Philosophical Investigations by Wittgenstein



Rebuilding Europe was a primary concern in 1945, after two World Wars. The Soviet Union had expanded to include Eastern Europe and had developed the nuclear bomb. There was a fear of Communist domination. The war experience and news of the holocaust had defeated the 19th century myth of progressive evolution so literary narratives justifying the course of history now made little sense. Wittgenstein's fragmentary language games, his rejection of ultimate grounds for justification and generalisations about the world fitted with the features of this postmodernist age.


At the beginning of the 20th. century the dominant philosophical frame of reference was absolute idealism, which held that reality and appearance are not the same. This meant that perception worked best through the self-conscious mind and that thought is a relational experience

Russell and Moore rejected absolute idealism and were the originators of analytic philosophy, characterised by a linguistic focus on the meaning of the terms used in philosophical analysis. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951) was a student of Bernard Russell at Cambridge University and in his work Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), written during World War I, had contributed to the development of the new analytical approach.

In the U.S. another philosophical approach was taking place which was also in direct opposition to absolute idealism. This was the work of William James, Dewey and Peirce who were developing the pragmatist school of thought. In Investigations the author mentions William James, pioneer of modern psychology, but it is to say that the psychological method is philosophically confused.

In his Tractatus Wittgenstein developed and also criticised the logical methodology of Russell and Gottlob Frege and defined the domain of discourse to observable states in the world. His aim was to explain the nature of the relationship between the actual world and thought and language about it. He states in the preface that his goal is to organise thoughts and discourse into the categories: sense, senseless, and nonsense. 

In sense there are only statements about observable objects such as those made in the natural sciences. Nonsense are statements about anything which transcends the observable world, for example those of traditional philosophy: metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics. Senseless statements are categorised as those of logic and mathematics. The author's views were adopted by the Vienna Circle which sought to systematise Wittgenstein's ideas in logical positivism. (He was a second cousin to Friedrich Hayek and had a certain influence on his thinking, which inspired the economic theory of free market capitalism.)

The influence of Frege and Russell led Wittgenstein's Tractatus to focus on the link between language and the world. The author refined this linguistic approach to argue that philosophical problems have their roots in grammatical misunderstandings. However, he later abandoned logic as a tool to explain the connection between language and the world since logical analysis is based on words having a fixed meaning. He saw this as an illusion.


Philosophical Investigations was published posthumously in 1953 from an unfinished manuscript. It follows a Socratic format: dialogue with the reader. The author poses an idea, explores it, then rejects or sustains it while including possible arguments which may occur to the reader.


Wittgenstein states the principal themes and goals of the work. He quotes Augustine of Hippo on learning a language which he uses as a paradigm of poor philosophy because it disregards the general context and extent of cases covered by a phenomenon. He suggests a programme for analysing language which he calls 'language games' and uses it in the rest of the book.

The concept of language-games rejects the notion that sharp definitions are needed for usefulness or meaningfulness. He presents the idea of 'family resemblance' where concepts do not need to share a single characteristic, but there exists a network of similarities, like siblings. He also discusses the 'definition by pointing' as a bad habit which turns defining into a mental activity.


The author examines widespread philosophical beliefs about the links between logic and language. Frege had insisted that logic informs how to make language more precise. Wittgenstein argues for the exactness of language and that this depends on the language game, whose rules he seeks to describe. He concludes that the rules are set by the players. The corollary of this thinking is that private language is impossible because there are no games for individuals.


Wittgenstein considers mental activities. He argues that there is no mental process that defines meaning, expecting, wanting, wishing, reasoning, or calculating. He encourages philosophers to observe people's activities during their mental pursuits and describe them. He sets the goal for philosophy: comprehend linguistic practice in order to eliminate any confusion in thinking about language.



Philosophical Investigations presents philosophy more as a therapeutic, rather than a scientific method. It is not about truths, but about a way of dealing with problems. 

"The real discovery[,] ... the one that gives philosophy peace[,] ... [is that] problems are solved." 

He distinguishes between science as a methodology of hypothesis and experiment and philosophy as the treatment of an illness.

Investigations is an expansive criticism of traditional philosophical thinking which is abstract and tends towards metaphysics. Wittgenstein suggests that there is no deeper meaning below everyday things but that this metaphysical thinking is induced by the structure of grammar. His aim is to learn to control this tendency to abstraction.

Wittgenstein's therapeutic methodology is one of self-knowledge: understanding our thoughts and temptations, which are features of abstract thinking. He conceives of philosophy as a tool to avoid such errors.


Traditional philosophy features definitions, but Wittgenstein criticises this tendency. Socrates, for example, questions Meno and Euthyphro on virtue and piety. They reply with a list of aspects of both, but Socrates wants some concept which will unite these elements. He asks for definitions. 

Wittgenstein suggests another methodology that he calls "family resemblances". The metaphor used is the similarities among siblings which include build, temperament, eye colour and features. He uses this analogy to show how the conceptual definition of "game" is complex. Chess is a game with no ball but someone wins; soccer is a game with a ball where one team wins; Chinese whispers is a game with no ball and nobody wins.


The author contradicts his earlier concept of meaning in words which he put forward in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921). This conceives word meaning as a function of what the word refers to. The idea appears in the first lines of the Philosophical Investigations which quotes Augustine of Hippo: 

"When grown-ups named some object and at the same time turned towards it, I perceived this, and I grasped that the thing was signified by the sound they uttered, since they meant to point it out." (Confessions)

Tha idea of the passage is: the learner of a language grasps meaning through the references of the interlocutor. Frege and Russell extended this learning method to include logical references.

On the contrary Wittgenstein claims that word meaning derives from the use of words in people's lives:

"The meaning of a word is its use in the language." 

The author insists that words are not only labels but their uses are more complex: giving and receiving orders, drawing an object from a description, acting in a play, guessing a riddle, requesting, thanking, cursing...

However, he also warns against accepting that meaning is use:

"Philosophy must not interfere with the actual use of language. ... It can ... only describe it. ... It cannot justify it. ... It leaves everything as it is."

Wittgenstein later continues this theme of the difficulty of a fixing meaning for words by showing that there is no mental process corresponding to concepts such as "meaning," "understanding," or "believing". This means that they cannot refer to a single, fixed, concept.


The author seeks to articulate what he himself describes as inarticulate: inner life. His aim is to demystify feelings showing that they are not metaphysical facts. According to Wittgenstein 'knowledge' of our inner pains does not exist, since knowing supposes something to be known and something that we might not know. Inner life is experienced, but is not part of knowledge.


The justification for beliefs is based on interpretations which, to be justified, need another level of justification in a never-ending spiral which finds no ultimate justification. Wittgenstein refuses to be trapped in this path and suggests that looking for the ultimate grounds of correctness is misleading. He considers that justification is not applicable to all interpretations, but only in cases of ambiguity where interpretation is needed in order to proceed.

The author appeals to our shared public understanding: words and their meanings are not private, but necessarily public matters.

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