From Milton Munitz, Contemporary Analytic Philosophy, pp. 269-287.

In 1939 Wittgenstein was appointed to the chair in philosophy at Cambridge
University previously occupied by Moore. Because of the outbreak of the war in
1939 he did not take up his new duties, but instead volunteered for war service
and served at first as a hospital porter and later as a laboratory assistant.
(He had become a British subject some time previously.) After the war he resumed
his post at the university and lectured there until his resignation from the
professorship in 1947. He continued to work at his manuscripts. For a while he
lived in seclusion in Ireland. He also spent three months on a visit to the
United States, after which he returned to England. In 1949 it was discovered
that he suffered from cancer. For the last few months of his life he lived in
Cambridge at the home of his doctor. He continued to write on technical
philosophical topics until two days before his death. He died on April 29, 1951.

The Philosophical Investigations was one of the many manuscripts left at
his death. It was published posthumously and quickly achieved the status of a
major classic. It represents the culmination and distillation of his fresh
thought about the nature of language after his `return' to philosophy in the
late 1920s. In its Preface he suggests that it "could be seen in the right light
only by contrast with and against the background of my old way of thinking."
There can be no doubt that the later philosophy, as conveyed in the
Philosophical Investigations, represents for him a radically new approach to
language in contrast with that of the Tractatus. This is the basis for the
remark, by now commonplace, that Wittgenstein is unique as a philosopher insofar
as he was the creator of two completely different, original, highly influential
philosophies, where the second philosophy was the outcome of the criticisms
directed by the author himself against his own earlier scheme of thought. This
summary statement needs immediate qualification. By stressing the element of
sharp contrast between the two philosophies, such a summary tends to cloak the
fact that the changeover was not abrupt but was mediated by various transitional
phases. Furthermore, despite the major shifts that did occur, there were certain
underlying elements of continuity that persisted to the end and that can be
found both in the earliest preWorld War I writings and in those composed at the
very end of his life.

In his Notebooks 1914-1916 Wittgenstein wrote, "My whole task consists in
explaining the nature of the proposition. "I He might very well have made the
same point throughout his life to describe his continuing philosophic
preoccupation, since the same problem continues to lie at the center of all his
writings up to the very end. What makes it possible to say something? How can,
words in combination signify something and be communicated to others? To be able
to answer this broad question about the nature of-language-how language
functions and accomplishes its role in human life-provides the underlying motif
and unchanging element of continuity in Wittgenstein's philosophy, early,
middle, and late. What distinguishes the different periods in his philosophic
development is the way he takes apart the question, understands its various
possible guises, and having marked these, gives detailed answers to the problems
thereby raised.

One way of summing up the major difference in the way he answered the
question in his later philosophy as compared with the earlier is the following.
In the earlier philosophy a proposition (Satz) says something because it is a
picture or model of reality; it has a possible isomorphic relation to reality;
its sense is determined by its truth-conditions. On the later account, a
proposition -or better, a sentence- represents 'a `move in a language-game'; it
is a `tool' used to accomplish a particular purpose, though not necessarily or
exclusively one of describing reality; its sense is governed by various
grammatical rules or conventions.

On the arlier approach a proposition is always at bottom simply a
concatenation of names where every name stands object. Ordinary language has a
concealed complexity that logic and analysis brings to the surface and makes
explicit. The basic role of language is to depict reality. The logical structure
of language is to be viewed in terms of truth-functional relations of compound
(molecular)propositions to elementary ones. The sense of an elementary
proposition, in turn, consists in its relation of truth or falsity with respect
to the reality of which it is a model. An elementary proposition depicts a
possible state of affairs in the world.

In Wittgenstein's later philosophy, the logic of linguistic expressions is construed
in altogether different terms. Language is not to be examined by
means of a depth grammar that points to truth functions of elementary
propositions as the essence of language. Nor are propositions in their `basic'
constituents made up of names. Language is ordinary language. It is not to be
derived from something more fundamental in the form of elementary propositions.
Language is languages. It is to be explored in all its great variety and
complexity. It is to be described and understood as it is found, not reduced to
some more basic structure. It has multiple uses, not simply one of describing
reality and picturing facts.

It is wrong to say that in philosophy we consider an ideal language as
opposed to our ordinary one. For this makes it appear as though we thought
we could improve on ordinary language. But ordinary language is all right.
In saying that ordinary language is "all right," Wittgenstein does not
mean that for certain purposes we cannot find fault with some available
linguistic tools and choose to replace them with others especially contrived and
more suited to accomplish our purposes. This surely is the case whenever
specialist vocabularies are constructed, as for example in scientific languages
devised to deal with fresh and complex ranges of experience. Rather, what
Wittgenstein stresses is the need for philosophy to recognize the ways in which
language is employed in relation to an ever changing complex of activities.
Ordinary language is "all right" when it is used successfully to accomplish the
great variety of purposes in the forms of life in which particular language
activities are embedded. To say that ordinary language is "all right" does not
mean that its resources are always employed in ways that are free of failure and
misuse. On the contrary, a special class of cases of such misuse arises,
Wittgenstein would say, wherever pseudophilosophical problems arise due to the
misapplication of the rules of ordinary language. In such cases it is
appropriate for a critic to call attention to these misuses through a patient
diagnosis of the resulting errors.
We want to establish an order in our knowledge of the use of
language: an order with a particular end in view; one out of many possible
orders; not the order. To this end we shall constantly be giving
prominence to distinctions which our ordinary forms of language easily
make us overlook. This may make it look as if we saw it as our task to
reform language.

Such a reform for particular practical purposes, an improvement in
our terminology designed to prevent misunderstandings in practice, is
perfectly possible. But these are not the cases we have to do with. The
confusions which occupy us arise when language is like an engine idling,
not when it is doing work.

In 1928, not long after his return to Vienna, Wittgenstein had an
experience that is sometimes credited with inspiring him to take up once more an
active interest in philosophy. On March 10,1928, in the company of Herbert Feigl
and Friedrich Waismann, he attended a lecture entitled "Mathematics, Science,
and Language" by the well-known Dutch mathematician Luitzen E. J. Brouwer, the
leading figure of the Intuitionist school of mathematicians.' According to
Feigl, he and Waismann spent a few hours with Wittgenstein in a cafe after the
lecture and "it was fascinating to behold the change that had come over
Wittgenstein] that evening He became extremely voluble and began sketching
ideas that were the beginnings of his later writings That evening marked the
return of Wittgenstein] to strong philosophical interests and activities. "

Brouwer's broad philosophic orientation, as expressed in the
aforementioned lecture and elsewhere, has deep affinities with the Kantian
tradition. That tradition defends in general the central role of the creative or
constructive function of the human mind in providing the structures for
organizing the data of sense experience. In particular, mathematics (along with
science and language, generally) exemplifies such constructive activities of the
mind. Mathematics constitutes a domain of intellectual inventions rather than
one devoted to disclosures of antecedent or independent `eternal' truths.
Wittgenstein had already absorbed a good deal of this way of thought through his
earlier attraction to Schopenhauer's philosophy. However, the main thrust of the
Tractatus remained essentially realistic rather than conventionalistic or
constructivistic. It affirmed that logic discloses the necessary structures
inherent in all possible states of affairs. Mathematics, as a set of
tautologies, is a disclosure of the necessities in the structure of reality, by
virtue of stating exhaustively all possibilities. Furthermore, the sense of all
propositions in a fully articulated and well-formulated language must be
completely determinate in order to be correlated with objects in the world. This
central doctrine of the Tractatus was evidence of Wittgenstein's adherence to
and adoption of the realism he shared with Frege and Russell. (There was another
strain, too, in the Tractatus, more closely linked to the Kantian tradition. It
was one that showed the influence of Heinrich Hertz, and stressed the role of
the free creations of the mind in natural science. But on the whole this strain
was subordinated to and incorporated within the wider and more fundamental
outlook of a realist philosophy.)

To adopt a broadly Kantian, conventionalistic, and constructivist view about
man's intellectual activities, is to do a 180-degree turn. It does not look to
the world to determine form, sense, and truth. It looks, rather, to the
conceptual devices originating in the human mind and brought to experience for
its interpretation. These devices (languages; conceptual schemes) are to be
judged by their effectiveness in accomplishing our human purposes. The standards
used in making judgments of effectiveness are on the whole pragmatic ones: How
successful or convenient are the language-systems and conceptual tools man
devises? Instead of looking for a matching or for a correspondence with some
antecedent and independent structure to be captured and articulated by some
uniquely preferred conceptual or linguistic scheme, one makes comparative
judgments of relative adequacy among competing methods, languages, and
conceptual schemes. Instead of a logic of `truth-conditions' one relies on a
logic of `use conditions'. The latter, when considered specifically with respect
to the cognitive uses of language, have to do with the grounds or evidence to
which one can appeal to justify the acceptance of a particular proposition. It
was this broadly `Kantian' orientation that Wittgenstein recognized in Brouwer's
lecture. It aroused and strengthened a sympathetic chord in his own thought. The
following out of this fresh impetus led to a new way of thinking and, over the
period of the next decades, to the development of his `later' philosophy.

The meaning (sense) of linguistic expressions is not to be determined by
correlation with some antecedently and independently existing structure of
reality. Instead of a realistic view of meaning, Wittgenstein shifts to the
adoption of a broadly conventionalistic one. The meaning of linguistic
expressions is determined by rules of use that people devise and adopt. Grammar
is autonomous; thought (and the language that conveys it) has its internal
structures as articulated by the grammatical rules that belong to it. The choice
of these rules, the grammar of thought, is not to be determined by establishing
some isomorphic relation to reality. Reality does not have some language-
independent structure to which our language, considered as a system of rules,
conforms and to which it must stand in a relation of formal identity. Rather,
thought (language) is structured by human conventions; it brings to reality its
own structure. In order to describe reality, one must use these preestablished
`forms of thought' (rules of grammar). It is through the use and application of
these rules that one can deal with reality in a `thoughtful' (linguistic) way.
The task of `logical analysis' - of philosophy - is to help us become aware of
the rules, the `grammars', as well as the contexts of daily living, in which the
expressions and constructions of language find their use. The role of philosophy
is to make us aware of how this is accomplished. By taking numerous examples and
examining them in great detail, we come to see how language works. We study
these uses by attending to the different kinds of `language games' we `play'. We
examine the nuances, the similarities and differences among the roles and uses
to which the different `pieces' (the expressions) of language are put in playing
our language-games. The study of such `grammar' is one of the important
functions of philosophy. The failure to engage in this study accounts for the
puzzlements, entanglements in pseudoproblems, and confusions that pervade much
of traditional philosophy. The task of genuine philosophy is to free us from
these snares. What goes by the name of `philosophy', as traditionally practiced,
is the disease of which philosophy as the examination of the logic of our
language is the cure. In bringing the logic(the grammar) of our language to the
surface, we do not change language or reduce it to something more basic. We
leave everything as it is. But in becoming clear about the grammar of our
language we achieve philosophic enlightenment. Our solutions to problems are
dissolutions of pseudoproblems.


One of the major targets of attack in Wittgenstein's later philosophy is the
pervasive `craving for generality' - the belief in and search for common,
uniform, essential properties - as a required condition for having an
understanding of anything. The assumption that it is necessary to have a grasp
of what is essential, uniform, general, and common in any multiplicity of
instances is classically illustrated as a central feature of Plato's philosophy.
It persists in one form or another throughout the entire subsequent history of
Western philosophy. For example, it lies at the center of Frege's and Russell's
philosophy. And it animated Wittgenstein's earlier philosophy in the Tractatus.
It is this all-pervasive conception of the overriding importance of finding what
is common, general, and essential, along with a correlated `contempt for the
particular case' and a parallel lack of concern for the differences among
instances, to which Wittgenstein set himself in sharp opposition in his later
philosophy. The consequences of this attack, the result of making this radical
shift in orientation, is a key way of getting to understand the later

First let us pause to recall the form that the craving for generality and
the search for common essences took in the philosophy of the Tractatus. A major
goal of the philosophy of the Tractatus is to determine the limits of language.
It is assumed that one can lay down the boundary and universal conditions for
separating in a sharp way sense from nonsense, what can be said from what cannot
be said. The task of logic is said to be the making of these distinctions in a
universal, necessary, and a priori way. The distinctions; once made, underlie
and show the constraints on all meaningful uses of language that purport to
convey knowledge of the world. It is claimed that there is a common, essential,
underlying structure that links logic, language, and the world.

One of the philosophic goals in whose grip Wittgenstein was held and by which he
was led in the Tractatus was to be able to characterize the general
propositional form.

5.47 Wherever there is compositeness, argument and function are present,
and where these are present, we already have all the logical constants.
One could say that the sole logical constant was what all
propositions, by their very nature, had in common with one another.

But that is the general propositional form.

5.471 The general propositional form is the essence of a proposition.
5.4711 To give the essence of a proposition means to give the essence of
all description, and thus the essence of the world.

4.5 The general form of a proposition. is: This is how things stand.

For Wittgenstein, following this line of thought, all propositions are
truth functions of elementary propositions; the latter are at bottom
concatenations of names, where each name designates a simple object in the
world, and where the configuration of the names in the proposition depicts a
possible state of affairs. Here we have the am answer to the question how to
state in a general way the essence of all language and the essence of the
relation between language and the world. However, against the posing of the
question itself and the assumptions underlying it, as well as the answer given
to the question, Wittgenstein rebelled in his later philosophy.

If we look behind the search in the Tractatus for `the essence of
language', `the general form of the proposition', and `the limit of language',
we find that one of the root causes of the illusory character of this search, as
Wittgenstein later diagnosed the matter, is the craving for generality. He
describes the sources of this prevalent craving as follows:

This craving for generality is the resultant of a number of
tendencies connected with particular philosophical confusions. There is

(a) The tendency to look for something in common to all the entities
which we commonly subsume under a general term.- We are inclined to think
that there must be something in common to all games, say, and that this
common property is the justification for applying the general term "game"
to the various games; whereas games form a family the members of which
have family likenesses. Some of them have the same nose, others the same
eyebrows and others again the same way of walking; and these likenesses
overlap. The idea of a general concept being a common property of its
particular instances connects up with other primitive, too simple, ideas
of the structure of language. It is comparable to the idea that properties
are ingredients of the things which have the properties; e.g., that beauty
is an ingredient of all beautiful things as alcohol is of beer and wine,
and that we therefore could have pure beauty, unadulterated by anything
that is beautiful.

(b) There is a tendency rooted in our usual forms of expression, to
think that the man who has learnt to understand a general term, say, the
term "leaf', has thereby come to possess a kind of general picture of a
leaf, as opposed to pictures of particular leaves. He was shown different
leaves when he learnt the meaning of the word "leaf'; and showing him the
particular leaves was only a means to theend of producing `in him' an idea
which we imagine to be some kind of general general image. We say that he
sees what is in common to all these leaves; and true if we mean that he
can on being asked tell us certain features or properties which they have
in common. But we are inclined to think that the general idea of a leaf is
something like a visual image, but one which only contains what is common
to all leaves. (Galtonian composite photograph.) This again is connected
with the idea that the meaning of a word is an image, or a thing
correlated to the word. (This roughly means, we are looking at words as
though they all were proper names, and we then confuse the bearer of a
name with the meaning of the name.)

(c) Again, the idea we have of what happens when we get hold of the
general idea 'leaf,`plant', etc. etc., is connected with the confusion
between a mental state, meaning a state of a hypothetical mental
mechanism, and a mental state meaning a state of consciousness (toothache,

(d) Our craving for generality has another main 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 questions 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. Philosophy really is purely
descriptive'. (Think of such questions as "Are there sense data?" And ask:
What method is there of determining this? Introspection?)

Instead of "craving for generality" I could also have said "the
contemptuous attitude towards the particular case". If, e. g., someone
tries to explain the concept of number and tells us that such and such a
definition will not do or is clumsy because it only applies to, say,
finite cardinals I should answer that the mere fact that he could have
given such a limited definition makes this definition extremely important
to us. (Elegance is not what we are trying for.) For why should what
finite and transfinite numbers have in common be more interesting to us
than what distinguishes them? Or rather, I should not have said "why
should it be more interesting to us?"- it isn't; and this characterizes
our way of thinking.

The attitude towards the more general and the more special in logic
is connected with the usage of the word "kind" which is liable to cause
confusion. We talk of kinds of numbers, kinds Of propositions kinds of
proofs; and, also, of kinds of apples, kinds of paper, etc. In one sense
what defines the kind are properties,like sweetness, hardness, etc. In the
other the different kinds are different grammatical structures. A treatise
on pomology may be called incomplete if there exist kinds of apples which
it doesn't mention. Here we have a standard of completeness in nature.
Supposing on the other hand there was a game resembling that of chess but
simpler no pawns being used in it. Should we call this game incomplete?
Or should we call a game more complete than chess if it in some way
contained chess but added new elements? The contempt for what seems the
less general case in logic springs from the idea that it is incomplete. It
is in fact confusing to talk of cardinal arithmetic as something special
as opposed to something more general. Cardinal arithmetic bears no mark of
incompleteness; nor does an arithmetic which is cardinal and finite.
(There are no subtle distinctions between logical forms as there are
between the tastes of different kinds of apples.)

If we study the grammar, say, of the words "wishing", "thinking",
"understanding", "meaning", we shall not be dissatisfied when we have
described various cases of wishing, thinking, etc. If someone said,
"surely this is not all that one calls `wishing'", we should answer,
"certainly not, but you can build up more complicated cases if you like."
And after all, there is not one definite class of features which
characterize all cases of wishing (at least not as the word is commonly
used). If on the other hand you wish to give a definition of wishing,
i.e., to draw a sharp boundary, then you are free to draw it as you like;
and this boundary will never entirely coincide with the actual usage, as
this usage has no sharp boundary.

The idea that in order to get clear about the meaning of a general
term one had to find the common element in all its applications, has
shackled philosophical investigation, for it not only has led to no
result, but also made the philosopher dismiss as irrelevant the concrete
cases which alone could have helped him to understand usage of the general
term. When Socrates asks the question, "what is knowledge?" he does not
even regand it as a preliminary answer to enumerate cases of knowledge.
(Theaetetus, 146 D-7c). If I wished tofind out what sort of thing arithmetic is,
I should be very content indeed to have investigated the case of a finite
cardinal arithmetic. For (a) this would lead me on to all the more complicated cases,
(b) a finite cardinal arithmetic is not incomplete, it has no gaps
which are then filled in by the rest of arithmetic.

In order to overcome the craving for generality and the contempt for the
particular case one must employ the remedy of making a careful study of numerous
individual examples. Instead of assuming, because we subsume them under a
general term or assign them to a kind that they must have something in common
(their 'essential' properties), Wittgenstein argues that we should look to the
cases themselves. In studying them it is important to take note of the
similarities and differences. It will not always be the case that that there
is, or must be, something common! There may be only overlapping similarities
among particular cases, without there being a number of common properties shared
by all. These overlapping similarities may suffice for our using the general
term to describe all these particular cases in the same way that members of a
human family are recognized to resemble one another even though every one of the
members need not have a set of characteristics shared by all other members.
There may be only certain family resemblances, for example - build, features,
color of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc." that overlap and crisscross in
various ways.'

Wittgenstein uses the expression `game' as an example of a term that
covers a multitude of cases among which are to be found only `family

Consider for example the proceedings that we call "games". I mean
boardgames, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games and so on. What is
common to them all? Don't say: "There must be something common, or they
would not be called `games"'-but look and see whether there is anything
common to all. For if you look at them you will not see something that is
common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them
at that. To repeat: don't think, but look! -Look for example at board-
games, with their multifarious relationships. Now pass to card-games; here
you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common
features drop out, and others appear. When we pass next to ball-games,
much that is common is retained, but much is lost. - Are they all
'amusing'? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always
winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In
ball games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball
at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared. Look at
the parts played by skill and luck; and at the difference between skill in
chess and skill in tennis. Think now of games like ring-a-ring-a roses;
here is the element of amusement, but how many other characteristic
features have disappeared! And we can go through the many, many other
groups of games in the same way; can see how similarities crop up and

And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network
of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall
similarities, sometimes similarities of detail."

The point illustrated here with respect to games can be shown to hold when
we consider a large group of other general terms in ordinary use. Take, as
another example, the term `number'.
And for instance the kinds of number form a family in the same way.
Why do we call something a "number"? Well, perhaps because it has a -
direct relationship with several things that have hitherto been called
number; and this can be said to give it an indirect relationship to other
things we call the same name. And we extend our concept of number as in
spinning a thread we twist fibre on fibre. And the strength of the thread
does not reside in the fact that some one fibre runs through its whole
length, but in the overlapping of many fibres.
However, one must not, from these or other examples, jump to the
conclusion that all general terms can only be characterized by means of family
resemblances. This would be to fall into the very trap from which the strictures
against the craving for generality were intended to save us. Not all general
terms have the `essential' trait of being describable only by means of family
resemblances. Some do and some do not. Look and see! Thus in science, the law,
or in ordinary language it is quite possible to

define certain general terms, i.e. to draw asharp boundaries for their meaning
by stipulating that certain separately necessary and jointly sufficient
conditions be present wherever that general term is to be applied. However,
whether a general term has such a stipulated, fixed, and precise list of
defining characteristics cannot be determined without inquiry. There are no
antecedent ontological facts (as for example Plato assumed there are) that
already exist in some timeless, objective (nonhuman) realm, and that embody the
essential traits belonging to the meaning of each and every general term.

Philosophers very often talk about investigating, analysing, the
meaning of words. But let's not forget that a word hasn't got a meaning
given to it, as it were, by a power independent of us, so that there could
be a kind of scientific investigation into what the word really means. A
word has the meaning someone has given to it.!
The meanings of linguistic expressions are determined by human beings who create
and use language. Thus the tightness or looseness, the unity or diversity, the
changing or relatively fixed character of the sense of a general term can only
be established by examining how it is actually used over a
period of time in a linguistic community.


Wittgenstein's warnings against the pitfalls that beset the craving for
generality, and his recommendations of an antidote in the form of examining
multiple individual cases in all their diversity and complex interrelationships,
are illustrated in the later writings in his many detailed examinations of a
variety of concepts. Among these, a fundamental example-one that sets the stage
for many others, and so has a controlling, preliminary general interest-is the
analysis of the term `language' he gives at the very beginning of Philosophical
Investigations. From everything we have seen thus far it follows that for
Wittgenstein it would be a basic misdirection of effort to search for a common
set of characteristics, some essence for the use of the general term `language'.
As a classic example of such misdirection of effort, and as a highly influential
view of what the `essence' of language supposedly is, he refers in the opening
paragraphs of Philosophical Investigations to St. Augustine's theory as stated
in the latter's Confessions (I,8):

"When they (my elders) named some object, and accordingly moved
towards something, I saw this and I grasped that the thing was called by
the sound they uttered when they meant to point it out. Their intention
was shown by their bodily movements, as it were the natural language of
all peoples: the expression of the face, the play of the eyes, the
movement of other parts of the body, and the tone of voice which expresses
our state of mind in seeking, having, rejecting, or avoiding something.
Thus, as I heard words repeatedly used in their proper places in various
sentences, I gradually learnt to understand what objects they signified;
and after I had trained my mouth to form these signs, I used them to
express my own desires."

These words, it seems to me, give us a particular picture of the essence
of human language. It is this: the individual words in language name objects -
sentences are combinations of such names. - In this picture of language we find
the roots of the following idea: Every word has a meaning. This meaning is
correlated with the word. It is the object for which the word stands.

Augustine does not speak of there being any difference between kinds
of words. If you describe the learning of language in this way you are, I
believe, thinking primarily of nouns like "table", "chair", "bread", and
of people's names, and only secondarily of the names of certain actions
and properties; and of the remaining kinds of word as something that will
take care of itself."

Wittgenstein does not find fault with Augustine's theory of language on
the ground that it takes language to be essentially a matter of using names to
refer to entities or objects, and that he, Wittgenstein, would point to some
other essential marks or constituents. On the contrary, it is the whole
enterprise of finding a supposed common, fixed essence to language that is at
fault. The term `language' does not stand for some single unitary phenomenon
with respect to which one should seek to disclose some fixed essence.
Language is not defined for us as an arrangement fulfilling a
definite purpose. Rather "language" is for me a name for a collection and
I understand it as including German, English, and so on, and further
various systems of signs which have more or less affinity with these

Language is of interest to me as a phenomenon and not as a means to
a particular end.

Not only is `language' at best a term that collects a great diversity and
multiplicity of languages -a host of natural languages along with a great number
of artificial or technical languages- but in considering all of these, it is
important to recognize the enormously rich and complex variety of uses (roles,
functions, employments) these have within human life. For there is no single
fundamental use of language.
Instead of producing something common to all that we call language,
I am saying that these phenomena have no one thing in common which makes
us use the same word for all, - but that they are related to one another
in many different ways. And it is because of this relationship or these
relationships, that we call them all "language".
Even to say that in language every word or other expression signifies
something is of no use.
When we say: "Every word in language signifies something" we have so
far said nothing whatever; unless we have explained exactly what
distinction we wish to make . . . .

Imagine someone's saying: "All tools serve to modify something. Thus
the hammer modifies the position of the nail, the saw the shape of the
board, and so on."And what is modified by the rule, the glue-pot, the
nails? - "Our knowledge of a thing's length, the temperature of the glue,
and the solidity of the box." -Would anything be gained by this
assimilation of expressions?

The great variety of expressions and the great variety of uses to which
expressions are put (whether these expressions are single words, phrases, entire
sentences, or other combinations) are so diverse that it is frequently of little
help to rely on groupings that involve only superficial similarities.

In order to illustrate the variety of uses of expressions in language,
Wittgenstein employs a number of analogies.

Linguistic expressions may be compared to the tools in a toolbox:

Think of the tools in a tool-box; there is a hammer, pliers, a saw,
a screwdriver, a rule, a glue-pot, glue, nails and screws. - The functions
of words are as diverse as the functions of these objects. (And in both
cases there are similarities.)

Of course, what confuses us is the uniform appearance of words when
we hear them spoken or meet them in script and print. For their
application is not presented to us so clearly. Especially not, when we are
doing philosophy!

One may also compare language to the inside of a cabin of a locomotive.
It is tike looking into the cabin of a locomotive. We see handles
all looking more or less alike. (Naturally, since they are all supposed to
be handled.) But one is the handle of a crank which can be moved
continuously (it regulates the opening of a valave another is the handle
of a switch, which has only two effective positions, it is either off or
on; a third is the handle of a brake-lever, the harder one pulls on it,
the harder it brakes; a fourth, the handle of a pump: it has an effect
only so long as it is moved to and fro.
Or again, one may compare the variety of uses of words or the parts of a
sentence with the lines on a map.
Compare the different parts of speech in a sentence with lines on a
map with different functions (frontiers, roads, meridians, contours.) An
uninstructed person sees a mass of lines and does not know the variety of
their meanings.

Think of a line on a map crossing a sign out to show that it is

Finally, one may compare the different roles of words and various parts of
speech to the pieces in a game such as chess. All the pieces may be made of
wood, but their different shapes are connected with the different rules that
govern the way in which they can move, and these in turn are connected with the
various strategies directed to the overall purpose of winning a game.
The difference between parts of speech is comparable to the
differences between chessmen, but also to the even greater difference
between a chessman and the chess board.
Wittgenstein criticizes the prevalent view that all words are to be
treated as if they were names for objects, and where the meaning of a
word is identified with the object named. The error would be comparable
to thinking that the only role of money is to buy an object. "Here the
word, there the meaning. The money, and the cow you buy with it. (But
contrast: money and its use.)"19 The economic institution of money in any
developed form (beyond perhaps the very elementary stage of barter in
which money is one kind of object exchanged for another object) involves
multiple and diverse uses. One can buy not only objects but also services,
for example, not only a pair of shoes but a shoeshine, not only an automo
bile but a taxi ride. In addition, money has various other uses. It confers
`status', establishes credit, constitutes power, and so on. "Money, and
what one buys with it. Sometimes a material object, sometimes the right
to a seat in the theatre or a title, or fact travel or life etc." In t to
the institution of language, we need similarly to take note of the great
variety of uses to which linguistic expressions can be put. To attempt to
reduce them all to the role of names would he to commit a un amental
fallacy. This is illustrated in the failure of such a procrustean view of
language to deal with the use of exclamations. Consider the following
dialogue in which Wittgenstein first states the thesis of a proponent of the
name-relation as adequate to explain all the variety of parts of speech, and
then replies to this proposal.
"We name things and then we can talk about them: can refer to them
in talk." - As if what we did next were given with the mere act of naming.
As if there were only one thing called "talking about a thing." Whereas in
fact we do the most various things with our sentences. Think of
exclamations alone, with their completely different functions.


Are you inclined still to call these words "names of objects"?

Previous analyses of language, including Wittgenstein's in the Tractatus, were
misled into thinking that all words function in the the way names do. Just as an
ordinary proper name for a person, or the name given to some physical object, is
introduced in conjunction with some confronted individual or object, so, it is
thought, all words must name some object or other. Many of the traditional
disputes in philosophy-for example about the nature of `universals' or other
types of `abstract objects', or about what is designated by such terms as
`mind', `proposition', `time', and the like, are guided by the model of proper
names for individual objects or persons. For Wittgenstein, these disputes arise
from the futile attempt to assimilate the varied uses of linguistic expressions
to those of proper names.
The questions "What is length?", "What is meaning?", "What is the number
one?" etc. produce in us a mental cramp. We feel that we can't point to
anything in reply to them and yet we ought to point to something. (We are
up against one of the great sources of philosophical bewilderment' we try
to find a substance for a substantive.)
Instead of asking `What is meaning?', we should ask `What is an explanation of
meaning?'. Instead of asking `What is length?' we should ask `How do we measure
length?' Instead of asking `What is number?' we should ask `How are numerical
expressions used?' In each case we would deflect the tendency to treat the
substantive-sounding words as substantive hungry expressions, and by fastening
our attention on how to perform some activity within a relevant language-game
avoid the mythology of looking for some `object' as a correlate for some


A major analytical device to which Wittgenstein appeals in examining the complex
phenomena of language is that of a language-game. Language is not only
languages. Languages themselves consist of and can be conceived as exhibiting
many different types or combinations of language games. Even Augustine's account
of language might have a limited value if instead of claiming that it gives us
the essence of all languages we should take it as a description of one type of
language-game. In it human beings would communicate exclusively by means of
names, and each name would be used to refer to some object. Wittgenstein gives
an example in which this simple type of language-game might be `played'.

Let us imagine a language for which the description given by
Augustine is right. The language is meant to serve for communication
between a builder A and an assistant B. A is building with building-
stones: there are blocks, pillars, slabs and beams. B has to pass the
stones, and that in the order in which A needs them. For this purpose they
use a language consisting of the words "block", "pillar", "slab", "beam".
A calls them out; -B brings the stone which he has learnt to bring at
such-and-such a call.-Conceive this as a complete primitive language.

Augustine we might say, does describe a system of communication;
only not everything that we call language is this system. And one has to
say this in many cases where the question arises "Is this an appropriate
description or not?" The answer is: "Yes, it is appropriate, but only for
this narrowly circumscribed region, not for the whole of what you were
claiming to describe."

It is as if someone were to say: "A game consists in moving objects
about on a surface according to certain rules . . ."-and we replied: You
seem to be thinking of board games, but there are others. You can make
your definition correct by expressly restricting it to those games .23

For Wittgenstein the notion of a language-game serves a number of
functions. Sometimes he thinks of a language-game as a simplified model of a
language, a tool to be used in the analysis of complex many-sided ordinary
language. Such, for example, is the use of the simple language by the builder
and his assistant, previously described, in which the only expressions used are
names for objects and in which the primary purpose of the communication is that
of giving an order to fetch a particular kind of object. A somewhat more
complicated example of a related type of language-game, by which to illustrate
the use of language to give orders to someone, might be that in which, in
addition to using names for objects, one were also to employ color words or
numerals as in sending someone shopping and giving him a slip marked `five red

Of course there are countless examples of both simplified and more complex
language-games in which the basic function to which language is put is different
from those illustrated in the foregoing.

There are as many language-games as there are uses of language or ways of
using sentences.

But how many kinds of sentences are there? Say assertion, question,
and command? -There are countless kinds: countess different kinds of use
of what we call "symbols", "words", "sentences". And this multiplicity is
not something fixed, given once for all; but new types of language, new
language-games, as we may say, come into existence, and others become
obsolete and get forgotten. (We can get a rough picture of this from the
changes in mathematics.)

Here the term language-game is meant to bring into prominence the
fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or a form of

Review the multiplicity of language-games in the following examples,
and in others:

Giving orders, and obeying them-

Describing the appearance of an object, or giving its measurements

Constructing an object from a description (a drawing)
Reporting an event
Speculating about an event
Forming and testing a hypothesis
Presenting the results of an experiment in tables and diagrams
Making up a story; and reading it
Singing catches
guessing riddles
Making a joke; telling it-
Solving a problem in practical arithmetic-
Translating from one language into another
Asking, thanking, cursing, greeting, praying.

-It is interesting to compare the multiplicity of the tools in
language and of the ways they are used, the multiplicity of kinds of word
and sentence, with what logicians have said about the structure of
language. (Including the author of the Tractatus LogicoPhilosophicus.)

A language game in one of its uses, then, is a simplified model embedded
in a form of life, a clear instance of some characteristic use of language in a
typical life situation.

I shall in the future again and again draw your attention to what I
shall call language games. These are ways of usin sins simpler than those
in which we use the signs of our highly complicated everyday language.
Language games are the forms of language with which a child begins to make
use of words. The study of language games is the study of primitive forms
of language or primitive languages. If we want to study the problems of
truth and falsehood, of the agreement and disagreement of propositions
with reality, of the nature of assertion, assumption, and question, we
shall with great advantage look at primitive forms of language in which
these forms of thinking appear without the confusing background of highly
complicated processes of thought. When we look at such simple forms of
language, the mental mist which seems to enshroud our ordinary use of
language disappears. We see activities, reactions, which are clear-cut and
transparent. On the other hand we recognize in these simple processes
forms of language not separated by a break from our more complicated ones.
We see that we can build up the complicated forms from the primitive ones
by gradually adding new forms.

Further, a relatively simple language-game may not only be an analytical
tool for understanding a more complex and rich language, it may, in some cases,
constitute the entire rudimentary or primitive language actually used by some
individuals. "It is easy to imagine a language consisting only of orders and
reports in battle. -Or a language consisting only of questions and expressions
for answering yes and no. And innumerable others." Language-games are themselves
The appeal to the notion of language-games is closely intertwined with the
appeal to the notion of use as a major key to the analysis of the concept of
meaning. To explain the meaning of a linguistic expression is to point to the
use it has; and this to turn can be clarified by studying that use in some
appropriate language-game.
I want to say the place of a word in grammar is its meaning.

But I might also say: the meaning of a word is what the explanation
of its meaning explains ....

The explanation of the meaning explains the use of the word.

The use of a word in the language is its meaning.

Grammar describes the use of words in the language. So it has
somewhat the same relation to the language as the description of a game,
the rules of a game, have to the game.

One of the fruits of this reorientation is that it not only overcomes the
narrow constrictions of relying on the naming-relation as allegedly the key to
all uses of language, but also shows up the inadequacy of thinking of the
meaning of a name as consisting in the object correlated with the name. Let us
dwell for a moment on this latter point.

When one asks for the meaning of a name, the traditional answer is
that the name is correlated with its object and that the object so correlated
is the meaning of the name. Thus in the case of a person's name, the
meaning is the person referred to; the meaning of the name is identified
with the bearer of the name. However, there is a fundamental difficult
with this conception of meaning. For suppose that the bearer of a name
dies. It would follow, on the above view, that the name no longer has a
meaning; one can no longer meaningfully say, on the present theory, for
example, "Mr. N. N. is dead." Since the name, "Mr. N. N." no longer
has a meaning, the entire sentence lacks sense. But this is absurd. Surely
the correct view is that "when Mr. N. N. dies one says that the bearer of
the name dies, not that the meaning dies. " The meaning of a name and the
bearer of it are altogether different.
To overcome these kinds of difficulties and objections, while yet
preserving the basic presupposition that the meaning of a name does consist of
the object correlated with the name, various philosophic theories have been
devised. One example is the theory of logical atomism of the kind Wittgenstein
had defended in the Tractatus. According to that philosophy, there are genuine
names and these are correlated with the indestructible simple objects that
belong to the permanent nature of the world. Thus, according to this theory,
while the sword Excalibur-as as a composite `object' may be destroyed, the
ultimate simples of which it is composed cannot be. How then, on this view, do
we account for the fact that a sentence such as "Excalibur has a sharp blade"
has sense, even if the object to which 'Excalibur' refers is broken into pieces?
In order to get around this difficulty, the theory of logical atomism denies
that the expression 'Excalibur' is a real name. "The word 'Excalibur' must
disappear when the sense is analyzed and its place be taken by words which
name simples. It will be reasonable to call these words real names. " The
theory of meaning of logical atomism, the later Wittgenstein would say is
a desparate and misguided maneuver to preserve the claim that the mean
ing of a name is the object with which it is correlated. It results from a
failure to examine the use of names (as of other types of linguistic
expressions)in ordinary language.

The term `language-game' is meant to bring into prominence the fact that the
uses and applications of language are normally part of some wider activity or
`form of life'. Consider an ordinary sentence such as `This is red . One cannot
read off straightaway, from this sentence, what its actual use might be, for
what it means is as various as the contexts in which it might be used. For
example, this same sentence could be employed in different language-games,
depending on the surrounding activities in which it is used. Thus `This is red'
can be used to describe the color of some object or surface; to define
ostensively, by means of a sample, the meaning of the word `red'; as a line in a
play uttered by an actor; as an item of instruction in teaching someone the
English language; as a coded message or password in a secret undertaking; as a
translation of a sentence from a foreign language; and so on. The sentence `This
is red' has no independent, self-contained `real' meaning apart from all these
settings in which it might be used. Its particular sentence-meaning is a
function of and depends for its clarification on, the distinctive features of
the particular context in which the sentence is used to accomplish some
particular purpose.