Ludwig Wittgenstein for Beginners

First thought. To get a handle on the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, one can start with a simple question: what does the scientist (as opposed to the philosopher) do and accomplish?

The answer seems pretty straightforward. The scientist reasons and experiments her way to very definite discoveries. She achieves these discoveries because her matter is, well, matter. Matter, unlike mind or a concept like the good, is subject to such things as observation, controlled manipulation, modeling in space and time, and public verification.

Science is a very powerful method for reducing complex material things to simpler material things and general principles. In science, it makes sense to say that the truth about your body is that it consists of cells and those cells consist of atoms. Scientists know this. They have discovered these things. Likewise, it has been learned that the astonishing diversity of species comes from natural selection. Again, scientists know this. It’s a jaw-dropping discovery.

And for Wittgenstein that’s the problem with the traditional philosopher. Like the scientist, her ambition is discovery, to get at the truth of matters either by reduction (analysis) or generalization (synthesis). But she applies methods (Occam’s razor, etc.) to things for which no material, and therefore no objective, properties actually exist.

Wittgenstein and language-games. Wittgenstein would have us think of nonscientific languages as games. In learning to play chess, for example, we don’t ask what a king is in some ultimate sense, but where the king goes on the chess board and how it moves in this particular game. We might recognize, in Wittgenstein’s phrase, a “family resemblance” between the chessboard’s king and a medieval king, but we don’t concern ourselves with getting at the essence of “kingness,” the truth of “kingness,” or any definition of “king” that might transcend its immediate contextual usages in the game we’re actually playing. Likewise with a word in a language game: its usage is driven by the game it is being deployed in; it is context specific.

Usage is important here, for Wittgenstein takes words and languages to function as tools for getting very particular things done (woo a lover, describe an idea, declare a couple “husband and wife,” write a poem, get someone out of jail). We should, therefore, be content with the historical contingencies by which our words and languages get used and not force them to do work that they really can’t (such as tell us what the ultimate truth is about time or the relation of mind to matter). Here’s how Wittgenstein puts it at the end of his famously difficult and obscure little book, Tractatus:

The inexpressible indeed exists. This shows itself. It is the mystical. The right method in philosophy would be to say nothing except what can be said using sentences such as those of natural science–which of course has nothing to do with philosophy–and then, to show those wishing to say something metaphysical that they failed to give any meaning to certain signs in their sentences. […] Of what we cannot speak we must be silent.

What Wittgenstein is suggesting here is that the ultimate truth and nature of free will, knowledge, consciousness, determinism, happiness, justice, and the inward heart cannot be reduced in language to simpler elements or derived from more general principles because languages are not consistently empirical in that way. Languages are logic and rule based games, historically contingent. They can’t step out of their usages in specific contexts and do things they aren’t designed to do. And so the philosopher’s wisest chess move, on being confronted with a metaphysical provocation (“What is truth?” “What is time?” “What is equality in relation to liberty?”) is silence, to not move at all.

In The Blue Book, Wittgenstein is a little gentler. He concedes that the philosopher still has something to do. She has work. But it is not to unify, generalize, simplify, reduce, or explain:

Our craving for generality has [as one] source … our preoccupation with the method of science. I mean the method of reducing the explanation of natural phenomena to the smallest possible number of primitive natural laws; and, in mathematics, of unifying the treatment of different topics by using a generalization. Philosophers constantly see the method of science before their eyes, and are irresistibly tempted to ask and answer in the way science does. This tendency is the real source of metaphysics, and leads the philosopher into complete darkness. I want to say here that it can never be our job to reduce anything to anything, or to explain anything.

What then is the philosopher to do? What is her job? Wittgenstein would replace ambitious philosophical explanation of the world with description.

Description of what? Of how words are actually used as tools in particular sentences and contexts. That should be the philosopher’s work. Wittgenstein once wrote the following in one of his notebooks: “My whole task consists in explaining the nature of sentences” (Quoted in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 1967, vol. 8, 330). And the philosopher A. C. Grayling sums up Wittgenstein’s position in his Tractatus this way: “The proper task of philosophy, he says, is to make the nature of our thought and talk clear, for then the traditional problems of philosophy will be recognized as spurious and will accordingly vanish” (Wittgenstein: A Very Short Introduction, 2001, 18).

Richard Rorty on Wittgenstein. The conclusion that some philosophers (such as Isaiah Berlin and Richard Rorty) have drawn from Wittgenstein is that we should stop trying to hold together in a single theory concepts such as freedom and equality, determinism and responsibility, unity and diversity. There’s simply nothing that’s going to satisfactorily unify such concepts in a coherent manner. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t function individually as useful tools in our “language-games” (perhaps the best-known phrase coined by Wittgenstein).

Here’s how Rorty bottom-lines Wittgenstein in his Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989, p. 11-12):

[Traditional philosophers assume vocabularies are] reducible to other vocabularies, or capable of being united with all other vocabularies in one grand unified super vocabulary. If we avoid this assumption, we shall not be inclined to ask questions like “What is the place of consciousness in a world of molecules?” […] or “What is the relation of language to thought?” We should not try to answer such questions, for doing so leads either to the evident failures of reductionism or to the short-lived successes of expansionism. We should restrict ourselves to questions like “Does our use of these words get in the way of our use of those other words?” This is a question about whether our use of tools is inefficient, not a question about whether our beliefs are contradictory.

And here’s Rorty offering examples (Ibid. p. 12):

[Y]oung German theology students of the eighteenth century–like Hegel and Holderlin–found that the vocabulary in which they worshiped Jesus was getting in the way of the vocabulary in which they worshiped the Greeks. Yet again, the use of Rossetti-like tropes got in the way of the early Yeats’s use of Blakean tropes.

The gradual trial-and-error creation of a new, third, vocabulary–the sort of vocabulary developed by people like Galileo, Hegel, or the later Yeats–is not a discovery about how old vocabularies fit together. […] Such creations are not the result of successfully fitting together pieces of a puzzle. They are not discoveries of a reality behind appearances, or an undistorted view of the whole picture with which to replace myopic views of its parts. The proper analogy is with the invention of new tools to take the place of old tools. To come up with such a vocabulary is more like discarding the lever and the chock because one has envisaged the pully, or like discarding gesso and tempera because one has now figured out how to size canvas properly.

In other words, when we’re inventing a new vocabulary, and think we’re getting closer to the ultimate truth of some matter, we’re actually just inventing another way to talk. We’re adding to the history of language-games another game. To quote The Spinners, we’re participating in the “games people play.” We’re doing music; we’re doing poetry; we’re not getting closer to the highest reality, which is ineffable. Here’s Rorty again (from Essays on Heidegger and Others 1991, p. 65):

The later Wittgenstein saw all philosophical attempts to grasp type A entities [God, ultimate truth, time, etc.], all attempts to express the ineffability of such entities, as succeeding only in creating one more language-game.

So just stop it. That’s Wittgenstein’s dour advice. Rorty’s advice is different: no need to keep silent, but know that when you’re philosophizing you’re really just doing poetry.

Paul Horwich on Wittgenstein. Aside from concluding that where philosophy apes science it is off track, there are other reasons that Wittgenstein is pessimistic about traditional philosophical ambitions. In an excellent short essay on Wittgenstein in The New York Times, philosopher Paul Horwich offers two of them. Here’s one:

[O]ur concepts exhibit a highly theory-resistant complexity and variability. They evolved, not for the sake of science and its objectives, but rather in order to cater to the interacting contingencies of our nature, our culture, our environment, our communicative needs and our other purposes. As a consequence the commitments defining individual concepts are rarely simple or determinate, and differ dramatically from one concept to another.

And here’s another:

[T]raditional philosophy is necessarily pervaded with oversimplification; analogies are unreasonably inflated; exceptions to simple regularities are wrongly dismissed.

Wittgenstein’s conclusion according to Horwich? The philosopher can (at best) be descriptive and deconstructive, not explanatory and constructive. She can point out where the great systematizing philosophers of the past fail (Hegel, etc.), but not where philosophers of the present and future might succeed. Because they can’t. At least not with regard to metaphysics.

Wittgenstein, in other words, brings philosophers to an aporia (an impasse) with regard to ever reaching any greater or deeper truth than language-game description. And when the philosopher tries to move beyond language-game description into ultimate explanation, she imagines herself a scientist but is actually a poet deep in a language-game herself. And so contemporary philosophers who agree with Wittgenstein, like Paul Horwich, talk like this:

[I]t was always a mistake to extrapolate from the fact that empirical concepts, such as red or magnetic or alive stand for properties with specifiable underlying natures to the presumption that the notion of truth must stand for some such property as well.

Wittgenstein versus Augustine. According to Wittgenstein, truth has no underlying essence or nature (or at least none that can be explicated in words). The way we use the word truth in language is always context specific. One of Wittgenstein’s own examples is Augustine puzzling over the nature of time, which Avrum Stroll summarizes this way (The Columbia History of Western Philosophy 1999, p. 635):

Wittgenstein emphasizes that Augustine’s problems are of his own making. He wishes to impose a model that will simplify and order a seemingly chaotic set of uses of the concept of time. But this is both unnecessary and confusing. As Bishop Berkeley said of philosophers, “We first cast up a dust and then complain we cannot see.”

Attention to the contextual usages of a word like time reveals aspects of its form (its family resemblances to other contexts in which it is used), but never its essence. Like the Zen ox pursued by the meditator, our hunting of time eludes us the deeper we try to penetrate its ultimate meaning. We find ourselves lost in a fog–a fog of our own words (tools) misapplied.

Wittgenstein’s logical atomism and pictorialism in the Tractatus. Avrum Stroll writes that “[Wittgenstein’s] Tractatus begins with an affirmation of a species of logical atomism . . .” (Ibid. 631). What Stroll means by this is that Wittgenstein posits a fundamental unit of language that cannot be reduced any further, and so it can only be described, not explained by recourse to some deeper analysis or synthesis. For Wittgenstein, that atomic unit is not a word in language or a thing in the world, but a fact.

A fact, in Wittgenstein’s use of the term, is two things in logical relation (the car is or is not in the garage) and that fact can be logically or visually pictured (we can see in our mind’s eye a car in a garage or an empty garage, but we cannot see a car both in a garage and not in a garage at the same time): “‘An elementary fact is thinkable’ means: we can form a mental picture of it. […] It is as impossible to say something that contradicts logic as it is to draw a figure that contradicts the laws of space or to specify the coordinates of a nonexistent point” (Tractatus 3.001, 3.032).

And so our mental world is built up around logically possible facts, and our sentences reflect this. Facts are the atomic units of possible existence. No thing or word is an island, each is part of a chain (two linked things belonging to a coherent sentence). In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein puts it this way: “In an elementary fact the objects hang in one another like the links of a chain” (2.03), and “God can create anything so long as it does not contradict the laws of logic” (3.031).

And so Wittgenstein’s second sentence in the Tractatus is this: “The world is the totality of facts, not of things” (1.1). Again, this is because no thing in the world or word in a sentence is an island. The irreducible unit of language is the fact, the relation within a particular and logically possible language-game.

Wittgenstein’s toy cars and dolls. What inspired Wittgenstein’s insight that a sentence really only makes “sense” when it reflects a logical relation in space and time? According to his Notebooks, Wittgenstein was reading a newspaper account of a courtroom reenactment of a car accident. The reenactment was done using toy cars and dolls. This proved to be a “eureka moment” for Wittgenstein, for it occurred to him that this is exactly what a coherent sentence does: it maps, pictures, or models objects in a logically possible “state of affairs” which the reader then apprehends and “sees” (turns into a mental picture). Likewise, musical notations mirror real sounds, which are then read off by a musician and translated into music.

From this early insight of Wittgenstein’s, one can see immediately its implication for non-empirical languages: what is a language really mapping and reflecting with precision if it is not a material situation (such as a car wreck in space and time)? Answer: nothing. And so “Of what we cannot speak we must be silent” (Tractatus 7).

But what then of Wittgenstein’s own sentences? Wittgenstein explains cryptically: “My sentences are illuminating in the following way: to understand me you must recognize my sentences–once you have climbed out through them, on them, over them–as senseless. (You must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after you have climbed up on it.) You must climb out through my sentences; then you will see the world correctly” (Ibid. 6.54).

Wittgenstein and the fungal rhizome. If you are determined to go on speaking and writing against the early Wittgenstein’s advice, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s metaphor of the fungal rhizome (as opposed to the rooted tree) bears resemblances to language-games, and may be a good way to approach your speaking and writing. The fungal rhizome exploits contingencies (such as cracks in a sidewalk, moist shadows of inattention) and ramifies in whatever direction suits its purposes. In the introduction to the writings of Deleuze and Guattari, the editors of The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (2010, pg. 1148) write the following:

Wheras the traditional model for knowledge is drawn from plants with “roots” […], Delueze and Guattari draw their metaphor from fungal “rhizomes”–a network of threads that can send up new growths anywhere along their length, not subject to centralized control or structure. The logic (or rather, nonlogic) is exemplified by invasive species such as mushrooms and crabgrass that proliferate without a controlling structure. As Deleuze and Guattari suggest, the same antihierarchical perspective is what may have led Walt Whitman to choose Leaves of Grass (1855) as the title for his book of poems.

Of the rhizome itself, Delueze and Guattari write this: “[I]n nature, roots are taproots with a more multiple, lateral, and circular system of ramification, rather than a dichotomous one [as normally imagined]. […] Even the book as a natural reality is a taproot, with its pivotal spine and surrounding leaves” (Ibid. 1456). And so Delueze and Guattari admonish the writer in this fashion: “Make rhizomes, not roots, never plant! Don’t sow, grow offshoots! Don’t be one or multiple, be multiplicates!” (1462).

Wittgenstein sounds his barbaric yawp? Once you believe language-games and not the pursuit of truth are what humans are really engaged in, life can become play for you (irony, gesture, creation, interpretation, emphasis, reordering, choosing, poetry, fashioning, silence). In his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein writes this: “So in the end when one is doing philosophy one gets to the point where one would like just to emit an inarticulate sound” (quoted in Rorty, Essays on Heidegger and Others 65).

This sentiment sounds very much like Walt Whitman’s “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world!” But Wittgenstein is skeptical of the giddy and triumphant transcendentalist who imagines himself obtaining a holistic grasp on the world from a superior vantage, dominating it with his voice. Instead, Wittgenstein writes immediately after the sentence on his desire “to emit an inarticulate sound” the following (Ibid.):

[S]uch a sound is an expression only if it occurs in a particular language-game, which should now be described.

Described, not explained. What a downer Wittgenstein is in contrast with Whitman’s poetic optimism! But Wittgenstein is probably right. A chess move means nothing apart from its chess game. No gesture is an island. Language cannot achieve escape velocity from history and social meaning. For humans, there is no God’s eye view; no “view from nowhere” (Thomas Nagel’s phrase); no way to bootstrap yourself with a metalanguage or final language over the roofs of the world.

Buddhism shares a similar insight, as when the Chinese monk, Zhaozhou (Japanese: Joshu), is asked whether a dog has Buddha-nature (something that supposedly everything possesses), and he replies with a negation of the question itself: Mu! (negative). It’s as if he retorted with a word approaching to nonsense, such as–“Fiddledeedee!”–implying, “Come off it! You’re being too serious; too literal!” The monk’s reply suggests that the question is asked without sufficient irony. There is no ultimate substance adhering to the questioner’s inquiry, the dog–or the questioner! No affirmative statement can be made about the ultimate essence of a thing that is not shadowed by its own negation. Reality is non-dual, and therefore beyond speech. No language captures the ultimate Buddha-nature.

Two objections to Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein prefers “family resemblance” to essentialism in definition, and he might be wrong about this. If he is, a good deal of his critique concerning the impossibility of a metalanguage or final vocabulary arguably breaks down. For example, Wittgenstein insists that a word like “game” can never be adequately defined so that the definition holds across its range of usages. We must be content with “family resemblances” in the way the word gets used, and we shouldn’t imagine that we can arrive at an adequate genus-species definition of the Aristotelian sort that applies in all cases.

More traditional philosophers, such as David Kelley, have attempted to counter Wittgenstein by offering a definition of exactly the sort he holds impossible. Here’s Kelley’s definition of game (containing a genus and species): “[A] game is [genus] a form of recreation constituted by [species] a set of rules that specify an object to be attained and the permissible means of attaining it” (emphasis mine; The Art of Reasoning 1990, p. 50). Wittgenstein’s retort might be that Kelley has strained out the camel to swallow a gnat. Such a definition represents an impoverishment of the word’s rich and varied usage and emphasis in particular contexts.

A second objection to Wittgenstein is an argument from consequences: if he’s right, his advice to go silent on philosophical matters–or to merely describe states of affairs and then “leave the world as it is”–could have reactionary historical consequences going forward. Here’s the philosopher Michael Lynch, writing in The New York Times, expressing clear relief that Wittgenstein didn’t make his appearance on the world’s philosophical stage before John Locke: “Locke’s view that there are human rights, for example, didn’t leave the world as it was, nor was it intended to.” Snap!

If we’re ultimately ironic in our commitments, and really think all of our non-empirical languages fail at the level of rationality and coherence–and this largely brings us to privacy and silence, doesn’t that leave the world to the competition of true believers?



Grayling, A. C. Wittgenstein: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford 2001).

Heaton, John and Judy Groves. Introducing Wittgenstein (Totem 1999).

Kelley, David. The Art of Reasoning (Norton 1990).

Kolak, Daniel (tr.). Wittgenstein’s Tractatus (Mayfield 1998).

Leitch, Vincent (Ed.). The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (Norton 2010).

Popkin, Richard. The Columbia History of Western Philosophy (Columbia 1999).

Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge 1989).

Essays on Heidegger and Others (Cambridge 1991).

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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10 Responses to Ludwig Wittgenstein for Beginners

  1. colinhutton says:

    Interesting post , thanks. Only a name to me, until now, but Wittgenstein has now been added to the list of philosophers I must explore further.

    As to the “argument from consequences”: Using Locke and ‘human rights’ as an example of adverse/‘reactionary’ consequences is risky. It seems to me that Human Rights have started to assume something of the quality of the Ten Commandments – that they exist in some sense as a moral imperative, independent of human construction. Which is nonsensical (speaking as an atheist). Nietzsche, today, would, I’m sure, dismiss H R as just another manifestation of slave morality and would maintain that the long term consequences of the concept will likely prove as detrimental for humanity as were the TC.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I suppose that would depend on how you define “detrimental.”

      And I agree that Nietzsche regards human rights as a symptom of slave morality–a holdover from Christianity. BUT he also recognizes that herd or slave morality makes the basic conditions for civilization possible (since most people are unextraordinary). In other words, bourgeois civilization, though repugnant to Nietzsche, is also recognized by him as the incubator by which geniuses like Beethoven might do their thing without being hindered. Nothing should get in the way of Beethoven. The rest doesn’t matter.

      As for Wittgenstein, Nietzsche’s “moving army of metaphors” goes rather nicely with Wittgenstein’s language games.


      • colinhutton says:

        The bourgeois civilization, certainly, but surely only post-enlightenment when Christianity’s iron grip had been broken and free(er) speech and thought became possible. The threat I see today is that proponents of human rights are expanding its reach to cover ‘rights’ such as not to be offended or to have ones culture respected, as examples. Not good for human progress, which depends on the rare flowering of genius.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        “Things merely are” (Wallace Stevens). How we interpret them is another matter.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Here’s the Nietzsche quote I’m thinking of (from “On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense”):

      What is truth, then? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.

      • colinhutton says:

        Thanks for that. Says it all! Reminds me to get back to my project of reading what I haven’t yet read of his (and re-reading what I have), before getting distracted by Wittgenstein’s footnotes.

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  4. Martin Pettet says:

    Interesting summary, apart from the silly gender-reversed pronouns.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Thank you, but why is gender-reversing pronouns silly? I have daughters, and I often think of them. I’m conscious of how they might be brought to the sidelines, psychologically, by the mere priming of a pronoun. When I was growing up, I never saw prose with the pronouns reversed, and I think that’s not good. It gave writing a certain slant regarding who should be paying closest attention.

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