NOTES on Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951): Philosophical Investigations


Ludwig Wittgenstein (1899–1951)

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) had much to say on the subject of language and metaphysics. In his Philosophical Investigations, which was posthumously published in 1953, his views on language (which had been greatly revised since the publication of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in London in 1922) were published.

According to Wittgenstein, a study of the ordinary use of language — that is, a study of the way people who are not philosophers ordinarily use language — is very important. Such a study can solve — or dissolve — many philosophical problems that arise out of a misuse of language. As you can tell, Wittgenstein greatly influenced what are called the ordinary-language philosophers.

In his study, Wittgenstein concluded that language is a game. As such, it follows rules. There are many different forms of language-games, and new language-games can come into existence and old language-games can pass out of existence. Language has many purposes, and each purpose is a language-game.

A language-game that is still in existence is the giving of orders. A mason can point to a piece of stone and say “slab” to an assistant, and the assistant will bring that particular piece of stone to the mason. By saying a single word, the mason was giving an order to his or her assistant.

Other language-games that are currently in use include these:

“Describing the appearance of an object, or giving its measurements —

“Constructing an object from a description (a drawing) —

“Reporting an event —

“Speculating about an event — ”

And many more.

One thing to notice here is that each language game has its own rules. A philosopher — or anyone else — will run into problems if he or she ignores the rules of a particular language-game. For example: You can give an order to your assistant, but you should not give an order to your boss.

Such mistakes can be made if one supposes that all language-games are similar. They are not. A particular language-game will be similar to some language-games, but it will be different from other language-games. There is no feature that is common to all language-games.

To illustrate this, Wittgenstein asks us to think of games. There are many different kinds of games: “board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on.” However, there is no feature that is common to all games. Some games involve more than one player; others do not. Some games have a winner; others do not. Some games involve competition; others do not.

What these games do have is what Wittgenstein likens to “family resemblances.” The members of a family need not have one certain feature in common. Some members can have Grandpa’s eyes; other members can have Grandma’s nose; still other members can have another feature in common. However, although there is no one particular feature shared by all the members of a family, you can look at the members of a family and tell that they are all members of the same family.

Language-games also have family resemblances with each other. There is no one particular feature that the various language-games have in common, but nonetheless the various language-games have family resemblances.

Wittgenstein believes that philosophers sometimes create problems by ignoring the rules that govern the use of the words they are incorrectly using. When this happens, Wittgenstein says, the words the philosophers are incorrectly using are “language on a holiday.”

Therefore, Wittgenstein says, when a philosopher uses a certain word, the philosopher needs to ask him- or herself, “[I]s the word ever actually used in this way in the language-game which is its original home?” If philosophers would only do this consistently, many philosophical problems would disappear.

For example, one philosophical problem is that of free will versus determinism. According to the determinists, Humankind does not have free will. Whenever we make a decision, we are making the decision in accordance with the kind of character we have.

Let’s say that I have decided to attend class today. (One quarter I did not miss any classes and received straight A’s on my report card!) A determinist would say that my character made me decide not to miss class today. Further, the determinist would say that my character was created by heredity and environment. I was born with a high IQ, and I grew up in a household filled with books. (I recommend that if a suitable occasion arises you always tell other people that you have a high IQ — lie if you have to.) Since my heredity and environment are beyond my control (I did not choose to be born, and if I had chosen to be born, I would have picked richer parents — just kidding, Mom and Dad), I am not free. Whatever I choose to do, such as attending my class today, is not the result of a free act — it is the result of conditions beyond my control. Therefore, I am not free.

But if we take a look at the way we ordinarily use the word “free,” instead of using the specialized meaning that the philosophers have given the word, we can dissolve the philosophical problem of free will versus determinism. By my being free to choose to go to my class today, we mean that no one is preventing me from going to my class. So, unless someone kidnaps me and forcibly takes me to a bar, I am free to attend class.

We can criticize this ordinary-language method of philosophizing. Other professions have created a necessary but specialized jargon — as you can tell by eavesdropping on a physician or lawyer. Why shouldn’t philosophers also have a specialized vocabulary as long as they are careful to define their terms? And does ordinary language really solve the philosophical problem of free will versus determinism?

Back to Wittgenstein and his ideas. Wittgenstein wants his investigation of language “to bring words back from their metaphysical to their ordinary use.” If he is successful at doing this, then he will have cleared up philosophical language — that is, language that has erected “houses of cards.”

These “houses of cards” and philosophical problems in general arise from a failure to use words correctly, according to Wittgenstein. If philosophers did use words as the words were meant to be used, no philosophical problems would arise.

In fact, Wittgenstein writes, “A philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about.’” But if the philosopher knew how to use words correctly, then he would know his way about them and would be able to dissolve the philosophical problem. If Wittgenstein had his way, all philosophers would use words clearly and accurately.

Wittgenstein wrote, “For the clarity that we are aiming at is indeed complete clarity. But this simply means that the philosophical problems should completely disappear.”

When that happens, students presumably will no longer be required to take tests on metaphysics.

Note: The quotations by Wittgenstein that appear in this essay are from his Philosophical Investigations, translated by G. E. M. Anscombe.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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