Joaquín Jareño Alarcón



The aim of this paper is the clarification of some key concepts in the functioning of language-games. Ordinary language is a good field to study the basis of our whole system of meaning. In his study of ordinary language, Wittgenstein stresses the importance of the so-called "basic certainties" (hinge propositions), at bottom of our uses of words. We learn these certainties, and their interconnection with the rest of statements, through our being engaged in social practices, but the images of the world arising from these interconnections do not bring about any kind of incommensurability between them. We share many more elements than we are ready to know. So that, in the end, communication is possible and is justified by those elements, and by the way they appear throughout our linguistic action.


It is part of the Contemporary History of Philosophy to deal with what has been called ordinary language. The linguistic turn of philosophy, started by Ludwig Wittgenstein among others, has ended up taking over a wide part of philosophical debate to the extent that it has become an unavoidable point of reference in every discussion nowadays. Wittgenstein is precisely one of those who focuses part of his work on the understanding on language and its different uses, as they are manifested in our daily routine. The philosophical task consists of this and, in the end, it is reduced to a simple description: leaving things as they are, supposedly in a clearer way though. Getting rid of the charm of language is, together with it, a primordial task as it is there where the key to the liberation of all the misunderstandings which have degenerated into philosophical pseudoproblems resides.

            One of the subjects that concerns this problematic complex is that of the significant elements that are subjacent to a particular use of language. In a really graphical way, Wittgenstein talked about a mythology subjacent to language, which was manifested in the connections between statements, and he used it to justify some particular uses of words. A “kind of mythology” (einer Art Mythologie) is in fact the expression Wittgenstein uses to remind us of the difficulties we find when we want to talk about language as a significant but aseptic setting. We can find, so to say, behind language games elements whose main value is to be action without foundations. Trying to clarify the meaning and importance of these elements in ordinary language is the main aim of this article, as is also addressing the controversy about the presence of incommensurability between the different images of the world coming from particular articulations of different mythologies, as well as from the relationship between different language games. These issues are, in the end, the same thing.

            In his work On Certainty, Wittgenstein begins discussing the forthright affirmations of G.E.Moore in relation to the certainties of common sense which are not possible to doubt without entering into absurdity. The value of the certain, as long as it goes beyond all possible doubt –and something on which the proper value of doubt is settled- is something Wittgenstein reflects about widely to clarify the significance of action for meaning, and the way in which human beings act, beyond any difference between cultures or traditions. Wittgenstein’s thought is of a general kind. That is, he tries to show that language is the proper reaction of our “complicated form of life” (first was action) –in which it is a main part as long as it is linguistic action- and it does not contain any possibility of radical compartmentalisation among the different discourses to which different human interests give way. The interconnections between them and the fact that they share those basic elements in the background of mythology (or mythologies) ends by preventing the temptation of incommensurability. This is, basically, the main point we want to achieve.

            When Wittgenstein uses the word mythology he does not mean to do it with the literal meaning of the word, but how he introduces it is very important to understanding what he means, and has implications for his main argument. We are not trying, then, to determine how Zeus’ mood influences human beings, or the influence that Febo Apollo, Dionisos, etc., could have on mortals’ daily life. But it is true that Wittgenstein did not use this word by accident; he gave it a graphic value that he very often gave to his suggestive linguistic images. In the Ancient Greece mythology meant much more than a mere collection of stories told to entertain. The archetypes of behaviour, human aspirations, desires, etc., were reflected in the plays performed by mythological characters and the relationships between them, which sometimes were highly complicated and bizarre. The mythological symbolism contained a central meaning for the human group itself, giving to it a world view in which everything remained substantially linked, and it was the basic point of reference for action, and for interpreting the world, for giving meaning to reality. This is what Homer showed in his writings, and what poets sang and taught, which was partially criticised by Plato in The Republic, and was substituted by the revolution of Presocratic naturalists. It is not this kind of mythology that Wittgenstein identifies at the basis of language. But it has to do with it in a sense.

            A child’s ability to learn a language depends on his/her skill, but also on the confidence that children have in adults. This way of reminding us of the origin of building of meaning, should not appear to us as trivial, because for meaning to exist and develop we must start with something of which we cannot doubt. That is how Wittgenstein is introducing the theme that entitles his work On Certainty. With language, we are being given a particular way of acting, a whole symbolism which is anchored to certain elements which are themselves basic and which we basically assimilate. To learn language is to learn techniques of use of words, that is, what we can do with them, but also what we cannot do, so that a particular way of apprehending the world, of giving name to it, is marked in language and, with it, so to say, a way to build it. The idea of mythology is particularly suggestive here. Maybe this idea could be understood in a particularist meaning so that it acts as justification to a sociological theory of meaning. In a certain way, Wittgenstein seems to support this interpretation, and his vision about the existence of different images of the world would do no other thing than justify it.

            If we analyse the word mythology we can see the close relationship Wittgenstein establishes between language and action. How we understand meaning, which meaning we give to something, is only evident in the use of words and sentences. The best way of perceiving it is seeing where we can place them in our life. Wittgenstein understands that among all uses of language there are some that, so to say, are more “central” than others. Some sentences acquire a certain importance in relation to the rest and end up becoming an axis due to the relationship that the rest establish with them within the language game. These particular sentences, whose interconnection builds an “image of the world” (Weltbild), are posited by Wittgenstein as the basis of the aforementioned mythology.

            When we recall the controversy between Wittgenstein and Moore about the meaning of “I know”, we start to understand the importance that the Austrian philosopher wanted to give to the problem, since his critical perspective leads him to articulate a whole examination of the concept certainty. Opposite to what Moore affirmed, Wittgenstein claimed that we can only say “I know” something when we can give reasons for it. The intention of Moore when he proposed this kind of statement was to appeal to those elements of common sense from which he could emphasise the mistakes of scepticism. This proposal was made over particular sentences whose content was impossible to doubt unless we wanted to fall into irrationality, as it were, for example, “I know I have got a hand”. Wittgenstein’s focus on these sentences comes from a different angle. That is, it is intrinsic to the language game to possess sentences which we cannot doubt about, and this converts them into sentences of a rigidity which is fundamental to the structure of the game itself. Its consistency depends on those elements from whose conjunction derive what we called mythology. What does it mean not to doubt about them and to what extent are they indubitable? Wittgenstein’s work On Certainty is meant to clarify this. In his reflections about Moore, Wittgenstein accepts certain estimations; especially the mistake of scepticism –basically, radical scepticism- which would give rise to propose an indefinite process of doubt. We cannot doubt everything, as “if you tried to doubt everything you would not get as far as doubting anything” (On Certainty *115), that is, doubt has to end some moment, “doubt itself rests only on what is beyond doubt” (OC *519). This argumentative process cannot be given up and it is important to the extent that we are unravelling the value of the linguistic uses as a linguistic action at the same time. When we affirm that we know something it is supposed that we are able to give reasons for it; or at least it is intelligible to provide support for it. We often imagine that “to know” something is a mental state whose epistemological perfection places us in a privileged situation in respect of doubt. We think that it is impossible to admit evidence against it. But we have to be able to give reasons to justify our degree of clarity (security). Wittgenstein expresses it with determination when he affirms:

“One says ‘I know’ when one is ready to give compelling grounds. I ‘know’ relates to a possibility of demonstrating the truth. Whether someone knows something can come to light, assuming that he is convinced of it.

            But if what he believes is of such a kind that the ground that he can give are no surer than his assertion, then he cannot say that he knows what he believes” (OC *243).

Those statements that Moore is talking about are the ones that we cannot give reasons for. They should be self-evident, but also be basic elements in the exercise of common sense.

            This study Wittgenstein makes about this type of statements is singularly interesting and important because it shows us how a language-game works. Although the ambiguity of this term is well known, we are going to talk about it in a generic way. Wittgenstein affirms that the language game relies on securities (unquestionable reliances). And he does it that way because if not, the constitution of meaning –the stability upon which it is based- would disappear. If we imagine a continuous fluctuation of these inner elements, we cannot speak of “meaning” in a concrete way. That is, a constancy of basic elements is needed to allow the combination and exercise of the different concrete uses. What is true is that the quality of stability of such elements depends on the very interaction between the statements, that is, it is not given in an a priori way or essentially. We could say, for example, that the statement “I have got a hand” is more basic than the statement defining a hand is. The latter depends on the former, but the meaningful existence of both comes from their interdependency, that is, the way the uses are intersected. But the language game relies on other securities. For example, on the confidence that someone who is learning it –consciously or not- has in the one who is teaching it. Language is a mere reaction [i], but we also need to learn to react, that is, to learn to articulate meaning, making present the rules which characterise it through the coincidence with what others say.

            Even though confidence may not seem very philosophical it is, nevertheless, necessary and is the way in which we assimilate meaning. We learn to recognise something meaningful thanks to our security in the interaction in which we are engaged. If doubt were our natural state it would not support the process of production and interchange of meaning, so having it as an attitude would prevent a child believing in something, and this is contradictory by definition. We cannot begin with doubt. It comes after a certainty, which whatever it might be, is in a close relation with the security which we manifest in the confidence given to those with whom we interact. A security that we could call irrational is the foundation through which learning is produced; but it itself lacks a foundation. It is given. And thanks to that “given” we can justify the existence of the language game.

            The difficulty, if it is so, is that these securities are the ones which lead us to assimilate the interconnection in mythology. That is, we learn connection between statements at the same time that we learn the way terms are used which allows us to do a significant transfer with those who surround us. The public and social character of language prevents us to do so. As coincidence in language is a fact –and it is given as a proper action- the meanings represent what they represent, but because of the social character itself of this coincidence, we cannot obviate the presence of particular models of coincidence, i.e., determined by the different ways they are produced and the social context in which they appear. When we learn language, then, we are taught how to act in relation to the way in which from our own setting, meaning shows reality in all its dimensions. This approximation to the problem could lead us to a position which could descend to relativism. The process of conformation of meaning could be understood from the perspective of so many mythologies deriving from as many culturally determined accesses to the reality that there could be. To make this better understood, it is useful to consider the development of Wittgenstein’s thinking about the role and meaning of mythology. In his paragraphs **94-100 in his work On Certainty is where Wittgenstein posits his image; a particularly provocative image, but suggestive as well and useful to clarify Wittgenstein’s intentions. The image of the world we have relies on such mythology (cf. OC *95) which is the solid basis from which the flow of meaning derives. The introduction of the concept of riverbed (or streambed) becomes something fundamental here, as it clearly exemplifies the way in which mythology as a concept as well as its proper functioning must be understood. There are certain statements which, although they appear to be empirical statements, actually they are not, or at least that is not their role. What is the mystery enclosed in this presumed relationship between appearance and reality? What is Wittgenstein referring to when he talks about the step from empirical to grammatical? (cf. OC **57/309).

            In his Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein talks about grammar especially to refer to the rules that constitute language. In this sense, it seems that the sentences to which we give a particular place in the language game should be understood as the axis of this game, so that there is a close correlation between “meaning” and “rule” (cf. OC *62). Together with this, we are shown the function we can give to a word, and we have the place it must occupy. How it occupies the places is what we call manifestations of a rule in its use, showing us how we have learnt the language. In this learning, we are presented with the ways of using words, and also the relationship between them, and their different uses. It is here, to our understanding, that the distinction between empirical and grammatical sentences is retaken. The logical status of each type is different, and with it, its role in language. To understand this, Wittgenstein introduced his metaphor of the riverbed (cf. OC **96/99), which should be elaborated. The non-static vision Wittgenstein has of meaning leads us to understand the importance of linguistic action as action. Does it mean that there is no steady meaning? The answer is obviously that there is. Meaning cannot exist without the security within the linguistic action, that is, only regularities and a logical connection between them allows language to fulfil its functions.

            We could imagine that the stream of meaning could provoke variation within different moments in the language game. We could imagine it to the extent that these moments could be distinguished by a rigid separation. This could be, perhaps, the point of view of Th.S.Kuhn and P.K.Feyerabend when they talk about incommensurability between paradigms. Wittgenstein seems to give us an ambiguous clue when he writes: “when language-games change, then there is a change in concepts, and with the concepts the meaning of words change” (OC *65). If Wittgenstein is referring to a change in the language game, we would be close to the problem of meaning created by the change of paradigms. At least, if we are talking about a sequence of paradigms, the effect could be of a confrontation or competition which had to be decided by the imposition of one over the other. If the change is between one and another –let us consider them in parallel- the situation would not be so radical. It is true that the use changes the role of a word, but it does not need to vary radically. They can have connections, some family resemblances. We should clarify this a bit. If, in the end, what it is all about is a change inside the language game, a modification of the meaning when insisting on some aspects instead of others, the fluidity meed not negate the consistency of the game itself. Each game has got to imply certain limits so that it is possible -with some modifications- to keep on playing. We could, then, go on using the game. In terms of its function –according to what is said in paragraph 65 of On Certainty- the word itself cannot have the same meaning, that is, x is only x in another language game in formal terms, formally speaking. It is understood, then, that in this context in which we are speaking, x is not equal to x, due to the fact that we are talking about different uses. Does this mean that there could not be any connected relationship between two games? In our opinion, this is not so, since the acknowledgement of the existence of different uses arises only if we accept that there are common elements at their basis. It could only be a situation in which there would not be similarity if the changes in the games would be total. It is true that x is not equal to x since in a strict sense, there cannot exist any equivalence, because of the interdependence of action and meaning. But this does not prevent us of talking about, say, x, x1, x2, x3, etc. That is, about relationship between different uses, or even derived uses. We should take into account, for example, the value of an expression and later on in a joke (cf. Philosophical Investigations *23). When we tell a joke it gets its ironic value thanks to the derived use it has. Otherwise, it would lack its humorous value. If this can take place, some elements in the grammatical order –in the essence- have to be shared. Ironic assimilation or a simple distinction in the use would be impossible in any other way. That is, a basic use could act as a bridge to decide between the relationship existing between similarities or dissimilarities. Some kind of connection between elements could allow also us to do so.

            The term x could even vary in its use, as we indicated before, because the interests that gave rise to the game change too, or because the relation between the elements involved in the dynamic of the game is different now. If we can go on talking about the same game, that means that our talking about the game –the use we make of words when we refer to the game- has not been substantially modified. This acknowledgement is not something trivial. It cannot be either, because by such talk we are manifesting that, at least, some of the functions of words remain the same, or there is a firm similarity in them, so the identification can remain steady. In the different stages of a language game there must be elements that make this possible. Only in this way could we achieve a basically reliable interpretation of how terms and concepts were used in different historical stages. But, at the same time, some particularly steady elements have to be kept, so that the whole framework of meaning can be solid enough. This is what happens with some statements whose function seems to be logical instead of typically communicative. Certain elements in language possess a central value, but they are not really noticed. We are referring to some particular uses –certain statements- whose solidity and rigidity, permanence and stability, make possible some points of reference for all other uses. They work as rules without being such, although they have a relative position. It is relative in the sense that their relationship to the rest of statements is what gives them value. They do not possess this value by themselves, that is, there is no a priori criterion to establish their place.

            If we understand it in this way, it seems that it would circumscribe the stream of meaning to the members of a linguistic community. That is, the construction of meaning, because of its social character, would  depend in a strict way on the interaction of particular individuals that, so to speak interestingly, would share the same image of the world. Individuals that would coincide in their reactions due to their singular interests. The grammatical statements, the axes discovered in the language game, would confirm their particular predisposition to categorise the world. If grammar is the essence (cf. PhI *371), then when we call some statements grammatical we are giving a central value to their use, on which the rest of the statements related to them are based. The former are not, then, statements subjected to any kind of examination which establishes their correctness, but what is counted accurate or inaccurate is in a close relationship with them. As Wittgenstein says, what is true or false (cf. OC *94) is established on the basis of the conjunction and relationship between this kind of statements. But their rigidity seems not to be absolute, and this is of a major importance here. It seems that, in some situations, their grammatical character can be modified and they could “flow” with the rest of the statements. How would this affect the functioning of the language game? If the modification cannot be avoided in any of them, although they are grammatical, in modifying their status they leave the process of significant construction open to the historical and circumstantial conditions. The change in facts and interests occupies a particularly relevant place in that it brings our talking about meaningful continuity into the area of indeterminacy.

            The metaphor Wittgenstein uses, although it gives a wide field for speculation, contains some points that can help us to clarify the reason why there is consistency in meaning. It is true that some particular statements that have an empirical-statement shape, become solidified, functioning as a riverbed for those empirical statements that are not solidified. This state and relationship may change with the passing of time, so that those we call solid statements become fluid ones. To accept this means to accept that what acts as an axis can change, that is, it means that, in the end, the mythology changes. It is a fact, for example that the guarantees for Geocentric explanation ended with Copernicus and Galileo’s theories. The fact that the Earth was in the centre of the Universe and it remained static was part of the pre-Galilean world-view. Those statements related to that worked very well as they guaranteed the codification of a reasonable astronomic explanation, and they seemed not to be contradicted by common sense. In some way, we could talk here about foundations. The estimation of the Galilean contribution could lead us to question whether there was a continuity in this supposedly common area. Paragraph 65 of On Certainty places us again in the situation of having to reflect on the persistence of the language game itself. This is precisely the point that P.K.Feyerabend –or Th.S.Kuhn- chooses in order to pose the radicality shown in the paradigmatic distinctions; the concepts change when terms change, and with them the language game also changes.

            It is true that things in Astronomy changed after the Copernican Revolution, that is –in Wittgenstein’s words- the riverbed could move.  The basic statements in the language game can be modified, i.e., the uses of concepts can be different, and this involves the changing of the game too. Nevertheless, although there is a firm stand on the dynamic element of meaning, there is also a continuity. The modification of the riverbed, as Wittgenstein says, is not complete, because it itself is made of rocky floor and sand. The sand is carried away by the stream and it is submitted to the most obvious changes (cf. OC *99). Is there any limit, then, in the modification that the riverbed experiences? Our interpretation is based precisely upon this, so we are interested –following Wittgenstein’s metaphor- in the fact that in the riverbed there is a part which is not submitted to modification, or submitted only to imperceptible changes. Here we could ask, do we know all the truths that Moore affirms to know? In the analysis of the language game we face some sentences that, in some way, function as a full stop to the analysis itself. There are those elements for which –as we pointed out before- we cannot give reasons. Nevertheless, the ambiguity with which Wittgenstein seems to write paragraphs 94 to 101 in On Certainty, seems to suggest the question concerning the permanent value of some of the certainties (hinge propositions) he talks about. We have both “sand” and “rock”, so there might exist a certain differentiation which could be of a great value to justify our analysis. We can see that the statements that occupy the place of rock have been empirical, or that they have an empirical appearance in the fact that their negation is not a nonsense. But, nevertheless, they cannot be falsified. The logical character of their meaning shows only the security with which they are manifested in our action: doubt –and we could say also the argumentation- presupposes certainty.

            In his Wittgenstein Dictionary Hans-Johann Glock rightly points out the existence of four different types of certainty in the Wittgensteinian approach:

“The first are trans-historical: they stand fast for any sane person- for example, ‘The earth has existed for a long time’ and ‘cats don’t grow on trees’. The second change with time: they were originally discovered and supported by evidence, but, once established, occupy a pivotal role in relation to others, such as there is a brain in the human skull or that the water boils at 100ºC. In addition to these impersonal hinge propositions there are two types of personal cases: generically applicable propositions about which each person is certain for himself, such as ‘I have two hands’ and ‘My name is N.N.’; and person-specific propositions which are part of my subjective world-picture, for example that I have spent most of my time in Germany”2.

In all these situations we talk about certainties, and to Wittgenstein these certainties are shown in our action. If we take into consideration all the previous comments, their importance is in the role they play in the language game, but also, to our understanding the different types of certainties bring along a differentiation in their character. This is what we could say Wittgenstein’s cryptic metaphor means, which appears in paragraph 99 of On Certainty: in the riverbed there is rock and sand. That is to say, we have some elements which are more active than others or, more graphically, propositions of which their grammaticality is more unavoidable than that of others. That this is so, is a feature inherent to language itself, as our security in action has also some levels which are expressed significatively. The certainties as such, are taken for granted, and their connections show the way we act. But what we take for granted does not cover the same form: a scientific revolution could spoil the explanatory theoretical model of the water boiling at certain temperature, but it would be useless to try to discuss the possibility of my having a hand or not. The certainties are immune to doubt, but not to madness. Denying some of the qualities given to water, or some of the characteristics culturally assimilated in relation to heliocentrism, could be performed in an unsuccessful attempt to falsify these qualities; but, to a certain extent, it could be understood within the logic of scientific work. We can say that the most basic certainties are those in which we are manifesting more security and, maybe they are the ones that give content to our common sense in an imperceptible way.

            Understanding these considerations is fundamental to be able to understand, at the same time, the significance of this idea of mythology and, basically, its importance when we talk about the existence of different images of the world and the relationship between them. Wittgenstein, in a very graphic way, stated that with the learning of language we were given, at the same time, a whole mythology; the foundation is something that, so to say, is taught to us (cf. OC *449), so that our way of connecting meanings and possessing a basic comprehensive image of the world acquired through the securities transmitted to us when we enter into the collective which shares the same language game. In paragraph 538 of On Certainty, Wittgenstein writes: “The child, I should like to say, learns to react in such-and-such a way; and in so reacting it doesn’t so far know anything. Knowing only begins at a later level”. To give reasons we need a basis, and this basis is the one that introduces us to the corresponding practice. To master this practice is to dominate the implications involved in it, making us take part in the beliefs that characterise the exercise of it, along with the consequences in which we can emphasise the circumstance that it contributes to a concrete interpretation of experience.

            The problem we have to deal with here comes from what we could call a radicalisation of these premises. The significant whole which constitutes a mythology, and the way in which the statements are interlaced, that is to say, central as peripheral, results in the existence of different points of view; and even better, different images of the world. The paradigmatic example in this sense is the one that Wittgenstein proposes when faces Moore’s thoughts and those of a king who thinks that the world began with him:

”Men have believed that they could make rain; why should not a king be brought up in the belief that the world began with him? And if Moore and this king were to meet and discuss, could Moore really prove his belief to be the right one? I do not say that Moore could not convert the king to his view, but it would be a conversion of a special kind, the king would be brought to look at the world in a different way” (OC *92).

Clearly we have here the possibility (or impossibility) for the existence of mutual understanding between the different images and, at the same time, for the existence –from the point of view of meaning- of a supposed incommensurability between them. On seeing the example Wittgenstein uses, it is something that follows clearly that Moore and the aforementioned king have been trained into different practices. That is, for each of them the coincidence in reactions –in terms of meaningful action- has been shaped in a different way. Both take part in different mythologies to the extent that, taking into account what has been shown previously, we should ask who the rational –reasonable- individual is, and who is not. To determine this seems to be a very complicated task, in so far as any exercise of reasoning and argumentative justification would be based on unjustifiable elements. In one case as in the other, the criteria to establish the edge of any discourse are given in the action itself, such that we cannot make comparisons appealing to general criteria that embrace different ways of specifying what, actually, are fundamentally similar practices. Or, at least, that is what seems to be the case. In principle, the whole system of convictions is what determines what is right or wrong.

            The risk to give truth-value to such an hypothesis as the relativist is, seems to appear in the background of this affirmation; and this is something that apparently is supported by some paragraphs of On Certainty. Our convictions are strongly rooted in all our questions and answers (cf. OC *103); all our arguments are made within a system (cf. OC *105). In this case, we can ask -together with Wittgenstein- “but is there then no objective truth?” (OC *108). Is the difference between systems so big that we cannot justify that which could appear objectively reasonable to us? Wittgenstein himself shows us what he considers the reasonable man believes (cf. OC *327), but his reflection on the construction of different images of the world seems to put in parentheses such characterisation of reasonable. If basic certainties are different, to construct a unique criterion to judge between images is something misdirected. In this case, the question would be which are the common elements between the different images, if they really exist, and to what extent they help us to overcome what appears to be an irresolvable compartmentalisation. If there are no common elements we will consider each other as heretics (cf. OC *611); but also in the heresy a certain degree of discussion is admitted, which is not something trivial here.

            Wittgenstein himself admits that mutual understanding between individuals taking part in different images is possible. To go from one image to another one is a difficult task, but the obstacles are not insurmountable. The point is in asking why they are not so. The main problem appearing here is a problem of similarity in uses. This is not a minor issue, given what characterizes the functioning of language games. Does any kind of bi-conditional connecting the uses between the terms of different images exist? In so far as certain uses become established as axes in the language game and condition how it works, action –its specific characteristics- determine the possibility of the existence of a decanting of meaning, in so far as there exists coincidence providing security with respect to such action. The possibility of coincidence in axes is what makes conversion and conversation possible. We realise the unknown is a big portion of the question, given that the existence of confrontation shows the importance of limits to the different similarities of use. In this sense, the example of the discussion between Moore and the king is particularly relevant. Basically, because it seems to put Moore’s argumentative model into question. If there exists coincidence between axes we can say that interchange of meaning is possible. Nevertheless, the discussion on the possibility of such interchange leads us to question the reality of that coincidence. If this does not occur, we have an added difficulty, due to the fact that the existence of axes, as such, depends on the kind of relationship established between the different uses of a term; these relationships determine the characterization of some as axes, in contrast with the rest of them. But how we know what is located at the background of a discussion depends on the basic common elements we take for granted, as much as on the ascription of beliefs to our interlocutor and the very fluidity of communicative interchange.

            In this case, the meaning of a word is a function of all its possible manifestations, uses, in ordinary language. When they are discussing, how can we discern between the coinciding and noncoinciding uses from the ones made by the king and Moore? If communication is to be possible, as Wittgenstein states (cf. OC *92), then logically there must be ways to make it possible. What is clear from what we have said before, is that there is no identity between, for example, the idea Moore has about the Earth, and what the king in the discussion thinks of it. That is, in principle, the same statement cannot have the same meaning, because they appear in different images of the world. So, it seems that we could not know which uses are true and which are false. To the question about the origin of Earth, for instance, different answers could be given. This would surprisingly show that the possibility of communication is not something odd. Nevertheless, the diverse answers are but showing a different interpretation of reality. Has the meaning become encapsulated? That is, are we talk about different things? How could we know? To clarify this, let us follow the examples Wittgenstein proposes. Let us have in mind the case in which the king states:

a.       The Earth exists since my birth.

What meaning has this statement for Moore? It has no logical place within his image of the world, given that this is only possible if the statement is implied in and by the conjunction of all the statements on the world and on the king himself. This conjunction is guaranteed by the existence of basic certainties about the Earth and the king. If these have given rise to a particular image of the world, the result is that the king and Moore cannot understand each other. Has ‘a’ any equivalence in Moore’s image? The truth is that, in principle, we could not know it.

            The king’s meaning of ‘a’ is included in Moore’s image if and only if the conjunction of statements on the Earth and on the king has the same result in both cases. That this is not so is something obvious from the discussion itself. The meaning of ‘a’ does not arise isolated. As we said before, ‘a’ is only a manifestation of the whole king’s “meaningful action”, in the example given. Wittgenstein’s point of view, nevertheless, is not that of closing any possibility for conversation and communication. Rather, it is just the opposite. When the disagreements appear –indeed to the extent that the participants in the discussion accuse each other of being heretic (cf. OC *611)- the possibility of mutual understanding should not be underestimated, though this understanding could be interpreted in terms of a crossing from one image to the other. Wittgenstein himself is particularly clear in this respect. He gives us the key to eliminate the extremes appearing in disagreements, since by means of persuasion we can convince the other. If, then, persuasion is possible, it is logical to consider the existence of common elements, of bridges between linguistic islands3 that could allow us to identify points of contact between the different images, as well as between the different language games where those images appear. We have to remember that the linguistic game stands on the absence of doubt, and this absence is shown in the rigidity and security with which some propositions appear in our everyday meaningful activities. Sharing some of these securities is the only way to overcome the relativization of meaning which might otherwise derive from its public and social character. We know we share those elements because we accept the basis that our behaviour –human behaviour in general- is intentional and is due to basically common interests. We start trying to interpret others departing from it.

            In the case we are dealing with, Moore and the king can arrive at agreement only if there exists some sort of coincidence in what they take for granted. Wittgenstein states that agreement is possible, so he accepts the aforementioned common ground. At the bottom of language games speaking of the Earth, the king (or Moore), there must be some sort of equivalent foundations. Be these more or less in number, that between these linguistics uses and the others different relationships become established is what obstructs the mutual comprehension being instantaneous or fully effective. In the end, what we are taking for granted is that both interlocutors share a minimum, at least, of regularities. There does not exist a bi-conditional rigidly equalising uses. Combinations are, so to say, flexible, given that the polyvalence of linguistic action is a fundamental element of it. We are sure that the Earth does exist, and of many other certainties in relation to it but, nevertheless, we are surprised because another individual asserts that the Earth began with him/her or that, just the opposite, geological evidence points at a longevity much longer than the very existence of human beings.

            This is what allows us to say that we can lead others to consider the world in a different manner by means of persuasion; not to consider that they are in a different world. If this is so –as we have argued- there exist basic certainties going through the different images of the world and, together with it, they are at the basis of any mythology. To move from this to affirm something concerning the human condition there is practically only one step. It is true that Wittgenstein did not take this step to develop a system, but his reflection points at considerations of a general kind that stress the common elements of human behaviour. Hintikka/Hintikka4 showed the primary character of certain language games resulting from basic reactions. The games we could call secondary are based on them, and from them all the complexity of social and cultural influences in the shaping –building- of meaning spreads out. So, we have to speak of similarity and coincidence in actions through which our basic way of reacting to the world appears. This is something which determines, from its very roots, our interpretation of the world. Hence the distance between different images cannot be absolute in any case. Also with the heretic the discussion was possible, though the reasons and arguments were not always a meeting point. The struggle against the other (cf. OC *62) includes arguments, but also examples, suggestions and –indeed- very personal testimony. By understanding the extent of their symbolic sense we realise that, in one way or another, their mythologies are, in the end, substantially the same.

[i] Cf. Culture and Value. Edited by G.H. von Wright in collaboration with Heikki Nyman. Translation by P.Winch. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1980, p.31e (1937).

2 H-J. Glock, A Wittgenstein Dictionary. Oxford: Blackwell, p.78.

3 R.Rorty’s term in Objetividad, Relativismo y Verdad.  Barcelona: Paidós, 1996, p.291.

4 Investigating Wittgenstein. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986.

* This paper is part of a work sponsored by the Fundación Caja de Madrid.


On Certainty. Edited by G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H. von Wright. Translated by Denis Paul and G.E.M. Anscombe. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.

Philosophical Investigations. Edited by G.E.M. Anscombe, R.Rhees, G.H. von Wright. Translated by G.E.M. Anscombe. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984.