Ludwig Wittgenstein and Philosophy, Part Two


Part Two: The Late Work

Philosophers constantly see the method of science before their eyes, and are irresistibly tempted to ask and answer in the way science does. This tendency is the real source of metaphysics, and leads the philosopher into complete darkness. I want to say here that it can never be our job to reduce anything to anything, or to explain anything. Philosophy really is “purely descriptive.”

from The Blue Book

When he finished the Tractatus, Ludwig Wittgenstein assumed that he had finished with philosophy, gave away his wealth, and retreated into private life and followed various pursuits, from being a hermit in a hut in Norway, to being a school teacher, to being an architect, and a visitor to the Soviet Union. In 1929, Wittgenstein returned to England, became a citizen in 1938, and joined the faculty at Cambridge where he taught to a select group of students who wrote down everything he said. The Blue Book and The Brown Book (published in 1958) are a collection of his thoughts on the way to Philosophical Investigations. During the Second World War, he was an orderly in a London hospital, and, in 1947, he resigned from teaching, only to return in 1949 until his death from cancer in 1951.

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations is a very special book to read because it was, like all the books printed after his death, based on his lectures to his attentive students at Cambridge. Each page is a series of statements or paragraphs, and, as in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, each is carefully numbered. The blocks give the reader a glimpse into the organized and adventurous mind of of the philosopher. Early on, he discusses the problem of “naming,” a problem left over from his early work. In Philosophical Investigations,he traced the progress from a “primitive” language of one-word commands which designate or denote substantive meaning from the one who speaks and to the one who hears to more complex forms of communication. As for our mode of communication, naming a thing, noting a noun, Wittgenstein muses, “Naming appears as queer connexion of a word with an object.” Then he slips in a phrase, not even a real sentence, that has become one of his most famous sayings: “For philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday.” After which he discusses the slippage that occurs when a sword is named “Excalibur,” rendering any sentence with the name without meaning. His solution is that the name “Excalibur” must be eliminated and replaced by what Wittgenstein calls “simples.” <“It is reasonable to call these words the real names.”

Tractatus restricted philosophy to that which could reasonably be said, but language and the way people used it tended to “go on holiday,” calling to question the normal everyday language people, not philosophers, employ to communicate. If one spoke of pictures, using names, then how does the philosopher deal with the issue of understanding a language? This reconsideration of how language makes meaning resulted the lectures that were edited and printed in Philosophical Investigations (1953). Older and wiser, Wittgenstein was drawn back into the argument of meaning. A friend challenged him to explain what a “gesture” meant in term of picture theory: what did an abstract gesture “picture?” Or to put it another way how did an abstract gesture provide an image or a picture of a thought? He returned to philosophy and took a position closer to that of Friedrich Nietzsche who reduced language to metaphor. By admitting that the notion of an ideal language was an illusion, Wittgenstein moved closer to the idea of language as being more inventive or artistic than precise and analytic. If Nietzsche unraveled language to become a nihilist, Wittgenstein explored language to become a pessimist.

First, both twentieth century thinkers had given up on any pretense of finding “truth.” For Nietzsche, all that humans have is metaphor and there is no truth, universal or otherwise, only the trap of symbolic metaphorical thinking. More optimistically both Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and Wittgenstein look to language as being the only source of knowledge of the world. The world, to put it another way, is shaped and conditioned by language and language represents the world. Saussure was more ready than Wittgenstein to accept the arbitrary nature of the (non) link between the word and the thing. A few decades later, Wittgenstein was ready to give up on his picture theory of language in which words made a “picture” of the world. If there is no universal language that can be used with rigor, then philosophy must become a practical study of ordinary language that is understood through what Wittgenstein called “language games.” combining the similarities among words (games), which is he calls “family resemblances.” “And I shall say, ‘games’ form a family,” he declared.

Language, then, is nothing more than relationships. In contrast to the inherent complexity of relating words one to another, Wittgenstein had sought order through his “picture theory of language.” In the Tractatus, language was grounded in a world of accessible experience in which discrete facts are mirrored in the language. “A proposition is a picture of reality,” Wittgenstein wrote confidently, assuming the transparency of word to thing. If the Wittgensteinian rules are followed, meaning is univocal and knowledge is certain. Once this certainty is abandoned, as it had to be in the 1930s, Wittgenstein changed his philosophical investigations into a search for the basis of knowledge. Language for both Saussure and Wittgenstein is not a window on reality or a mirror but a network of established significations or family resemblances linked by Nietzsche’s metaphors.

In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein had moved towards an analysis of how language works rather than a critique of what it does when it works. For Wittgenstein, language is part of a system, and the system of language is a game with rules or social conventions that are agreed upon by mutual consent among the players. For the Structuralists who came after Saussure, the “players” had to know how to play the game: the players had to be “competent” or have savoir faire. Players have to know how language functions within the network of games, and, as Wittgenstein was recorded as saying, “To understand a sentence means to understand a language. To understand a language means to be master of a technique.”

Just as Wittgenstein’s language games operate by rules which are subject to change, knowledge is structured by systems of metaphor or code, which is the classification, and organization of experience. Note that “code” or the signifier in the twentieth century replaces the transcendent and universal a priori of Kant. With Wittgenstein, language and orders of representation (language games and their rules) replaces the transcendental. Wittgenstein who once jettisoned “interpretation,” now acknowledged that interpretation is not a quest for the truth but a fundamental search for order and intelligibility. As Wittgenstein said, “Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundation either. It leaves everything as it is.”

Words have no fixed meaning and the meaning of any term is contextual,differential, and relative. The early Structuralists had no interest in the diachronic implications of language and Wittgenstein is interested in the diachronic only in terms of function, that is, he realized language arises in a particular social context and that the test of “meaningfulness” is the success of language in accomplishing what it sets out to accomplish. For the Structuralists, the synchronic aspects of language of of little interest; for Wittgenstein language was an ever-evolving part of a culture. His commonsense approach to “ordinary” language was revolutionary. Language games form a family, and the words in the family acquire meaning in everyday use. In contrast to the picture theory, which was a belief in universals, Philosophical Investigations contemplates the actual use of language and concludes that the meaning of a word is its use. In paragraph 43, Wittgenstein stated, “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.”

In arguing that “the meaning of a word is its use in the language”, Wittgenstein argued against the precision of concepts and acknowledged that new rules could be made up when needed, as long as the players were in collective agreement. Definitions and rules are nothing but signposts and can change location, so to speak, having an open character. In the second half of his life, Wittgenstein declared that the attempt to locate an unambiguous meaning in language was a form of illness and that the only purpose of logic was to understand how everyday language functions. For the philosopher, all seeing is “langufied” and is relative to “frames.” There is a paradox: we see the frame and realize we are looking only at the picture. Wittgenstein could not resolve this paradox. Nietzsche was ready to give up on truth but Wittgenstein was not. He saw language as a form of life that expressed the social group. We are trapped in language but we can free. In paragraph 309 of Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein asked himself, “What is your aim in philosophy?—To shew the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.”

Part One on Wittgenstein discusses his Early Work.

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