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...
(The entire section is 1706 words.)