Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 June 2012
Saul Kripke, Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language (Oxford: Blackwell, 1982).
We've seen the difficulty of explaining what it is for linguistic expressions to have meaning. But what if it could be shown that there's no fact of that matter at all about what our words mean? This dramatic sceptical claim was presented by Saul Kripke, in his Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language. This work had an immediate effect, in two ways. First, it presented a striking challenge to everyone who believed that words really mean something, and provoked a minor industry of work designed to avoid the scepticism which it proposed. And, secondly, because Kripke claimed to derive his sceptical arguments from some sections of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, it led to a renewed interest in Wittgenstein's later philosophy.
In fact, it's probably better not to stress the links with Wittgenstein too heavily. Kripke himself is quite modest about the status of his work as an interpretation of Wittgenstein: he claims to be doing no more than present ‘that set of problems and arguments which I personally have gotten out of reading Wittgenstein’. And it's now quite widely agreed that, in certain crucial respects at least, Kripke misrepresents Wittgenstein. Nor is the scepticism presented here one which Kripke himself endorses: what we have is, in Kripke's words, just ‘Wittgenstein's argument as it struck Kripke, as it presented a problem for him’.