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Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951)

Philosophical Investigations

The Blue and Brown Books

On Certainty


We are often tempted to think that language is fundamentally a relationship between names and objects. The danger is that we may conclude that the name–object relationship is the fundamental link that connects language to the world. In fact, names of objects can only be identified as such when we contrast them with other kinds of words, such as words for colors, prepositions, numbers, and the like. The supposedly fundamental relation between names and objects only makes sense within the broader context of language and cannot be abstracted from it. The meaning of words is not determined by an abstract link between language and reality but by how words are used.

By talking about meaning in the abstract, we are tempted to think of the meanings of words as fixed, with definite limits. However, the meanings of words are often vague and fluid without their being any less useful as a result. Wittgenstein takes the example of game, showing that there is no rigid definition that includes everything we consider a game and excludes everything we do not consider a game, but we nevertheless have no difficulty in using the word game correctly. As far as Wittgenstein is concerned, ordinary language is perfectly adequate as it is. His aim is not to show the underlying structure of language but rather to show that all attempts at digging beneath the surface of language lead to unwarranted theorizing and generalization.

One of Wittgenstein’s primary targets in the Philosophical Investigations is the language of psychology. We are tempted to think that words like understanding, meaning, thinking, intending, and the like denote mental states or processes. Wittgenstein conducts what he calls a “grammatical investigation,” looking closely at the way these words are used to show that the criteria we use for judging whether someone has, for example, understood how to play chess have nothing to do with that person’s mental state and everything to do with that person’s behavior. That is not to label Wittgenstein as a behaviorist: he is trying to show the inevitable flaws in any theory of the mind, not to set up an alternative theory of his own.

Our language and customs are fixed not by laws so much as by what Wittgenstein calls “forms of life,” referring to the social contexts in which language is used. In other words, the most fundamental aspect of language is that we learn how to use it in social contexts, which is the reason why we all understand each other. We do not understand each other because of a relationship between language and reality. Wittgenstein gives the example of a student who obeys the rule “add 2” by writing 1004 after 1000 and insisting that this is a correct application of the rule. In such an instance, there is nothing we can say or do to persuade the student otherwise because the misunderstanding lies at a deeper level than explanation can reach. Such examples do not occur in ordinary life not because there is some perfectly unambiguous explanation for “add 2” but because we share forms of life: people, on the whole, simply understand one another, and if this basic understanding were missing, communication would be impossible.

Elaborating on his view that language functions according to shared norms and forms of life, Wittgenstein denies the possibility of a private language. That is, it is inconceivable that someone could invent a language for his or her own private use that describes his or her inner sensations. In such a language, there would be no criteria to determine whether a word had been used correctly, so the language would have no meaning. Wittgenstein illustrates this point by arguing that the sentence, “I know I am in pain” makes no sense. The claim to know something carries with it further baggage that is inapplicable when talking about our own sensations. To claim to know something, we must also be able to doubt it, we must have criteria for establishing our knowledge, there must be ways other people can find out, and so on—all of which is absent when dealing with our inner sensations.

The last 300 sections of part I, as well as part II, of the Investigations deal with a number of related issues but lack a general thrust. Wittgenstein attacks the idea that we have privileged knowledge of our own mental states, suggesting that our relation to our mental states is not one of knowledge at all. This suggestion diminishes the thrust of “other minds skepticism,” the philosophical claim that we have only imperfect knowledge of other minds, which is based on the premise that the subject is the only one with privileged knowledge of his or her own mind. Part II deals primarily with the grammar of the word see, discussing, among other things, the distinction between see and see as. We do not see a fork as a fork: we simply see the fork. The word as implies an act of interpretation, and we do not interpret what we see except in those cases where we really do entertain more than one possible interpretation.


The philosophy that Wittgenstein preaches and practices in the Investigations is concerned primarily with dissolving problems rather than solving them. A philosophical problem, in Wittgenstein’s view, is not a difficult question for which we must search long and hard for an answer. Rather, a philosophical problem is a mental knot we create by thinking theoretically, and untying it requires considerable mental clarity. For example, in the early sections of the Investigations, Wittgenstein criticizes the idea that there is a fundamental, abstract link between names and objects, but he does not criticize this theory in order to replace it with some other theory of language. Instead, he wants us to recognize that, when we consider language in the right light, there is no need to develop a theory to explain the connection between language and reality at all. Some commentators have observed that the Investigations is therapeutic in its aim. A therapist does not attempt to solve a patient’s problems but rather attempts to help to shift the thinking of a patient so that the problems no longer seem like problems. Similarly Wittgenstein aims to shift our philosophical thinking so that the problems of philosophy no longer seem like problems.

Wittgenstein repeatedly draws our attention to the subtle line between everyday speech and philosophical theorizing, a line he believes most philosophers cross unconsciously. Scientific disciplines, among others, have a very specific specialized vocabulary: a physicist uses words like electron and gluon to refer to phenomena that are distinct to the field of physics and are unfamiliar to everyday experience. Philosophy, by contrast, carries the conceit of drawing only on familiar, everyday experience. (Philosophers may use specialized or unfamiliar words, but the things they talk about, such as knowledge and certainty, are things with which we are all familiar.) A skeptical argument, such as that in Descartes’ first Meditation, draws its strength from beginning with ordinary observations that no one could deny and then reaching startling conclusions. If philosophy, unlike physics, has no specialized data and draws only on the world of everyday experience, then philosophers are in no position to draw up a specialized vocabulary and complex theories. The field of philosophy has something suspicious about it, in that it makes no claims to have specialized data and yet claims to be a form of specialized knowledge. Wittgenstein’s response to this fact is to identify the purported specialized knowledge of philosophy as consisting of confusion and to reconceive the role of philosophy as clarifying precisely that sort of confusion.

One of Wittgenstein’s main targets is the mental realm and the very idea of a sharp distinction between “inner” and “outer.” When we think of inner and outer as two distinctive, parallel realms, we are tempted to think that the kinds of understanding we have about the outer world should apply similarly to our inner lives. There must be inner states and processes about which we can have knowledge or fail to have knowledge, and this knowledge must be based on some sort of data, and so on. Wittgenstein devotes a great deal of the Investigations to showing how these parallels between inner and outer break down. The relation a person has with his or her own inner life is far more intimate than the kind of knowledge-based relation we have with the world around us, but this more intimate relation does not simply translate as knowledge with greater certainty. Rather, it is the kind of relation with regard to which talk of knowledge and certainty, and language more generally, loses its hold. Much of our confusion as regards psychology comes from attempts to theorize or speak about the mind using false analogies.

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