Interpreting Passage 79 of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations

Steve Hoenisch

1 Introduction

Note: The notes below are from a presentation I gave during a class on Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations at the Graduate School and University Center of the City University of New York. The notes are on section 79.

The purpose of this presentation is to stimulate discussion of passage 79 by doing two things:

  1. Providing some background on the philosophical debate over proper names and definite descriptions as well as some more recent developments that stem at least partly from the influence of the now-famous passage number 79.

  2. Pursue a possible interpretation of passage 79 while relating, at least in passing, its content to other aspects of Philosophical Investigations.

2 Background

  • The debate over how proper names and definite descriptions have meaning has a long history in philosophy, dating back to Plato's Cratylus.

  • At issue is how proper names get their meaning and whether definite descriptions -- noun phrases of the form "the such and such" -- and proper names have sense as well as reference. In modern times, the debate has been stoked by Mill and Frege.

  • Mill put forward a referential theory of meaning, arguing that the meaning of a name is the object for which it stands.

    1. He argued his case with the example of Dartmouth, saying that the place of that name should be at the mouth of the Dart river, yet it was not and managed to maintain its name.

    2. So names, for Mill, have denotation, but not connotation.

  • Frege jumped into the fray by arguing that definite descriptions have sense as well as reference. Among his arguments was a case that's been long discussed: "the morning star is the evening star."

    1. He argued that sentence "the morning star is the morning star" is a trivial truth whereas "the morning star is the evening star" is not.

    2. Even though morning star and evening star have the same reference, "the morning star is the evening star" provides nontrivial information about the world.

    3. Hence names can have sense as well as reference.

3 Primary Target: Bertrand Russell

Now let me take a moment to set the stage for Wittgenstein's attack.

Russell, who is Wittgenstein's primary target in passage 79, argues that such sentences as "The present king of France is bald" contain several separate propositions.

If, Russell says, any propositional component of a sentence is false, the whole sentence is false.

  1. For example, if a proper noun or definite description does not refer to a single object -- as in "the present king of France" -- it is a logically false proposition.

  2. Thus, the sentence "the present king of France is bald" is false by virtue of the falsity of the first conjunct.

This is strict conjunction view, then, is a major target for Wittgenstein.

Russell further says that what seem like proper names are really descriptions, either definite or indefinte, and that "it is only of descriptions ... that existence can be significantly asserted" -- which is another of the points to which Wittgenstein has objections.

"And so," Russell continues in Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, "when we ask whether Homer existed, we are using the word `Homer' as an abbreviated description: we may replace it by (say) `the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey.' The same considerations apply to almost all uses of what look like proper names."

4 Wittgenstein's Argument

In passage 79, Wittgenstein argues that you cannot draw such a sharp boundary around descriptions, an argument which continues the theme begun in such preceding passages of P.I. as Number 76.

Proper names, Wittgenstein argues, are not as definite as Russell supposes. Wittgenstein attacks Russell's view by making several objections:

  1. First, depending on the definition, in the form of a description, that we adopt for Moses, "the proposition "Moses did not exist acquires a different sense."

    That is, there exists certain relations among the various descriptions of Moses -- assuming one of them as the description in question may shift its relation to the others -- and it may shift our view of those relations.

  2. The name "Moses" does not necessarily have a "fixed and unequivocal use ... in all possible cases." It does not have a fixed meaning.

  3. As Stephen Schwartz puts it in Naming, Necessity and Natural Kinds, Wittgenstein "denies that there is a strict conjunction that can be substituted for the name." (p. 19)

  4. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Wittgenstein asks that if he makes a statement about Moses, how much of the descriptions must be proved false for his statement to be given up as false.

    As Wittgenstein puts it, "where are the bounds of the incidental":

    Some of the propositions about Moses may be incidental, but others may not be. How do we know where the bounds of the incidental begin or end or what is important and what not? The boundary may in fact be arbitrarily drawn.

    And further: If one description -- an incidental one -- turns out to be false, it may change the relations of all the other descriptions.

    More: a description that seems incidental at one point may later come to be used as the defining description, a point which Wittgenstein makes in the passage's final sentence.


To summarize, then, if Wittgenstein is making a proposal at all here, it is that a name has no meaning absolutely fixed by one or more definite descriptions, but that it rather has a certain family of meanings.

But rather than put forth his own developed theory, Wittgenstein merely attempts to dispel the misconceptions surrounding the issue and to present the issue in a clearer light -- perhaps making passage 79 a hallmark of Wittgenstein's therapeutic methodology that we have seen surfacing elsewhere in his work.

5 In the Aftermath of Passage 79

But where Wittgenstein stops short of presenting a theory of proper names, Searle picks up the slack, developing Wittgenstein's clarifying remarks into a so-called cluster theory of proper names, encapsulated in Searle's suggestion in 1958 that

"it is a necessary fact that Aristotle has the logical sum, inclusive disjunction, of properties commonly attributed to him: any individual not having at least some of these properties could not be Aristotle."

Thus, Searle extends Wittgenstein's remarks into the argument that a name has meaning when a reasonable large part of the corresponding battery of descriptions turns out to be true.

6 End Points: Kripke

Let me end by pointing out a powerful rebuttal to the cluster theory of names that passage 79 has spawned: Kripke's book Naming and Necessity contains an extended critique of the theory.

Part of Kripke's criticism rests on powerful counterfactuals, one of which is applicable here:

If all the descriptions that we have about Moses from the Bible turn out to be false, then Searle finds himself unable to account for the fact that Moses nevertheless existed, went by that name, and continues to be referred to meaningfully by the name "Moses." Searle, based on his view as quoted above, would be forced to say that Moses did not exist.

Indeed, the Jonah case is the best of Kripke's arguments against Searle because it is a case in which all the known descriptive information about Jonah is presumed false. Searle would thus be forced to say -- counterintuitively -- that Jonah did not exist.

In Kripke's view, a proper name is a rigid designator, which means that it designates the same object in every possible world. The rigidity of 'Nixon' stems from the stipulation that the token of the proper name `Nixon' is being used to speak of the same contextually specified individual in every possible world.

As Kripke puts it: "It is not the case that he might not have been Nixon (though he might not have been called `Nixon.'" [Naming and Necessity, p. 49.]

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