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Philosophical Investigations (1953), published after Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's death, is nothing short of a complete redefinition of philosophy and language. In addition to being a reimagining of philosophy as a discipline as well as language, Philosophical Investigations is in strict counterpart to his earlier work Tractatus Logico Philosophicus (1922)....

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Philosophical Investigations (1953), published after Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's death, is nothing short of a complete redefinition of philosophy and language. In addition to being a reimagining of philosophy as a discipline as well as language, Philosophical Investigations is in strict counterpart to his earlier work Tractatus Logico Philosophicus (1922). For this reason Philosophical Investigations is best read alongside or with reference to Tractatus. In the latter, Wittgenstein contends that language has a basis in reality. Complex sentences can be broken down into simple ones. Also according to Tractatus, the world is composed of facts.

In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein turns this on his head. He says that language is more fluid and has no representational meaning but a fluid meaning that is generated through use. Wittgenstein gives an example of a "five red apples" in which case the designation of "five" is proof of the fact that language is not representational, but its meaning is derived from use. In generating this definition of language, Wittgenstein rejects the Augustinian definition of language as "ostensive" (a mechanism whereby one learns the meaning of words by being show representation of the objects these words represent).

Philosophical Investigations is also expert in its use of metaphors. For example, he claims that language operates in "language-games" which, according to Wittgenstein is represented by everything from reporting an event to making a request to making a joke. Language is given meaning from its use, and the use itself is evidence of activity, which in turn must evidence a form of life that is engaging in the activity. This is a huge philosophical contention (that language evidences a form of life).

Another metaphor is that the meanings within a word's semantic range resemble one another in the same way that members of a family do; there are no strict resemblances necessarily required, but an overall resembles owing to select similarities.

Wittgensteins' Philosophical Investigations is one of the most seminal pieces of linguistic philosophy from an unorthodox philosopher who, since his death, has been regarded as a genius in the field.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 220

Philosophical Investigations, published posthumously, contains in part 1 a body of work completed by Ludwig Wittgenstein by 1945. This material includes a preface in which he comments on the book, characterizing it as an “album” of “sketches of landscapes,” in virtue of its being a collection of philosophical remarks that Wittgenstein used to attack the problems with which he concerned himself. Parts 2 and 3, written between 1947 and 1949, were added by the editors, G. E. M. Anscombe (who translated the work from the German) and R. Rhees. The German and English versions appear side by side.

Discussion of the work’s contents preceded its publication because of the appearance of the “Blue Book” and the “Brown Book,” collections of typescripts and notes based on Wittgenstein’s lectures at Cambridge. In part, Wittgenstein became interested in publishing Philosophical Investigations during his lifetime because of a reluctance to rest his reputation on secondhand reports of his philosophical remarks.

An aura of mystery, therefore, surrounded Philosophical Investigations when it finally appeared—and something of the aura yet remains as arguments on the interpretation of the sense and direction of Wittgenstein’s remarks tend to condition the understanding of the book. Nevertheless, there is little argument about the central theme; in spite of Wittgenstein’s erratic and peripatetic method, the purpose of his remarks manages to become clear.

Understanding Language

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The point of the book appears to be that language is best conceived as an activity involving the uses of words as tools. There is a multiplicity of uses to which words can be put. To understand the meaning of an utterance is to understand the use to which it is put. Consequently, it is misleading and confusing to think of language as being made up of words that stand for objects. Understanding the uses of words is like understanding the rules of games, and just as confusion results when a player in a game makes up new rules, misapplies the rules, or conceives of the game in some static fashion, it causes confusion and perplexity when a user of language creates new rules, violates old ones, or misconceives language. To be clear about language, one must look to its uses.

However, if all that Wittgenstein meant to do was to say this, he could have done the job with a great deal less effort and at considerably less length. Philosophical Investigations is not so much a report of the results of Wittgenstein’s philosophical investigations as it is an investigation in progress—and what it deals with and exhibits are philosophical investigations. In other words, Wittgenstein’s remarks are used to show that certain philosophical problems arise because language is misconceived, and because of the author’s adroit uses of language, we are led to conceive of language as instrumental. In a sense, then, the book is what it is about; its process, as a proof, is its evidence.

Investigations into Philosophy

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What is it to investigate philosophically? Wittgenstein’s answer is that it is not to seek theses or theories and it is not to find static meanings (objects) for which words are permanent labels; it is, rather, to understand by attending to the uses of language relevant to the problem at hand in order to discover how philosophical problems arise “when language goes on holiday”—that is, when a user of languages takes off in new, unpredictable directions as a result of failing to abide by the rules of a particular “language-game.” One might support Wittgenstein at this point by saying that what poets do intentionally, in order to be poets, philosophers do in ignorance—and hence are philosophers.

In the preface, Wittgenstein declares that he had hoped to bring the remarks of the book into some coherent whole, but such an attempt, he came to realize, could never succeed. He suggests that philosophical investigation involves coming at a problem from a number of different directions.

Though it is true that escape from a static conception of language is made possible by a series of relevant demonstrations of the uses of language, there is no reason why the points of the book could not have been arranged serially for clarity, even if, to do so, eccentric uses of language would have been necessary. A number of problems could then have been dealt with in the Wittgenstein fashion, a fashion that has illuminated the eccentric uses of language. In fact, that is what almost happens in Philosophical Investigations: Now and then the reader catches Wittgenstein presenting a thesis, and it is clear that the problems he considers—suggested by his own odd uses of language in the expression of his theses—are intended to illustrate and support his points. Yet Wittgenstein had a streak of philosophical coyness (sometimes disguising itself as a kind of insight) which led him, presumably for theoretical reasons but more likely for effect, sometimes to withhold the moral of the tale, the destination of his philosophical wanderings.

Language as a Game and as a Tool

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Wittgenstein uses two principal metaphors to make his meaning clear: the metaphor of language as a game and the metaphor of language as a tool—or, to be more accurate, the metaphors of languages as games or as tools. After describing a primitive language that could be described as involving a process of calling for objects by the use of words, Wittgenstein writes: “We can . . . think of the whole process of using words . . . as one of those games by means of which children learn their native language. I will call these games language-games’ and will sometimes speak of a primitive language as a language-game. . . . I shall also call the whole, consisting of language and the actions into which it is woven, the language-game.’” (7) (In part 1, which comprises the largest section of the work, the remarks are numbered. For convenience in referring to the work—because there are no chapters, section headings, or other devices for locating oneself—these numbers are used here.) In 11, Wittgenstein writes: “Think of the tools in a toolbox: there is a hammer, pliers, a saw, a screwdriver, a rule, a glue-pot, glue, nails and screws.—The functions of words are as diverse as the function of these objects.”

However, what is the point of using the expression language-game? Wittgenstein answers: “Here the term language-game’ is meant to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life.” (23) He then presents a list of some of the functions of language—for example, giving orders, describing, reporting events, making up stories, translating—and comments: “It is interesting to compare the multiplicity of the tools in language and of the ways they are used, the multiplicity of kinds of word and sentence, with what logicians have said about the structure of language. (Including the author of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.)” (23) He refers to his own earlier work, “Logisch-philosophische Abhandlung” (1921; published in the bilingual German and English edition as Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1922), in which he defended a logical atomism—a philosophy that would elucidate problems by devising an ideal language in which for each simple object or property there would be a fixed, unambiguous symbol—ironically, the very conception of language that Philosophical Investigations examines and rejects.

The simile that using an utterance is like making a move in a game suggests the problem, “What is a game?” If language involves simply the use of names as labels, then there is a definite answer to that question. However, if the word “game” is used in various ways, it may very well be that there is no “object,” no essential nature, to which the word “game” calls attention. Indeed, this conclusion is what Wittgenstein argues. In response to the supposition that there must be something common to the proceedings called “games,” he urges everyone to “look and see whether there is anything common to all,” and he ends a survey of games by remarking: “And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail.” (66) He introduces the expression “family resemblances” to characterize the similarities.

The point is that just as games form a “family,” so do the various uses of an expression. To look for common meanings, then, is as fruitless as to look for the essential nature of games. The only way of making sense out of a problem having to do with the essence of language (or the meaning of a word) is by examining language as it is actually used in a multiplicity of ways.


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The theme of Philosophical Investigations is introduced shortly before the philosophical investigation into the essence of games: “For a large class of cases—though not for all—in which we employ the word meaning’ it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.”

To understand this critical sentence is to understand Philosophical Investigations. At first the claim that, as the word “meaning” is often used, the meaning of a word is its use in the language might appear to be a variant of the familiar pragmatic claim that verbal disputes are resolved by decisions as to the practical use of language. Philosopher William James considered the question “Does the man go round the squirrel?” in an imagined situation in which, as the man walks round a tree, the squirrel moves about the tree trunk, keeping the tree between himself and the man. Some persons would be inclined to say that the man does go round the squirrel because the man’s path enclosed the squirrel’s path; but others would say that the man does not go round the squirrel because the squirrel keeps the same part of its body turned toward the man. James would settle the issue by deciding how to use the word “round.” He did not answer the question, but he settled the problem; he settled it by resolving the issue as a problem. In an analogous fashion, it might seem, Wittgenstein proposed resolving problems, not by answering them, but by showing that they involve confusions concerning the use of language.

However, to interpret “the meaning is the use” in this manner is to fail to understand the function of the sentence in Wittgenstein’s remarks. Wittgenstein is not suggesting that meanings be determined by reference to use or that meanings be explicated by reference to human attitudes in the use of language. What he suggests is what he says (but he says it oddly): The meaning of a word is its use in the language. For anyone who takes the word “meaning” as if the meaning of a term were an object, a class of objects, or a property of a class of objects—in other words, something to which a word, as a label, refers—it is nonsense to say “the meaning of a word is its use.” If the word “human” means rational animal, for example, what would be the sense of saying, “The meaning of the word human,’ namely, rational animal, is its use in the language”? However, if we take the word “meaning” as it is used in discourse about the meaning of conduct, the meaning of an act, the meaning of a form of life—then it makes sense to talk about the meaning of a word as being the use of the word in the language. It makes sense if by the “use” of something we mean what we would mean—more or less—in talking about the “purpose” of something. To understand a word, then, is much like understanding an act that makes no sense until one notices what the act does and, consequently, realizes what the act is for, what the purpose of it is, what meaning it has.

Words as Tools, not Names

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There is no more difficult demand on philosophers accustomed to the sign-referent way of analyzing language than this demand that they stop thinking of words as names for objects and start thinking of words as tools that can be used in various ways and can be understood as bringing about certain changes in behavior or in ways of looking at things. Figurative description of language as a game is meant to stress “the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life”: One does something with the use of a word that is much like what one does in making a move in a game; and just as it would be senseless to ask what the move stands for or represents (as if somehow it were a symbol for the victory toward which the player moves), so it is senseless to ask what the word, as used, stands for or represents. To be sure, conventional answers can be given to questions of the latter sort, but conventional answers are not illuminating; one comes to understand what language is and what language means in noticing (seeing) what is done with it (just as one can come to understand a machine by watching its operation).

This interpretation of Wittgenstein’s remark that “the meaning of a word is its use in the language” gains strength with the realization that a considerable number of the remarks are directed against the idea that the meaning of a word is whatever the speaker has in mind or feels privately. Here again the problem “What is the essential nature of games?” is illuminating. By a survey of the various activities to which attention is called by various uses of the word “game,” one comes to understand the word “game” and games; and the problem dissolves because one is satisfied with the survey of the family of games, and there is nothing more about which to wonder. Similarly, to understand the meaning of the word “pain” is to have acquired the technique of using the word; there is nothing hidden or private about which to wonder.

However, this conclusion—that discourse about sensations is meaningful because the word “sensation” has a use in our language and that the word “sensation” cannot be part of a private language significant only to the speaker—is intolerable to philosophers who like to say that “Sensations are private,” “Another person can’t have my pains,” or “I can only believe that someone else is in pain, but I know it if I am.” (These are Wittgenstein’s examples—which he discusses in a series of related remarks.) Wittgenstein realized that much of what he had to say is intolerable to some philosophers, but he writes that philosophers have the habit of throwing language out of gear; and sometimes the philosophical use of language is so extreme, so abnormal, that what is called for is treatment by one who understands that philosophical problems arise and philosophical theories are advanced when philosophers develop the disease of taking expressions that fit into the language in one way and then using the expressions in some other, problem-provoking, paradox-generating way. Hence, “The [enlightened] philosopher’s treatment of a question is like the treatment of an illness.” (255)

Thus, if someone comes forth with the philosophical “discovery” that “sensations are private,” what he needs is treatment: A philosopher who talks about private sensations has made the error of confusing a discovery about the “grammar” (the systematic use) of the word “sensation” with a nonlinguistic fact. “The truth is: it makes sense to say about other people that they doubt whether I am in pain; but not to say it about myself.” (246) However, it does not follow from the grammatical point—that it would be senseless to say that I doubt whether I am in pain—that therefore I know that I am in pain: The expression “I know I am in pain” has no use in our language—except, perhaps, to add emphasis to the expression “I am in pain.” To confuse the use of the word “know” in such an expression as “I know he is in pain” (for he is writhing, clenching his teeth, and the like) with its use in the expression “I know I am in pain” is to breed perplexity that only an investigation into the multiplicity of uses of the word “know” can resolve.

Memory and Sensations

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In his discussions of understanding, memory, and sensations, Wittgenstein characteristically sketches the range of uses of the terms “sensations,” “understand,” and “remember.” He resists the tendency to settle on one use, one way of looking at things, one definition as somehow settling anything—for even if one considers what one takes to be a “single” use of a term, it soon develops that there are borderline cases, areas in which one use imperceptibly merges into another, so that any decision as to the use of language by way of definition settles nothing (the complex network remains) and may lead to further paradox. Philosophical difficulties in this area (as well as in others) arise when one kind of grammar is mistaken for another, when an expression appropriate in one context is used in another: “Perhaps the word describe’ tricks us here. I say I describe my state of mind’ and I describe my room.’ You need to call to mind the differences between the language-games.” (290)

Expecting, intending, remembering—these are ways of life made possible by the use of language; and language is itself a way of life. What we find when we try to find the criteria of these states are the uses of various expressions—or by noticing the uses of various expressions, we come to learn what kind of behavior prompts our use of these terms. No reference to inner thoughts, sensations, intentions, or memories is necessary.

For Wittgenstein, “Essence is expressed by grammar.” (371) To understand the nature of something is to acquire the technique of using the language that prompted the question and the investigation concerning it. There are, however, no simple answers; in a sense, there are no answers at all. One gets acquainted with the multiplicity of uses and one surveys the scene accordingly: There is nothing left to wonder about.

Wittgenstein does not deny the existence of feelings—pains, memories, and expectations. In response to the charge that “you again and again reach the conclusion that the sensation itself is a nothing,” he responds, “Not at all. It is not a something, but not a nothing either! The conclusion was only that a nothing would serve just as well as a something about which nothing can be said. We have only rejected the grammar that tries to force itself on us here.” (304) Again, in response to the query “Are you not really a behaviorist in disguise? Aren’t you at bottom really saying that everything except human behavior is a fiction?” he replies, “If I do speak of a fiction, then it is of a grammatical fiction.” (307)

The effort throughout is to argue against the tendency philosophers sometimes have to study “inner processes” in order to acquire knowledge about sensations, memory, and so forth; the proper procedure, according to Wittgenstein, is to attend to the use of the relevant terms. If we do observe the uses of such terms as “sensation,” “pain,” “think,” “remember,” and so forth, we come to see that the technique of using these terms in no way depends on introspecting private processes. An analogous mistake is made when it is assumed that to mean something is to think something. We can say that we meant a person to do one thing, and he did another—and we can say this even though we did not think of the possibility in question: “When I teach someone the formation of the series . . . I surely mean him to write . . . at the hundreth place.’—Quite right; you mean it. And evidently without necessarily even thinking of it. This shows you how different the grammar of the verb to mean’ is from that of to think.’ And nothing is more wrong-headed than calling meaning a mental activity!” (693)

In part 2 of the Investigations the theme of the latter section of part 1 is made perfectly clear: meaning, intending, understanding, feeling, and seeing (whether it is visual apprehension or the understanding of something; and these are related) are techniques, forms of life, modes of action about which we could be clear were we not confused by misleading parallelisms of grammar. To understand, to see clearly, is to master techniques to which our attention is called when language is used; and the use of language is itself a technique.

Philosophical Investigations is Wittgenstein’s mature discourse on method. It corrects the basic error of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus—the error of supposing that there are atomic facts involving unanalyzable simples, an error that arose from the mistaken conception of language as a naming of objects. This book not only makes the correction by conceiving of language as a tool and of the use of language as a form of life involving techniques, but it also exhibits the multifarious character of philosophical investigations by showing them as crisscrossing sight-seeing excursions made possible by tracing out families of similarities to which the multiplicity of language uses calls attention.

If there is a weakness in this revolutionary work, it is the weakness of glossing over the multiplicity of limited philosophical concerns. Not all philosophers can be satisfied with the restless philosophical excursions that so delighted Wittgenstein and at which he was so adept; many philosophers are more content to stay at home with their limiting and precising definitions, their fanciful speculations, their penchants for single uses of single terms. Nevertheless, Wittgenstein’s work can serve as a foundation for argument against philosophic dogmatism; it makes possible an enlightened staying at home. From it philosophers can learn that there is more between heaven and earth than can be seen by the use of their vocabulary; and there is then some hope that, though they spend their days looking at the world from their single windows, they will not confuse the complexity of the world with the simplicity of some grammatical fiction.


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Additional Reading

Bartley, William Warren, III. Wittgenstein. 2d rev. ed. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1985. A lively intellectual biography, focusing on some of the more controversial aspects of Wittgenstein’s philosophy and life. Chapter 4 deals specifically with the concept of the language-game.

Fann, K. T., ed. Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Man and His Philosophy. New York: Dell, 1967. A collection of articles by friends, students, and scholars of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Included are articles on Wittgenstein as a person, a teacher, and a philosopher, and treatments of various aspects of Wittgenstein’s philosophical work.

Grayling, A. C. Wittgenstein. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. An introduction to Wittgenstein’s philosophy, outlining the main tenets of Wittgenstein’s thought. Also discusses the place of Wittgenstein’s work in twentieth century analytical philosophy.

Hacker, P. M. S. Wittgenstein. New York: Routledge, 1999. An excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented and requiring no special background. Bibliography.

Hacker, P. M. S. Wittgenstein’s Place in Twentieth-Century Analytic Philosophy. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996. A monumental work by a leading authority of Wittgenstein. This book thoroughly treats philosophical history before, during, and after the time of Wittgenstein.

Hallett, Garth L. Essentialism: A Wittgensteinian Critique. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991. Strictly speaking, this book is an application of Wittgenstein’s later thought rather than an introduction to it, but Hallett is so faithful to Wittgenstein’s philosophy that the book is in fact a good guide to a correct understanding of it.

Hodges, Michael, and John Lachs. Thinking in the Ruins: Wittgenstein and Santayana on Contingency. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2000. A comparison of the two quite different philosophers.

Janik, Allan, and Stephen Toulmin. Wittgenstein’s Vienna. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973. An illustrated survey showing the many connections between Wittgenstein’s philosophical development and twentieth century movements in architecture, literature, music, psychoanalysis, and other fields, in the setting of late nineteenth century Viennese culture.

Kenny, Anthony. The Legacy of Wittgenstein. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1984. Ten essays that stress the continuity of Wittgenstein’s work. Four essays investigate Wittgenstein’s own ideas, while six apply Wittgenstein’s thought to the works of other philosophers.

Kenny, Anthony. Wittgenstein. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973. A readable introductory account of the range of Wittgenstein’s thought, focusing on his philosophy of language and mind. Chapters 9 and 10 deal with language-games and private languages, respectively.

McGinn, Marie. Wittgenstein and the “Philosophical Investigations.” New York: Routledge, 1997. A very useful and well-written introductory guide to Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.

Malcolm, Norman. Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984. This book, written by Wittgenstein’s most prominent American philosophical student, is a gem. Malcolm allows the reader to see the force of Wittgenstein’s personality as well as his particular way of practicing philosophy. The second edition includes numerous letters that Wittgenstein wrote to Malcolm.

Monk, Ray. Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. New York: Free Press, 1990. This is the definitive biography of Wittgenstein. It is thorough and detailed, examining Wittgenstein’s private life as well as his philosophy.

Pitcher, George, ed. Wittgenstein: The “Philosophical Investigations.” Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966. Although many of the articles in this collection are rather technical, the book’s first article is a general account of the historical context of Wittgenstein’s philosophy. This is followed by several articles that are book reviews of his Philosophical Investigations.

Sluga, Hans, and David G. Stern, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Wittgenstein. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Some of the articles in this collection are rather narrowly focused, but the first two contain general introductions to Wittgenstein’s life, his work, and his critical approach to philosophy.

Stroll, Avrum. Moore and Wittgenstein on Certainty. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. This volume looks at the relationship between these two philosophers, particularly Wittgenstein’s critical stance on G. E. Moore’s views on certainty based on common sense.

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