitimizing it to some extent. As Porter explains, “Derrida’s deconstructive approach attempts to first expose, then reverse, and finally subvert the use of binary systems and hidden centers (…) [Derrida] has no interest in reincorporating the binary language of metaphysics in something more critical or somehow more accurate. He is interested in exposing then subverting its either/or, showing that the “either” and “or” are always part of each other” (Porter, 199). As such, deconstruction is not about building anything at all; in fact it seems to deny the possibility of every arriving at a truly meaningful understanding of anything. It is, as Porter suggests, a “parasite” that nags on structural weaknesses – the overlooked or subverted parts of the text or tradition – in order to demonstrate the vulnerability of the overall structure. In a sense, the aim of deconstruction is to reduce all form of meaning to the level of indeterminacy and undecidability. For deconstructionists, anything is possible but nothing is knowable.

[1] Porter, S., & Robinson, J. (2011). Hermeneutics: An introduction to interpretive theory. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans.