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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 345

Wittgenstein's treatise, Philosophical Investigations, represents a collection of many of his philosophical musings produced in manuscript form. It is divided into two parts, the first of which is 693 paragraph-length comments on the nature of language. The second (more experimental) part is divided into longer musings on things such as picture-objects and mathematical principles, as well as his famous "duck rabbit" (a sketch of an animal's head which may be interpreted as a duck or rabbit). The second part was collected after Wittgenstein's death, but the two parts were published together.

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In the preface of his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein claims to set out to contradict many of his earlier philosophical contentions laid out in his Tractatus (1921). Specifically, his ideas of language and philosophy have matured in his later life, and it is these developments that he discusses in Philosophical Investigations. First, Wittgenstein discusses the role of philosophy as investigating primarily language. Language ambiguities are the cause of major philosophical debates. Wittgenstein introduces and dismisses St. Augustine's now famous explanation of how he himself learned language (viz. by having elders point to things and repeat the name for them). For Wittgenstein, asking what is a word is akin to asking what is a piece in chess; the piece is only given meaning insofar as it is part of a game.

Wittgenstein claims that meaning lies in the use of a word within language. Therefore, language is more of an activity than a discrete structure to be understood. Wittgenstein's more mature view of language is one of use rather than representation.

Grammar, which is part of these language-games, is a set of rules for what does and does not make sense. According to Wittgenstein, language makes evident the form of life. Put another way, life enables language to function (as there would be no language without living things).

Wittgenstein closes with a general discussion of philosophy itself. Wittgenstein argues that philosophers that seek to arrive at general theses from a priori reasoning are misguided. Instead, philosophy should show us how to resist temptations to engage in this practice.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1706

Philosophical Investigations is the work of one of the most creative and controversial philosophers of the twentieth century. In it, Ludwig Wittgenstein presents his ideas concerning the nature of mind and language, often focusing on the relation between language and states of consciousness. The book is composed of numbered sections of various lengths that were compiled from notes that the author kept but never published. Unlike Wittgenstein’s earlier work the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921; English-German bilingual edition, 1922), composed of meticulously numbered aphorisms in the form of a mathematical proof, the Philosophical Investigations gives the impression of an informal discussion covering a wide range of the author’s concerns.

Born in Vienna in 1899 to a wealthy Austrian family, Wittgenstein studied engineering but soon shifted his interest to the more theoretical areas of mathematics and philosophy. Wittgenstein studied at Cambridge with philosophers Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore. It was at Cambridge where Wittgenstein’s unusual capacity for philosophical inquiry first came to the attention of the academic world. It was also there that Wittgenstein began to develop the philosophy that was to make him famous in the following years.

Continuing Wittgenstein’s lifelong interest in language and mind, Philosophical Investigations introduces the concept of the “language-game,” which Wittgenstein uses to explain the functioning of language in a variety of contexts. It has been pointed out that while many of the arguments in the Philosophical Investigations can be viewed as attempts to correct errors in philosophy as a whole, a number of Wittgenstein’s discussions are seemingly attempts to correct or refute positions that he set out in the earlier Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. A large portion of the Philosophical Investigations is concerned with setting out a philosophy that is at considerable variance with the work he had done in the early years of the twentieth century.

The construction of the Philosophical Investigations is such that the reader is called upon to unify the various themes treated by Wittgenstein. While Wittgenstein might have objected that the work was not properly finished, and so cannot be assumed to have the coherence of a well-polished treatise, it nevertheless returns repeatedly to a number of issues, in particular those of language-games and the possibility of private languages. Wittgenstein begins with a passage from Saint Augustine’s Confessiones (397-400; Confessions, 1620) meant to illustrate a common but, according to Wittgenstein, limited view of how language works. Wittgenstein admits that Augustine’s conception of how he learned the proper names and significance of objects by ostensive definition (uttering an object’s name and pointing to it) has some relevance. Wittgenstein argues that although Augustine describes a system of communication, “not everything that we call language is this system.” Language, for Wittgenstein, is much richer and more complex than the simple naming and recognition described by Augustine. Wittgenstein argues for a much more expansive and flexible view of language as an intricate yet integrated system in which each part acquires meaning by virtue of its relationship to other elements in the system. Language allows words to perform a wide variety of functions, even though, as he points out, they all look alike (they are all words in a language).

While the earlier Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is exceptionally difficult to understand because of its compactness and abstract language, Wittgenstein’s expression in the Philosophical Investigations tends toward concrete examples to illustrate particular points. He frequently draws from mechanics and relies heavily on metaphor to help the reader grasp his arguments. In section 11, Wittgenstein suggests that just as tools in a toolbox have many diverse functions, so do words, though people are often slow to recognize this. In one of Wittgenstein’s most powerful metaphors, in section 12 he compares language to looking into the cabin of a locomotive. There, one sees handles all more or less alike, but one should not think they are all simply handles (though they are indeed handles). As Wittgenstein tells us, each performs a singularly different function, such as opening a valve, starting a pump, or braking. Just as turning the wrong handle in the cabin of a locomotive might have dire consequences, so the misuse of language (confusing the uniform appearance of words with their diverse functions), for Wittgenstein, is the main cause of error and nonsense in philosophy.

Wittgenstein calls the many processes and activities of language learning and use language-games. He calls the whole, “consisting of language and the actions into which it is woven,” the language-game, and it is the operation of this game, its rules as it were, that he wishes to explain. Wittgenstein is not concerned with showing how to play the language-game. Most people are already capable and experienced at playing the language-game in a vast array of situations, although, oddly enough, few can do much to explain the rules of the game. Most people, Wittgenstein implies, express themselves without knowing how or why they make themselves understood. In a pivotal passage of the Philosophical Investigations, section 23, Wittgenstein insists that the term “language-game” itself is meant “to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of a language is part of an activity, or a form of life.” Such activities as giving orders and obeying them, giving descriptions, playacting, guessing riddles, telling jokes, and solving arithmetic problems are all typical of the many ways language can be used.

Just as words, phrases, and sentences are part of the web of the language-game, each obtaining meaning through relationship to the other parts of the system, so too, according to Wittgenstein, there is no one aspect common to all that we call language. Instead, all language is made up of language-games that are related to one another in multiple, diverse ways. Sections 65 to 67 deal explicitly with the concept of “family resemblances,” a metaphor Wittgenstein uses to illustrate how the many activities of language are linked to one another. Wittgenstein concedes that it might be objected that he has not provided the “essence” of a language-game and thus the core of language. He argues that upon careful examination, no such essence may be found to exist. There is no atom of language. In section 66, Wittgenstein provides the example of games (“board games, card-games, Olympic Games, and so on”), insisting that people “look and see,” not think, but simply look carefully at how such games function. The result is that “we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and crisscrossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail,” but no one thing common to all. Such similarities are like the various resemblances between members of a family—build, feature, color of eyes, gait, temperament, and others—that interlace and overlap.

Wittgenstein’s aim in the Philosophical Investigations is to end, once and for all, the notion that there can be one and only one fundamental aspect of language that governs meaning. It is in this assertion, in particular, that the reader sees the philosopher arguing against the efforts of himself, Russell, and others to locate and describe the basic, or atomic, components of language. The result of misconceptions about the way language functions, according to Wittgenstein, has been a confusing and mostly fruitless approach to solving philosophical problems. Rather than break phrases or sentences down into their “atomic” components in order to see what they mean, people must instead carefully investigate the contexts of phrases or sentences. It is through context and relationship that meaning is revealed. The activity of philosophy thus is one of untying knots, dissolving confusion, or, as Wittgenstein puts it in section 109, “a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” Thus philosophy in the Philosophical Investigations takes on a therapeutic aspect, as the focus shifts from solving problems to uncovering pieces of nonsense and confusion that have cropped up in human understanding.

Concerned about the misuse of philosophy, Wittgenstein sees the shifting of its aims as clearly beneficial to its conduct. From an admission of human ignorance of the nature of a philosophical problem, Wittgenstein envisions working, through understanding the connections between the parts of language, to lay everything out in front of oneself in a clear fashion. Philosophy, he stresses, “neither explains nor deduces anything,” since “everything lies open to view.” Philosophy, then, consists in the revealing of the hidden aspects of things whose importance is veiled because of their simplicity and familiarity. One might say it is like putting on a pair of glasses when one’s vision is blurred, or discovering that a hammer one has been searching for has been in one’s hand all along.

Wittgenstein’s belief in the communal nature of language and experience is seen also in his arguments against the possibility of private language, a language whose words refer exclusively to the private sensations of an individual and that can be known only by that person. Wittgenstein wishes to refute certain empiricist philosophers who assert that knowledge of language and even of one’s own experiences depends on a private inner slate on which words are affixed to particular experiences. Wittgenstein does not deny the possible existence of private experiences; he argues that any reference to them is meaningless because such private experiences are unverifiable. Wittgenstein’s focus is on correcting errors that have caused philosophy to go awry as well as on avoiding a skepticism that would undermine the fundamentally shared experience of language and meaning.

The remainder of section 1 and the entirety of section 2 deal with a number of issues, including Wittgenstein’s further thoughts on the nature of language and mind, problems in philosophy, the foundations of mathematics, intentionality, verification, understanding, anticipation, perception, and meaning. In addition, some of Wittgenstein’s concerns in the Philosophical Investigations, especially those having to do with the connection between perception and knowing, look forward to what would be his final philosophical exercises on the nature of certainty in the year and a half before his death. Philosophical Investigations, as Wittgenstein notes in the preface to the work, is a journey over a wide range of “landscapes,” involving many and varied approaches to a number of philosophical concerns. Its modest purpose, he stresses, is only to stimulate others to think, not to present a single or even fully consistent vision of the world. In this, most agree he succeeded.

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