The opening passages of the Investigations are typically interpreted as being directed against denotational theories of meaning. This is not incorrect, but it is incomplete. Wittgenstein’s opening arguments are directed against the thesis that assertion or assertoric form is the fundamental unit of thought, and so the fundamental unit of any language. This “primacy of assertion” thesis1 is the starting point of the representationalist theory of language, the view that the essence of language is to represent states of aﬀairs in the world. Crude denotational theories attempt to account for this in terms of a special word-object relation without regard to other systematic features of language. Though Wittgenstein will examine the crude denotational theory, from the outset he is concerned with the word in use and thereby whether it is a simple word or an elliptical sentence having a hidden syntactic complexity. In the background of Wittgenstein’s opening discussion of meaning is the Fregean representationalist theory of language, or as Wittgenstein would prefer, a compelling picture of the relation of language to the world. The explanation for how sentences represent the world is given in terms of
the way in which the syntactic structure of these sentences exploits both the meanings of the symbols that constitute a sentence and the logical roles those symbols play within the sentence. A theory of meaning for the constituent words is thus tied to an account of how those words can combine to say that things are thus-and-so. Thus, Wittgenstein’s critique of denotational theories of meaning and the role of ostensive deﬁnition is developed against the background concern of how words combine to express a representational thought. The builders game (PI §2) is used both in his critical examination of names and their referents (especially PI §§28-38) and in his treatment of assertoric sentences and their senses (especially PI §§19-22). Wittgenstein aims to show
that the explanatory pretensions of both reference and sense are illusory, embedded in confusions about the normative role each is to play in explaining the meaning of names and sentences. The primacy of assertion is elaborated in a way that permits it to be the
model for all language, and is the locus of the core mistake in the Fregean picture of language. The primacy of assertion is associated with the three fundamental principles that Frege identiﬁes as his touchstones in developing a semantics for his logically perfect language: his context principle, a word has meaning only in the context of a proposition; his antipsychologism principle, always keep the psychological distinct from the logical; and his principled distinction between concept and object.2 All three doctrines come under critical scrutiny in Wittgenstein’s attack on the Fregean picture, as well as the representationalist commitment to the idea that the ﬁnal end of language is that “striving for truth that drives us always to advance from the sense to the reference.”3 Only assertion, it seems, can realize that end.