Introduction and Table of Contents | Site Map | Site Search | Bibliography and abbreviations

Wittgenstein's Logic of Language

Motto: Every explanation I can give myself, I can give you too. And when I do this, I do not tell you less than I know myself.  (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations §§ 210, 208)

by Robert Wesley Angelo

"To seek to know and understand by the natural light of reason and experience alone" (Thales of Miletus). "That I was a little better off, because I did not think I knew what I do not know" (Plato, Apology 21d). "Socrates held that if a man knew anything, he could explain what he knew to others" (Xenophon, Memorabilia iv, 6, 1). "And that which we know we must surely be able to tell?" (Plato, Laches 190c, tr. Jowett)

A Synopsis of Wittgenstein's Logic of Language

Précis: The elements of Wittgenstein's later logic of language: a description of the definitions, metaphors and methods Wittgenstein used to make the distinction between language with meaning and nonsense verifiable in philosophy, by identifying logic with rules of meaning rather than with rules of form, revising the concept 'grammar' and selecting a specific meaning of 'meaning', as well as his view of philosophy as clarity about what is in plain sight rather than as speculation about what it seems is not.

Table of Contents

Introduction to the Synopsis (The background, context of Wittgenstein's work)

The Synopsis is in thirteen chapters, divided across three Web pages.

Page One

  1. Wittgenstein's use of the words 'logic' and 'grammar'
    (Conceptual revision, and why logic = grammar = meaning = use in the language)
  2. The False grammatical account
    ("Words are names and the meaning of a name is the thing the name stands for")
  3. The Distinction between a sign and the meaning of a sign
    (Why logic of language uses quotation marks)
  4. Wittgenstein's selected meaning of 'meaning'
    (Comparison of words to tools. Comparison of using words to moving game-pieces on a board according to rules)
  5. Kinds of definition
    (Verbal versus real, ostensive, and play-acted)
  6. 'Grammatical remarks'
    ("Grammatical reminders")

Page Two

  1. The Rules of the game
    (The concept 'games' and family likeness or resemblances)
  2. Kinds of rules of grammar
    (Reported, Invented, Assigned)
  3. Concepts have indefinite borders
    (Generally, we do not use language according to fixed rules)
  4. Meaning as a "usage"
    (Custom, institution, pattern of behavior)

Page Three

  1. 'Nonsense' and contradiction
    (What Wittgenstein means by the word 'nonsense' in his post-TLP work)
  2. 'Language games' (A general definition)
  3. Meaning is not a matter of form, but of use in the language.

Clarifications: Logic's meaning of 'meaning'. "Indefinable signs"

Bibliography: The Wittgenstein-related texts and abbreviations (e.g. Z = Zettel) I have used

[Table of contents for the Appendixes, which are further writings in logic of language and philosophy]

Words are only spoken sounds or written marks and as such without meaning. What gives words meaning?

How is sense [language with meaning] distinguished from nonsense [language without meaning] in philosophy? That distinction is the logic of language. And it is the first question in philosophy.


Wittgenstein's later work cannot be understood without understanding his revision of the concepts 'logic' and 'grammar', because Wittgenstein looked at philosophical problems from the point of view of grammar and sense and nonsense. Any description of the public conventions (rules) for the use of words in the language, including e.g. whether a combination of words is without meaning (undefined or meaningless), is "grammar". The "synopsis" is a description of the elements of Wittgenstein's grammar or "logic of language". (Logic DEF.= the study of rules. The concept 'grammar' is a tool of logic. Concepts, words are tools.)

Is Wittgenstein's logic of language the same as Wittgenstein's philosophy? Wittgenstein's logic is thoroughgoingly rational ("discourse of reason"), but Wittgenstein's philosophy, if that includes his thinking about the riddle (TLP 6.5) of existence, is only partly so. Another question is whether the limits of Wittgenstein's philosophy are the same as the limits of philosophy itself, for Wittgenstein's philosophy excludes ethics because its subject is non-rational ("absolute value") and metaphysical speculation because metaphysics is mere conceptual confusion ("grammatical jokes").

Outline of the Introduction

The Two Parts of Wittgenstein's Work

My work consists of two parts: the one presented here plus all that I have not written. And it is precisely this second part that is the important one. (Wittgenstein, Letter to Ludwig Ficker of circa September-October 1919)

When he nevertheless takes immense pains to [mark the limits of] the unimportant [the first part or "what can be put into words"], it is not the coastline of that island [i.e. the first part] which he is bent on surveying with such meticulous accuracy, but [instead] the boundary of the ocean [the second part, the important part, "the mystical", "what cannot be put into words"]. (Engelmann, Memoir, tr. Furtmüller, McGuinness, p. 97; cf. Drury's The Danger of Words p. xiv)

I don't believe that ever changed, but that the Philosophical Investigations also consists of two parts, one written, one silent. And for "the second part", the silent part, I rely on Wittgenstein's friend Paul Engelmann and student, later friend M. O'C. Drury who have tried to give an overview (description) of the second part.

The second part is also shown by remarks like "What men mean when they say, The world is there, lies close to my heart" (LE/Notes p. 16) and "It is there -- like our life" (OC § 559).

And it is shown by the way Wittgenstein lived, by his religious understanding of life, by the very singular manner of man (as Bertrand Russell said) Wittgenstein was. Ludwig Wittgenstein (b. Austria 1889, d. Britain 1951)

"Absolute value" and Philosophical Ethics

The second part, the part Wittgenstein did not write, is the question of life's meaning (which, contrary to TLP 6.5, Wittgenstein later recognized is problematical), of God, and ethics (Plato's "no small matter, but how to live"). This is because in Wittgenstein's view the subject of ethics would be non-rational "absolute value", which because it cannot be put to the tests of Socratic cross-questioning is not part of philosophy, which in Wittgenstein's project consists of logic and metaphysics only.

But Wittgenstein's view of ethics is not the only one possible, and I ask whether there is a proposition type, namely ethical propositions, quite different from the proposition types of metaphysics and logic -- but at the same time not about non-rational "value" or "conscience".

The Synopsis I have written is only about the first part of Wittgenstein's work, the logic of language. It says nothing about Wittgenstein's second part, the part he called "the inexpressible" and "the mystical" in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 6.522 (tr. Ogden), the important part according to Wittgenstein, although the eternal questions, which Wittgenstein had said are not questions at all [TLP 6.5], would belong to that part.

Philosophy and Logic of Language

I don't, however, see that anyone must share Wittgenstein's view of philosophy in order to use his logic of language in the service of the Socratic standard for clarity and knowing what is true in philosophy, nor agree that the limits of what can be said either in ethics or about "the sense of the world" (TLP 6.41) are where Wittgenstein said they are. I myself don't, but on the contrary I share Socrates' view that one must be cured by philosophy, not Wittgenstein's view that one must be cured of it. Indeed I would say this, that you must first use Wittgenstein's logic of language as an antidote to philosophy, and then use Socratic philosophy as an antidote to Wittgenstein's view of philosophy.

'Logic of language' (Definition)

By a logic of language I mean DEF.= a way of distinguishing between sense and nonsense, that is, between language with meaning and language without meaning, when discussing philosophical problems.

Wittgenstein's way makes the distinction objective (public and therefore verifiable) by broadening our concept 'grammar' to mean "any description of the use of language", and often by narrowing the meaning of 'logic' (generally 'the art of reasoning') to 'the study of rules'.

Wittgenstein compared using words to moving pieces on a game board (Wittgenstein's metaphor was "language game") -- both acts are done by following rules. The rules of a game define the game -- and it is the following or not following of those rules that distinguishes sense from nonsense.

What must anyone be doing if he is not talking nonsense? Just because the rules of a particular language game are not strict does not mean that there are no rules at all or that those rules don't define sense and nonsense for that game. (Otherwise why compare using language to playing games?)

Wittgenstein's logic of language is a study of the rules of language, but of which rules? Wittgenstein found that the meaning of language is not a function of the form of language (for if it were, the rules of syntax couldn't produce nonsense, but they can and do) but of the ways the signs of language (spoken sounds, ink marks) are used to do some work, regardless of their form (syntax).

In philosophy, Wittgenstein thought, language does no work: philosophy's problems are no more than idle combinations of words (syntax). Philosophy's task is to show this: philosophical investigations clarify language meaning rather than solve philosophical problems.

The expression 'logic of language' as defined here seems to be my jargon, but the expression itself comes from the TLP's Preface: "the logic of our language is misunderstood" (see also 4.003a, PI § 93b (cf. § 345), and OC § 599b). How to put right this misunderstanding is, in my view, Wittgenstein's master question in philosophy. (The words 'objective' and 'verifiable' are not necessary in this context because a subjective distinction is the same as no distinction (cf. PI § 258). But those words can be used here for emphasis.)

The Fundamental Mistake

The fundamental mistake philosophers make is to suppose that philosophy's first question is "Is it true?" rather than "What is its meaning?" Any proposition must have at least three possible values: It may be true or false -- or it may be nonsense (i.e. an undefined combination of words). And if it is not nonsense, a proposition may be a statement of fact or a rule of grammar (i.e. an explanation of the use of language). Which is the proposition 'There are objects'? Is it obviously true or grammar or nonsense?

Note.--Wittgenstein's logic of language is a collection of tools (concepts) or methods for working in philosophy itself. It is not a study of language for the sake of language alone (it is not philosophy of language), nor is the Philosophical Investigations a theory about "what the meaning of language really is".

There are many meanings of the word 'meaning'; Wittgenstein chose one for his work (his method) in philosophy.

Conceptual versus Factual Investigations

The essential thing about metaphysics: it makes no distinction between definitions of words and definitions of phenomena. (Z § 458, PI § 383)

Wittgenstein thought that when we philosophize the distinction between factual and conceptual investigations is not clear to us, but that philosophical problems are always conceptual problems (i.e. problems about the meaning of language) rather than factual problems (i.e. problems about the nature of things), problems that result from our being mystified by the strange constructions that syntax allows and by the pictures that language suggests to us (PI § 109). And because it is our misunderstood concepts that create philosophical problems rather than our ignorance of seemingly nebulous, amorphous phenomena that appear to be independent of our concepts, the only task for philosophy is to clarify our concepts.

"All fact is already conceived fact"

Concepts (in many cases 'concept' DEF.= 'rules for the use of a word', but sometimes by 'concept' we mean a picture, or a model of how something works) rather than phenomena are the subject of philosophy because concepts set the limits of phenomena, not "phenomena" the limits of concepts. If we replace 'theory' with 'concept' in Goethe's statement that "All fact is already theory", that is the idea: that there are no facts independent of concepts: all fact is already conceived-fact ("Percepts without concepts are blind").

The question "Why investigate the use of words rather than the phenomena they name?" reverses the order of the relationship between concepts and phenomena -- the concept says what the phenomenon is; that is all we know about it. Kant's statement that "Percepts without concepts are blind" means that we cannot explain concept-formation by "the percept in itself", i.e. the phenomenon independent of our concept of it, because about that we know nothing. (The proposition 'The grass is green' requires the concepts 'grass' and 'green', and so on.)

For Wittgenstein philosophy seeks to understand concepts, and towards that end it describes the public facts about our use language (PI § 125), as well as questioning what it would be like if various general facts of nature were otherwise than they are (ibid. II, xii, p. 230). But philosophy cannot explain the relationship between "reality in itself" (of which there is no such thing) and concept-formation, which is a self-delusional project of metaphysics.

Philosophical investigations = conceptual investigations. (Z § 458; cf. RPP i § 949. Philosophy clarifies the use of words (concepts), not the nature of phenomena.)

The difficulty in philosophy is to distinguish metaphysics from logic.

Wittgenstein's distinction between grammatical (conceptual) and non-grammatical (factual, phenomenological) investigations is dependant on a way of looking at language meaning, i.e. on a particular, selected definition of 'meaning', which is what Wittgenstein's logic of language is.

Defining words, not things or phenomena

Contrary to what Wittgenstein says, it is not always in philosophy but only in logic (or logic-philosophy) that we define words not things or phenomena, because, after all, the metaphysician does want to define things. Sometimes that has meaning; sometimes it is nonsense -- nonsense because concepts define things, not vice versa (at most the metaphysician may revise a concept [reconceptualize], but that does not mean discover the truth).

Metaphysics does not understand this relationship, and so instead of trying to clarify a concept by describing the use of a word in the language -- it seeks to discover the nature of the thing or class of things the word is presumed to name. Metaphysics assumes that: Words are names of things, and The true meaning of a word is the true nature of the thing it names.

Thus Plato asks, "What is justice?" "What is knowledge?" as if the answers to those [nebulous] questions were floating about quite independently of our concepts, waiting for the philosopher to capture them in his net, like butterflies. But "percepts without concepts are blind" (Kant).

To say that in philosophy we define words not things is either to describe a project in philosophy or to put forth a metaphysical thesis (a statement about what the nature of philosophy really is). Wittgenstein seems to have done both.

"The essence of metaphysics"
... and the eternal questions

Are there counter-examples to Wittgenstein's claim that metaphysics is nothing more than conceptual confusion (PI §§ 111, 309)? E.g. someone who asks whether the essence of man is mind and body or mind alone (as Plato and Aristotle ask [Does "essence belongs to grammar" (ibid. § 371) in this case?] It is no small matter whether man lives his life directed towards this world or towards an afterlife), or who asks how man should live his life, does not seem to be confused about the grammar of the word 'man', as if he were "bewitched by language" (ibid. § 109), e.g. by misleading grammatical analogies or language-conjured pictures (ibid. §§ 90, 115), but instead he seems puzzled by the phenomenon of man. "Were it a thing obvious and easy to know thyself the precept might not have passed for an oracle" (Plutarch; cf. Plato, Phaedrus 230a). Is it because "the logic of our language is misunderstood" that Socrates asks what the specific excellence proper and unique to man is (e.g. is it "discourse of reason" or "rational moral virtue")? or that philosophers ask if man is able even in principle to perceive all that exists? or if there is an afterlife? The answers to such questions may seem unknowable -- but that does not make them mere conceptual confusion, nor does it make them not philosophy (as they were philosophy "with all philosophers before" Wittgenstein).

Further examples are Plato's theory of learning (recollection) is not nonsense language, nor is his myth of the cave (Republic 515c).

Indeed, Wittgenstein's own statement -- at first an insight but then a philosophical thesis -- about the essence of metaphysics is itself a counter-example. Because Wittgenstein's remark does not belong to grammar -- it does not state rules for using the word 'metaphysics' -- but is instead a remark about the phenomenon of metaphysical thinking. And yet Wittgenstein's remark does not seem to be nonsense.

What is the meaning of a word? If the meaning of a word is the thing the word names (PI § 43b), then we can speculate about what the true nature of that thing is, and thus metaphysics is possible. If however the meaning of a word is a mere description of the conventions for the word's use in the language (ibid. § 43a), then metaphysics is not possible.

The Fallacy of SOME, therefore ALL

... and its negative doctrines unfounded. (Russell)

Two notes.--First, the quality Wittgenstein identifies cannot be the entire essence of metaphysics because, if metaphysics is conceptual muddle, it is not conceptual muddle about just anything, but only about philosophical things. Second, since "in all instances" does not follow from "in some instances", Wittgenstein has to be saying what the defining common nature of metaphysics is, if his claim is to have an "all" level of generality, because otherwise Wittgenstein would commit "The Fallacy of SOME, therefore ALL". That fallacy is the danger to our philosophy of "thinking with only one kind of example" (PI § 593).

One should thus always ask when exaggerated dogmatic claims are made: What is actually true in this? Or again: In what case is that actually true? (CV p. 14, remark from 1931)

But there are remedies to Wittgenstein's over-reaching claim about metaphysical-philosophy (namely counter-examples and counter points of view) -- just as there are the remedies Wittgenstein prescribed for some kinds of conceptual blunders in metaphysics (e.g. spotting false analogies suggested by syntax and the misleading definition of 'noun').

Then is there another way, a different logic?

Wittgenstein's logic is a logic of language, one selected meaning of 'meaning', not the logic of language. "Look at language-meaning my way!", which is what the philosopher says, presumes that there may be other ways of seeing philosophical problems, alternative logics, each "like a pair of glasses on our nose through which we see whatever we look at" (PI § 103).

A philosopher says: Look at things this way! (CV p. 61, remark from 1947)

How much I'm doing is changing the way of thinking and how much I'm doing is persuading people to change their way of thinking. (LC iii, 40, p. 28)

Wittgenstein's logic of language is no more than one way of looking at things, only one way of defining 'meaning' and 'nonsense', and not the only way. It would be no easy thing to describe an alternative logic of language, however. Of course we can always invent a use for an undefined combination of words, e.g. for nonsense such as 'What is the location of the mind?' (BB p. 6-7), that makes it not nonsense, but that is not to invent a new or alternative logic of language.

["We can always invent ..." But where do the limits lie to the normal "language game" with the word 'mind' -- because within those limits the word has sense, but outside it normally has none. Philosophical problems in Wittgenstein's view have their origin in failure to understand the limits of the normal "language game" (PI § 116).]

Logic is objective (verifiable)

Note well that the question is, Is there another objective way to distinguish sense from nonsense? For example W.E. Johnson's standard "If I say that a sentence has meaning for me, no one has the right to say it is meaningless" is not a logic of language, because by that "standard" language can only seem or not seem to some individual to have meaning (cf. ibid. §§ 293, 258). Johnson's standard is not public, not verifiable.

Wittgenstein's comparisons, similes, metaphors

Wittgenstein purposely wrote in the down to earth language of everyday life and with lots of examples. His logic is not difficult to understand (or at least the difficulty is not in the obscurity of its language) -- once the nature of its principles is understood.

When Wittgenstein said: Compare using language to playing a game according to rules, he was not saying either what language is, or what language "really is". His principle of investigation was comparative not ontological (speculative, theoretical) -- i.e. what Wittgenstein invented was a comparison (simile).

Games of Strict Rules as a Model

In philosophy we often compare the use of words with games ... that have fixed rules, but cannot say that someone who is using language must be playing such a game. (PI § 81)

In general we don't use language according to strict rules -- it hasn't been taught to us by means of strict rules either. (BB p. 25)

Wittgenstein's "primitive language games", which are games played according to strict rules, may in this way be misleading, because although what defines a game for logic is its rules, it may also be an absence of rules that characterizes a particular game.

A game with strict rules (e.g. chess) is used as an object of comparison or standard. Actual language is compared to that standard (as to a model) -- but in order to note similarities and dissimilarities to the standard, not to presume that language conforms or must conform to the standard, nor to claim that the standard is the reality (Logic is not metaphysics) (PI §§ 130-1).

We must have a clear view of what the ideal is, namely an object of comparison -- an object to measure against like a yardstick (or measuring rod) -- instead of making it a prejudice which everything has to conform to. (CV p. 14; cf. p. 26)

Wittgenstein's yardstick -- i.e. his logic of language -- is not Procrustean. And this reflects the grammar of our language, which is for the most part Protean. In other words, although concepts with well-defined (definite) borders are often seen as a model [cf. words with essential definitions], most concepts have indefinite borders [cf. most words do not have essential definitions].

There are many meanings of 'meaning'

When Wittgenstein wrote: The meaning of a word is its use in the language (PG i § 23, p. 60; cf. PI § 43: "for a large class of cases -- though not for all"), he was not stating what language meaning "really" is, nor was he simply reporting how we normally use the word 'meaning', but he was defining the word 'meaning' in the sense of limiting its meaning. There are many meanings of the word 'meaning'; Wittgenstein chose one (for his work in philosophy).

The nature of this principle is made clearer when it is stated in the form: Ask for the use (in the language) rather than the "meaning".

[Note that neither the use-principle nor the game-comparison principle is only a simile or comparison; they both belong to the essence of Wittgenstein's method, or rules for reasoning in logic.]

On the other hand, Wittgenstein does not only select one meaning of 'meaning', but also shows that other meanings cannot be the meaning of language -- if language meaning is objective, verifiable, knowable. And non-objective meaning, as e.g. W.E. Johnson's subjective meaning, is no more serviceable than "subjective knowledge" would be. Like the standard Wittgenstein set for meaning is the standard Socrates set for knowing in philosophy: to know is to be able to explain and defend one's claim to know when questioned by others. For Johnson might have said, "If I say I know something, no one has the right to say I don't know it." If language meaning and claims to know were not verifiable, there could be no philosophy because reason would have nothing to anchor itself to.

The metaphor of use in the language in contrast to the picture suggested by the word 'meaning'

The reason for the precept "Ask for the use rather than the meaning' is that the expression 'meaning of a word' suggests an object of some kind, whether perceptible or abstract (ghostly). The picture: words are names, and the meaning of a name is the thing the name stands for, where 'thing' may mean any thing (object, phenomenon, idea). In contrast, the expression 'use of a word in the language' suggests a tool that we use to do some work.

The word 'use' makes a word (or sentence) active. If a word is a tool, it is used by us to do various kinds of work in our life, and it has no life apart from that work. In contrast, if the meaning of a word is an independently existing thing it names -- a constant regardless of context (PI § 117) -- then language is in control of man, not man in control of language.

Most words do not have essential definitions

The more fundamental trouble with the presumption (preconception) that the meaning of a word is the essence of the thing or class of things it names is that most words do not have essential meanings (definitions), but can only have their meaning explained by examples. In other words, the preconception is a false conception. [Wittgenstein's criticism of the Socratic logic of language and of its extension by Plato and by the theory of abstraction.]

Like ≠ Is (The logic of comparison)
Comparative versus Factual Principles

Wittgenstein's principles are methodological directives ("Ask for the use of a word as if you were asking for the use of a tool ...") and comparisons ("Language is like a game where what defines a game is its rules ..."). Some principles, e.g. the Archimedean principle that water is not compressible, aim to state facts about the world. Wittgenstein's principles do not.

What I invent are new similes [metaphors]. (CV p. 19, remark from 1931)

New comparisons, definitions, and methods of understanding. Not new doctrines, hypotheses or theories about reality. After he returned to Cambridge in 1929, the aim of Wittgenstein's philosophy was clarity for its own sake. He said of this way of philosophizing --

This method consists essentially in leaving aside the question of truth and asking about sense instead. (CV (1998 rev. ed.) [MS 105 46 c: 1929])

"Philosophy before Wittgenstein" (Russell)

In Wittgenstein's view, philosophy's aim essentially is to clarify language meaning in philosophical problems (PI § 109; TLP 4.112, 4.111). Contrast that with Bertrand Russell's statement: "as with all philosophers before [Wittgenstein's later work], my fundamental aim has been to understand the world as well as may be" (My Philosophical Development (1959), p. 217), which according to the Stoics would seek to answer three questions: What is real (in contrast to ephemeral or illusion). How to think (reason). How to live our life (ethics). After the TLP Wittgenstein limited philosophy to logic only: philosophy = logic = the art of reasoning. And that exclusion of ethics and metaphysics, makes philosophy far less than what the earliest philosophers had made it to be, which was indeed an understanding "as well as may be" of what reality is and of how to live our life.

[Note.--It is a mistake to speak of Wittgenstein's logic of language in the context of the Tractatus; the Tractatus claims to be the logic of language, not a logic of language (as I have argued that Wittgenstein's later work is). But if the TLP were indeed the logic of language, then logic would indeed be "the study of everything subject to law" [6.3] in the sense of laws of nature in contrast to conventions. The word 'convention' is synonymous with the word 'rule', and thus in Wittgenstein's later work, by 'logic' is meant 'the study of rules' (A method of study also is a set of rules).]

Russell wrote about Wittgenstein's later philosophy that "its positive doctrines seem to me trivial and its negative doctrines unfounded" (My Philosophical Development p. 216). Russell called Wittgenstein "a singular man" (ibid. p. 214); he was certainly a singular philosopher, but about his work, although I agree with Russell that "its negative doctrines" are unfounded, I disagree that "its positive doctrines" are trivial (although Russell might have truly added "and its method pointless"). If I thought Wittgenstein's work in logic were not the opposite of trivial, I would not use his logic for most of my own thinking in philosophy, as I have done for most of my life.

The Elements of Wittgenstein's later Logic

All the elements of Wittgenstein's concept 'grammar' described in the Synopsis appear in Wittgenstein's writings. But they are nowhere gathered together in one place and presented solely as a logic of language. They are the tools that Wittgenstein assumed the readers of his works to be already familiar with -- although Wittgenstein, if he did not invent all of them, so revised (redefined) them that they could only be learned from him.

Warnings (about my work and about philosophy itself)

Wittgenstein was a philosopher, which means not only that he was extraordinarily intelligent (clever) but also -- and far more importantly -- that he was gifted with focus and a new way of looking at things. But I am not. And so to all I have written must be added "if I have understood and seen deep enough" (CV p. 48, 62). There is a proverb that says "a man can't jump higher than his own forehead", and I am not very tall in philosophy.

Philosophy is cross-questioning

Work in philosophy is Socratic dialog (the cross-questioning of theses, whether by holding discourse with one's companions or with oneself alone), that is to say, its results are the results of the day: new objections (cross-questions) and new theses to test may occur to us in the following days. Philosophy is then revision, philosophizing revising.

About an earlier view, Wittgenstein told Drury, "That is just the sort of stupid remark I would have made in those days" (Recollections p. 98). I have over the years made a lot of stupid remarks on this site, and I have often been wrong in my understanding of how to apply Wittgenstein's logic to particular philosophical problems.

Although philosophical questions are never finished and done with, it sometimes happens that a question is not asked or no longer asked because it has no place in a particular frame of reference -- because that is what a philosopher creates: a new point of view, a new way of looking at things, as Wittgenstein did when he revised the concept 'grammar', as a consequence of which many formerly metaphysical questions about "the mind" are, within his frame of reference, without meaning. (Cf. Wittgenstein's "absolute value" versus the rational ethics of Socrates.)

Clarity in philosophy

Nothing in philosophy stays clear for very long, only for so long as we see no problem with it.

But in that case we never get to the end of our work! -- Of course not, for it has no end. (cf. Z § 447)

Philosophy is the ever-elusive Proteus: philosophizing is the illusion of catching him. (Cf. Plato, Euthydemus 291b-c)

In his last notes written in the last months of his life, Wittgenstein wrote:

Is my understanding only blindness to my lack of understanding? It often seems so to me. (OC § 418)

But see, I write one thing, then another just the opposite. And which shall stand? (Wittgenstein, in January 1951)


Towards the end Wittgenstein tended to use the word 'logic' rather than the word 'grammar' and at times to refer to his own work as 'logic' rather than as 'philosophy' (OC §§ 56, 82, 628, 68; Z § 590). However, he always regarded his work as being "the philosophy of logic" (PG i § 77, p. 121) -- i.e. as looking at philosophical questions from the point of view of the logic of language ("It is possible to be interested in a phenomenon in a variety of ways" (PI § 108), e.g. from a variety of points of view). To Drury: "My fundamental ideas came to me very early in life" (DW p. ix); e.g. TLP 4.112, 5.4732-5.4733, 6.211.

Wittgenstein titled his book "Logical-philosophical Treatise", or Logic-philosophy, meaning Philosophy the foundation of which is logic -- because not all philosophers have made the distinction between sense and nonsense the foundation of their way of thinking (the foundation of their philosophy).

Wittgenstein's work is Logic-philosophy or it could also be called "The philosophy of logic of language". It is, as I see philosophy, one of the three foundations of philosophy, if there really are more than two.

[When Wittgenstein uses the word 'logic' to mean "grammar" ('grammar' in his jargon -- although note that Wittgenstein's identification of logic with "grammar" is not jargon), is he using the word 'logic' the way Socrates did? Wittgenstein's use is similar, or to use his metaphor, it is an heir (BB p. 28) to the use of the Greek word logos of the historical Socrates. Wittgenstein did not choose either the word 'grammar' or the word 'logic' arbitrarily. He revised those concepts; he did not invent them.]

Not scholarship or historiography

Through the years Wittgenstein developed his fundamental ideas. The Synopsis is only about his last revisions. It is not a work of historiography or scholarship; there is no "review of the literature" (Aristotle, Metaphysics 980a21-993a).

Writing about philosophy - in order to give an account of what you think you know

Wittgenstein, somewhat like the historical Socrates, asks for an account of what you know -- "If a man knows anything, he can give an account (explanation) of what he knows to others", an account to be tested for clarity and self-consistency in cross-questioning, there to be agreed to or refuted (Xenophon, Memorabilia iv, 6, 1, which is this site's motto). An "explanation of meaning" -- (a 'grammatical account' in Wittgenstein's jargon (PP ii, p. 276)) -- is an account of what you know (PI §§ 69, 75), an account of "what anyone knows and must admit" (Z § 211; PI § 599) because it is put into words "open to the public".

The Socratic standard may not be beyond criticism (PI § 78), but it is an essential part of how I see philosophy and also of how I (as well as M. O'C. Drury) look at Wittgenstein's work in philosophy ("to say no more than you know"). What cannot be put into words is not the subject of philosophy, but if someone says that something cannot put into words, that is a question for the logic of language.

In the Phaedrus Plato says that the only reason to write anything down is to provide yourself with refreshment both for your memory and for your old age (276c-d). But there is also this:

It is only the attempt to write down your ideas that enables them to develop. (Recollections p. 109)

You have to find your own way to what you want from philosophy. No one else can do this for you. But maybe what I have written can be useful to you in this way:

In my attempt to understand the thought of others my own thought became clearer. (A. Schweitzer, Out of My Life and Thought, tr. Lemke, xiv)

Philosophically stupid

"Every way of thinking is all right as long as it isn't stupid," Wittgenstein wrote to Sraffa in 1935. Of course everyone sometimes thinks stupid things (Dummheiten), but sometimes mustn't be always. In philosophy the word 'stupid' would mean 'thoughtless' or 'presumptuous' -- i.e. thinking oneself wise when one is not, thinking one knows what one does not know (Plato, Apology 29a; cf. OC § 549) -- 'not thought through', 'unquestioning' (Apology 37e-38a) or 'based on weak reasons' (LC i, p. 59).

Thinking that one knows a thing when one does not know it. Through this, I believe, all the mistakes of the mind are caused in all of us. And furthermore to this kind of ignorance alone the name of stupidity is given. (Plato, Sophist 229c, tr. Fowler)

A way of thinking is not stupid simply because from some other point of view it may be a mistaken way, e.g. that "a word is a name and its meaning is the thing it names" (Augustine's picture, "nominalism"), or that "the meaning of a common name is the common nature it names" (Plato's way of thinking), or that "the meaning of our psychological words (such as 'hope', 'fear') is to be discovered by introspection" -- those ways of thinking are not stupid, although they are mistaken from Wittgenstein's point of view where 'meaning' is defined as 'rules of grammar'.


1. Wittgenstein's Use of the Words 'Logic' and 'Grammar', being the first chapter of A Synopsis of The Elements of Wittgenstein's Logic of Language [See Table of Contents above]

How to Search This Site

You can try to search this site using an Internet search engine by entering the following in the search box:  [words to search for]

Or:  [words to search for]

Or use this site's own search engine. It's quite basic, returning only page titles, but its results are complete for this site, which an Internet search engine's results will not be.


Notes: These pages were written from the point of view of Wittgenstein's logic of language, and they may not be understood without first understanding that logic.

Regardless of their specific topics, the background of these pages is Wittgenstein's revision of the concepts 'grammar' and 'logic' in logic-philosophy. That revision, as well as the related standard set by the historical Socrates, has been my point of reference.

The Introduction above and the Synopsis itself are the present stage of my own understanding of Wittgenstein's work in philosophy. But over the years uneven revising has made the Synopsis (as well as the Appendixes) a patchwork of contrary ideas, like the writings in a diary misfiled by date. Revising -- i.e. replacing old stupid remarks (mostly because they are first blush) with remarks that at present don't seem stupid -- is rethinking, and the thoughtful tortoise that can never catch up with the first blush Achilles (therefore the patchwork).

A.  Remarks about Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. My Introduction and comments, beginning with an explanation of the meaning the book's title "Logical-philosophical Treatise". The TLP's eccentric definition of the word 'nonsense', or when nonsense is not nonsense, because language that conveys meaning is after all not nonsense.

B.  The Place of Examples in logic of language. Examples are the only way, not an inferior way, to explain the meaning of words that do not have essential definitions, which most words of natural language have not. Examples, as explanations of meaning, are the true master to follow in philosophy.

C.  Statements-of-Fact: the grammar/logic of statements of the form statement-of-fact (proposition), many of which are not statements of fact. The history of the word 'logic' (the Greek maid-of-all-work word logos).

D.  The Philosophy of Psychology: The language of moods, dispositions and sensations ("feeling"), and The language of mind (Parallel vocabularies: psychological and physiological).

E.  Fable of The Born-Blind-People, a contrary-to-fact natural history (parable): Look at the word 'know' as a tool that is used to do some work in our life. With postscripts about H.G. Wells ("The Country of the Blind") and George Orwell (in 1984: using language to limit what can and cannot be thought).

F.  Questions without Answers. The eternal questions. "The riddle" which doesn't, yet does exist.

G.  The Philosophy of Mathematics: What are Numbers? And the Philosophy of Geometry (What are points?) The view from outside the calculus. (Philosophy of Mathematics is also called Foundations of Mathematics)

H.  First Principles (Etienne Gilson, Thomas Aquinas and the categories of all thought).

i.  Questions about M. O'C. Drury's "Concerning Mind and Body" ('consciousness'), and "pictures of the mind" divorced from grammar (pictures that mislead rather than show the use in the language of the word 'mind').

J.  The Philosophy of Time (Not all nouns are names of things, and 'time' -- like 'point' in geometry and 'mind' in psychology -- is an example. The use of a word in the language in contrast to speculation about the nature of the phenomenon the word is presumed to name.)

K.  The Philosophy of Science: (1) M. O'C. Drury, (2) Arthur Eddington, and (3) James Jeans.

L.  Comparison of the Projects in Philosophy of Isaac Newton and Ludwig Wittgenstein. (Wittgenstein's theories about the origins of philosophy.)

M.  Historical asides:

N.  Socrates, Plato, Xenophon

O.  Notes about John Maynard Keynes' Biographical Essays:

P.  The Philosophy of Religion:

Q.  Quotations from Memory: Philosophical remarks and sayings, mostly paraphrased, and with overlong comments.

For this Web site, copyright © September 1998. Send Internet or form-mail to Robert (Critical comments and corrections are always welcome).

Written 1979-2024.

This page was last revised June 2024 : 2024-06-14

The URL of this Web page:

Back to top of page

[ Bibliography and abbreviations | Site Map | Site Search | About this site ]

"The difficulty in philosophy is to say no more than you know" (BB p. 45). Something not easily done. And because Socrates does not think he knows what he does not know, Apollo's oracle says that no man is wiser than Socrates (Plato, Apology 29a, 23a-b). "He only errs who thinks he knows what he does not know" (Saint Augustine). It is difficult not to err. "And were it a thing obvious and easy the precept might not have passed for an oracle" (Plutarch).