Wittgenstein and Natural Languages

An Alternative to Rationalist and Empiricist Theories
Part of the Synthese Library book series (SYLI, volume 170)

No one denies that language is a cultural phenomenon of some sort, that the fledgeling members of new generations of human beings eventually exhibit their speech — the actual power of parole — by some process of natural acquisition, by merely living in an adult community that already shares a language and a history of common experience and work focused and informed by that language. Instructively, the very passage with which Ludwig Wittgenstein begins his Investigations (which is largely addressed to that intriguing issue), the passage from St. Augustine's Confessions, admits the point in such a way that, being ubiquitous, one is almost inclined to ignore it: “When they (my elders) named some object, and accordingly moved towards something, I saw this and I grasped that the thing was called by the sound they uttered when they meant to point it out.”1

The passage is remarkably sensible and tantalizingly brief. But it already contains the germ of a promising theory of human culture and language acquisition. Wittgenstein himself chooses to construe Augustine's remarks as favoring “a particular picture of the essence of human language” — roughly, that the individual words of a language are names and that their meanings are the objects for which the words stand.2 In speaking thus, Wittgenstein deflects our attention from the cultural thesis he appears to share with Augustine, the one that gives his Bemerkungen the peculiar, almost unperceived, power that they possess. (He moves on, of course, to an implicit criticism of Augustine.) We may in fact characterize the Investigations as a series of rather anecdotal probings of what may fairly be called “cultural space”, offered without explicit notice of that intention. Being inexplicit, readers of Wittgenstein, particularly Anglo-American philosophers, have tended not to appreciate its importance. Certainly, the dominant theories of language acquisition and linguistic competence almost eliminate the cultural as a factor complicating the analysis of the nature of language.


Natural Language Language Acquisition Sentential Context Linguistic Competence Sentence Frame 
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© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2009

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