Saturday, October 12, 2013

Non-Propositional Language

In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein says, “The totality of propositions is the language” (Prop. 4). But it may be argued, to the contrary, that language does not consist exclusively of propositions, and that language includes both propositional and non-propositional expressions (take, for example, emotive expressions that express feelings or emotions, but not propositions).
      Interjections such as “Oops!”, “Holy cow!”, and “Wow!” may be examples of non-propositional expressions. Such expressions may be meaningful without being true or false.
      Non-propositional speech-acts include rote recitations of numbers, times, and dates, repetitions of filler words or phrases such as "uh" and "y'know what I mean," conventional greetings such as “Hello” and “Good morning,” expletives such as "Gee whiz!" and “Damn!", and questions such as “How are you?” and “What is that?”.1
     Can language be meaningful without expressing propositional attitudes or having a propositional content?
      While propositional attitudes2 such as believing, knowing, hoping, desiring, fearing, or remembering that p (where p is a proposition) take a stand or have a bearing as to whether p is or is not the case (or as to whether p ought to or ought not to be the case), non-propositional attitudes take no such stand and have no such bearing. Are there indeed such non-propositional attitudes? Are all cognitive attitudes propositional in form and content?
      Is all thinking propositional in nature? If not, then is there some non-propositional language capable of expressing non-propositional thought? Can linguistic signs or symbols express purely intuitive or non-conceptual thinking? 
      Consider Russell’s example of a non-denoting phrase, “the present king of France.”3 If the sentence, “The present king of France is bald,” is neither true nor false because the phrase “the present king of France” doesn’t denote or refer to anything, then the sentence doesn't express a proposition. But isn’t the sentence still in some way meaningful? Isn’t the sentence a counter-example to Wittgenstein’s thesis that “The totality of propositions is the language”?


1Chris Code, “Speech Automatism and Recurring Utterances,” in The Characteristics of Aphasia, edited by Chris Code (Hove: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1991), p. 158.
2Bertrand Russell, An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth [1940] (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1962), p. 18.
3Bertrand Russell, “On Denoting,” in Mind, 14 (1905): 479-493.


Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus [1922], translated by C.K. Ogden (Mineola: Dover Publications, 1999).