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Encyclopedia > Philosophical Investigations
Book cover of the Blackwell edition of Philosophical Investigations
Book cover of the Blackwell edition of Philosophical Investigations

Philosophical Investigations (Philosophische Untersuchungen) is, along with the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, one of the two major works by 20th-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. In it, Wittgenstein discusses numerous problems and puzzles in the fields of semantics, logic, philosophy of mathematics, and the philosophy of mind. He puts forth the view that conceptual confusions surrounding language use are at the root of most philosophical problems. The book is generally considered one of the most important philosophical works of the 20th century, and it continues to influence contemporary philosophers (especially those studying mind and language). Image File history File linksMetadata Wittgenstein-investigations. ... Image File history File linksMetadata Wittgenstein-investigations. ... Book cover of the Dover edition of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Ogden translation) Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is the only book-length work published by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein in his lifetime. ... Wittgenstein and Hitler in school photograph taken at the Linz Realschule in 1903. ... The introduction to this article provides insufficient context for those unfamiliar with the subject matter. ... Logic, from Classical Greek λόγος logos (the word), is the study of the principles and criteria of valid inference and demonstration. ... // Philosophy of mathematics is the branch of philosophy that studies the philosophical assumptions, foundations, and implications of mathematics. ... A Phrenological mapping of the brain. ... The philosopher Socrates about to take poison hemlock as ordered by the court. ...


The text


The book was not ready for publication when Wittgenstein died in 1951. G. E. M. Anscombe translated Wittgenstein's manuscript, and it was first published in 1953. It is now in its third edition, which incorporates Anscombe's final revisions, and has been repaginated. Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe (March 18, 1919 – January 5, 2001) (known as Elizabeth Anscombe, published as G. E. M. Anscombe) was a British analytic philosopher, a theologian and a pupil of Ludwig Wittgenstein. ...

There are two popular editions of Philosophical Investigations, both translated by Anscombe:

  • Prentice Hall, 1999 (ISBN 0-02-428810-1)
  • Blackwell Publishers, 2001 (ISBN 0-631-23127-7). This edition includes the original German text in addition to the English translation.

The text is divided into two parts, consisting of what Wittgenstein calls, in the preface, Bemerkungen, translated by Anscombe as "remarks".[1] In the first part, these remarks are rarely more than a paragraph long and are numbered sequentially. In the second part, the remarks are longer and numbered using Roman numerals. In the index, remarks from the first part are referenced by their number rather than page; however, references from the second part are cited by page number. 1999 (MCMXCIX) was a common year starting on Friday, and was designated the International Year of Older Persons by the United Nations. ... 2001 (MMI) was a common year starting on Monday of the Gregorian calendar. ...

Method and presentation

Philosophical Investigations is unique in its approach to philosophy. A typical philosophical text presents a philosophical problem, summarizes and critiques various alternative approaches to solving it, presents its own approach, and then argues in favour of that approach. In contrast, Wittgenstein's book treats philosophy as an activity, rather along the lines of Socrates's famous method of maieutics; he has the reader work through various problems, participating actively in the investigation. Rather than presenting a philosophical problem and its solution, Wittgenstein engages in a dialogue, where he provides a thought experiment (a hypothetical example or situation), describes how one might be inclined to think about it, and then shows why that inclination suffers from conceptual confusion. The following is an excerpt from the first entry in the book that exemplifies this method: This page is about the ancient Greek philosopher. ... Maieutics is a method of teaching introduced by Socrates. ... In philosophy, physics, and other fields, a thought experiment (from the German Gedankenexperiment) is an attempt to solve a problem using the power of human imagination. ...

...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.[2]

This example is typical of the book's style. 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 or his interlocutor's reaction may be (he puts these statements in quotes to distinguish them from his own): "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.

Wittgenstein also uses the rhetorical device of framing many of the remarks as a dialogue between himself and a disputant. For example, Remark 258 proposes a thought experiment in which a certain sensation is associated with the sign S written in a calendar. He then sets up a dialogue in which the disputant offers a series of ways of defining S, and he meets each with a suitable objection, so drawing the conclusion that in such a case there is no right definition of S.

Through such thought experiments, Wittgenstein attempts to get the reader to come to certain philosophical conclusions independently; he does not simply argue in favor of his own conclusions. These approaches can be very effective and rewarding, but it can also make Wittgenstein's philosophy difficult to grasp.

Language, meaning, and use

Wittgenstein's method leads to the common summary of Wittgenstein's argument in the Investigations: "Meaning just is use" — that is, words are not defined by reference to the objects or things which they designate in the external world nor by the thoughts, ideas, or mental representations that one might associate with them, but rather by how they are used in effective, ordinary communication. For example, this means there is no need to postulate that there is something called good which exists independently of any particular "good deed".[3] This is one line of thought in the book, contrasting for example with Platonic realism and with Gottlob Frege's notions of sense and reference. Platonism is a philosophical term usually used to refer to the idea of realism regarding the existence of universals after the Greek philosopher Plato who lived between c. ... Friedrich Ludwig Gottlob Frege (8 November 1848, Wismar – 26 July 1925, IPA: ) was a German mathematician who became a logician and philosopher. ... The distinction between Sinn and Bedeutung (usually but not always translated sense and reference, respectively) was an innovation of the German philosopher and mathematician Gottlob Frege in his 1892 paper Ãœber Sinn und Bedeutung (On Sense and Reference), which is still widely read today. ...

The Investigations deals largely with the difficulties of language and meaning. Wittgenstein viewed the tools of language as being fundamentally simple,[4] and he believed that philosophers had obscured this simplicity by misusing language and by the asking of meaningless questions. Wittgenstein attempted in Investigations to make things clear, and "show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle."[5]

Meaning and definition

Over the course of the discussion, Wittgenstein rejects a variety of ways of thinking about what the meaning of a word is, or how meanings can be identified. He shows how, in each case, the meaning of the word presupposes our ability to use it.

Wittgenstein first asks the reader to perform a thought experiment: to come up with a definition of the word "game".[6] 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 from 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. A definition is a form of words which states the meaning of a term. ... Chess is a recreational and competitive game for two players. ... Duck Duck Goose is a traditional childrens game often first learned in pre-school or kindergarten. ... The Klondike Solitaire game that comes with GNOME. This article is about the solitaire family of card games. ...

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, because even without the definition, we use the word successfully. 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 that consists of necessary and sufficient conditions for the application of the concept of a game.

Wittgenstein argues that definitions emerge from what he termed "forms of life", roughly the culture and society in which they are used. Wittgenstein stresses the social aspects of cognition; 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 elliptical comment that "If a lion could talk, we could not understand him."[7]

Wittgenstein rejects the idea that ostensive definitions can provide us with the meaning of a word. For Wittgenstein, the thing that the word stands for does not give the meaning of the word. Wittgenstein argues for this making a series of moves to show that to understand an ostensive definition presupposes an understanding of the way the word being defined is used.[8] So, for instance, there is no difference between pointing to a piece of paper, to its colour, or to its shape; but understanding the difference is crucial to using the paper in an ostensive definition of a shape or of a colour. An ostensive definition conveys the meaning of a term by pointing out examples of what is defined by it. ...

Family resemblances

Main article: Family resemblance

Why is it that we are sure a particular activity — e.g. Olympic target shooting — is a game while a similar activity — e.g. 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.[9] 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 is true of language. We are all familiar (i.e. socially) with enough things which are games and enough things which are not games that we can categorize new activities as either games or not. Ludwig Wittgenstein proposed that we should understand some terms as being family resemblance terms, that is terms that do not determine a class of referents by specifying some determinate property of class inclusion, but rather have a group of properties that are more or less indicative that an individual should... The five Olympic rings were designed in 1913, adopted in 1914 and debuted at the Games at Antwerp, 1920. ...

This brings us back to Wittgenstein's reliance on indirect communication, and his reliance on thought-experiments. Some philosophical confusions come about because we aren't able to see family resemblances. We've made a mistake in understanding the vague and intuitive rules that language uses, and have thereby tied ourselves up in philosophical knots. He suggests that an attempt to untangle these knots require more than simple deductive arguments pointing out the problems with some particular position. Instead, Wittgenstein's larger goal is to try to divert us from our philosophical problems long enough to become aware of our intuitive ability to see the family resemblances.


Wittgenstein develops this discussion of games into the key notion of a language-game. He introduces the term using simple examples,[10] but intends it to be used for the many ways in which we use language.[11] In one language-game, a word might stand for things to be manipulated, but in another the same word might be used for asking questions or giving orders. "Water!", for example, can be an exclamation, an order, a request, or an answer to a question; but, which meaning it has depends on the language-game in which it is being used. Thus, the word "water" has no meaning apart from its use within a language-game. ostensive definition is work.


One general characteristic of games that Wittgenstein considers in detail is the way in which they consist in following rules. Rules constitute a family, rather than a class that can be explicitly defined.[12] As a consequence, it is not possible to provide a definitive account of what it is to follow a rule. Indeed, he argues that any course of action can be made out to accord with some particular rule, and that therefore a rule cannot be used to explain an action.[13] Rather, that one is following a rule or not is to be decided by looking to see if the actions conform to the expectations in the particular form of life in which one is involved. Following a rule is a social activity.

Private language

Wittgenstein also ponders the possibility of a language which talks about those things which are known only to the user, whose content is inherently private. The usual example is that of a language in which one names one's sensations and other subjective experiences, such that the meaning of the term is decided by the individual alone. For example, the individual names a particular sensation, on some occasion, 'S', and intends to use that word to refer to that sensation.[14] Such a language Wittgenstein calls a private language. The private language argument is a philosophical argument said to be found in Ludwig Wittgensteins later work, especially in Philosophical Investigations. ...

Wittgenstein presents several perspectives on the topic. One point he makes is that it is incoherent to talk of knowing that one is in some particular mental state.[15] Whereas others can learn of my pain, for example, I simply have my own pain; it follows that one does not know of one's own pain, one simply has a pain. For Wittgenstein, this is a grammatical point, part of the way in which the language-game involving the word "pain" is played.[16]

Although Wittgenstein certainly argues that the notion of private language is incoherent, because of the way in which the text is presented the exact nature of the argument is disputed. First, he argues that a private language is not really a language at all. This point is intimately connected with a variety of other themes in his later works, especially his investigations of "meaning". For Wittgenstein, there is no single, coherent "sample" or "object" that we can call "meaning". Rather, the supposition that there are such things is the source of many philosophical confusions. Meaning is a complicated phenomenon that is woven into the fabric of our lives. A good first approximation of Wittgenstein's point is that meaning is a social event; meaning happens between language users. As a consequence, it makes no sense to talk about a private language, with words that mean something in the absence of other users of the language.

Wittgenstein also argues that one couldn't possibly use the words of a private language.[17] He invites the reader to consider a case in which someone decides that each time she has a particular sensation she will place a sign S in a diary. Wittgenstein points out that in such a case one could have no criteria for the correctness of one's use of S. Again, several examples are considered. One is that perhaps using S involves mentally consulting a table of sensations, to check that one has associated S correctly; but in this case, how could the mental table be checked for its correctness? It is "[a]s if someone were to buy several copies of the morning paper to assure himself that what it said was true", as Wittgenstein puts it.[18] One common interpretation of the argument is that while one may have direct or privileged access to one's current mental states, there is no such infallible access to identifying previous mental states that one had in the past. That is, the only way to check to see if one has applied the symbol S correctly to a certain mental state is to introspect and determine whether the current sensation is identical to the sensation previously associated with S. And while identifying one's current mental state of remembering may be infallible, whether one remembered correctly is not infallible. Thus, for a language to be used at all it must have some public criterion of identity.

Often, what is widely regarded as a deep philosophical problem will vanish, argues Wittgenstein, and eventually be seen as a confusion about the significance of the words that philosophers use to frame such problems and questions. It is only in this way that it is interesting to talk about something like a "private language" — i.e., it is helpful to see how the "problem" results from a misunderstanding.

Wittgenstein's beetle

Another point that Wittgenstein makes against the possibility of a private language involves the beetle-in-a-box thought experiment.[19] He asks the reader to imagine that each person has a box, inside which is a something that everyone intends to refer to with the word "beetle". Further, suppose that no one can look inside another's box, and each claims to know what a "beetle" is only by examining their own box. Wittgenstein suggests that, in such a situation, the word "beetle" could not be the name of a thing, because supposing that each person has something completely different in their boxes (or nothing at all) does not change the meaning of the word; the beetle as a private object "drops out of consideration as irrelevant".[20] Thus, Wittgenstein argues, if we can talk about something, then it is not private, in the sense considered. And, conversely, if we consider something to be indeed private, it follows that we cannot talk about it.

Kripke's account

The discussion of private languages was revitalised from 1982 with the publication of Saul Kripke's book Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language.[21] In this work, Kripke develops, from Wittgenstein's text, an argument for skepticism about rules, and hence towards meaning. Kripke's version of Wittgenstein, although philosophically interesting on its own merit, has been facetiously called Kripkenstein. This does not cite its references or sources. ... In analytic philosophy, Kripkenstein is a half-satirical nickname casually applied by philosophers for Saul Kripkes reading of Ludwig Wittgensteins later work, as presented in Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language. ...


Wittgenstein's investigations of language lead to several issues concerning the mind. His key target of criticism is any form of extreme mentalism which posits mental states that are entirely unconnected to the subject's environment. For Wittgenstein, thought is inevitably tied to language, which is inherently social; therefore, there is no 'inner' space for thoughts to occur. Part of Wittgenstein's credo is captured in the following proclamation: "An 'inner process' stands in need of outward criteria."[22] This follows primarily from his conclusions about private languages: similarly, a private mental state (a sensation of pain, for example) cannot be adequately discussed without public criteria for identifying it.

According to Wittgenstein, those who insist that consciousness (or other apparently subjective mental states) are conceptually unconnected to the external world are mistaken. Wittgenstein explicitly criticizes so-called conceivability arguments: "Could one imagine a stone's having consciousness? And if anyone can do so—why should that not merely prove that such image-mongery is of no interest to us?"[23] He considers and rejects the following reply as well: In philosophy, a philosophical zombie or p-zombie is a hypothetical person who is unconscious and lacks qualia (the subjective character of experience). ...

"But if I suppose that someone is in pain, then I am simply supposing that he has just the same as I have so often had." — That gets us no further. It is as if I were to say: "You surely know what 'It is 5 o'clock here' means; so you also know what 'It's 5 o'clock on the sun' means. It means simply that it is just the same there as it is here when it is 5 o'clock." — The explanation by means of identity does not work here.[24]

Thus, according to Wittgenstein, mental states are intimately connected to a subject's environment, especially her linguistic environment, and conceivability or imaginability arguments that claim otherwise are misguided.


From his remarks on the importance of public, observable behavior (as opposed to private experiences), it may seem that Wittgenstein is simply a behaviorist—one who thinks that mental states are nothing over and above certain behavior. However, Wittgenstein resists such a characterization; he writes (considering what an objector might say): Behaviorism (or behaviourism) is an approach to psychology based on the proposition that behavior is interesting and worthy of scientific research. ...

"Are you not really a behaviourist in disguise? Aren't you at bottom really saying that everything except human behaviour is a fiction?" — If I do speak of a fiction, then it is of a grammatical fiction.[25] Fiction (from the Latin fingere, to form, create) is storytelling of imagined events and stands in contrast to non-fiction, which makes factual claims that can be substantiated with evidence. ... For the surname, see Grammer. ...

Clearly, Wittgenstein did not want to be a behaviorist, but nor did he want to be a cognitivist or a phenomenologist. He is, of course, primarily concerned with facts of linguistic usage. Unlike the behaviorists, Wittgenstein is not necessarily denying the existence of subjective phenomena, such as the experience of pain, he is rather denying that we can talk about such phenomena. However, some argue that Wittgenstein is basically a behaviorist because he considers facts about language use as all there is. Such a claim is controversial, since it is not explicitly endorsed in the Investigations. In psychology, cognitivism is a theoretical approach to understanding the mind, which argues that mental function can be understood by quantitative, positivist and scientific methods, and that such functions can be described as information processing models. ... This article is about the philosophical movement. ... Linguistics is the scientific study of language, which can be theoretical or applied. ...

Seeing that vs. seeing as

The duck-rabbit, made famous by Wittgenstein

In addition to ambiguous sentences, Wittgenstein discussed figures which can be seen and understood in two different ways. Often one can see something in a straightforward way — seeing that it is a rabbit, perhaps. But, at other times, one notices a particular aspect — seeing it as something. Illustration of a duckrabbit as discussed by Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations Image created with Adobe Photoshop. ... Illustration of a duckrabbit as discussed by Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations Image created with Adobe Photoshop. ...

An example Wittgenstein uses is the "duckrabbit", a picture that can be seen as either a duck or a rabbit.[26] When one looks at the duck-rabbit and sees a rabbit, one is not interpreting the picture as a rabbit, but rather reporting what one sees. One just sees the picture as a rabbit. But what occurs when one sees it first as a duck, then as a rabbit? As the gnomic remarks in the Investigations indicate, Wittgenstein isn't sure. However, he is sure that it could not be the case that the external world stays the same while an 'internal' cognitive change takes place. It has been suggested that Gnomic literature be merged into this article or section. ...

Relation to the Tractatus

In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein deconstructs much of his own earlier views from the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. The Tractatus had been an attempt to set out a logically perfect language, building on the work of Bertrand Russell. In the years between the two works he came to reject the idea that underpinned logical atomism, that there were ultimate "simples" from which a language should, or even could, be constructed. Book cover of the Dover edition of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Ogden translation) Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is the only book-length work published by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein in his lifetime. ... Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell OM FRS (18 May 1872 – 2 February 1970), was a British philosopher, logician, mathematician and advocate for social reform. ... Logical Atomism is a philosophical belief that originated in the early 20th century with the development of Analytic philosophy. ...

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 those who seek to explain or simulate human language by means of a formal system. It would be a disastrous mistake, according to Wittgenstein, to see language as being in any way analogous to formal logic. In logic and mathematics, a formal system consists of two components, a formal language plus a set of inference rules or transformation rules. ... Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), pictured here in 1930, made influential contributions to Logic and the philosophy of language, critically examining the task of conventional philosophy and its relation to the nature of language. ... Logic, from Classical Greek λόγος logos (the word), is the study of the principles and criteria of valid inference and demonstration. ...

Instead, language has many context-sensitive expressions, such as indexicals. To show this, Wittgenstein provided examples of sentences or expressions 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", which could mean either one of the following: In philosophy, contextualism describes a collection of views in the philosophy of language which emphasize the context in which an action, utterance or expression occurs, and argues that, in some important respect, the action, utterance or expression can only be understood within that context. ... In the philosophy of language, an indexical behavior or utterance is one whose meaning varies according to certain features of the context in which it is uttered. ...

  • philosophers use language to combat bewitchments, or
  • philosophers battle bewitchments caused by language itself.

This ambiguity can only be resolved in context, showing that language cannot be broken down into self-contained units of meaning.

Besides stressing the Investigation's opposition to the Tractatus, there are critical approaches which have argued that there is much more continuity and similarity between the two works than supposed. One of these is the New Wittgenstein approach. The New Wittgenstein is a set of affiliated interpretations of the work of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. ...


Remarks in Part I of Investigations are preceded by the symbol "§". Remarks in Part II are referenced by their Roman numeral or their page number in the third edition.

  1. ^ Wittgenstein (1953), Preface. (All citations will be from Wittgenstein (1953), unless otherwise noted.)
  2. ^ §1.
  3. ^ See §77.
  4. ^ See §97.
  5. ^ §309.
  6. ^ See §3.
  7. ^ p.190
  8. ^ See §26-34.
  9. ^ See §66-§71.
  10. ^ See §7.
  11. ^ §23
  12. ^ §54
  13. ^ See §201.
  14. ^ §243
  15. ^ §246
  16. ^ §248
  17. ^ §256
  18. ^ §265
  19. ^ §293
  20. ^ §293
  21. ^ Kripke, Saul. Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language. Basil Blackwell Publishing, 1982.
  22. ^ §580.
  23. ^ §390
  24. ^ §350
  25. ^ §307
  26. ^ Part II, §xi


  • Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1953/2001). Philosophical Investigations. Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 0-631-23127-7. 
  • Kripke, Saul (1982). Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language.. Basil Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 0-631-13521-9. 

Wittgenstein and Hitler in school photograph taken at the Linz Realschule in 1903. ... This does not cite its references or sources. ...

External links

  • The first 100 remarks from Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations with Commentary by Lois Shawver.
  • Wittgenstein's Beetle - description of the thought experiment from Philosophy Online.
  • The Complications of PI 43 - Brian Sorrell, April 2001, University of California, Riverside.
Philosophy Portal

  Results from FactBites:
Ludwig Wittgenstein [Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy] (6909 words)
Philosophical theories, he suggests, are attempts to answer questions that are not really questions at all (they are nonsense), or to solve problems that are not really problems.
Philosophical questions about consciousness, for example, then, should be responded to by looking at the various uses we make of the word "consciousness." Scientific investigations into the brain are not directly relevant to this inquiry (although they might be indirectly relevant if scientific discoveries led us to change our use of such words).
His philosophical education was unconventional (going from engineering to working first-hand with one of the greatest philosophers of his day in Bertrand Russell) and he seems never to have felt the need to go back and make a thorough study of the history of philosophy.
  More results at FactBites »



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