"It Says What it Says"
- Wittgenstein and Davidson on Nonsensical Language 

Gudmundur Steingrímsson

In his "Lectures on Religious Belief"[1] Wittgenstein takes an example of a man who is going to China and is never coming back. This man says to his best friend before he goes: "We might see one another after death." Confronted by this sentence one may ask what the man means. Is he maybe expressing a certain attitute and has the sentence some other meaning than it appears to have? Is it the same as saying: "I am very fond of you"? According to Wittgenstein the answer is no, and this sentence is even not the same as saying anything else: "it says what it says. Why should you be able to substitude anything else?"[2] This quotation is useful to describe in a few words what this paper is about. I shall discuss three concepts from Wittgenstein and Donald Davidson and compare them. What these concepts all have in common, I believe, is the fact that they all refer to somekind of nonsensical language, and the method these philosophers use to define this language is strikingly similar. It is manifested in those words, "It says what it says", and in the question that follows it.

In the Philosophical Investigations[3] Wittgenstein writes about an "use of expression in secondary sense." I shall discuss this concept and compare it to Donald Davidson's theory on metaphor.[4] Davidson's view on metaphor strikes me as very similar to Wittgenstein's description of secondary sense. Very little has been written about this similarity, I have only seen one paper, by Joachim Schulte, which deals directly with this matter.[5] My main source on secondary sense is Cora Diamond's essay, "Secondary Sense",[6] where Diamond strongly suggests that the notion of secondary sense has certain logical resemblances to what Wittgenstein in his early years called an "use of expressions in absolute sense" in ethical and religious discourse. That concept is also relevant to this discussion, so then there are three concepts involved: secondary sense, absolute sense and metaphor, and I shall try to show how these notions are connected in the writings of Wittgenstein and Davidson.

The first connection I see is characterized in the phrase "it says what it says", as a description of such speech activities. Wittgenstein and Davidson both use a similar expression-Wittgenstein about secondary and absolute sense and Davidson about metaphor. I think it is necessary to investigate first of all how and why they do it, and also, which is the main purpose of this paper, to see whether we have a real similarity here, between those philosophers, or not. And with that question I shall mostly be concerned.

Wittgenstein's secondary sense
Wittgenstein gives the following examples of an use of expression in secondary sense: "Tuesday is lean" and "Wednesday is fat." He asks whether we should say that the words 'fat' and 'lean' have different meanings here from their usual ones. In his answer he says: "Here one might speak of a 'primary' and 'secondary' sense of a word", and he adds: "It is only if the word has the primary sense for you that you use it in the secondary sense." According to Wittgenstein we can only explain the meanings of 'fat' and 'lean' in the usual way, and he even takes a step further by claiming, that I really would want to "use these words (with their familiar meanings) here."[7]

The first thing to notice is the fact, that Wittgenstein speaks of the 'secondary' and 'primary' sense of a word. That is maybe odd given his theory in the PI about language-games and meaning as use. A concept like 'primary sense' fits badly into that picture. I think Joachim Schulte has a point when he writes that the Wittgenstein's primary sense is a "fairly loose notion intended to cover the standard use of certain expressions in a number of standard language games; and this notion leaves no room for an independent primary meaning that could be seen to cut across all context of use."[8] Wittgenstein is, in other words, not introducing the controversial concept of literal meaning into his general theory (of one can speak of such a theory). But on the other hand one cannot deny the fact that he uses 'primary' meaning in this particular context, and then also in terms like 'familiar' and 'usual' meaning. The way he introduces primary and secondary sense-with the words "one might speak of..."-also suggests that the notion of primary sense is loose, but it is important here that he speaks of it as a necessary condition of secondary sense that the word has 'the primary sense for you', or in other words, Wittgenstein needs the concept of primary sense in this envirionment. It is a necessary condition for secondary sense, according to Wittgenstein, that the word is familiar to you and you can tell what it usually means.

Wittgenstein stresses that secondary sense is not a metaphorical sense. And there he takes another example: "If I say "for me the vowel e is yellow" I do not mean: 'yellow' in a metaphorical sense,-for I could not express what I want to say in any other way than by means of the idea 'yellow'."[9] So, the second thing to notice is how Wittgenstein insist that we cannot say or describe these experiences with any other words. But where does this necessity come from? Why only these particular words? This is, I think, connected to his claim, that secondary sense is not a matter of a change of meaning. If there would be meaning-change involved, than we should-according to Wittgenstein-be able to describe the new meaning, and therefore this same experience or feeling, somehow with other words, or maybe one word. But secondary sense is only a matter of a different use of a word which has a familiar meaning. We have a change in use, but not in meaning, and the main thing to notice here, is that you decide to use these words with the same meaning as they have always had to you. It is necessary in case of secondary sense that your are not changing that meaning, and that meaning can certainly be described in usual terms. It says what is says.

In secondary sense meaning is not therefore not depending on the context of use. It does not change according to the different use. In the PI Wittgenstein does claim that meaning should be defined as depending on use, but not in all cases. He says: "For a large class of cases-though not for all-in which we employ the word 'meaning' it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language." (§43) It seems to me then, that secondary sense is an example of the remaining class of cases where meaning cannot be defined in this way.

Wittgenstein's absolute sense
Cora Diamond's theory is that secondary sense is more or less the same as Wittgenstein called in his early years an "use of expression in absolute sense." Wittgenstein's thinking was of course extremely different in those years from his later philosophy, and in the Tractatus[10] the meaning of a proposition was to be given by specifying its truth conditions. A similar idea-up to a point-also plays a main role in Donald Davidson's language philosophy, so we have a certain connection between the early Wittgenstein and Davidson.

When Wittgenstein discusses the concept of absolute sense in his "Lecture on Ethics,"[11] he still thought, like in the Tractatus, that "Ethics, if it is anything, is supernatural and our words will only express facts;..."[12] When Wittgenstein, in this lecture, discusses the language used in ethical discourse he discovers that each of those expressions is used in two different senses. He calls them the trivial or relative sense on the one hand and the absolute or ethical sense on the other. "In fact the word good in the relative sense simply means coming up to a certain predetermined standard. Thus when we say that this man is a good pianist we mean that he can play pieces of a certain degree of difficulty with a certain degree of dexterity."[13] But this is not how these words, like good, important and right, are used in ethics. There we have an absolute sense, or, in other words, an absolute judgment of value. When we say "you ought to behave better", to someone who behaves badly, we have a different expression or judgment from the one which says you ought to play better tennis, if you are playing tennis badly. But the difference gets more clear when Wittgenstein takes other examples, which are not necessary from ethical discourse, like when we say that "we are absolutely safe whatever happens." According to Wittgenstein that is a misuse of language, in this case of the word safe, because to be safe "essentially means that it is physically impossible that certain things should happen to me..."[14] Wittgenstein thinks that "certain characteristic misuse of our language runs through all ethical and religious expressions."[15]

On this point the theory gets relevant to secondary sense. Now Wittgenstein asks whether we should say that those differences of senses are examples of similes. When we say "this is a good football player," there seems to be some similiarity to the expression "this is a good fellow." So can we not say then, that we have a simile here or some sort of analogy? Wittgenstein's answer is no, because "a simile," he says "must be a simile for something. And if I can describe a fact by means of a simile I must also be able to drop the simile and to describe the facts without it."[16] But in this case, there are no such facts remaining when we try to drop the simile. So Wittgenstein strictly denies that expressions in absolute sense get another meaning, and there we have a similarity to secondary sense, which Wittgenstein also describes as not having any other, metaphorical meaning. The words appear to us with their usual meanings, and in the case of absolute sense, and also secondary sense up to a point, these sentences are nonsensical. Not because there are some other expressions which are more correct, but because the nonsensicality is their essence. "For all I wanted to do with them was just to go beyond the world and that is to say beyond significant language."[17] Here, as we shall see, absolute sense, and maybe also secondary sense-we have to take Wittgenstein's later views into account-gets very similar to Davidson's metaphor.

Davidson's metaphor
Davidson begins his thesis with a metaphor: "Metaphor is the dreamwork af language,..."[18] In short, Davidson rejects the notion of figurative meaning in metaphor, and he also rejects all theories that claim that metaphors have a special cognitive content, a special meaning or something similar. Davidson agrees with many other theorists on metaphor, including his main opponent on this subject, Max Black, about the impossibility of paraphrasing metaphors into equal, ordinary, literal language. On the other hand, Davidson does not agree with Max Black and others about the reason for this. One cannot paraphrase metaphor, not because it is so difficult to say what a metaphor means, but because a metaphor doesn't include anything that one can paraphrase. A metaphor only says what it says literally, and nothing else.

Davidson makes a distinction between use and meaning and claims that metaphors are matter of use, not meaning. Metaphors are examples of a creative use of words, and they are always absurdly untrue or obviously true like when we say "no man is an island." According to Davidson it is exactly because of this absurdity that we recognize a metaphor. In this way metaphors have an effect on people, and the concept of figurative meaning has nothing to do with that. In a debate with Mary Hesse on Davidson's theory, Richard Rorty compares metaphors with birdsong,[19] and Davidson takes other similar examples: "Joke or dream or metaphor can, like a picture or a bump on the head, make us appreciate some fact - but not by standing for, or expressing, the fact."[20] Like in absolute sense we have an expression in language which is not standing for a fact, and like absolute sense, and also secondary sense, as I shall discuss later, metaphors are essentially nonsensical according to Davidson. We can say that a metaphor is an attempt to "go beyond language", like Wittgenstein puts it, and Wittgenstein even talks about a certain kind of bump on the head in that context too: "...to run against the boundaries of language. This running against the walls of our cage..."[21]

But a bump on the head is not exactly a comparison which shows metaphors as a rational speach activity. Davidson makes it clear right in the beginning that he does not agree with those who claim that metaphors are not a proper use of language in a serious discourse. But he thinks that people should keep in mind that pictures say more than thousand words, or even further: it does not matter how many words you can use to explain a metaphor because "Words are the wrong currency to exchange for a picture."[22] We use metaphors to describe certain experiences. It is the same tendency in the human mind, which Wittgenstein talks about in the end of his lecture, and he cannot help respecting it deeply.

On one hand Davidson's thesis is a an argument against figurative meaning of metaphors. Wittgenstein also argues against figurative meaning both of absolute sense and secondary sense. Like in Davidson's thesis we can call that the negative claim, and say that both Wittgenstein, early and later, and Davidson share it. On the other hand Davidson maintains that metaphors are causes, and that is his positive claim. Metaphors, in their nonsensicality, effect our minds and can lead to knowledge or consclusions about the world. These are two different things. It is possible to admitt the negative claim, that metaphors, secondary sense and absolute sense, do not have figurative meaning, but without admitting the positive claim, that these expressions are intented to have a causal effect and should be explained in that way. But that opinion is, in short, Davidson's theory on metaphor, and I might as well call it the birdsong theory, to use the term from Rorty. Later I shall see whether the birdsong theory on metaphors accounts for secondary sense and absolute sense as well, but now I shall try to figure out further the overall similarity of these concepts.

A comparison
First of all I shall compare secondary sense and absolute sense. There are three points that are characteristic of absolute sense:

(1) Expressions which have a straightforward fact-stating sense are used in another, absolute sense.

(2) These uses are connected with experiences which cannot be described without misusing language.

(3) These uses appear to be similes, but what they say cannot be put in prose, as they might be if there were a straightforward resemblance.

By using that scheme I should be able to compare these concepts systematically.

We can hardly say that expressions which have a straightforward fact-stating sense exist in Wittgenstein's later philosophy. Therefore it is maybe rather difficult to say that secondary sense is similar to absolute sense in the first point. But Wittgenstein does speak of a primary and a secondary sense, and secondary sense as depending on the primary sense, so we have a certain similiarity here. Secondly, secondary sense occures in cases where we want to describe some experience, like "Wednesday is fat" and "this music is sad," which is an example from Diamond. Wittgenstein's examples of absolute sense seem a little bit different, like "he is a good fellow" and "I am absolutely safe," because we may not find them as absurd as the examples of secondary sense. But they were absurd according to early Wittgenstein, and in both cases we are therefore dealing with expressions of some experiences that occur in human life, and the particular claim that we cannot describe those experiences without some kind of "misuse". I have that in reference marks because I don't think Wittgenstein would call secondary sense a misuse of language, like he does about absolute sense, but on the other hand I need that concept here to describe what I mean. On the third point, which states that there is no figurate meaning, absolute sense and secondary sense have everything in common. In both cases we have a speach activity which appears to possess some metaphorical meaning but it does not. The reason in both cases is, that those expressions cannot be put in prose like when we would have an ordinary resemblance. Diamond emphasizes especially this similarity between the two concepts. The explanations we can give for live and dead metaphors are impossible in the case of secondary sense, and absolute sense as well.

Now one thing is getting very obvious: Wittgenstein, or at least Diamond, does not agree with Davidson about metaphors. Diamond takes metaphors as something that is different from secondary sense and absolute sense; something which those expressions are not, because in metaphors, and not in absolute sense and secondary sense, we have a change of meaning. But that is exactly what Davidson rejects. Metaphors have no figurative or special metaphorical meaning. But this disagreement about metaphors is not the issue here, but rather how Davidson defines metaphors as something which is extremely similar to Wittgenstein's absolute sense and secondary sense. I shal now use the scheme again to compare metaphors with absolute sense. In Davidson's case we can talk about a straightforward fact-stating sense-so there is a similiarity on the first point- and, secondly, that the use of metaphors is connected with experiences which are described with some kind of absurdity, similar to Wittgenstein's "misuse" of language. And thirdly, these uses appear to have some meaning-change involved-which Wittgenstein calls a simile or analogy-but they don't. But in the reason for this, Davidson and Wittgenstein are maybe different because Wittgenstein seems to think that there is no meaning-change because what is said cannot be put in prose, or paraphrased, as if we had some kind of fact or straightforward resemblance. This is not alltogether the reason in Davidson's theory. Davidson agrees with those who claim that metaphors cannot be paraphrased, but that is not the reason why they are like absolute sense and secondary sense, without any metaphorical meaning. The reason is rather the birdsong theory. It is built into the birdsong theory, that metaphors do not change their meaning, because if they would, they would not be so absurd and therefore they would not have any effect on people. A meaning-change kills a metaphor, according to Davidson, and that is the reason why there is no metaphorical meaning. This seems a little bit different from Wittgenstein, but I shall discuss later, as I said, whether this counts for him as well.

So, where does this comparison leave us? There are at least two problems remaining. Secondary sense is hardly an example of a misuse in language, like we can say about absolute sense and metaphors, and there is nothing like a fact-stating literal language which secondary sense depends on, although we have the concept of primary sense. These two problems are connected, and can be put together in one question: If secondary sense is not a misuse of a literal, fact-stating, language, what is it then? In a sentence like "Wednesday is fat" we can, according to Wittgenstein, express the meaning, or explain it, only in the usual way. I believe, then, that secondary sense is similar to absolute sense and Davidson's metaphor in the following: We can say that meaning is constantly changing, but in the case of secondary sense it does not. There is no new meaning here. If we look at it that way, we don't need to get into any problems because of the fact-stating, literal language to see how secondary sense is similar to the other two concepts.

This leads me to the main conclusion about secondary sense and this paper as a whole. It seems that in order to express the full scale of human experiences and feelings, we need certain expressions in language that do not possess meaning in an ordinary way, but rather they make use of a meaning. In those cases a meaning is not depending on the context of use, as Wittgenstein claims, but rather we can say, that a meaning-literal, primary, usual or familar one- is used, or misused if one likes to use that word. I believe that Wittgenstein, early and later, and Davidson are both, in their own terms, trying to express this fact. We need somekind of meaning, literal or usual, in order to misuse it. Maybe we need rules to break them.

A final question
These concepts that I have been discussing are maybe not exactly of the same kind, but how they are treated makes them similar. There are also some differences in terms like 'fact-stating language', 'literal meaning' and 'primary sense', but that difference is connected to a deep, well known and obvious disagreement about the essence of language. I am not at all trying to show that Wittgenstein's later philosophy and Davidson's theory on language are reconcilable. But it seems, on the other hand, that there is at least one particular similiarity. "It says what is says," is the expression I have chosen to describe a theory, which both Wittgenstein and Davidson have in common. Now I shall try to answer briefly one final question: Is this expression a sufficient description of such speech activities? This question concerns, I believe, another question I asked somewhere in the middle of this paper. Davidson's positive theory, which I have called the birdsong theory, states that metaphors have an effect on people, and that is why we use them. They are like pictures. Does the birdsong theory account for Wittgenstein's secondary sense as well?

The first objection I would make to the birdsong theory, is that Davidson never seems to take into account that metaphors almost always have reasons. We explain them by words, like he does himself in the beginning. When he states with a metaphor "that metaphors are dreamwork of language," he explains the metaphor immediately afterwards. Wittgenstein on the other hand, deals with this question up to a point. He seems to admit that secondary sense, an odd sentence like "the vowel e is yellow," may have a reason, which is other then just to have an effect on people with some kind of pictures or bumps. But I still think Wittgenstein's theory reconciles with Davidson on this. Maybe Wittgenstein recognizes the role of such reasons we have for the expressions, and how odd sentences like secondary sense can be explained-and often they can be fully explained-by words. But that does not change his theory. We say odd things, like metaphors, secondary sense and absolute sense appear to be-at least to philosophers-but "I say nothing about the causes of this phenomenon," Wittgenstein says, "They might be associations from my childhood. But that is a hypothesis."[23] So, no matter how we can say that we can explain, and therefore in some sense paraphrase the sentence into something else; into something different from what it says apparently, the title of this paper still seems to be an appropriate one. It states, as I have described, that Wittgenstein and Davidson both claim that in language there are allways sentences that are essentially "nonsensical".


- Davidson D. "What Metaphors Mean", in Inquiries into Truth and Interpretations (Oxford, 1984).

- Diamond C. "Secondary Sense", in The Realistic Spirit (Massachusetts, 1991).

- Rorty R. "Hesse and Davidson on Metaphor" in The Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volume LXI (1987).

- Schulte J. "Wittgenstein's Notion of Secondary Meaning and Davidson's Account of Metaphor-A Comparison",

- Wittgenstein L. "A Lecture on Ethics," in Philosophical Review 74 (1965), pp.3-12.

- Wittgenstein L. "Lectures on Religious Belief" in Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief, ed. C. Barret (Oxford 1978).

- Wittgenstein L. Philosophical Investigations, transl. G.E.M. Anscombe (New York, 1958).

- Wittgenstein L. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus , transl. D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuinness (London, 1974).


[1] Ludwig Wittgenstein: “Lectures on Religious Belief” in Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief, ed. C. Barret (Oxford 1978). (back to text)
[2] Ibid, 70-71.(back to text)
[3] Ludwig Wittgenstein: Philosophical Investigations, transl. G.E.M. Anscombe (New York, 19). From now on I will refer to this book as PI. (back to text)
[4] Donald Davidson: “What Metaphors Mean”, in Inquiries into Truth and Interpretations (Oxford, 1984). (back to text)
[5] Joachim Schulte: “Wittgenstein's Notion of Secondary Meaning and Davidson's Account of Metaphor—A Comparison”. (back to text)
[6] Cora Diamond: “Secondary Sense”, in The Realistic Spirit (Massachusetts, 1991). (back to text)
[7] PI, 216. (back to text)
[8] Joachim Schulte, 147. (back to text)
[9] PI, 216. (back to text)
[10] L. Wittgenstein: Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus , transl. D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuinness (London, 1995). (back to text)
[11] L.Wittgenstein: “A Lecture on Ethics,” in Philosophical Review 74 (1965), pp.3-12. (back to text)
[12] Ibid, 7. (back to text)
[13] Ibid, 5. (back to text)
[14] Ibid, 9. (back to text)
[15] Ibid, 9. (back to text)
[16] Ibid, 10. (back to text)
[17] Ibid, 11. (back to text)
[18] "What Metaphors Mean", 245. (back to text)
[19] Richard Rorty. "Hesse and Davidson on Metaphor" in The Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volume LXI, 1987. (back to text)
[20] “What Metaphors Mean”, 262. (back to text)
[21] “A Lecture on Ethics,” 12. (back to text)
[22] “What Metaphors Mean,” 263. (back to text)
[23] PI, 216. (back to text)

Page Manager: Björn [to the top of page] [back to Language and Praxis page]