A little bit of Wittgenstein goes a looooong way

“For a large class of cases of the employment of the word ‘meaning’—though not for all—this word can be explained in this way: the meaning of a word is its use in the language” (PI 43).

Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

While idly watching reruns of NCIS a while ago, I began daydreaming about the differences between American and British English. As a scholar, I frequently switch between the two. This can be because a specific journal uses American spelling, or because I am quoting directly from a source which uses American spelling. My natural preference, however, is for British English, and I confess to being somewhat of a pendant when it comes to issues of grammar and syntax.

Returning to my NCIS-induced daydream… a phrase caught my attention: “I could care less.”

This specific usage has always perplexed and frustrated me. It literally means that the person speaking does care, to some extent at least. But it is used to mean “I don’t care at all.”

In British English, the phrase is most often presented in what I would consider to be the ‘correct’ way, because the written and intended meaning are internally consistent: “I couldn’t care less.”

So, the phrases “I could care less” and “I couldn’t care less” are logically self-contradictory yet are used to mean the same thing. This is the kind of thing which keeps me up at night. It’s sad, I know.

What’s even worse, is that I know it doesn’t matter. As a discourse analyst, I’d be among the first to tell you that the surface-level ‘meaning’ of a word or phrase are most frequently not the *real meaning, intended or otherwise. I often think of text as the tip of the iceberg – with context, history, and intention forming the larger part submerged beneath the sea.

*for a given value of ‘real’

So, the logical inconsistencies that matter to me don’t matter out there, in the real world, because true meaning is something which has developed through words being used in everyday, inconsistent, illogical language that regular people speak to each other day in, day out. Tue meaning is what happens when an American says “I could care less” and the Brit listening to it knows that what is meant is “I care so little that it would be impossible to care any less.” The meaning has become independent of the actual phrase.

This doesn’t help me sleep at night, of course.

The example I’ve discussed so far is relatively minor and unimportant. But as soon as you start applying this knowledge about meaning to more vital words which have weight across the realms of politics, culture, ideology and so on, the implications become similarly more critical.

One of the first things taught to political science or sociology students is the idea that there are certain concepts which are ‘inherently contested.’ This contestation over meaning arises because they mean different things to different people in different contexts. To bring this right back to Wittgenstein, the ‘contest’ in question is over meaning – and the meaning is dependent on how the word is being used at the time, by whom, with what intention, and with what context.

An example often used to illustrate the issue of ‘inherently contested concepts’ is freedom. There is a plethora of different philosophical approaches to this concept, but for now I’ll once again lean back on my old POL101 class and use the examples of ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to.’

These are shorthand phrases used to designate two different and contradictory types of freedom – one is the freedom from constraints upon your action, and the other is the freedom to do whatever you choose.

From a purely linguistic perspective, these two phrases appear to mean the same thing. But surely if that were the case there wouldn’t be so much contestation over the issue of freedom (or ‘liberty’) in so many places. One obvious example is the United States and gun laws. Many people perceive the calls for legal restrictions on private ownership of firearms as a direct constraint upon their personal liberty to ‘bear arms’, while the lack of such constraints allows many people the freedom to perpetrate terrible atrocities with relative ease.

Freedom, in this example, has two directly contradictory meanings. An NRA campaigner seeks the freedom to purchase and collect deadly weapons. The parents of children who have suffered and even died in school shootings across the USA seek freedom from the threat of death.

So, having somehow managed to drive this blog post into the pit of despair, I shall sign off with a small bit of advertising; I recently had a paper published which discusses how ‘environmentalist’ doesn’t necessarily meme – ahem, mean – what you think it means.

McCalman, C. (2022). ‘A proper environmentalist wouldn’t do that’: discourses of alienation from the environmental periphery. Social Movement Studies, 00(00), 1–19. https://doi.org/10.1080/14742837.2022.2054796

I’m too poor to pay the fee to make it Open Access, so if you want to read the paper and have trouble accessing it, please do get in touch.

3 thoughts on “A little bit of Wittgenstein goes a looooong way

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