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Philosophical Investigations

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Part I, sections 65–91

Part I, sections 21–64

Part I, sections 92–137


Wittgenstein asks what all languages and parts of language have in common that define them as language. He replies that there is no "general form of propositions." The things we call "language" are indeed related to one another, but they do not all share a defining characteristic. "Language," in this respect is like "game." If we examine all the things we call games, we will not find any one feature in common, but simply a number of relationships between kinds of games. Wittgenstein calls the similarity between different kinds of games a "family resemblance" because a family is also distinguishable by certain similarities in features, but is not defined by any one or number of those features.

This notion of family resemblance might make us uncomfortable: does this mean that words like "game" have no exact definition, or that there is no clear boundary as to what counts as a game and what does not? Wittgenstein replies that we don't always need exact definitions and clear boundaries to make words usable, just as we don't need to define "one pace" as two feet or some such exact measure in order to use the word "pace." Not every aspect of language need be sharp or distinct. Often a word with unclear boundaries is exactly what we need, and attempts to provide sharp definition will necessarily distort its meaning.

We can know what a word means perfectly well without being able to give a precise definition. For instance, in the claim "Moses did not exist," we may mean a number of things by "Moses." We may mean the man who led the Israelites out of Egypt, the man who bore that name at that place and time, or the man who as a child was taken out of the Nile by Pharaoh's daughter. If the story of Moses being taken from the Nile as a child turns out to be false, but all the rest is true, it is difficult to deny that Moses existed. However, there is no set limit for how many or what particular facts about Moses must be false for us to deny his existence. The word "Moses" has no fixed meaning.

To say that a word has a definite meaning is to say that its application is bound by exact rules. But rules in themselves do not provide the certainty we hope they will. Rules can always be misinterpreted, and even if we establish a second set of rules to explain how we should follow the first set of rules, that second set is also liable to misinterpretation. Rules and explanations are not always necessary. Normally, we can proceed without them, and need only appeal to them in cases where there is a danger of misunderstanding. We only need to be as precise or exact as our situation demands of us.

These investigations are "grammatical." We seek to remove misunderstandings that may spring from analogies drawn between different forms of expression, among other things. But we should not think these investigations lead us gradually toward greater exactitude in language. In most cases, language does not need to be more exact than it already is.


As Wittgenstein points out, it is impossible to devise some definition of "game" that includes everything that we call games, but excludes everything that we don't call games. Are all games amusing? Players in a championship football game are not amusing themselves. Are all games played according to rules? Children tossing a ball around do not necessarily stick to a set of rules.

Even if some definition were found to be adequate, we do not have any fixed boundaries in mind, even implicitly, when we use the word "game." It is perhaps possible to establish some sort of artificial boundary for what we call "game," but this boundary would neither prescribe nor describe how we actually use the word "game."

Wittgenstein is fighting against the notion of fixity of meaning. This notion sees words as having a fixed meaning regardless of their context. We know what a word means not because there is some fixed meaning attached to it with which we are familiar, but because we know how to use that word in certain contexts. In section 80, Wittgenstein takes the example of a chair that periodically vanishes and then reappears. We would not be sure whether to call this a chair or a strange illusion. Our word "chair" only has a definite meaning in the contexts that we are familiar with. In a less magical vein, we can also imagine a flat, angled plank of wood that has a small notch for resting. We can sit on this object and rest our back against it, but do we call it a chair? Not necessarily. The word "chair" might seem to have fixed meaning because there are a number of objects that we unhesitatingly would call chairs, but there are also borderline cases where we may or may not want to call an object a chair. To a large extent, whether or not we call an object a chair depends on the context.

Wittgenstein was the first thinker to recognize the great philosophical importance of rules, and uses them cleverly in relation to fixity of meaning. There are two primary ways in which the boundaries we might apply to definitions of words are like rules in a game. First, the rules of a game do not cover all cases. The rules of hockey say that a player gets a two-minute penalty for hooking. But what if a player pulls out a gun and shoots his opponent? There is nothing in the rules to cover this eventuality, largely because it has never happened before and is not likely to happen. This example is like the case of the vanishing chair in section 80. Rules and boundaries are only clear when dealing with the situations we are familiar with, but no set of rules or boundaries can cover all possible situations.

Second, rules in themselves do not remove all doubt. In section 86, Wittgenstein talks about a table as a rule, where we can correspond items in the left-hand column with items in the right-hand column. But how do we know to read left to right? Do we need a rule to tell us to do that and not to read in some sort of criss-cross pattern? And if this rule is expressed in terms of arrows pointing from one column to the other, do we need a further rule to tell us how to read the arrows? Wittgenstein's point is not that rules are useless, but that there is a point where we simply follow a rule without any explicit justification.

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