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Wittgenstein on the Nature of Thought and Language

Updated: Sep 10, 2022

David Stern is a professor of philosophy and a Collegiate Fellow in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Iowa. I asked him some questions related to my ongoing inquiry. His research interests include history of analytic philosophy, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, and digital editing of philosophical texts. He is the leader of a group working on an innovative online presentation of the structure of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus and its sources, the University of Iowa Tractatus Map:

For more information, see his University of Iowa web page:

1. Why did Wittgenstein regard attempts to define knowledge as fundamentally mistaken?

In his post-Tractatus philosophy, Wittgenstein’s opposition to the project of a philosophical definition of knowledge is part of his larger opposition to the idea that philosophy should aim to give definitions or analyses of general terms. Instead, he thinks we have to start from concrete cases, and once we do that we will see that the phenomena in question “have no one thing in common which makes us use the same word for all, -- but that they are related to one another in many different ways” (Philosophical Investigations, section 65). His advice is that we shouldn’t say that there "must be something common… but look and see whether there is anything common to all. – For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that.” (section 66) In this pivotal passage from the Investigations he was explicitly discussing the question whether language has an essence, and so can be defined, but in the Blue Book he makes a very similar point and connects it to Socrates’ quest for a definition of knowledge:

The idea that in order to get clear about the meaning of a general term one had to find the common element in all its applications has shackled philosophical investigation; for it has not only led to no result, but also made the philosopher dismiss as irrelevant the concrete cases, which alone could have helped him understand the usage of the general term. When Socrates asks the question “what is knowledge?” he does not even regard it as a preliminary answer to enumerate cases of knowledge. (pp. 19-20)

2. How should philosophy begin if it doesn’t start from questions about knowledge?

The relationship between everyday life, science, and philosophy, is a central concern throughout the course of Wittgenstein’s writing. He regarded philosophy, properly conducted, as an autonomous activity, a matter of clarifying our understanding of language. Throughout his philosophical career, Wittgenstein thought that philosophy and natural science are fundamentally different kinds of activities. Science aims at knowledge of the world, and true theories. Philosophy, on the other hand, “is not one of the natural sciences. …Philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts. Philosophy is not a theory but an activity.” (Tractatus 4.111-4.112) While the nature of his conception of philosophical clarification did change in his later philosophy, with his recognition of the importance of “concrete cases,” Wittgenstein retained the conviction that we have to start from questions about language, not knowledge. The later Wittgenstein thought philosophy should state the obvious as a way of disabusing us of the desire to formulate philosophical theories of meaning, knowledge, language, or science:

When philosophers use a word--"knowledge," "being," "object," "I," "proposition/sentence," "name,"-- and try to grasp the essence of the thing, one must always ask oneself: is the word ever actually used this way in the language in which it is at home? (Philosophical Investigations, section 116)

3. I have seen it written that Wittgenstein, in his later work, came to believe that what is important in philosophy is not argument, but rather getting people to see things from another perspective. Is this true, and if so, why did he believe it?

In his later philosophy, Wittgenstein came to see that our use of language depends on a background of common behaviour and shared practices, on "forms of life." The point of his later philosophy is still to achieve insight into the nature of our language, but that insight is only supposed to undermine the grammatical illusions that generate philosophical problems, not generate yet another philosophical theory. He gave up the idea that the philosopher can achieve an objective standpoint outside our ordinary lives, a "view from nowhere," as it were, recognizing that the very notion of a standpoint outside language is an illusion, an illusion generated by certain distinctively philosophical ways of speaking and thinking. In other words, he saw that Tractarian attempts to show what cannot be said were ultimately just as flawed as the philosophical tradition the book was supposed to bring to an end. Instead, he turned to showing how traditional philosophers, including the one who had written the Tractatus, had misunderstood the working of our language, exposing the proto-philosophical moves that lead to the formulation of philosophical theories. His later philosophy "leaves everything as it is" (PI, 124): he aims to expose traditional philosophical claims to answer philosophical questions as meaningless, while providing no substantive answers to those questions himself. At one point in the Philosophical Investigations, he summarizes his response to philosophical theorising in these terms: "What I want to teach is: to pass from unobvious nonsense to obvious nonsense." (PI 464) In the early 1930s, he set out his conception of the relationship between his work and traditional philosophizing in equally stark terms:

The person with a "healthy human understanding" who reads a former philosopher, thinks (and not without right): "Mere nonsense!" If that person hears me, he thinks--rightly, again--"Nothing but boring truisms!" And so the aspect of philosophy has changed. (I want to say: "this is the way such a thing looks from different standpoints.") (TS 219, p. 6)

4. Is thought, by its very nature, determinate?

The quick Tractarian answer is “yes”: a thought is a proposition with a sense (TLP 4), and sense must be determinate (TLP 3.2-3.23). The precise nature of the argument in the Tractatus that sense must be determinate (and whether there is such an argument at all) are controversial, but it’s clear that the “requirement that sense be determinate” (TLP 3.23) is central to the Tractarian conception of thought and meaning.

During the first half of the 1930s Wittgenstein moved away from a conception of language as a formal system of rules, and toward the view that mastery of rules is dependent on a background of shared practices. On his later view, the rules of our language are more like the rules of a game than a calculus, for they concern actions within a social context. It is that context, namely our practices and forms of life, on the one hand, and the facts of nature on which those practices depend, on the other, that make up the background within which it is possible to give an explicit description of an action as a case of rule-following. Because an inherited background involves skills, habits and customs, it cannot be spelled out in a theory. It is this emphasis on both the social and natural context of rule-following that is characteristic of Wittgenstein's later conception of language as a practice.

On page 25 of the Blue Book, Wittgenstein issued the following warning about the dangers of treating our language as though it were a calculus:

Remember that in general we don't use language according to strict rules--it hasn't been taught us by means of strict rules, either. We, in our discussions on the other hand, constantly compare language with a calculus proceeding according to exact rules.
This is a very one-sided way of looking at language. In practice we very rarely use language as such a calculus. For not only do we not think of the rules of usage--of definitions, etc.--while using language, but when we are asked to give such rules, in most cases we aren't able to do so. We are unable clearly to circumscribe the concepts we use; not because we don't know their real definition, but because there is no real "definition" to them. To suppose that there must be would be like supposing that whenever children play with a ball they play a game according to strict rules.

In section 81 of the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein implies that his misunderstanding of the analogy between a calculus and ordinary language had been responsible for his conception of language as governed by a system of rules:

F. P. Ramsey once emphasized in conversation with me that logic was a "normative science." I do not know exactly what he had in mind, but it was doubtless closely related to what only dawned on me later: namely, that in philosophy we often compare the use of words with games and calculi which have fixed rules, but cannot say that someone who is using language must be playing such a game...
All this can only appear in the right light when one has attained greater clarity about the concepts of understanding, meaning and thinking. For it will then also become clear what can lead us (and did lead me) to think that if anyone utters a sentence and means or understands it he is operating a calculus according to definite rules.

At times, Wittgenstein ascribed the calculus conception of understanding to the Tractatus; in early drafts of the Investigations, the parenthetical phrase "(and did lead me)" read "(and did lead me (Tractatus.))" But the calculus model only really came to prominence in the early 1930s, once Wittgenstein had given up logical atomism and began to insist on the variety of different ways that language can be used. While the Tractatus certainly does treat meaning or understanding a sentence as though it were a matter of operating a calculus according to definite rules, there is none of the emphasis on the diversity of different calculi, each with its own rules, that one finds in his writings in the early 1930s. In addition, in the years preceding his full-blooded acceptance of the calculus model, he had been drawn to the idea that no system of signs, considered by itself, could ever mean anything: that meaning and understanding depend on an inner mental process that animates the otherwise lifeless signs that we use. Thus, in manuscripts written in the 1930s, Wittgenstein refers to his old view of meaning quite differently: as a "pneumatic" or "spiritual" ("pneumatisch") conception. His use of the term suggests both a characterization of meaning as something ethereal, something that could only go on in the mind, while also connoting that he now regarded it as vacuous. In section 85 of the Philosophical Grammar, Wittgenstein describes the train of thought that had misled him in the following terms:

I said that a proposition was laid against reality like a ruler. And a ruler--like all logical comparison for a proposition--is itself in a particular case a propositional sign. Now one would like to say: "Put the ruler against a body: it does not say that the body is of such-and-such a length. Rather it is in itself dead and achieves nothing of what thought achieves. It is as if we had imagined that the essential thing about a living being were the outward form. Then we made a lump of wood in that form, and were abashed to see the stupid block, which hasn't any similarity to life.

In the opening pages of the Blue Book, Wittgenstein gave the following summary of the views about the nature of thought and language that had once tempted him, continually qualifying his description with the words "it seems" and "we are tempted to think that...":

It seems that there are certain definite mental processes bound up with the working of language, processes through which alone language can function. I mean the processes of understanding and meaning. The signs of our language seem dead without these mental processes; and it might seem that the only function of the signs is to induce such processes, and that these are the only things we ought really to be interested in... We are tempted to think that the action of language consists of two parts: an inorganic part, the handling of signs, and an organic part, which we may call understanding these signs, meaning them, interpreting them, thinking. These latter activities seem to take place in a queer kind of medium, the mind; and the mechanism of the mind, the nature of which, it seems, we don't quite understand, can bring about effects which no material mechanism could. (Blue Book, pp. 3-4.)

A central example of this kind of misunderstanding of the mind follows immediately in the text, and is the subject of a critique that continues for most of the next forty pages: the conviction that only a thought or some other mental process can have a determinate sense, for any combination of signs, taken by itself, is always, in principle, open to any number of alternative interpretations. This is also a central theme in the first two hundred remarks of the Investigations.

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David Stern is the editor of Wittgenstein in the 1930s: Between the Tractatus and the Investigations (Cambridge UP, 2018), and the author of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations: An Introduction (Cambridge UP, 2004) and Wittgenstein on mind and language (Oxford UP, 1995). He is a co-editor of Wittgenstein: Lectures, Cambridge 1930-1933, From the Notes of G. E Moore (Cambridge UP, 2016), and the parellel online Wittgenstein Source Facsimile Edition of Moore’s Notes of Wittgenstein’s Lectures. He is also a co-editor of Wittgenstein Reads Weininger, (Cambridge UP, 2004) and The Cambridge Companion to Wittgenstein, (Cambridge UP, 1996; second, extensively revised, edition, 2018.)

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