Stephen Law in Psyche:
These squiggles have a meaning. So do spoken words, road signs, mathematical equations and signal flags. Meaning is something with which we’re intimately familiar – so familiar that, for the most part, we barely register or think about it at all. And yet, once we do begin to reflect on meaning, it can quickly begin to seem bizarre and even magical. How can a few marks on a sheet of paper reach out across time to refer to a person long dead? How can a mere sound in the air instantaneously pick out a galaxy light-years away? What gives words these extraordinary powers? The answer, of course, is that we do. But how?
A slogan often associated with the later philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) is ‘meaning is use’. Here’s what Wittgenstein actually says:
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.
In order to appreciate the philosophical significance of this remark, let’s begin by looking at one of the key things that Wittgenstein is warning us against.
Suppose I say: ‘It’s hot today.’ So does a parrot. Saying the words is a process; for example, it can be done quickly or slowly.
However, unlike the parrot, I don’t just say something: I mean something. This might suggest that, when it comes to my use of language, two processes take place. But where does this second process – that of meaning something – occur?