Teaching The Blue Book

I’ve been teaching The Blue Book in my Intro to Philosophy class.  Not an easy sell.  I’ve been trying to get the students to orient on the inceptive question:  “What is the meaning of a word?”  And I am trying to get them to see that when Wittgenstein says he is going to attack that question, that is what he means–attack it.  Not answer it.  Wittgenstein takes the question to be suspect.  Part of his attempt to show that is his attack on what he takes to be the favored answer to the question:  the meaning of a word is a mental image.

Although it required sailing our little skiff onto still deeper water, I worked to get the students to see that the opening sections of the book, from the inceptive question through the red flower example and to the commentary on it, are structured by Frege’s Three Principles (in Foundations).  Frege’s second principle, The Context Principle (Never ask for the meaning of a word in isolation but only in the context of a proposition), is openly transgressed by the inceptive question of The Blue Book.  The favored answer to that question is itself the answer Frege forecasts being given by anyone who violates The Context Principle.  (It is itself an answer that violates Frege’s first principle, Always sharply to separate the logical from the psychological, the objective from the subjective.)  The details of the red flower example capitalize on Frege’s observation that the fact that we cannot form any idea of its content is no reason for denying all meaning to a word.  And so on.

Recognizing the Fregean structure of the opening makes tracking the sometimes nearly trackless discussions of book easier, since the structure extends past the opening deep into the rest of the book.  But that is a topic for another post.

3 responses

  1. Interesting. I’d never considered it in the context of Frege’s work – if only because my knowledge of Frege is rather skimpy.

    It’s also interesting to compare the flow of the argument in The Blue Book to that in the Investigations. The BB swiftly joins battle with the idea of meaning as mental whereas the PI plays cat and mouse with it for quite some time before embarking on a full assault. You could speculate endlessly on the reasons for the differences in form of the two books. Personally, I suspect it reflects W’s deeper appreciation of the tenacity of the “mental meaning” illusion and the insidious allure of metaphysics.

  2. Yes, it’s strange how to the point the blue books is, when in the Investigations he cuffs stuff around for so long. I spend a lot of time wondering why Wittgenstein didn’t kill metaphysics philosophy, and I guess it’s because of this progression – of getting to a point where he never actually talks about anything directly, only gets you to see it for yourself. Obviously, most philosophers didn’t see it. Not many people mention this as a criticism of Wittgenstein – that he totally failed.

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