Jason Bridges: Wittgenstein & Contextualism

“In recent years, Hilary Putnam has advocated what is sometimes called a “contextualist” view of meaning, according to which the meaning of an utterance is shaped in far-reaching and uncodifiable ways by the context in which it is uttered. Professor Putnam cites Charles Travis as the main proponent of the version of contextualism Putnam endorses. Travis in turn cites Putnam as a systematic influence. Perhaps unwisely given the presence of both of these formidable philosophers today, I will argue that the contextualist view Putnam and Travis hold in common is mistaken.”

“A critique of attempts by Charles Travis and others to read contextualism back into Philosophical Investigations. The central interpretive claim is that this reading is not only unsupported; it gets Wittgenstein’s intent, in the parts of the text at issue, precisely backwards. The focus of the chapter is on Wittgenstein’s treatment of explanation, understanding, proper names, and family-resemblance concepts.”

“A talk given in April 2010. In broad strokes, I draw connections between some ideas in my current work on contextualism.  A central strand is that contextualism’s real significance for philosophy ought to be methodological (as it is for Wittgenstein).”

“Semantic contextualism is a view about the meanings of utterances. The relevant notion of meaning is that of what is said by an utterance, as it is sometimes put, of the content of the utterance. Semantic contextualism (which I will henceforth simply label “contextualism”) holds that the content of an utterance is shaped in far-reaching and unobvious ways by the circumstances, the context, in which it is uttered. Two utterances of the same sentence might vary in content as a result of differences in their respective contexts that do not map onto any obvious indexical elements in the sentence.”

“A “quietist” reading of Wittgenstein is one that attempts to do justice to his conviction that it cannot be the job of philosophy “to reduce anything to anything, or to explain anything”—more pithily, that philosophy “leaves everything as it is.”1 A central difficulty facing such a reading of Wittgenstein’s remarks on rule-following is his tendency to characterize putative instances of rule-following in ways that seem pointedly to omit something central to our ordinary, pre-philosophical understanding of the phenomenon.”


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