The meaning of “to forget x’s meaning” vs. the meaning of “to have known x’s [now forgotten] meaning “–Wittgenstein on forgetting the meaning of…


Is it possible to forget the meaning of a word (e.g. the word ‘blue’)?

For Wittgenstein, of course it is (at least in his later work). The relevant matter is to describe the various ways in which we do or could use a form of expression appropriate for our question. Obviously, there are plenty of cases one could build up: the meaning of ‘to forget the meaning of a word’ is simply the way(s) in which we explain it’s use. So, how do we use such an expression?

Fortunately, Wittgenstein answers his own question. The following is a quote taken from Philosophical Grammar (comment #38):

It is possible for a person to forget the meaning of a word (e.g. blue). What has he forgotten?- How is that manifested? He may point…to a chart of different colours and say, “I don’t know any longer which of these is called ‘blue’. Or again, he may not any longer know at all what the word means (what purpose it serves); he may know only that it is an English word.

Here Wittgenstein illustrates that we can mean very different things when we talk or think about forgetting something. In the above passage he points to two possibilities that might satisfy the question: what kind of things count as ‘forgetting what the word ‘blue’–what do we call “forgetting the word blue”?

As the passage above indicates, one possibility, one candidate, for an expression of “forgetting what the word blue means” could involve particular behavioral output, such as a person pointing to a chart and simultaneously uttering or thinking “I know blue is a color, but I’m not sure which one it is.”

The second candidate for an expression of “forgetting what the word blue means” could involve the inability to connect a visual depiction of the type of item the forgotten concept is (i.e. the person cannot connect the association of a graph of colors with the concept ‘blue’). No such failure to connect “visual representation” to “semantic or conceptual representation” occurs in the first instance. Both are possibilities, since both are ways in which we use the expression “S forgot the meaning of the word ‘blue'”.

Do the expressions of “forgetting the meaning of a word” share a commonality?

It might be pointed that both manifestations share a common property–the property of requiring that the concept that is being referred to as ‘the one S forgets’ was, at one time earlier, (T-1) a concept that was known or understood by S.

Let’s assume someone wants to oppose Wittgenstein’s idea that it is not the commonalities (alternatively, it is not the shared properties) of two concepts or more related concepts that accounts for the semantic proximity one word (or concept) has with another word (or concept). Suppose, in critiquing the above description about various uses of the concept “to forget” this critic pursued a line of thought similar to the previous paragraph, so he might argue something like:

1. In every case of P:”forgetting the meaning of a word”, the S for whom P has significance for must have, at one time earlier (T-1) , known or understood the referent of the word or concept S doesn’t remember when S speaks or thinks that P.

2. Since this occurs in all cases of the predicate “to be forgetful of the meaning of a word or concept that was once known”, then it is possible that the semantic proximity between (what we call) “examples of being forgetful of the meaning of a word that was once known” is implied by the one (necessary) feature all such examples share.

3. Thus, we need not think of the meaning of words as (mostly) socially determined via “how the concept is used”–we can point to necessary semantic closenessbetween examples of a particular concept in question.

 Ah, but what is the meaning of “to have at one time known forgotten concept c”?

This line of thought presupposes that there is a 1:1 correspondence between “the concept as it was known at T-1” and “the concept that is currently not known (in virtue of S having forgotten it’s meaning).  What I mean is that this line of thought presupposes that “the concept as it was known at T-1” describes the same referent as “the concept that is currently not known”.

We have the strange idea that we know what we are struggling to remember when we express our inability to remember it.  We think somehow that the concept or word “on the tip of my tongue” is something I “know somewhere”, but merely do not have epistemic access to.  Furthermore, we think that despite a current inability to express “what we know about x”, we can use the expression “…but I know [or knew] what x means [or meant] somewhere [or sometime] in my mind” in the same way that the expression “x means….”

With that said, we can still maintain that in every case, the meaning of a word is not related to its semantic proximity with associated words or examples of it; it is merely how it is used, how it’s use is explained, in various instances.  This would amount to saying that the so-called common property of all instances of “forgetting the meaning of a word” means something different depending on how “the common property of all instances of forgetting the meaning of a word” is used!

Confused? me too….but leave me feedback and maybe I can dissolve both of our confused states.  (Here’s a joke: did I mean the same thing when I used the term “confused” in the first instance as compared to my use of the same term at the end of the sentence?)

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