If thinking is a matter of operating with signs, we need to understand what signs are and how they are used. Wittgenstein introduces the notion of a language game, a primitive form of language that uses signs in a simpler, clearer way than our own complex languages. For example, here is a game formed around the command "fetch six apples from the grocer": I give the grocer a piece of paper marked "six apples," and the grocer then looks at his different shelves, matching the word "apple" to the label on one of the shelves. When he has done so, he counts up to six, taking one fruit from that shelf for every number he has counted.

Wittgenstein says we usually avoid the piecemeal approach of language games out of a philosophical craving for generality and a contempt for the particular. Partly inspired by science, we try to reduce language to a handful of laws, and assume that any word has a single meaning or essence that all instances of its use share in common. Wittgenstein takes the example of the word "game" to show up this misconception. There is no one thing that all games have in common. Rather, there is a series of family resemblances. Some games have certain features in common and other games share other common features.

There is no common property of all cases of "wishing" or "expecting," and we shackle ourselves with our drive to identify this nonexistent common property. Wittgenstein runs through a series of examples showing the difficulties in identifying a feeling of tension as the essence of expectation, and also highlights some problems related to assigning a single meaning to the word "fear."

Wittgenstein discusses similar problems with the term "unconscious toothache," a term her creates to describe instances of tooth decay where a person feels no pain. This use of "unconscious" and "know," though unusual, are in themselves unproblematic. The difficulty arises when we try to force these uses into analogy with other uses of "unconscious" and "know" and begin to wonder how unconscious or unknown pain can exist, and ask what counts as a symptom and what counts as a criterion of toothache.

Historically, philosophy has been obsessed with giving words a single, strict definition, and has tied itself in knots over questions like "what is knowledge?" If we find one definition unsatisfactory, we simply replace it with a more complex definition rather than question our motives for seeking a single definition in the first place. Wittgenstein suggests that we must free ourselves from the notion that there is one paradigmatic use of a word. He says, "Philosophy, as we use the word, is a fight against the fascination which forms of expression exert on us" (Wittgenstein, 27). He says we do not need to force language into the tiny boxes of strict rules and definitions. Language is not something forced on us from the outside that we must come to know scientifically. Language comes from ourselves and does not need stricter definition than it has already.


The concept of "language games" is one of the best known features of Wittgenstein's later philosophy. We will see it put to even more prominent use in the Brown Book, and it plays a significant—though perhaps not as central—role in the Philosophical Investigations.

Wittgenstein defines language games in the Blue Book as "ways of using signs simpler than those in which we use the signs of our highly complicated everyday language" (Wittgenstein, 17). The example he gives using the grocer and the apples shows an interaction that uses the same words and produces the same results as we would use and get from our ordinary language, but in the language game, the connection between words and actions is far more transparent.

In the Blue Book, Wittgenstein seems to define language games as more primitive forms of language, or the building blocks of ordinary language. (He will later abandon the idea that language games are incomplete replicas of ordinary speech and will no longer consider instances of language use in language games to be simpler, clearer instances of the same use in ordinary language.) The discussion here of language games is closely linked to two other themes that play a large role in Wittgenstein's philosophy: the anti-scientism expressed in his disparagement of the "craving for generality," and the notion of family resemblance.

It is important to note that Wittgenstein is not anti-scientific in the sense of disparaging the results of science or claiming that they are not valid. His criticism is leveled at the notion that science has given us a complete and satisfying explanation of the way things are, and—most importantly to his argument—at the indiscriminate urge to apply the scientific method even where it does not belong. We saw in the previous section that Wittgenstein disparages psychology because it purports to conduct scientific investigations of the mind, when we have not yet even clarified what the mind is. In this section, Wittgenstein remarks that the scientific method has also been used in philosophy, leading us to look for general rules and strict definitions of words, when such rules and definitions do not apply to language. Certainty of the kind we find with regard to physical phenomena cannot be found in language, and we should not seek it.

Wittgenstein will later refine this idea of a "craving for generality." Here, he sees the craving for generality purely as an offshoot of the scientific method, but he will later suggest that this craving has its source in linguistic confusion.

The notion of family resemblance counters the idea that all uses of a word have an essence or defining properties in common. If we think of all the members of our family, we can remark that they share certain distinctive traits or features, but there is no one trait we could point to that every member of our family shares that distinguishes it from the rest of the human race. There might be a tendency toward a pointed nose or a round jaw, but it is not even necessary that all members of the family have these features. They can still recognizably be members of the same family if they have other characteristic features.

Wittgenstein discusses the words "know" and "unconscious" in talking about "unconscious toothaches." He appeals to the notion of family resemblance. If we want to distinguish between tooth decay that hurts and tooth decay that does not hurt, there is nothing wrong with calling the latter kind of pain "unconscious," or pain that we do not know of yet. The problem arises when we think that this use of "unconscious" must be analogous to the kind of "unconscious" I mean when I refer to being unconscious of someone standing in my peripheral vision, as if an unconscious toothache is a pain that I am not yet aware of feeling. There is a family resemblance between these two uses of "unconscious," but the two uses of the word differ.

Philosophy trips us up by asking us to look for the common factor shared by two uses of the same word. Wittgenstein introduces another idea that will become more central in his later thought: when one catch-all definition falls short, we are tempted to refine this definition rather than take a step back and ask whether such a definition can be found. Wittgenstein will later characterize the complexities of modern philosophy as the result of increased refinements of ideas that were misguided from the outset.