Is it not astonishing that by hearing certain sounds issuing from the mouth of a person, or by looking at a few black marks on a piece of paper I can become aware of the fact that a volcano on a distant island has had an eruption, or that Mr So-and-so has been elected president of the republic of So-and-so ? The marks on the piece of paper and the eruption of the volcano are two entirely distinct and different facts, there is apparently no similarity between them, and yet knowledge of the one conveys to me knowledge of the other. How is this possible ? What peculiar relation is there between the two? We say that one fact (the arrangement of little black marks) expresses the other (the eruption of the volcano), so the particular relation between them is called Expression. In order to understand language we must investigate the nature of Expression. How can certain facts "speak of" other facts ? That is our problem. It is not a difficult problem, I think; but even the simplest question deserves to be taken seriously, and it seems that most philosophers have thought it a little too easy, have given the answer rashly and thereby failed to gain an insight which, as I hope to show, might have prevented most of the misery of traditional philosophy.
3. Representation by symbols.
How is it possible that by perceiving one thing we can become aware of another thing which is evidently in no way present in the first one ? The first answer one feels tempted to give to this question is something like this: In order to understand Expression, one might say, it is sufficient to point to the simple fact of representation, i.e. a sort of correspondence between two things which we establish arbitrarily by agreeing that the one shall stand for the other, shall replace it in some given context, serve as a sign or symbol for the other, or, in short, signify it. As for a playing child a piece of wood may mean a ship, or as for a general engaged in battle a couple of strokes on his map may represent a marching army
in a similar way our words and all our signs for words are symbols which, partly by arbitrary agreement and partly by accidental usage, stand for the things cf which they are symbols. Is it not natural to suppose that in the same way our sentences or propositions stand for the facts which they express ? A child, when learning to speak, has to be taught this preestablished correspondence between the words and the world: this seems to be everything that is required to enable him to use the symbolism which is called his native language. He becomes able to express his thoughts and his expression can be understood because both he and those to whom he is speaking know by heart which particular thing is represented by each particular symbol. In this way the possibility of representing things by signs appears to account for the possibility of language, and nothing else seems to be needed to explain the nature of expression. But a little closer examination of the matter will easily convince us that this account is far from being satisfactory. It does not help us to understand that particular property without which a symbolism cannot be a language capable of really "expressing" anything.