Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations - A Basic Introduction

The Purpose of Philosophy

"The sickness of a time is cured by an alteration in the form of life of human beings, and it was possible for the sickness of philosophical problems to get cured only through a changed mode of thought and of life."
--Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics

Wittgenstein shares with the 20th century a limited view of philosophy. Philosophy is not the love of knowledge nor is it an attempt to grasp the essential nature of reality. It is about language, or what has been called "the linguistic turn" in philosophy. But Wittgenstein also rejects the ability of philosophy to offer any absolute claims about reality. Ironically, in his understanding, the purpose of philosophy is to function as therapy for the disease of philosophy: "What is your aim in philosophy?--To shew the fly the way out of the fly-bottle" (#309). Philosophy should not attempt to do the work of science; it should not be a theoretical discipline, but one that deals with the particulars. It should not attempt to provide explanations of reality; rather, it should seek to clearly set out examples to be investigated. Philosophy is a descriptive discipline: "[W]e eliminate misunderstandings by making our expressions more exact" (#90). However, its descriptiveness can never be used to proscribe what is acceptable: "Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it. . . . It leaves everything as it is" (#124). In one sense, philosophy seeks to offer a clean field on which to build: "What we are destroying is nothing but houses of cards and we are clearing up the ground of language on which they stood" (#118). What follows after is, perhaps, ethics and religion.

Participation in the Investigation

For Wittgenstein, philosophy is about clearing away misconceptions, but it does so in order to stop trying to theorize--"To repeat: don't think, but look!" (#66). Wittgenstein amusingly observes, "[P]hilosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday" (#38). Language will not settle down into a stable form for philosophers to contain it. Often, inexact definitions are all we really need and to attempt and offer more sharply defined ones may actually distort the matter. Thus, the "method" (for lack of a better word) of Philosophical Investigations is found in the form it takes--a long series of remarks. In a sense, he is inviting us to learn to play the game with him. Thus, he offers his reader various thought experiments. Sometimes he places the problem in question into an everyday scenario, but just as often he creates imaginary language games or fictional thought problems. We are to think along with him, and he often creates a kind of Socratic dialogue by putting the objections of an interlocutor (who may sometimes be right) in quotation marks, which he will then answer (or at least further mystify!). The dialogue itself is part of the shared exploration, yet it is also part confession, an invitation to us (and perhaps to God) to his own paradoxes. "The results of philosophy are the uncovering of one or another piece of plain nonsense and bumps that the understanding has got by running its head up against the limits of language. These bumps make us see the value of the discovery" (#119).This suggests that it can be helpful to treat Wittgenstein's work as a species of interrogative wisdom literature, designed, like Ecclesiastes, to bring us to the end of our pretensions concerning wisdom. In its lasting purpose, Philosophical Investigations is a journal of exploration that ends in dead-ends, but the exploring of those dead-ends helps to clear away the nonsense.

Meaning & Use

To understand what he is trying to clear away, you need to understand that Wittgenstein is rejecting aspects of his earlier work. Wittgenstein is responding to an early 20th century version of meaning and language, logical positivism, in which arguably he played the major role. Essentially, the logical positivists argued that once the meaning of each word is clearly designated then the logical feasibility of a claim can be tested. All statements are either empirically verifiable or they are meaningless. (Of course, this statement itself is not verifiable!) The logical positivists championed an ideal language made up of designated simples. But the later Wittgenstein insists that it is a mistake to treat language as nothing but sentence-combinations of words which each name a single object. Indexicals, for example, throw propositions into disrepute because their reference shifts with each new utterance. Language doesn't simply represent reality in a kind of one-to-one correspondence; instead, one should pay attention to the various kinds of specific uses to which language is put and avoid generalizations. A large majority of words (though not all) are determined by their use, and their use changes with each new situation: "[T]he meaning of a word is its use in the language" (#43). Ostensive definitions cannot fix the absolute meaning of something once and for all time. Indeed, language must proceed such definitions to make them possible. Words are defined by other words, after all. We can often understand the meaning of words within a given context without any need of a definition. This is in part because the meaning of sentences is more or less clarified by the way they are used in context. For example, Wittgenstein points out, why should an arrow point to something? Only because of an agreed-upon social usage: "The arrow points only in the application that a living being makes of it" (#454).

This, however, is not the same as saying that meaning can simply be reduced to use; rather, it always occurs within the context of use. Propositions cannot be isolated from their context--a context which is made up of not just other sentences but the social cues that are part of the actual purpose of the language. Wittgenstein went so far as to say that "essence is expressed in grammar (#371) and "grammar tells what kind of object anything is. (Theology as grammar)" (#373).


"Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language." (#109)

For Wittgenstein, language is spoken within a particular kind of social context or activity that gives shape to the kinds of sentences involved (cf. #23, #249). These activities are like games in that they are governed by various rules, and differing games have differing rules, and similar games can be played differently at different times if different players so choose. It is better to speak of "family resemblances" than singular meanings. It is impossible to theorize a singular use or pattern for language; instead, "we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail" (#66). Language use is always inexact, with differing uses of a word possessing more or less measure of explicit definablity, and yet this is not a problem. Language games are "rather set up as objects of comparison which are meant to throw light on the facts of our language" (#130). They are not proscriptive theories as to what reality must look like; instead, they are fuzzier social agreements that have a large variety of different purposes.

Wittgenstein uses the very example of a "game" to explore this (cf. #66). "One might say that the concept 'game' is a concept with blurred edges." But this is not a weakness because the examples one can use are sufficient to make oneself understood: "Here giving examples is not an indirect means of explaining--in default of a better. For any general definition may be misunderstood too" (#71).

A private language used by only one person is finally impossible (or least incoherent) because even a private language must in principle be subject to verification by another person. Meaning is a form of social exchange; it requires a public meaning that can be gone along with or objected to: "If language is to be a means of communication there must be agreement not only in definitions but also (queer as this may sound) in judgments" (#242). "Yes: meaning something is like going up to someone" (#457).

Consciousness can, therefore, only be attested to in public language: "An inner 'process' stands in need of outward criteria" (#580). For example, Wittgenstein uses the example of pain. He insists that we cannot speak of pain based simply on our private sense impressions. Most of our descriptions of pain are expressions of pain rather than true descriptions. ("I really hurt here." or "Ouch!" as opposed to "an observable neural stimulation occurs when the hand is placed on the hot stove.") For pain to be recognizable by others, it has to be observed according to certain customs of expression (e.g. the face scrunches up, the person screams, etc.).


"We have been told by popular scientists that the floor on which we stand is not solid, as it appears to common sense, as it has been discovered that the wood consists of particles filling space so thinly that it can almost be called empty. This is liable to perplex us, for in a way of course we know that the floor is solid, or that, if it isn't solid, this may be due to the wood being rotten but not to its being composed of electrons. To say, on this later ground, that the floor is not solid is to misuse language."
--The Blue Book

"To obey a rule, to make a report, to give an order, to play a game of chess, are customs (uses, institutions). To understand a sentence means to understand a language. To understand a language means to be master of a technique" (#199). The attempt to make sense of language through introspection misses an essential element of language, and that is that it is bound by varying sets of rules. We have to engage the rules, the conventions, that govern a word's use within a social context. This is not to say that we consciously have to be aware of the rules; they can be entirely tacit. We learn the customary use of language, the rules of the game, by "getting in the game," through example and experience: "A good ground is one that looks like this" (#483). This process of rule-enculturation is decidely a different task than that of interpretation: "[T]here is a way of grasping a rule which is not an interpretation, but which is exhibited in what we call 'obeying the rule' and 'going against it' in actual cases" (#201).

Rules are in a way precursory to language. The very process of speaking is premeditated on acceptance of the common pattern of making meaning. Obedience to the rules of the language-game, then, is not in the moment a matter of perspective but of immediate participation and of comprehension: "When I obey the rule, I do not choose. I obey the rule blindly" (#219). Rules cannot be made for every possible contingency, but then that isn't their point anyway (cf. #80--the disappearing chair). And likewise, rules are never intended to remove all possible doubt. At some point the justification of one's position, ideas, and language must come to an end for fruitful conversation to really begin: "Justification by experience comes to an end. If it did not it would not be justification" (#485). "If I have exhausted the justifications I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: 'This is simply what I do'" (#217). "We expect this, and are surprised at that. But the chain of reasons has an end" (#326). In this sense, language rules are like sign-posts, they are not exhaustively defensible explanation, but then they were never intended to be, even if such a thing were possible.

Rules, then, are nurtured within socio-linguistic patterns: "The word 'agreement' and the word 'rule' are related to one another, they are cousins" (#224). Wittgenstein relates these practices to Lebensform (life-form). "[T]o imagine a language means to imagine a life-form" (#19). By "forms of life," Wittgenstein is suggesting that language is inseparably tied to the way human beings live their lives. Indeed, the use of a common language requires something like a common life-form, which is not the same as a sharing of opinions (#241). It is rather what makes disagreement even intelligible. For games to make sense that must occur within a particular practice: "The game, one would like to say, has not only rules but also a point" (#564), and this point helps distinguish the essential from the accidental elements. And, thus, if we intuit the goal or telos of the game then we can even object to rules that aren't contributing to the end in mind: "If I understand the character of the game aright--I might say--then this isn't an essential part of it" (#568). But at some point you do not justify the way the game is played (e.g. "It does not matter why the knight moves three, then two or two, then three spaces. The piece simply does."). An infinite justification of the rules renders the game meaningless, so neither are the essential and inessential always air-tight categories, nor need they be to "play the game."

"Understanding a sentence is much more akin to understanding a theme of music than one may think. What I mean is that understanding a sentence lies nearer than one thinks to what is ordinarily called understanding a musical theme. Why is just this the pattern of variation in loudness and tempo?" (#527) We respond that we know because we have developed a sensitivity to the musical form and composition, and while certainly analyzable, there is no way to finally set down a list of rules that encompasses all the technique involved or all the intuitive comprehension of something like a gestalt.

Seeing That, Seeing As, & Seeing an Aspect

A good example of these investigations is the detailed study Wittgenstein makes of the weaknesses in perception theory. When we see that, we recognize an object to be something. When we see an object as something else, we recognize a relationship between two things. When we do this, we call attention to some aspect of the object. What happens, however, with a drawing like the duck-rabbit? It can be perceived as one or the other, though never both together. We are forever toggling back and forth between perceptions, or one becomes more steady for a time. It is, of course, possible not to perceive both possibilities, but once the other is recognized, we remark, "Oh! I see now!" Seeing each aspect is not the same as an interpretation because each aspect presents itself equally and at the point of sudden apprehension. Language games work in much the same way.

wittgenstein wittgenstein wittgenstein

Religion & Ethics

"I am not a religious man, but I cannot help from seeing every problem from a religious point of view.""One of the things you and I have to learn is that we have to live without the consolations of churches.""The symbolisms of Catholicism are wonderful beyond words. But any attempt to make it into a philosophical system is offensive.""I seem to be surrounded now by Roman Catholic converts! I don't know whether they pray for me. I hope they do.""I have had a letter from an old friend in Austria, a priest. In it he says that he hopes my work will go well, if it should be God's will. Now that is all I want: if it should be God's will."--Comments to M. O'C. Drury

Wittgenstein was not a religious man in the conventional sense. His Jewish Austrian-Hungarian parents had converted to Roman Catholicism, and he was baptized in the Church, as well as receiving a Catholic burial on the basis of comments like those above, but throughout his life he never saw himself as a Christian in the conventional sense, and he rejected dogma as another kind of positivism. Instead, he insisted that faith was found in doing. By this, perhaps, he meant that religion was another language game. He held himself throughout his life to an austere asceticism, giving away his vast fortune, living in a simple hut in Norway or in Spartan conditions in his rooms at Cambridge, showing little concern for dress or privilege, preferring plain food, holding himself to a obsessive vocation of pure thought. He also worked for a time as a gardener in a monastery and dreamed of becoming an ascetic, though not in the traditionally religious sense. At the same time, he was probably gay, desired chastity, yet had a borderline body-hatred; he also suffered greatly from continual bouts with depression and thoughts of suicide. He was both extremely vain yet full of self-doubt as to his own originality. He found it impossible to pray yet often gave himself to a life of good works and service.

If we are to speak of Wittgenstein's religion, it is likely one stripped of almost all conventional Christian language, though it still carried within it something of its ethical and mystical impulses. He likely went through periods of belief and doubt. In WWI on the Russian Front, he seems to have undergone a religious awakening of some sort, writing in his journals that "To believe in God is to see that life has meaning." Whether that hope still remained by the writing of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is a point of debate among scholars. Some see the work as agnostic or atheistic in character, while others point to the conclusion of the work to suggest that Wittgenstein holds to a God beyond language (cf. 6.4-7)."How things are in the world is a matter of complete indifference for what is higher. God does not reveal himself in the world. . . What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence." In the preface to his Philosophical Remarks, a work from his middle period (like The Blue Book and Brown Book), he observed, "I would like to say, 'this book is written to the Glory of God', but nowadays . . . it would not be correctly understood. It means the book was written in good will, and so far as it was not but written from vanity etc., the author would wish to see it condemned. He cannot make it more free of these impurities than he is himself." The Philosophical Investigations would seem to lack this ethical and mystical hope, yet in 1946 he observed, "[N]ot all gentleness is a form of goodness. And only if I were to submerge myself in religion could all these doubts be stilled. Because only religion would have the power to destroy vanity and penetrate all the nooks and crannies" (Culture and Value 48)

Relationship to the Early Wittgenstein & Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

The following are various claims and statements from Wittgenstein's early work, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. There is a fair amount of disagreement between scholars as to how much difference finally exists between this early work and Philosophical Investigations, in part because of the famous ending. What do you think? Are these ideas close to what Wittgenstein came to say or far removed from them? (Other places to explore this conversation with his earlier self include #23, 37-39, 46-48, 60, 63, 72-86, 97, 114, and the Preface.)

The world is all that is the case.
A proposition is a picture of reality.
My fundamental idea is that the 'logical constants' are not representatives; that there can be no representatives of the logic of facts.
Propositions show the logical form of reality. They display it.
What can be shown, cannot be said.
The general form of a proposition is: This is how things stand.
[A]ll the propositions of logic say the same thing, to wit nothing.
To give the essence of a proposition means to give the essence of all description, and thus the essence of the world.
The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.
Philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts.
Philosophy is not a body of doctrine but an activity.
A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations.
Philosophy does not result in 'philosophical propositions,' but rather in the clarification of propositions.
Without philosophy thoughts are, as it were, cloudy and indistinct: its task is to make them clear and give them sharp boundaries. . . .It must set limits to what can be thought; and in doing so, to what cannot be thought.
It must set limits to what cannot be thought by working outwards through what can be thought.
It will signify what cannot be said, by presenting clearly what can be said