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Blue and Brown Books

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Brown Book, Part I, Sections 44–61

Brown Book, Part I, Sections 18–43

Brown Book, Part I, Sections 62–73


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.

When we think that "can" always describes a state of the person concerned, we are probably thinking of cases like those found in games forty-six to forty- nine. These language games provide us with concrete states—whether past deeds, physical attributes, or something else—that we can definitely attach to the word "can." Wittgenstein shows, however, that this is just a small (and peculiar) group of uses for the word "can." From games fifty-seven to sixty-one, people make similar conjectures with only subtle reference to particular states, or with no references at all. In game fifty-nine, bettors at a wrestling match give reasons for placing their bets; in game fifty-eight they do not. Our temptation is to say that in game fifty-nine, the bettors give reasons based on the state or past deeds of the wrestlers, and though at fifty- eight they give no such reasons, these reasons must be guiding their bets implicitly.

We have no more reason to say of the bettors in game fifty-eight that they must have reasons for placing their bets as we do to say of the bettors in game fifty-nine that they must have reasons for giving the reasons that they do. For instance, if one of the bettors in fifty-nine explains that he bet as he did because of a wrestler's large biceps, we could press him for a reason as to why large biceps should be a deciding factor. If he were give us a reason—for instance, that large biceps help a wrestler win grapples—we could press him for a further reason as to why winning grapples should be a deciding factor, and so on. Perhaps all these further reasons do in some way inform the bettor's conjecture, but we can hardly say that these further reasons are somehow implicit in the reason he gives. Similarly, it is not certain that the bettors of game fifty-eight had implicit reasons for betting as they did. Near the end of game fifty-eight, Wittgenstein notes that we might posit causes that lead to certain bets, but this is different from the bettors themselves having reasons.

This idea that "can" must describe a certain state of affairs leads Wittgenstein to an interesting digression on the nature of time. Because, as we saw in game forty-nine, we can use "can" to say that somebody has done something in the past, we may be tempted to think of such past events as "things" that somehow exist in the present, even if they exist only in ghostlike form. Language games fifty to fifty-six are meant to show us that we need not have a concept of the past or the future in order to talk about time. Again, we might be tempted to think that concepts of time are implicit in these language games. For instance, in game fifty-five, we might say that when A says, "slab!" and points at five o'clock, he must have some concept of time or of the future in order to give such an order. Wittgenstein says that this is not necessary. The language game works perfectly well if we do not assume that A has a concept of time.

The point in these passages, and through much of Wittgenstein's later philosophy, is that when we think in terms of "must," we are often held captive by a certain form of expression. Our talk about "the past" and "the future" as things is a certain form of expression we can use when talking about time, and we unthinkingly apply that expression to all language games that involve time. We have no reason for thinking that A must have some concept of "the future" in giving his order. We assume that he does because we believe that all references to time must involve such concepts. If they are not explicitly present, we assume they must be present implicitly, and we try to find these concepts working behind the words being used.

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