Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Philosophers - Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1889–1951)
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Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1889–1951)

Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1889–1951)
DOI: 10.5040/9781350052437-0476

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Ludwig Wittgenstein was born into a wealthy and cultured Viennese family on 26 April 1889 and died in Cambridge on 29 April 1951. His early education was largely technical. In 1908 he came to England to take part in experiments in aeronautics. An early interest in questions of logic and philosophy led him, in 1911, to study these subjects with Bertrand Russell at Cambridge. At this time he conceived his early masterpiece, the Tractatus logico-philosophicus. At the outbreak of World War I he returned to his native country to enlist in the Austrian army, and at the end of the war was taken prisoner on the Italian front. After publication of the Tractatus in 1921, he retired from philosophy to become an elementary school teacher in a remote Austrian village. In the late 1920s, after being coaxed out of his retirement, he began to form the ideas of the ‘later’ philosophy for which he is mainly renowned. From 1930 to 1933 he started lecturing at Cambridge, and in 1939 was appointed to a chair. From this, however, he resigned at the outbreak of World War II to take a job as a hospital orderly, returning to Cambridge after the war. Throughout this time he produced a vast quantity of drafts for what in due course became his most famous and influential work, the Philosophical Investigations (1958). He also wrote substantially on the philosophy of mathematics as well as on other subjects. He did not regard any of this work as ready for publication and none was published until after his death.

Wittgenstein is widely regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of the century and perhaps in the whole history of the subject. Throughout his philosophical career Wittgenstein was concerned about the relation between words and things, language and the world. When he wrote the Tractatus he regarded the relation as one of correlation between elements of language and elements of the world. He illustrated his conception (known as the ‘picture theory’ of meaning) by reference to a model that had been presented at a court case about a road accident. In the model, miniature vehicles and people represented (‘meant’) the real vehicles and people, and the model would have been true if these had been related to one another as shown in the model, and false otherwise. In a later writing he represented such views as follows: ‘The words of a language name objects [and] sentences are combinations of such names … Every word has a meaning. This meaning is correlated with the word. It is the object for which the word stands’ (Philosophical Investigations, p. 1).

These ideas are not, however, as straightforward as they may seem. If the meaning of a word is the object for which it stands, how can we speak about fictional objects, such as unicorns, or objects that once existed but no longer exist? It turns out that the correlation between words and objects would have to be, not between ordinary words and objects, but between what he called ‘simple’ names and objects. Ordinary words would have to be analysable into ever simpler components and the same is true of objects; and the correlation between words and objects was to be found at the ‘fully analysed’ level ( Tractatus , 3.2–3.261).

The required analysis would be applied to sentences in which a word occurs. Take the sentence ‘The broom is in the corner’ (cf. Investigations, p. 60). A broom consists of two parts: a stick and a brush; and the meaning of ‘broom’ can be analysed accordingly. This, however, would not be the final analysis, for sticks and brushes are also complex objects; and yet the words ‘stick’ and ‘brush’ would not become meaningless if they went out of existence. To get to the required correlation, we would have to go on analysing until we came to names and objects that are truly simple. These objects, he held, could not go out of existence: they are ‘the substance of the world’, which is eternal and unchanging; and hence the names for them could not become meaningless.

One might now expect Wittgenstein to give examples of the relevant ‘names’, but this he did not think necessary. His argument was that there must be such elements if language was to be possible at all. Thus ‘the requirement that simple signs be possible is the requirement that sense be determinate’ ( Tractatus , 3.24). If there were no such signs, there could not be the required correlations; and our words would lack any definite sense. Such names and the ‘elementary propositions’ made up of them are not, however, apparent in ordinary language; and thus the true meanings of our words are hidden from us: the surface appearance of our language conceals the correlations that give meaning to what we say.

The analysis was to be done by means of truth-functional logic. According to this system, the truth of ‘The broom is in the corner’ would be a ‘function’ of the truths of ‘The stick is in the corner’ and ‘The brush is in the corner’; while the truth of ‘The broom is either in the corner or in the cupboard’ would be similarly dependent on whether either of these alternatives was true. Certain other logical relations are included in this system, but these will not be discussed here. What is worth noting is that the system would not accommodate sentences such as ‘Smith believes that p.’ This is evidently not a simple sentence, but neither is it complex in the truth-functional way. Wittgenstein’s solution was that ‘Smith’ would not appear at all in the analysis of such sentences. The correct way to understand them was purely in terms of the relationship between proposition ‘p’ and the corresponding state of affairs. The believing subject drops out ( Tractatus , 5.541–5.5421).

The aim of his book, said Wittgenstein, was to show that ‘what can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak one must be silent’ ( Tractatus , p. 2). There was also, however, a ‘domain outside’ language and he spoke in this connection of ‘the mystical’ and ‘the ethical’. But more important for an understanding of the Tractatus is his remark (6.54) that the propositions he had put forward in that work were nonsense. This remark has been an object of ridicule, but it is consistent with the Tractatus account of meaning. The point is that that account is not applicable to the account itself. He had described the ‘logical form’ of propositions – ‘what they must have in common with reality in order to represent it’ ( Tractatus , 4.12) – but these descriptions could not themselves be representations of reality. The point can also be expressed in terms of pictures. A picture depicts relations between objects, but the relation of depicting cannot itself be depicted: it ‘shows itself’, but is not part of what the picture ‘says’.

According to the Tractatus, language is far more systematic and regular than it appears on the surface, and according to the young Wittgenstein, ‘men have always had a presentiment’ that it must be so. But in the later work there was a fundamental change in his views and assumptions. He began his Philosophical Investigations – the work for which he is most renowned – with a simple example of language in action. Someone goes to a shop with a slip marked ‘five red apples’. To deal with the last of these words the shopkeeper goes to a drawer marked ‘apples’; for the second he uses a colour sample, while for the first he says the numbers one to five. But how did he know what to do with these different kinds of words? ‘Well, I assume he acts as I have described. Explanations come to end somewhere. – But what is the meaning of the word “five”? – No such thing was in question here; only how the word “five” is used’ (Investigations, p. 1).

Here we have a distillation of much of Wittgenstein’s later thought. Instead of what may be called the earlier ‘dehumanized’ account of language, he now considered what people do with language in various ‘language-games’; instead of the assumption of uniformity, he now insisted on the irreducible diversity of ways of using words; where previously he had theorized about a hidden essence of language, he now regarded the quest for such theories and explanations as misguided. There is, he now maintained, nothing that is the meaning of a word, other than its use.

Much of Wittgenstein’s later writing has the form of conversations with an imaginary interlocutor, and in one famous passage he imagines the latter addressing him as follows: ‘You talk about all sorts of language-games, but have nowhere said what the essence of a language-game, and hence of language, is: what is common to all these activities … So you let yourself off the very part of the investigation that once gave you the most headache …’ His reply was: ‘And this is true.’ He now, however, rejected the assumption that there must be something ‘common to all’; and he went on to illustrate the point by reference to the word ‘game’. Having given instances of various games, he continued: ‘What is common to them all? – Don’t say: “There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games’” – but look and see whether there is …’ (Philosophical Investigations, pp. 65–6).

He then considered some typical features of games and concluded that the relation between the various games is one of ‘family resemblances’, consisting of ‘a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing’, akin to those we find among members of a family. Even if some ingenious philosopher were to discover a set of features that games and only games have in common, this set could not be a necessary condition of the use of this word, since people can use it without being able to produce such a set.

In the early work he had argued that the hidden structures were necessary if ‘sense [is to] be determinate’, but he now pointed out that this rested on a misunderstanding of the meaning of ‘determinate’. ‘If I give the description “the ground was covered with plants”, will you say that I don’t know what I am talking about unless I can give a definition of a plant?’ (ibid., p. 70). Similarly, the instruction ‘five red apples’ would have been perfectly clear without any need for analysis. It is true that difficulties might have arisen if the shopkeeper had had only apples of an indeterminate colour (or fruit of an indeterminate species) in stock, but this does not imply a lack of precision in the wording on the paper. Precision and determinacy are relative to the context in which language is being used.

In the early work, determinacy was thought to depend on the existence of a basic naming relation, whereby ‘a name means an object; the object is its meaning’ ( Tractatus , 3.203). What, according to the later Wittgenstein, is the basic relation between words and things? Is there some other kind of item that is the meaning of a word (or name)? No: to understand what a word means is to know how to use it: ‘The use of [a] word in practice is its meaning’ (The Blue and Brown Books, p. 69; cf. Philosophical Investigations, p. 43). The use of words may be compared to the use of money (cf. ibid., p. 120). The value (‘meaning’) of a coin lies in its use, and it has that meaning because of its use in a given community. And the use and meaning of both money and words are not hidden from us.

Wittgenstein’s identification of meaning with use is important, not only for an understanding of linguistic meaning in general, but also for an understanding of particular words that have been troublesome in philosophy. Given such words as ‘knowledge’, ‘being’, ‘object’, ‘I’, ‘proposition’ and ‘name’, what we should do is not ‘try to grasp the essence of thing’, but ask ourselves how the words ‘are actually used in … the language in which [they are] at home’ (ibid., p. 116). What he proposed was to ‘bring these words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use’. We are not to suppose that knowledge, for example, can be understood otherwise than by attending to the use of this word in the language in which it is at home. To a sceptic who claims that other people ‘cannot know whether I am really in pain’, he would reply: ‘If we are using the word “know” as it is normally used (and how else are we to use it!), then other people very often know when I am in pain’ (ibid., p. 246). A philosopher who uses such words in ways that are incompatible with their normal use could not mean by them what they normally mean.

The question ‘What do words mean?’ is connected with the question of how we learn what they mean. One might suppose that if every word means a corresponding thing, then its meaning could be taught by indicating that thing. But Wittgenstein points out that such teaching works only if a certain background knowledge, which cannot itself have been taught, is taken for granted. He introduced an imaginary word, ‘tove’, and supposed that to teach its meaning one pointed to a pencil, saying ‘This is tove.’ Then the learner might take ‘tove’ to mean ‘pencil’, or ‘round’ or ‘hard’ or ‘wood’ or even ‘one’ (The Blue and Brown Books, p. 2; cf. Philosophical Investigations, pp. 28–9). He might also think that ‘tove’ is the name of this particular object. Suppose the teacher clarified his intention by saying ‘This shape is called “tove”’. This would eliminate the other possibilities – but only if the learner already knew what is meant by ‘shape’. While it is obvious that many kind of words can be taught by pointing, this is not so in the case of ‘shape’; and neither is it so with such words as ‘not’, ‘if’, ‘perhaps’, ‘number’, ‘past’ and many others. The same is true of the gesture of pointing and the phrase ‘This is …’. Yet the learner must know what these mean and what they are for. What happens in fact is that normal children just do pick up their native language; and this happens, to some extent, with the aid of teaching by adults; and when there is such teaching, children do, on the whole, catch on to what is intended. These are facts of human nature and here ‘explanations come to an end’.

A famous illustration of the limitations of teaching was that of a person who has been taught the meaning of the expression ‘+ 2’ by means of examples up to 1000. He is then asked to apply this expression to numbers above 1000, and to the teacher’s surprise he writes ‘1004, 1008’ and so on. ‘We say to him: “Look what you’ve done!” – He doesn’t understand. We say “You were meant to add two: look how you began the series!” – He answers: “Yes isn’t it right? I thought that was how I was meant to do it.”’ (ibid., p. 185). One might think that the misunderstanding could easily be corrected by telling the learner that he should ‘write the next but one number after every number that he wrote’. But what if the learner understood ‘every’, in this context, in a different sense from what we would expect? (cf. ibid., p. 186). Here again we are thrown back on the fact that normal learners just do come to understand such words in the way we all do.

Faced with the learner’s aberrant behaviour, the teacher might have said ‘That was not what I had in mind.’ But is meaning something that exists in the mind? Perhaps there is, after all, a correlation between words and things, but the things concerned are in the mind. ‘“I am not merely saying this, I mean something by it.” he says … It seems as if there must be something coupled to the words, which otherwise would run idle’ (ibid., p. 507). But what would it be? ‘Someone says “Napoleon was crowned in 1804”. I ask him “Did you mean the man who won the battle of Austerlitz?”. He says “Yes, I meant him”. – Does this mean that when “meant him”, he in some way thought of Napoleon’s winning the battle of Austerlitz?’ (The Blue and Brown Books, p. 142).

If, as Wittgenstein implies, he may have had no such thought at the time, would it follow that the man was not speaking the truth when said ‘Yes’? Perhaps he was not thinking of anything in particular when he made his remark; or perhaps he was thinking of something not connected with it. If so, would it follow that that was what he meant when he spoke? Such expressions as ‘What I had in mind …’ must not be misunderstood. ‘If God had looked into our minds, he would not have been able to see there whom we were speaking of’ (Philosophical Investigations, p. 217).

Wittgenstein’s attack on the ‘myth of mental processes’ was also applied to the cases of memory, recognition and understanding. Suppose someone is asked to bring a red flower from the meadow (The Blue and Brown Books, p. 3). Must he have a picture in his mind to enable him to recognize such a flower? If so, would he not also need such an image to enable him to imagine a red flower? On the other hand, suppose he were actually handed a picture of a red flower. This would not be sufficient for understanding the instruction, for pictures can always be interpreted in a variety of ways. The same picture might be used to accompany ‘Let me know if you see a red flower’ or ‘Keep away from red flowers’, and various other requests or assertions (cf. Philosophical Investigations, pp. 11, 54).

According to Wittgenstein, language is essentially a communal activity, and correctness in the use of a word depends on what is recognized as correct by those who speak the language concerned. The man who wrote ‘1004, 1008 …’ was using the expression ‘+ 2’ incorrectly, and anyone with a grasp of this expression would see that this was so. But could we not imagine a society in which the continuation ‘1004, 1008 …’ would be regarded as correct? Wittgenstein imagined a variety of cases in which the people of some remote society use words in ways that would seem absurd to us. In one such example firewood is sold ‘at a price proportionate to the area covered by the piles’ and not by weight or volume. How, in such a case, ‘would I show them that – as I should say – you don’t really buy more wood if you buy a pile covering a bigger area?’ The explorer might succeed, in one way or another, in persuading them that their way of calculating is incorrect; but there is no independent reality he can point to, to prove that this is so – no criterion of correctness beyond the actual use of language in that society.

Are there then, according to Wittgenstein, no limits to the diversity of language use? No: a given practice of calculating or inferring must be recognizable as such if we are to call it ‘calculating’ or ‘inferring’ at all. In an important passage he applied this point to language in general. Here he imagined an explorer visiting a remote country whose people

carry on the usual human activities and in the course of them employ, apparently, an articulate language … But when we try to learn their language, we find it impossible to do so. For there is no regular connection between … the sounds they make and their actions … Are we to say that [they] have a language: orders, reports and the rest?

 --(Philosophical Investigations, p. 207)

The evidence might strongly suggest that there are regular connections, waiting to be discovered; but unless and until that is done, we cannot conclude that they are using language: ‘the regularity for what we call “language” is lacking’.

The claim that language is essentially a communal activity is contrary to a common view that the meanings of words are essentially private, so that only the user of a word really knows its meaning. This view is especially plausible in the case of words for sensations, such as ‘pain’; and this example was chosen by Wittgenstein in his discussion of the idea that meanings are or can be private. Here he drew attention to the conditions under which we learn and use the word ‘pain’. ‘Words are connected with the primitive, natural expressions of the sensation and used in their place. A child has hurt himself and he cries; and then adults talk to him and teach him exclamations and, later, sentences’ (ibid., p. 244).

This connection with natural expressions is retained in the adult use of ‘pain’, with the addition of suitable behaviour such as seeking relief, etc. But these expressions of pain are not private, and we can tell from them whether a person is using the word correctly – whether he understands what it means. But could there not be words with private, incommunicable meanings? Wittgenstein asks us to ‘imagine the following case’: ‘I want to keep a diary about the recurrence of a certain sensation. To this end I associate it with the sign “S” and write this sign in a diary for every day on which I have the sensation’ (ibid., p. 258). One might think of this ‘associating’ as a kind of inner pointing. But how would this work? ‘Can I point to the sensation? Not in the ordinary sense. – But I [can] pronounce or write the sign, and at the same time concentrate my attention on the sensation – and so, as it were, point to it inwardly’ (ibid., p. 258).

But how, asks Wittgenstein, could this ‘serve to establish the meaning of the sign?’ It would do so if it established a ‘criterion of correctness’ for future uses of it, but this could not be done by the supposed act of concentrating attention. In this case no distinction could be made between ‘It is right’ and ‘It seems right’ when using the sign on the next occasion. Here is a crucial difference between the inner ‘pointing’ and the ordinary pointing by which one can explain or establish the meanings of many ordinary words, for in this case there would be a public criterion of correctness.

Wittgenstein’s main interests were in the areas of language and the mind, but in one of his last works, On Certainty (1969), he turned especially to questions of epistemology. Here he drew attention to ‘the peculiar logical role’ of certain propositions in our system of empirical knowledge (On Certainty, p. 136). Such propositions as ‘I have two hands,’ There are other people beside myself,’ ‘That is a tree,’ ‘The earth existed 100 years ago’ and various others would normally be classified as ‘empirical’; but, remarks Wittgenstein, ‘We don’t … arrive at them as a result of investigation’ (ibid., p. 138). A child does not learn that mountains have existed for a long time: ‘it swallows this … down, so to speak, with what it does learn’ for example, ‘that someone climbed this mountain many years ago’ (ibid., p. 143). Wittgenstein’s response to philosophical doubt was that the truth of certain propositions must be assumed in order for doubting to have a place: ‘I cannot doubt [them] without giving up all judgement’; they are ‘the hinges’ on which questions and doubts turn (ibid., pp. 494, 308, 341). ‘If you tried to doubt everything, you would not get as far as doubting anything’; ‘If you are not certain of any fact, you cannot be certain of the meaning of your words either’ (ibid., pp. 115, 114).

Here, as elsewhere, he drew attention to the primacy of action. ‘Giving grounds…, justifying the evidence, comes to an end …; but the end is not a kind of seeing on our part; it is our acting that lies at the bottom of our language-game’ (ibid., p. 204). ‘Nothing could induce me to put my hand into a flame’ (Philosophical Investigations, p. 472). Is this because of a justified belief? Our certainty in such matters ‘lies beyond being justified or unjustified’; it is, ‘as it were, something animal’ (On Certainty, p. 359).

In response to scepticism, philosophers have tried to identify propositions that can be known beyond any possibility of doubt. But Wittgenstein questioned whether these would be cases of knowledge at all. The word ‘know’ is normally used, he maintained, in cases in which doubt and error are possible. By contrast, if two people stand in front of a tree, one would not normally say to the other ‘I know that that’s a tree’; and it is not clear what this would mean (ibid., pp. 307, 260). Here, as elsewhere, he argued from the normal use of words, opposing the artificial usages of many traditional philosophers.


Tractatus logico-philosophicus (1922).

Philosophical Investigations (Oxford 1958).

The Blue and Brown Books (Oxford 1964).

Zettel (Oxford 1967).

Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics (Oxford 1978).

On Certainty (Oxford 1969).

Culture and Value (Oxford 1980)

Further Reading

Baker, G.P. and P.M.S. Hacker, Analytical Commentaries and Essays on the Philosophical Investigations (Oxford, 1980–96; 2nd edn by P.M.S. Hacker, forthcoming).

Glock, H.J., A Wittgenstein Dictionary (1996).

Hanfling, O., Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy (1989).

Hanfling, O., Wittgenstein and the Human Form of Life (2002).

Ray Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (1990).