Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951)

Philosophical Investigations

Summary Philosophical Investigations


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.