146. Meaning nihilism
Wittgenstein (in his later work) and Heidegger proposed that in our cognition and language ideas and words have meaning not as individual, isolated entities, but only holistically, as a coherent system associated with a body of practice and discourse.
Wittgenstein called those constellations ‘language games’ and ‘forms of life’. Heidegger called it ‘Being’ as acting in the world. Knowledge, language and practical conduct are not grounded in abstract, absolute, objective, basic notions and logic. It is the other way around: practice is primary and abstractions follow. Understanding is not contemplation of truths but ability to perform a practice. Mostly, we do not rationally develop and justify beliefs before we adopt them but take them for granted as we adopt them.
One absurd consequence of predetermined meanings would be that all future uses are enfolded in the beginning, which is equivalent to saying that there can be no future. Meanings change along with the practices in which they arise.
We are socialized and cognitively formed in practices that are taken for granted and form our terms of reference, which have no outside foundation and we cannot step out of. We can only point to established practice, in some community or context. There is no ultimate justification. Rationalization remains internal to the practice, delving from within the terms in which the justification is made. At some point all we can say is ‘this is how it is done’. Notions of right and wrong can arise only within, not between language games. One can say in chess that a certain move is illegitimate, but one cannot say that chess is wrong.
This response to semantic nihilism yields the same cultural relativism as Richard Rorty’s response to nihilism more widely, discussed in the preceding item in this blog: judgement of legitimacy operates only within cultures.
This is reminiscent of a famous debate in the philosophy of science, with Thomas Kuhn’s notion of incommensurability between different paradigms.
As before, in the preceding item this blog, my problem with this is that if all attempts at debate across language games, paradigms or cultures are renounced as hopeless, the result is either mutual indifference and isolation or a settling of differences by power and violence. That would eliminate the potential of variety for intellectual and spiritual growth, and it would entail surrender to war and conflict.
While I admit that differences can be so fundamental as to preclude any meaningful debate, I think that most of the time some commonality can be found, in some similarity of experience, from which with clever metaphors some bridges of understanding can be built.
Earlier in this blog (in items 57, 58, and 66) I discussed this in terms of cognitive distance and attempts to bridge it. I discussed meaning and its change in items 37, 36, and 37.
 Cf. Lee Braver, 2012, Groundless grounds; A study of Wittgenstein and Heidegger, MIT press.