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Blue and Brown Books

Ludwig Wittgenstein


Brown Book, Part I, Sections 44–61

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The word "can" has a variety of uses that cause metaphysical headaches. "He can run fast" seems to say something about the state of a person by using an expression that describes an action. In section forty-seven, Wittgenstein imagines a language in which "he can run fast" is equivalent to the sentence "he has bulging leg muscles" in our language. In section forty-nine, Wittgenstein imagines a language in which the speakers only say "he can do so and so" if they can say "he has done so and so." Do "he can" and "he has" have the same meaning in this case? This question has no clear answer: the phrases are used under different circumstances, but the first phrase is true under the same circumstances that the second phrase is true.

The relationship between "he can" and "he has" raises a number of points about the way we talk about the passage of time. From sections fifty to fifty-six, Wittgenstein introduces a number of language games involving time. In section fifty-two, we narrate someone's day by drawing pictures of his various activities and linking the pictures with diagrams of a clock that says at what time he did these activities. Section fifty-five is a variation on section one, in which A can say, "slab, now!" or "slab!" and then point to a position on a clock to indicate at what time he wants B to bring the slab.

These language games deal with time, but they do not deal with fixed concepts of "past," "present," and "future." This means they do not invite us to ask questions like, "Where does the present go when it becomes past, and where is the past?" Normally, we ask these questions because in our language we talk about events as "things" (e.g. "the party is set for tomorrow"). We can also talk about time itself as a "thing" (e.g. "the future is ahead of me"). Our questions about where the future comes from and where the past goes to arise from the peculiarities of our language, and reflect the fact that we refer to time as a thing.

The temptation to say that "now" names a physical point in time is like the temptation to say that "here" names a place, "this" names a thing, and "I" names a person. These words help us to say something about names, but they are not themselves names. For instance, we could say "this is Jack" while pointing to Jack, but it would make no sense to say "this is this."

Language games fifty-seven to sixty-one involve betting with different kinds of conjectures. People betting on a wrestling match might simply place their bets without being able to justify why they bet as they did, or they might give reasons based on a wrestler's physique or training. In game sixty we imagine someone saying that a certain amount of gunpowder "can blast this rock." This use of "can" differs from the uses introduced in forty-six to forty-nine, because in those uses, "can" does not have to depend on something verified by past or present experience.


At the outset, Wittgenstein identifies the difficulties with the word "can": we use it to describe a state of affairs while talking about actions. This form of expression often leads us to think that we are describing some inner mechanism or state of the person in question. Language games forty-six to forty-nine explore the idea that "can" denotes a state of being. The tribe in game forty- seven uses "can" to describe the physical state of a person, and the tribe in game forty-nine uses "can" to describe past events. However, Wittgenstein hesitates to treat these "can" expressions as synonymous with descriptions of physique or past events, because they are used in different contexts.

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