Wittgenstein on the Arbitrariness of Grammar

Wittgenstein on the Arbitrariness of Grammar

Michael N. Forster
Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 264
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    Wittgenstein on the Arbitrariness of Grammar
    Book Description:

    What is the nature of a conceptual scheme? Are there alternative conceptual schemes? If so, are some more justifiable or correct than others? The later Wittgenstein already addresses these fundamental philosophical questions under the general rubric of "grammar" and the question of its "arbitrariness"--and does so with great subtlety. This book explores Wittgenstein's views on these questions.

    Part I interprets his conception of grammar as a generalized (and otherwise modified) version of Kant's transcendental idealist solution to a puzzle about necessity. It also seeks to reconcile Wittgenstein's seemingly inconsistent answers to the question of whether or not grammar is arbitrary by showing that he believed grammar to be arbitrary in one sense and non-arbitrary in another.

    Part II focuses on an especially central and contested feature of Wittgenstein's account: a thesis of the diversity of grammars. The author discusses this thesis in connection with the nature of formal logic, the limits of language, and the conditions of semantic understanding or access.

    Strongly argued and cleary written, this book will appeal not only to philosophers but also to students of the human sciences, for whom Wittgenstein's work holds great relevance.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2604-9
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)

    Recent philosophers—Donald Davidson, for example—have been much concerned with the topic of “conceptual schemes” and the question of whether or not there are radically different and incommensurable “conceptual schemes.”¹ Roughly the same themes already appear in the later Wittgenstein’s work under the rubric of “grammar” and the question of the “arbitrariness of grammar.”

    Wittgenstein’s views on these matters indeed occupy a central place in his later philosophy. One could, I think, make a good case that they are at least as important for the understanding of his later thought, and at least as philosophically interesting, as his views...

    • 1 Wittgenstein’s Conception of Grammar
      (pp. 7-20)

      We should begin by considering what Wittgenstein means by “grammar.” For, although, as we shall see later, he himself sometimes in fact implies otherwise, he at least seems to employ this word as a term of art with a meaning which bears only a rather remote resemblance to that which it has in everyday usage.

      Wittgenstein’s most basic conception of grammar is that it consists in rules which govern the use of words and which thereby constitute meanings or concepts.¹ Thus, he identifies grammar in general with the “rules for use of a word” (PG, I, #133; cf. BT, p....

    • 2 The Sense in Which Grammar Is Arbitrary
      (pp. 21-65)

      Wittgenstein, in a number of later works, says that grammar is in a sense arbitrary (see, for example, PG, I, #68, #133; Z, #320, #331; PI, #497; cf. WWK, pp. 103–5). This thesis of the arbitrariness of grammar consists of several component ideas.

      First, and fundamentally, Wittgenstein believes that for all grammatical principles in all areas of the grammar which governs our “true-false games,” alternative but in some degree similar grammatical principles—and hence alternative but in some degree similar concepts—either have actually been used or are at least possible and conceivable.¹ (Let us call this hisdiversity...

    • 3 The Sense in Which Grammar Is Non-Arbitrary
      (pp. 66-81)

      According to Wittgenstein, grammar is also in a sensenon-arbitrary (Z, #358; PI, #520, p. 230; WL, p. 70; LC, p. 49).

      This thesis involves a rejection of the notion which the idea of grammar’s arbitrariness may easily bring with it—especially in the German, where the wordwillkürlich(arbitrary) is etymologically connected toWille(will) andküren(to choose, elect) in a transparent way—that a person can in general simply choose to adopt any particular grammar from among those that are possible, or can simply by choice turn any old empirical or factual sentence, sentence currently excluded by...

    • 4 Some Modest Criticisms
      (pp. 82-104)

      The preceding describes what I take to be Wittgenstein’s official position concerning a sense in which grammar is arbitrary and a sense in which it is non-arbitrary. I would like now to suggest some criticisms of this position, however—criticisms which, if valid, would by no means destroy it, but would require some significant revisions in it.

      For convenience’ sake, I will structure these criticisms as an ascending serial critique concerning the five levels of the doctrine of meaning as use which were distinguished in the previous chapter. Along the way, some other aspects of Wittgenstein’s theses of grammar’s arbitrariness...

    • 5 Alternative Grammars? The Case of Formal Logic
      (pp. 107-128)

      The final chapters of this essay—chapters 5, 6, and 7—will address some issues which arise in connection with the first component of the doctrine that grammar is in a sense arbitrary: the thesis that for every grammatical principle in every area of the grammar that constitutes our “true-false games,” alternative but in some degree similar grammatical principles, and hence alternative but in some degree similar concepts, either actually exist or are at least possible and conceivable (the “diversity thesis”).

      The diversity thesis is fundamental to Wittgenstein’s position concerning the arbitrariness of grammar. If it were removed, the remaining...

    • 6 Alternative Grammars? The Limits of Language
      (pp. 129-152)

      In this chapter and the next I turn to some further features of Wittgenstein’s position which pose prima facie threats to his diversity thesis. In the present chapter my concern is with two sets of passages which seem to imply that grammatical diversity is either altogether impossible or at least severely limited in the scope of its possibility because of certain (non-logical) conditions on properly calling something a language, a thought, a proposition, a concept, etc. These two sets are as follows.

      (A) There are a number of passages in which Wittgenstein suggests that concepts such as “language,” “thought,” “proposition,”...

    • 7 Alternative Grammars? The Problem of Access
      (pp. 153-188)

      Earlier in this essay I said that Wittgenstein’s use of actual and imaginary examples of alternative grammars and concepts was intended to show us that such alternatives are at least possible andconceivable. But of course there is an ambiguity lurking there. Does showing us that they are “conceivable” merely mean making it conceivable to us that there are or could be such things (and that such and such forms of behavior are or could be expressions of them), or does it in addition mean doing so through bringing us actually tounderstandsome of them?

      If one casts a...

  8. Appendix. The Philosophical Investigations
    (pp. 189-192)
  9. Notes
    (pp. 193-240)
  10. Index
    (pp. 241-247)