§50. What does it mean to say that we can attribute neither being nor non-being to elements?—One might say: if everything that we call "being" and "non-being" consists in the existence and non-existence of connexions between elements, it makes no sense to speak of an element's being (non-being); just as when everything that we call "destruction" lies in the separation of elements, it makes no sense to speak of the destruction of an element.
One would, however, like to say: existence cannot be attributed to an element, for if it did not exist, one could not even name it and so one could say nothing at all of it.—But let us consider an analogous case. There is one thing of which one can say neither that it is one metre long, nor that it is not one metre long, and that is the standard metre in Paris.—But this is, of course, not to ascribe any extraordinary property to it, but only to mark its peculiar role in the language-game of measuring with a metre-rule.—Let us imagine samples of colour being preserved in Paris like the standard metre. We define: "sepia" means the colour of the standard sepia which is there kept hermetically sealed. Then it will make no sense to say of this sample either that it is of this colour or that it is not.
We can put it like this: This sample is an instrument of the language used in ascriptions of colour. In this language-game it is not something that is represented, but is a means of representation.—And just this goes for an element in language-game (48) when we name it by uttering the word "R": this gives this object a role in our language-game; it is now a means of representation. And to say "If it did not exist, it could have no name" is to say as much and as little as: if this thing did not exist, we could not use it in our language-game.—What looks as if it had to exist, is part of the language. It is a paradigm in our language-game; something with which comparison is made. And this may be an important observation; but it is none the less an observation concerning our language-game—our method of representation. [Not a metaphysical claim concerning necessary existence -some kind of synthetic a priori claim about Nature]



Version 2: January 2011

  1. W.'s target is metaphysicians who have tried to establish surprising conclusions about Nature, apparently by pure thought - using language. Take redness as a supposedly elementary property of the world. It seems that we cannot coherently say that "Redness exists" is a normal empirical proposition, claimed by us to be true, and made true or false by its relationship to Nature; instead it appears to be necessarily true - though the source of necessity is rather profound and obscure. If it is meaningful - if we understand it - then it is true. This is quite exciting; perhaps it is a synthetic a priori truth! Similarly "Redness does not exist" appears to be necessarily false, self-defeating in some way, since if we understand what is being claimed, then redness does exist. If it is meaningful, it is false.
  2. This is all nonsense. These metaphysical philosophers have generated a pseudo-problem by mixing up three things: (a) The word 'red' (b) The sample object (including a memory, but better considered as a page in a child's book) which has "Red" written on the adjoining page; the object Os that provides the (rough) ostensive definition of 'red' (c) The other objects O1, O2, ...in the world that have the property that we call 'red', because their property is the same as that of Os.
  3. Now to say "Os is red" is necessarily true, but only for a philosophically uninteresting linguistic reason: Os provides the definition of 'red', so the statement is true by definition, like "All bachelors are unmarried men of marriageable age".  It is, in effect, a tautology. "This object is called the colour that we have chosen to call it". This is not a fact about the world, but about the linguistic system that we have devised to deal with it. Rather than the unhelpful "Os is red", we should write "Os is called 'red'", being a true statement about the conventions of the English language. "Os is not red" is, again because of our definition, meaningless. More helpfully expressed:  "Os is not called 'red'" is false.
  4. As long as we have set up 'red' as associated with Os, and Os persists, all the other objects O1, O2, could disappear; all the other objects in the world - the ones that we are usefully comparing with Os, could vanish. But if Os now disappeared  - and then the memory of it - or if it had never existed, then if would be a misuse of language to describe this situation as "There are now no red things" or "There were then no red things". With the loss of Os, the phrase 'red things' has lost its meaning. It leaves the language-game. It is now like saying "There are no blod things", but being unable to provide any indication of what property 'blod' refers to.
  5. The standard Platinum bar, kept in Paris, as the definition of '1 metre' is a felicitous example. To say "That bar is 1 metre long" is odd, if it is taken as a statement of fact; it is - if so taken, malformed; it is neither true nor false; it does not describe a fact about the world. Taken as a statement of fact "it has no sense". It only makes sense if it instead either implicitly interpreted, or explicitly translated, as the sentence ""That bar → □ has the length that we have chosen to call '1 metre' ".
  6. The philosopher has confused herself by a sleight of hand, in which she is pretending to imagine what cannot be imagined: She is simultaneously considering all red things (including her memory sample) disappearing, yet also continuing, in some way, to be able to imagine redness - to allow 'redness' to still mean something. It is as though she imagines herself to be a disembodied commentator on human life, viewing it from a God-like perspective.
  7. Summary: Is "Red exists" necessarily true? To be true or false, it must already have a meaning. But it can only have a meaning if 'red' has a meaning. 'Red' gains its meaning from an existing Os. So if "Red exists" has a meaning, it is automatically true. But this is not a profound discovery about Nature; it is merely a fact about how language works.
  8. Similarly, is "Red does not exist" necessarily false? To be true or false, it must already have a meaning. It can only have a meaning if 'red' has a meaning. 'Red' gains its meaning from an existing Os. So if "Red does not exist" has a meaning, it is automatically false.