(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

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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...

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Memory and Sensations

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

(The entire section is 967 words.)


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

(The entire section is 647 words.)