Wittgenstein’s Critique of the Additive Conception of Language


  • James F. Conant University of Chicago




sign/symbol distinction, Wittgenstein, the linguistic turn, philosophy of language


This paper argues that Wittgenstein, both early and late, rejects the idea that the logically simpler and more fundamental case is that of "the mere sign" and that what a meaningful symbol is can be explained through the elaboration of an appropriately supplemented conception of the sign: the sign plus something (say, an interpretation or an assignment of meaning). Rather the sign, in the logically fundamental case of its mode of occurrence, is an internal aspect of the symbol. The Tractatus puts this point as follows: “The sign is that in the symbol which is perceptible by the senses.” Conversely, this means that it is essential to a symbol – to what a symbol is – that it have an essentially perceptible aspect. For Wittgenstein there is no privileged direction of explanatory priority between symbol and sign here: without signs there are no symbols (hence without language there is no thought) and without some sort of relation to symbols there are no signs (hence the philosopher’s concept of the supposedly "merely linguistic" presupposes an internal relation to symbols).

Author Biography

James F. Conant, University of Chicago

James Conant is Chester D. Tripp Professor of Humanities, Professor of Philosophy, and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, as well as Humboldt Professor at the University of Leipzig.