Roy Lotz's Reviews > Philosophical Investigations

Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein
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If you read first Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, and then follow it with his Philosophical Investigations, you will treat yourself to perhaps the most fascinating intellectual development in the history of philosophy. Wittgenstein has the distinct merit of producing, not one, but two enormously influential systems of philosophy—systems, moreover, that are at loggerheads with one another.

In fact, I wouldn’t recommend attempting to tackle this work without first reading the Tractatus, as the Investigations is essentially one long refutation and critique of his earlier, more conventional, views. But because I wish to give a short summary of some of Wittgenstein’s later views here, I will first give a little précise of the earlier work.

In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein argues that language has one primary function: to state facts. Language is a logical picture of the world. A given proposition mirrors a given state of affairs. This leads Wittgenstein to regard a great many types of utterances as strictly nonsense. For example, since ethics is not any given state of affairs, language couldn’t possible picture it; therefore, all propositions in the form of “action X is morally good” are nonsense.

Wittgenstein honestly believed that this solved all the problems of philosophy. Long-standing problems about causation, truth, the mind, goodness, beauty, etc., were all attempts to use language to picture something which it could not—because beauty, truth, etc., are not states of affairs. Philosophers only need stop the attempt to transcend the limits of language, and the problems would disappear. In his words: “The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of this problem.”

After publishing this work and taking leave of professional philosophy (as he thought it had been dealt with) Wittgenstein began to have some doubts. Certain everyday uses of language seemed hard to account for if you regarded language as purely a truth-stating tool. These doubts eventually culminated in a return to Cambridge, and to philosophy. His posthumously published Investigations represents the fullest expression of his later views.

So what are these views? Well, first let us compare the styles of the two works. The writing in both the Tractatus and the Investigations is extraordinary. Wittgenstein is one of the very finest writers of philosophy, in a league with Nietzsche and Plato. He uses almost no technical terms, and very simple sentence-structures; yet his phrases can stick in the mind for months, years, after first reading them. Just the other day, I was having a conversation with my German tutor about learning a foreign language. To something I said, she responded, “Die Grenzen meiner Spracher bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt.” (“The limits of my language are the limits of my world”—a quote from the Tractatus.)

Although the writing in both works is equally compelling, the structures are quite different. In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein’s argument is unified, complete; he even numbers his sentences as primary, secondary, and tertiary in terms of their importance to the argument. In that work, we can clearly see the influence of Bertrand Russell’s logicism: language is reduced to logical propositions, and the argument is organized along logical grounds.

The reader of the Investigations will encounter something quite different. Wittgenstein writes in similarly terse aphorisms; he even retains a numbering-system for his points—each individual point getting its own numbered paragraph. The numbering of these paragraphs, however, is cumulative, and does not express anything about their significance to his larger design. It is almost as if Wittgenstein wrote down his thoughts on numbered flash cards, and simply constructed the book by moving the flash cards around. Unlike the Tractatus, which resolves itself into a unified whole, the Investigations is fragmentary.

I begin with style because the contrast in writing is a clue to the differences in thought between the earlier and later works. Unlike the Tractatus, the Investigations is rather a collection of observations and ideas. The spirit of Wittgenstein’s later enterprise is anti-systematic, rather than systematic. Wittgenstein aims not at erecting a whole edifice of thought, but at destroying other edifices. Thus, the text jumps from topic to topic, without any explicit connections or transitions, now attacking one common philosophical idea, now another. The experience can often be exasperating, since Wittgenstein is being intentionally oblique rather than direct. In the words of John Searle, reading the Investigations is “like getting a kit for a model airplane without any explanation for how to put it together.”

Let me attempt to put some of these pieces together—at least the pieces that were especially useful to me.

Wittgenstein replaces his old picture metaphor with a new tool metaphor. Instead of a word being meaningful because it pictures a fact, the meaning of a word is—at least most of the time—synonymous with the social use of that word. For example, the word “pizza” does not mean pizza because it names the food; rather, it means pizza because you can use the word to order the food at a restaurant. So instead of the reference to a type of object being primary, the social use is primary.

This example reveals a general quality of Wittgenstein’s later thought: the replacement of the objective/subjective dichotomy with the notion of public, social behavior.

Philosophers have traditionally posited theories of meaning that are either internal or external. For example, pizza can mean the particular food either because the word points to the food, or because the word points to our idea, or sensation, of the food. Either language is reporting objective states of affairs, or subjective internal experiences.

Wittgenstein destroys the external argument with a very simple observation. Take the word “game." If the external theory of meaning is correct, the word game must mean what it does because it points to something essential about games. But what is the essential quality that makes games games? Is there any? Some games are not social (think of solitaire), some games are not trivial (think of the Olympic Games), some games are not consequence-free (think of compulsive gambling), and some games are social, trivial, and consequence-free. Is a game something that you play? But you also play records and trombones. So what is the essential, single quality of “game” that our word refers to?

Wittgenstein says there isn’t any. Rather, the word “game” takes on different meanings in different social contexts, or modes of discourse. Wittgenstein calls these different modes of discourse “language games.” Some examples of language games are that of mimicking, of joking, of mourning, of philosophizing, of religious discourse. Every language game has its own rules; therefore, any proposed all-encompassing theory of language (like Wittgenstein’s own Tractatus) will fail, because it attempts to reduce the irreducible. You cannot reduce chess, soccer, solitaire, black-jack, and tag to one set of rules; the same is true (says Wittgenstein) of language.

Another popular theory of meaning is the internal theory. This theory holds that propositions mean things by referring to thoughts or sensations. When I refer to pain, I am referring to an internal object; when I refer to a bunny, I am referring to a set of visual sensations that I have learned to call ‘bunny’.

Wittgenstein makes short work of this argument too. Let’s start with the argument about sensations. Wittgenstein points out that our ‘sensations’ of an object—say, a bunny—are not something that we experience, as it were, purely. Rather, our interpretations alter the sensations themselves. To illustrate this, Wittgenstein uses perhaps the funiest example in all of philosophy, the duck-rabbit:


As you can see, whether you interpret this conglomeration of shapes, lines, and spaces as a rabbit or a duck depends on your interpretation; and, if you had never seen a duck or a rabbit in your life, the picture would look rather strange. Ernst Gombrich summed up this point quite nicely in his Story of Art: “If we look out of the window we can see the view in a thousand different ways. Which of them is our sense impression?”

The point of all this is that trying to make propositions about sense-impressions is like trying to hit a moving target—since you only see something a certain way because of certain beliefs or experiences you already hold.

The argument about inner feelings is equally weak. For example, when we learned the word pain, did someone somehow point to the feeling and name it? Clearly, that’s impossible. What actually happens is that we (or someone else) exhibited normal behavioral manifestations of pain—crying, moaning, tearing, clutching the afflicted area. The word pain then is used (at least originally) to refer to pain-behavior, and we later use the word ‘pain’ as a replacement for our infantile pain-behavior—instead of moaning and clutching our arm, we tell someone we have a pain, and that it’s in our arm. This shows that the internal referent of the word ‘pain’ is not fundamental to its meaning, but is derivative of its more fundamental, public use.

This may seem trivial, but this line of argument is a powerful attack on the entire Cartesian tradition. Let me give you an example.

René Descartes famously sat in his room, and then tried to doubt the whole world. He then got down to his own ego, and tried to build the work back up from there. This line of thought places the individual at the center of the epistemological question, and makes all other phenomena derivative of the fundamental, subjective experience of certainty.

But let us, as Wittgenstein advises, examine the normal use of the word “to know.” You say, “I know Tom,” or “I know American history.” If someone asked you, “What makes you say you know Tom and American history?” you might say something like “I can pick Tom’s face out of a crowd,” or “I could pass a history test.” Already, you are giving social criteria for what it means to know. In fact, the word “to know” presupposes the ability to verify something with something that is not yourself. You would never verify something you remember by pointing to another thing you remember—that would be absurd, since your memory is the thing being tested. Instead, you indicate an independent criterion for determining whether or not you know something. (The social test of knowledge is also explicit in science, since experiments must be repeatable and communicable; if a scientist said “I know this but I my can’t prove it once more,” that would not be science.)

So because knowing anything apparently requires some kind of social confirmation, the Cartesian project of founding knowledge on subjective experience is doomed from the start. Knowing anything requires at least two people—since you couldn’t know if you were right or wrong without some kind of social confirmation.

Wittgenstein brings this home with his discussion of private language. Let’s say you had a feeling that nobody has told you how to name. As a result, you suspect that this feeling is unique to yourself, and so you create your own name for it. Every time you have the feeling, you apply this made-up name to it. But how do you know if you’re using the name correctly? How do you know that every time you use your private name you are referring to the same feeling? You can’t check it against your memory, since your memory is the very thing being doubted. You can’t ask somebody else, because nobody else knows this name or has this sensation. Therefore, merely thinking you’re using the name consistently and actually using the name consistently would be indistinguishable experiences. You could never really know.

Although Wittgenstein’s views changed dramatically from the early to the late phase of his career, you can see some intriguing similarities. One main current of Wittgenstein’s thought is that all philosophical problems result from the misuse of language. Compare this statement from the Tractatus, “All philosophy is ‘Critique of language’,” with this, from the Investigations: “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” In both works, Wittgenstein is convinced that philosophical problems only arise because of the misuses of language; that philosophers either attempt to say the unsayable, or confuse the rules of one language-game with another—producing nonsense.

I cannot say I’ve thought-through Wittgenstein’s points fully enough to say whether I agree or disagree with them. But, whether wrong or right, Wittgenstein already has the ultimate merit of any philosopher—provoking thought about fundamental questions. And even if he was wrong about everything, his books would be worth reading for the writing alone. Reading Wittgenstein can be very much like taking straight shots of vodka—it burns on the way down, it addles your brain, it is forceful and overwhelming; but after all the pain and toil, the end-result is pleasant elation.
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Comments Showing 1-36 of 36 (36 new)

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message 1: by Stephen M (new)

Stephen M Marvelous review! An execellent breakdown of heady philosophical concepts.

message 2: by Roy (new) - rated it 5 stars

Roy Lotz Thanks very much!

message 3: by rahul (new) - added it

rahul Rlotz,
Where do I sign up for Introductory Classes on Philosophy conducted by you. :)
Another gem of a accessible review to what has till now appeared to me as a daunting subject.
Thank you.
Looking forward to reading more of your reviews.

message 4: by Roy (new) - rated it 5 stars

Roy Lotz Haha, I'm afraid the only place I teach is at the university of Goodreads.

message 5: by Wastrel (new) - added it

Wastrel Would just suggest: if you're reading the Tractatus and the PI in order to get a sense of the shift in his views, I'd really recommend reading the Blue and Brown Notebooks, which sort of bridge the gap (it's still mostly Early Wittgenstein, but he's finding out the problems that will later lead him to the PI, and give much more of a sense of continuity than if you only read the start point and the end point of that conversion).

message 6: by Roy (new) - rated it 5 stars

Roy Lotz Yes, I'd heard that before. I hope to read them soon, but I think I need a little break from Wittgenstein for now. But thanks for the recommendation!

message 7: by Wastrel (new) - added it

Wastrel I can't say I've read them cover-to-cover (I've not even read the Tractatus properly), but I did find they were often a good alternative approach to issues in the Investigations.

I would caveat your discussion of the private language argument, by the way. I know that these are difficult subjects and any brief summary is going to be inadequate - and yours is a very good attempt in general, very clear and readable, I think - but it's worth saying that it's generally thought that Wittgenstein isn't so much making an argument there about not being able to know whether you're using the 'private' word correctly, but about there really being no such thing as using a 'private' word correctly - about the idea of using the word wrongly not being meaningful.

While I'm at it, I'll point out that that quote, "philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of the intellect by means of language" (paraphrasing from memory here) is often thought to be a pun: the "by means of language" can apply either to the bewitchment or to the battle against bewitchment - or indeed both.

message 8: by Roy (new) - rated it 5 stars

Roy Lotz Ah, I hadn't noticed that pun before. Do you think it's the same in the German?

I see your point about private language. But if one could, in principal, never know if you're using a private word correctly or incorrectly, wouldn't the whole idea of correct and incorrect break down in regards to private words, anyway?

I do see that Wittgenstein's whole notion of language is social, so a 'private language' couldn't even qualify as language for him.

message 9: by Wastrel (new) - added it

Wastrel Well, exactly what he did or didn't mean by his argument and whether or not he did enough to show it is a very long debate, I think! There are varying interpretations. I just thought it was important to clarify the end-point he was trying to get to (especially since the interpretation of Wittgenstein as just a sceptic basing arguments on what we can and can't know has been an influential and controversial one).
Also, it's worth bearing in mind that if we accept that the impossibility of eliminating doubt is enough to justify saying that the idea of correctness does not apply, then we're a) accepting scepticism, which elsewhere Wittgenstein is reluctant to do, and b) getting close to the verificationism of the logical positivists, who the later Wittgenstein is generally held to be opposing. Of course, that doesn't rule out the possibility that that is what he's saying here (intentionally or unintentionally).

But I think it's not so much about "we can never know if the criteria are being met" and more "the criteria themselves make no sense in this case"; that allows for the possibility of other situations where we might want to say that there is a fact of the matter even if it is unknowable (for instance, questions about the past and about hypotheticals).

On the grammatical pun, the German is "Die Philosophie ist ein Kampf gegen die Verhexung unseres Verstandes mit den Mitteln der Sprache." I don't speak German myself so could be wrong, but it looks like the English is a very direct translation, and I would expect that 'mit den Mitteln der Sprache' could indeed equally apply to 'die Verhexung' and/or 'ein Kampf'. It may or may not also be significant that very close by in the text Wittgenstein talks about 'grammatical jokes'...

message 10: by Roy (new) - rated it 5 stars

Roy Lotz I see, I see. Well, I doubt we'll put this debate to rest on Goodreads!

(And, as far as my rudimentary German abilities go, I think the pun does work in German as well.)

message 11: by Mark (new) - added it

Mark Thank you! Very informative and well written review. I've just started reading this book and I'm sure your impressions will add to my understanding.

message 12: by Roy (last edited Oct 01, 2014 12:15PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Roy Lotz Mark wrote: "Thank you! Very informative and well written review. I've just started reading this book and I'm sure your impressions will add to my understanding."

Thanks! I hope the review helps—but be warned that there are many, varying, and contradictory interpretations of Wittgenstein. Mine probably isn't the most well-informed!

message 13: by Wastrel (new) - added it

Wastrel Those are the best type of interpretation. An uninformed opinion is an invitation to dialogue. Unfortunately some scholars are so well informed in their (contradictory) opinions that the ordinary reader feels stultified, forced not to disagree with something they cannot agree with. Sometimes you even get the feeling that interpreters are better-informed about what (for instance) Wittgenstein really meant than Wittgenstein himself was, and that even (for instance) Wittgenstein would have had to yield the field to his well-informed interpreters.

I'd like to be able to claim that that's why I keep so many of my own opinions so radically ill-informed myself, but I don't think I could pull that bluff quite off...

message 14: by Roy (last edited Oct 01, 2014 02:04PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Roy Lotz Wastrel wrote: "Those are the best type of interpretation. An uninformed opinion is an invitation to dialogue. Unfortunately some scholars are so well informed in their (contradictory) opinions that the ordinary r..."

Interesting point, Wastrel; I've often gotten the exact same impression, especially with the more obscure philosophers (Hegel, Kant, Heidegger). I'd also like to point out the irony that generations of scholars are attempting to explain what Wittgenstein "really meant," when one of his most notable points in this book is his criticism of our everyday notions of "meaning" one's words.

I remember one section where he asks the reader to say "It's raining outside," and mean "It's not raining outside" (that might not be the exact example he uses). I don't know about you, but when I try that experiment, my "meaning" vanishes into thin air. I'm left just with the words.

message 15: by Wastrel (new) - added it

Wastrel Actually, I can say "It's raining outside" to mean "it's not raining outside" perfectly well. I just have to maybe snort a little first, and use a tone and facial expression that implies some missing words: "[yeah right, like] it's raining outside".

I agree with the main point, though.

message 16: by Forrest (new)

Forrest What a gorgeous review! I've learned more about philosophy by reading GR reviews and following up with my own studies than I ever learned in college. Of course, I wasn't a philosophy major and only had two full classes on the subject. In any case, reviews like this are educational and extremely helpful. So thanks!

message 17: by Wastrel (new) - added it

Wastrel My own experience has been a little complicated. I've found I've learnt a lot more about philosophy since I graduated than at university.

[A big part of that was someone on the internet finding out I was a philosophy graduate and asking if I could give him a brief overview of the history of philosophy and some key people he might read; as all my projects do, this ballooned, and become about a 40,000-word behemoth, but during the course of it I not only extended the breadth of my knowledge, but solidified some of my own views - it can be so useful to take disparate bits of knowledge and put them together into a historical narrative (however inevitably misleading such a narrative might be).]

On the other hand... I think the more I've learnt since graduating, the more I've realised I learnt at uni. I think university study gave me a much more robust and deep understanding of the topic than my broader reading since then, and has been the foundation of my later learning.

message 18: by Forrest (new)

Forrest Supports the old dictum "If you want to learn something, teach it"!

message 19: by Roy (last edited Jul 10, 2015 07:25PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Roy Lotz Thanks Forrest! But if I were you I'd take everything I say with a grain of salt... I've never taken any philosophy classes, so I couldn't be more of an amateur. If I'm able to explain concepts simply, it's because I understand them simply!

But writing a 40,000 word document of my own views sounds like fun! First I'll have to develop some views...

message 20: by Wastrel (new) - added it

Wastrel Forrest wrote: "Supports the old dictum "If you want to learn something, teach it"!"

yes, absolutely. More generally, I think understanding require a degree of use, whatever form that use takes. For instance, as a worldbuilder, one of my instinctive ways of understanding things is to try to build a world around them. So when I was studying the theory of electoral systems and party systems, I tried creating a fictional country and simulating its elections and creating a narrative around its political history. You have to play with things to fully understand them! And actually my university did see the benefit of this as well: at one point, we looked at constitutional theory by writing constitutions for fictional countries.

But I like to think the 'teach it to learn it' thing is why i'm always lecturing people about things I barely understand... at least, that's my excuse.

Lotz: I'd like to think it was about other people's views, although certainly the odd sarcastic phrasing may have slipped in along the way to express my disagreements...

message 21: by Christopher (new) - added it

Christopher Late to the game on this, but I have to say cheers!

message 22: by Roy (new) - rated it 5 stars

Roy Lotz Christopher wrote: "Late to the game on this, but I have to say cheers!"

Thanks! :-)

message 23: by Mark (new)

Mark Giaconia Fantastic review, thank you.

message 24: by Roy (new) - rated it 5 stars

Roy Lotz And thank you!

message 25: by Menashe (new)

Menashe Israel An excellent review. Thank you.

Monarchitech1118gmail.Com I thought I might have accidentally downloaded the PDF when I saw this. With that said, I came to reviews to get a human pulse to this book versus the protentious just because it's so&so critics a lot of these text find themselves being weighted by. It's at this juncture, I maximize the moment I'm in and without reading this book I have found purpose proceedingly greater in my review of your review. With much build up I champion the point, your review was too long which means you didn't understand shit. Full disclosure before departure as i practice honesty when I can, I didn't read your review and as you will defiantly find yourself at this precipitous point,case, and phantom of the operaesque conclusion .

message 27: by Roy (new) - rated it 5 stars

Roy Lotz Monarchitech1118gmail.Com wrote: "I thought I might have accidentally downloaded the PDF when I saw this. With that said, I came to reviews to get a human pulse to this book versus the protentious just because it's so&so critics a ..."

Thank you for your thoughts.

message 28: by Bob (new) - rated it 2 stars

Bob Nichols Excellent review. Thanks.

message 29: by Roy (new) - rated it 5 stars

Roy Lotz Bob wrote: "Excellent review. Thanks."

You're welcome!

message 30: by Luis (new)

Luis Great analysis!

message 31: by Wibisana (new) - added it

Wibisana Your review make me even more love Wittgenstein. I read a litte bit on Tractacus but understand it a little bit about it, and read other books to know how to understand it. And by reading this review it makes me want to understand Wittgenstein's book more. Thank you very much.

message 32: by Roy (new) - rated it 5 stars

Roy Lotz Wibisana wrote: "Your review make me even more love Wittgenstein. I read a litte bit on Tractacus but understand it a little bit about it, and read other books to know how to understand it. And by reading this revi..."

I'm glad you enjoyed it!

message 33: by Carolina (new) - added it

Carolina Dantas Omg I am already in love with both books thank you so much for sharing you view wow

message 34: by Roy (new) - rated it 5 stars

Roy Lotz Carolina wrote: "Omg I am already in love with both books thank you so much for sharing you view wow"

And thank you!

message 35: by Alex (new) - added it

Alex Riedel Wonderful review, sir!

message 36: by Louis (new) - added it

Louis As always, great review Roy.

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