Philosophical Investigations

From Academic Kids

Philosophical Investigations (Philosophische Untersuchungen), along with the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, is one of the two major works by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein had worked on the book for many years and it was published posthumously in 1953, originally in German (as Philosophische Untersuchungen). It deals mainly with semantics, and how conceptual confusion surrounding language use is at the root of most philosophical problems. However, it deals with other subjects, such as the foundations of psychology. It is generally considered one of the most important philosophical works of the twentieth century and it continues to influence current philosophy of mind and language.



Philosophical Investigations is unique in its approach to philosophy. Most philosophical texts present a philosophical problem, summarize and critique previous philosophy on the subject, present a thesis on how to solve the problem, and then provide argumentation in favor of the thesis. Wittgenstein's book reads much differently. It could be said that it treats philosophy as a lab science—instructing the reader to undergo various thought experiments and do the actual work of philosophy. The book never presents a philosophical problem to be solved and a solution. Rather, it engages in a dialogue, where Wittgenstein provides an example situation, articulates how one might be inclined to think of the situation, and then shows why one's inclinations suffer from conceptual confusion. For example, here is an excerpt from the first entry in the book:

"...think of the following use of language: I send someone shopping. I give him a slip marked 'five red apples'. He takes the slip to the shopkeeper, who opens the drawer marked 'apples', then he looks up the word 'red' in a table and finds a colour sample opposite it; then he says the series of cardinal numbers—I assume that he knows them by heart—up to the word 'five' and for each number he takes an apple of the same colour as the sample out of the drawer.—It is in this and similar ways that one operates with words—"But how does he know where and how he is to look up the word 'red' and what he is to do with the word 'five'?" Well, I assume that he 'acts' as I have described. Explanations come to an 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."–Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (1)

This is a good example of the style throughout the book. We can see each of the steps in Wittgenstein's method:

  • The reader is presented with a thought experiment: someone sent shopping with an order on a slip.
  • Wittgenstein articulates what the reader's reaction may be: "But how does he know where and how he is to look up the word 'red' and what he is to do with the word 'five'?...But what is the meaning of the word 'five'?"
  • Wittgenstein shows why the reader's reaction was misguided: "No such thing was in question here, only how the word 'five' is used."

It is through these thought-experiments that Wittgenstein attempts to get the reader to come to certain philosophical conclusions by himself or herself, rather than being convinced by a succinct argument for those conclusions. This method of philosophy can be very effective and rewarding, however it makes it hard to provide philosophy students with a good understanding of Wittgenstein's philosophy without having them read his entire book.

Rules of language

Wittgenstein was convinced that many philosophical problems are the result of philosophers failing to understand how language is actually used in the real world. For example a philosopher may ask "What is beauty?" and be convinced that there must be some essential thing which makes something beautiful. But for Wittgenstein, this is just a mistake in grammar occasioned by the form of the question "What is beauty?" As a matter of everyday experience, Wittgenstein would point out that we don't need to understand the essence of beauty to use the word properly, and in fact the search for the essence of beauty creates grammatical confusion about how the word should be used. In the end this grammatical confusion leads philosophers to say strange things which nobody else understands. Instead of searching for a mythical substrate which defines beauty, Wittgenstein suggests that we take our cues from the actual use of the word. In particular Wittgenstein asks us to look at the way in which we teach children to use a word. (Note: Eschewing the 'ordinary language' definition, Wittgenstein uniquely interpreted 'grammar' as similar to 'social rules'. So in Wittgenstein's use of the word, one would break the 'grammar' of the social situation of meeting Queen Elizabeth II if one turned up in jeans and t-shirt).

Natural language, meaning and use

This leads to the common gloss of Wittgenstein's argument in the Investigations: "Meaning just is use." In other words, we don't define words by reference to things, but by the way they are used. This means there is no need to postulate that there is something called beauty which exists independent of any particular "beautiful object." This may be an accurate description of one line of thought in the book, but it is a somewhat simplistic reading of the book as a whole.

Certainly the above gloss is correct insofar as it is true that the Investigations deal largely with difficulties of language and meaning. But it is vitally important to see that he did not see them as being, fundamentally, difficulties. Instead, he viewed everything as being, fundamentally, simple. What had happened is that philosophers had obscured this by their misuse of language and their asking of meaningless questions. Wittgenstein attempted in PI to make things clear, and 'show the fly out of the fly bottle'.

Language games and the meaning of 'game'

A closer examination of one of the most influential sections of the book shows this. As is common in Wittgenstein's later works, he begins by asking the reader to perform a thought experiment. First he asks the reader to come up with a definition of the word "game". While this may at first seem a simple task, he then goes on to lead us through the problems with each of the possible definitions of the word "game". Any definition which focuses on amusement leaves us unsatisfied since the feelings experienced by a world class chess player are very different than those of a circle of children playing Duck Duck Goose. Any definition which focuses on competition will fail to explain the game of catch, or the game of solitaire. And a definition of the word "game" which focuses on rules will fall on similar difficulties. The essential point of this exercise is often missed. Wittgenstein's point is not that it is impossible to define "game", but that we don't have a definition, and we don't need one.

Everybody understands what we mean when we talk about playing a game, and we can even clearly identify and correct inaccurate uses of the word. All without reference to any "definition". Wittgenstein argues that 'definitions' are emergent forms from what he termed 'forms of life', which are the culture and society from which they emerged. One thing Wittgenstein stresses very strongly in Investigations are the social aspects of cognition: he went so far as to term Investigations a kind of anthropological exercise. To see how language works, we have to see how it functions in a specific social situation. It is this emphasis on becoming attentive to the social backdrop against which language is rendered intelligible that explains Wittgenstein's ellipitcal comment that "if a lion could speak, we would not understand him."

Family resemblances

How exactly does this work? Why is it that we are sure a particular activity -- Olympic target shooting -- is a game while a similar activity -- military sharp shooting -- is not? Wittgenstein's explanation is tied up with an important analogy. How do we recognize that two people we know are related to one another? We may see similar height, weight, eye color, hair, nose, mouth, patterns of speech, social or political views, mannerisms, body structure, last names, etc. If we see enough matches we say we've noticed a family resemblance. It is perhaps important to note that this is not always a conscious process -- generally we don't catalog various similarities until we reach a certain threshold, we just intuitively see the resemblances. Wittgenstein suggests that the same may be true of language. Perhaps we are all familiar (i.e. socially) with enough things which are games, and enough things which are not games that we can instantly categorize new activities intuitively.

This brings us back to Wittgenstein's reliance on indirect communication, and his reliance on thought-experiments. If many philosophers are confused, it is because they aren't able to see the family resemblances. They've made mistakes in understanding the vague intuitive rules language uses (which Wittgenstein calls the rules of the language game), and have thereby tied themselves up in philosophical knots. He suggests that an attempt to untangle these knots requires more than simple deductive arguments which point out the problems with their particular position. Instead Wittgenstein's larger goal seems to be to try to divert them from their philosophical problems long enough to indirectly re-train their intuitive ability to see the family resemblances.

Private language

Perhaps the most celebrated argument put forward in the Philosophical Investigations is what is called the Private Language Argument (even though it is not, strictly speaking, an argument), in which Wittgenstein asks if it is possible for us to have a language that nobody else can understand. Would such a language make any sense to me? How could I be sure that I had used the correct term to describe a sensation or object? Supposing I have a sensation S and mark it down every time S occurs, how can I subjectively be sure that I am relating the present S to the previous S? Wittgenstein in Investigations raises several objections to the notion of a private language (thus it is impossible to speak of a single 'Private Language Argument', despite this being a commonly-used term). One theme central to them is the notion of language as we know it being a public activity. Another related idea is the observation that when we speak of a word having a meaning, we normally imply some means of verification, i.e. I can be wrong about this bird being a raven, in the sense that others may tell me that it is a crow, but how can I verify that this is the same sensation? Wittgenstein likens this to buying a hundred copies of the same newspaper to check that the first copy was correct.

As with all work by the 'later' Wittgenstein, what he is trying to do here is not to raise some new, exciting theory that might 'solve' the problems of language. Instead, he is perpetually dragging the philosopher back to the facts of language that (according to Wittgenstein) s/he always knew all the time, but had forgotten in the excitement of thinking that s/he had discovered some new theory. So, therefore, Wittgenstein doesn't attempt to prove that the concept of a private language is false: he attempts to prove that the concept makes no sense (in terms of what we know about how we actually use language). Wittgenstein believed that language (and therefore thought) was a fundamentally social activity, but he did not argue that this was the case. Instead he tried to show that the alternative view (the individualist view of language as argued for, for example, by Chomsky) was meaningless, and could never be coherently enunciated as a real theory.

The importance of the Private Language Argument can be understood in that the existence of a private language is presumed by many existing philosophical schools of thought (e.g. David Hume's Empiricism). In trying to show this presumption erroneous, Wittgenstein in effect is attempting to reveal a fundamental flaw in the reasoning behind many important philosophical doctrines.

Wittgenstein's analysis of psychological phenomena

In the second part of Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein moves outward from human language behavior and towards an examination of more general psychological issues.

In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein deconstructs his own earlier arguments (as explained in the Tractatus) with respect to human language. In remark #23 of Philosophical Investigations, he points out that the practice of human language is more complex than the simplified views of language that have been held by people who want to explain or simulate human language by means of some formal system. It would be a disastrous mistake, according to Wittgenstein, to see language as being in any way analogous to formal logic. Instead, language showed indexicality and was context-bound (cf contextualism). To show this, he constructed many sentences that can be interpreted in more than one way. One of the most famous is, "Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language." Does this mean:

  1. that philosophers use language to combat bewitchments, or
  2. that philosophers battle bewitchments caused by language itself?

But to repeat, Wittgenstein did not view himself as arguing that language was indexical so much as showing that it was.

Missing image

In addition to such ambiguous sentences which can be understood in more than one way, Wittgenstein discussed figures which can be seen and understood in two different ways. One example Wittgenstein used was the "duckrabbit". What is going on when you see it as a duck then as a rabbit?

Actually as the gnomic remarks in Investigations make clear (or rather, not), Wittgenstein wasn't sure. But one thing he was sure about was that what couldn't be happening was that the external world stayed the same, and an 'internal' cognitive change took place. For Wittgenstein, thought was ineluctably social, and therefore, there really was no 'inner' for anything to happen in. Some people have argued, therefore, that Wittgenstein was a behaviorist. In a sense this is true, but in another it misses the point. Wittgenstein did not want to be a behaviorist, but nor did he want to be a cognitivist or phenomonologist either. As always, for Wittgenstein, there is only one way to look at the matter, which is simply to look at the facts of linguistic usage. Then (according to him) one would see that no 'theory' is possible; there are only the facts of language use. The extent to which he succeeded in this task is, of course, very controversial.


There are two popular editions of Philosophical Investigations, both translated by G. E. M. Anscombe:

  • Prentice Hall, 1999 (ISBN 0024288101)
  • Blackwell Publishers, 2002 (ISBN 0631231277). Of the two, the Blackwell edition is less expensive and also offers the original German text in addition to the English translation.

External links

pl:Poszukiwania filozoficzne


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