Wittgenstein vs Wittgenstein

Language is no map to reality

Philosophers seldom change their mind about anything as much as Wittgenstein did about language. The shift from his early masterpiece, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, to his later work, Philosophical Investigations, is as radical as the move from modern to post-modern philosophy. Wittgenstein leaves behind the view that we can come to know the structure of reality by studying the structure of language, and embraces the idea that language tells us more about ourselves than the world outside us. Lee Braver traces the steps of this incredible transformation.


Few philosophers have given rise to an entire movement, far fewer to two. Along with Heidegger, Wittgenstein counts among this select number in the 20th Century. Wittgenstein capped his early career with the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, a dense cryptic book whose truth he found “unassailable and definitive” in finding “on all essential points, the final solution of the problems” (T Preface)--until he came back years later to assail its solutions. He returned to give not just different solutions, but an entirely different take on the nature of knowledge, reality, and what philosophical views about such matters must be like. These two phases of his thought shaped much of roughly the first half of analytic philosophy’s history. The Tractatus brings Frege, Russell, and Moore’s logicism to its culmination and inspired the Vienna Circle. His later work, generally represented by the posthumous Philosophical Investigations, is a foundational work of the ordinary language philosophy practiced by Austin and Ryle and, despite his personal hostility to naturalism, contains elements that pushed analytic thought in that direction where Quine and others then took over. One of the central topics Wittgenstein changed his mind about was on the question of realism - whether we can know the world as it really is and whether our language can map onto reality.

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Kant had put this question on a new revolutionary footing by turning the inquiry away from its exclusive focus on the object of inquiry–reality–to the subject of knowledge–the inquirer. His transcendental idealism argues that our mind interacts with what it knows, making it impossible to ever know reality as it is in-itself but only as it is for-us. We can never see the light in the refrigerator turned off because the only way to see it is by opening the door, which turns it on. The standard origin story of analytic philosophy traces it to Russell and Moore use of Fregean logic to overcome Kant’s predicament. “The study of logic becomes the central study in philosophy… [which] in our own day, is becoming scientific through the simultaneous acquisition of new facts and logical methods” (Russell 1929, 259–60).


The Tractatus uses logic as a decoder ring of reality: once correlated, we can read the deep structure of reality from the rules of logic.


Logical analysis brought philosophy to maturation the way math did for physics, allowing it to put away the childish things of its past by “clear[ing] up two millennia of muddle-headedness about ‘existence,’ beginning with Plato’s Theaetetus” (Russell 1945, 831). In particular, logic enabled him to avoid anything that remotely smacks of Kantian anti-realism. The idea that “the mind is in some sense creative... is essential to every form of Kantianism” but “all knowledge must be recognition, on pain of being mere delusion; Arithmetic must be discovered in just the same sense in which Columbus discovered the West Indies, and we no more create numbers than he created the Indians” (Russell 1996, 450–51). Only thus is it the world that our philosophy is capturing and not our own shadows on the wall.

The Tractatus uses logic as a decoder ring of reality: once correlated, we can read the deep structure of reality from the rules of logic. We get to logic through language since all language must obey logic, or else it would be unintelligible, so if we understand language, we can understand logic, and if we grasp the system of logic, we can project that into the structure of the world.

Ultimately, the function of language is to say what the world is like, with all other linguistic activities parasitic on this central one. Using a Kantian-style transcendental inquiry, Wittgenstein argues that whatever is required to say that anything is the case–the conditions for the possibility of saying the world–must hold as well. Asserting (or denying) what is the case succeeds only if the assertions can picture or mirror the states-of-affairs they assert. States-of-affairs are made up of parts whose arrangements determine what is the case–the cat is one part and the mat another; their arrangement is one of a number of possible spatial relationships (cat on mat, mat on cat, side-by-side, etc.). An assertion can only represent the fact that the cat is on the mat if it is composed of corresponding parts whose arrangement reflects that of the objects. Thus, we have a strict parallel between the configuration of basic propositions in our language and of states-of-affairs in the world.


Instead of going through the front door of examining reality through our own idiosyncratic faculties, an avenue blocked by Kant, logic gives us a backdoor into metaphysics via the language we speak everyday.


Logic represents the structures that structure language’s structure–the vocabulary at the base of all vocabularies, the grammar governing all grammars–meaning that it captures the fundamental composition of all that is the case and all that could be. Each unit of language (propositions) tells us how a particular piece of the world (states-of-affairs) is like; language as a whole shows us how the world as a whole–to the very limits of possibility–is. “Logical form… is mirrored in [propositions].... Propositions show the logical form of reality” (4.121). Logic then is the deliquescence of the fog of language into clear drops of logic. “Logic is not a body of doctrine, but a mirror-image of the world. Logic is transcendental” (6.13).

Instead of going through the front door of examining reality through our own idiosyncratic faculties, an avenue blocked by Kant, logic gives us a backdoor into metaphysics via the language we speak everyday. While languages may be relative to cultures and time periods, like the forms of our mind organizing experience anthropocentrically, they all must share the same logic form, thus revealing the deep nature of reality underlying all varying opinions about it. “Logic is not a field in which we express what we wish with the help of signs, but rather one in which the nature of the absolutely necessary signs speaks for itself. If we know the logical syntax of any sign-language, then we have already been given all the propositions of logic” (3.124). Logic liberates thoughts from thinkers so absolutely that not even God can contravene it (5.123). Wittgenstein’s two early influences–Frege-Russellian logicism and Schopenhauerian ethics–merge in this logical realism, as logic allows us to fade into a pure will-less spectator who merely gazes upon the rigid symbolic machinery of the universe–a logical beatific vision.

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Wittgenstein’s later work still pursues the same question—how do we succeed in meaning anything?—but instead of focusing on the inherent logic in all language and the autonomous operations of the crystalline clockwork of meaning, the emphasis is now on the “we” who mean. Now he “stick[s] to the subjects of our every-day thinking” (§106) by “talking about the spatial and temporal phenomenon of language” (§107) in order to resist getting “dazzled by the ideal” (§100). Rather than peering through the vapors to discern the ultimate structure of reality, Wittgenstein now sees philosophy as “a struggle against the bewitchment of our understanding” (§109)--a seduction into believing that it makes sense to talk about “ultimate” structures and the one true method of discerning them.

Wittgenstein describes this bewitchment in quite Kantian terms, for instance, in discussing the Tractatus’ identification of the core function of language.

Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (4.5): “The general form of propositions is: This is how things are.” —– That is the kind of proposition one repeats to oneself countless times. One thinks that one is tracing nature over and over again, and one is merely tracing round the frame through which we look at it (§114).

He had earlier seen this as a profound discovery about language, but now he locates it in the surface of his approach. The demand that language have but one ultimate function was, so to speak, an a priori requirement he imposed on his study of language instead of an empirical result derived from it. “The crystalline purity of logic was, of course, not something I had discovered: it was a requirement” (§107).


Instead of blithely assuming we are directly gathering information from the object of our examination, we must turn our gaze around to critically examine the tool by which we are conducting our examination.


He compares it to “a pair of glasses on our nose through which we see whatever we look at. It never occurs to us to take them off” (§103). This analogy was in fact coined by Russell in his History of Western Philosophy (based on lectures from 1941-42) to explain Kant’s anti-realism.

“If you always wore blue spectacles, you could be sure of seeing everything blue (this is not Kant’s illustration). Similarly, since you always wear spatial spectacles in your mind, you are sure of always seeing everything in space. Thus geometry is a priori in the sense that it must be true of everything experienced, but we have no reason to suppose that anything analogous is true of things in themselves, which we do not experience (1946, History of Western Philosophy, p 642,).

To resist bewitchment, Wittgenstein proposes a revolution in our philosophical approach towards the approach itself: “the preconception of crystalline purity can only be removed by turning our whole inquiry around” (§108). Instead of blithely assuming we are directly gathering information from the object of our examination, we must turn our gaze around to critically examine the tool by which we are conducting our examination.

He now holds that “we misunderstand the role played by the ideal in our language…. We want to say that there can’t be any vagueness in logic. The idea now absorbs us, that the ideal ‘must’ be found in reality” (§100). Dazzled by Frege’s dream of absolute exactness in meaning, we summon a fully determinate reality that can justify our ways of acting and thinking. For instance, we want to say that rules (such as the right way to do logic) must have a Meaning if they are to be meaningful. There must be an objectively correct way to follow them independently of what we think or do to evaluate our thinkings and doings as either correctly or incorrectly following them. As Russell had said, “on pain of being mere delusion; Arithmetic must be discovered in just the same sense in which Columbus discovered the West Indies.” The set of all numbers that form the correct outcome of the function +2 must actually exist and it is what we grasp when we understand the rule. 

“Your idea was that that act of meaning the order [+2] had in its own way already traversed all those steps: that when you meant it your mind as it were flew ahead and took all the steps before you physically arrived at this or that one.

Thus you were inclined to use such expressions as: “The steps are really already taken, even before I take them in writing or orally or in thought.” And it seemed as if they were in some unique way predetermined, anticipated—as only the act of meaning can anticipate reality (§188).”

That explains how we’re able to reject wrong answers without hesitation. “A picture is conjured up which seems to fix the sense unambiguously. The actual use, compared with that suggested by the picture, seems like something muddied.... The form of expression we use seems to have been designed for a god, who knows what we cannot know; he sees the whole of each of those infinite series” (PI 426). God looks upon the completed infinity, while we plod through one step at a time, leaning on crutches and cobbled together contrivances like “and so on” or “. . .” or “etc.,” and so on. The sets really do exist in their totality, we are assured, but our heads are too small to encompass them, our vantage point too low for us to see more than a few steps ahead—just enough to keep trudging on. We may only be able to gesture at the correct way to follow a rule, but it exists—it has to exist if there are to be correct and incorrect acts of following it.

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This logical determinism removes us from the picture, thus avoiding the weak link in the epistemological chain that Kant exploited. “‘All the steps are really already taken’ means: I no longer have any choice. The rule, once stamped with a particular meaning, traces the lines along which it is to be followed through the whole of space.... When I obey a rule, I do not choose” (§219). However, once he revolves his inquiry to include the inquirer, he finds that all rules can be understood and followed in many different ways by people sincerely following them as they understand them, with fundamental limits to our ability to justify our way over theirs. Examples and past applications are finite, after all, whereas rules extend indefinitely, which means that in principle rules always apply to more than has been or can be definitively settled in advance. It is “possible to derive anything from anything according to some rule or other—nay, according to any rule with a suitable interpretation” (RFM 389). He now realizes that there is no such thing as a self-applying rule; they always require someone to understand and apply them which will always be a matter of their upbringing, interests, instincts–their form of life. He had dreamed of the ideal where “logic takes care of itself; all we have to do is to look and see how it does it” but now he has broken its spell to see that “we can’t smuggle the use of the sign into its introduction (the rule is and remains a sign, separated from its application)” (NB 11, PG 444).

And now it looks as if we have lost precisely what we were trying to secure, the meaningfulness of language evaporating under our examination of it: “how am I supposed to follow a sign-post, if whatever I do is a way of following it?” (RFM 414). If a myriad of ways of behaving can be made out to be in keeping with any rule then no one of them can count as The Right One, and even minor-scale attempts to use language’s descriptions to correspond to reality become untenable. 


We cannot justify our language-games by appealing to Reality Itself because it is only through some game or other that we can access reality, determine its significance, and then perform any kind of comparison.


However, this kind of semantic nihilism misunderstands the situation. “It may easily look as if every doubt merely revealed an existing gap in the foundations.... The sign-post is in order—if, under normal circumstances, it fulfills its purpose” (§87). The vast majority of the time we do follow rules unproblematically; we only trip ourselves up when we philosophize about them because this places us into the highly atypical state of staring and ruminating on the sign-post instead of just glancing at it and following its direction. We are confused by the contrast between flawless ideality and messy reality, the demands of the pure ‘ought’ endlessly let down by the ragged “is.” Returning words and actions back to their normal circumstances where we are proficient in using them returns our normal semantic sanity and skillfulness to us. These are supported not by reality-in-itself, but by the way our form-of-life winnows out the vast majority of possible understandings, leaving the one we have been raised to follow self-evident.

If you’re hooked on realist justification, this can seem deeply inadequate grounding since it leaves the framework of our thinking arbitrary in some sense. “When I say that the rules are arbitrary, I mean that they are not determined by reality in the way the description of reality is. And that means: it is nonsense to say that they agree with reality” (PG 246). We cannot justify our language-games by appealing to Reality Itself because it is only through some game or other that we can access reality, determine its significance, and then perform any kind of comparison. “I cannot use language to get outside language.... Grammatical conventions cannot be justified by describing what is represented. Any such description already presupposes the grammatical rules” (PhR 54–55). All attempts to get completely outside our language-games must themselves be moves within a game just to be able to have meaning for us, including the meaning that they occur outside of all language-games. “Like everything metaphysical the harmony between thought and reality is to be found in the grammar of the language” (PG 162). “Well, if everything speaks for an hypothesis and nothing against it—is it then certainly true? One may designate it as such.—But does it certainly agree with reality, with the facts?—With this question you are already going round in a circle.” (OC §191).

Whereas logic was independent of human logicians in the early work, so that it could hook onto the world, now language is underdetermined by the worlin virtue of being interpreted by us. “The connection between ‘language and reality’ is made by definitions of words, and these belong to grammar, so that language remains self-contained and autonomous” (PG 97). Russell’s realism would find this subjective idealism, condemning the object of our knowledge to be solely our knowledge as in Kant’s critical inquiries. Realism takes up the view outside of ourselves so it can compare our beliefs with reality wholly objectively, hence the frequent use of God to express the intuition or picture.

Here it happens that our thinking plays us a queer trick. We want, that is, to quote the law of excluded middle. . . . “In the decimal expansion of π either the group ‘7777’ occurs, or it does not—there is no third possibility.” That is to say: “God sees—but we don’t know.” But what does that mean?—We use a picture; the picture of a visible series which one person sees the whole of and another not. The law of excluded middle says here: It must either look like this, or like that. So it really—and this is a truism—says nothing at all, but gives us a picture. And the problem ought now to be: does reality accord with the picture or not? And this picture seems to determine what we have to do, what to look for, and how—but it does not do so, just because we do not know how it is to be applied (PI §352).

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We find this picture compelling, but it cannot inform our actual knowledge practices in any way: whatever God sees or doesn’t see can be of no consequence to how we mortals conduct our business, a prayer wheel whose turning leaves the machine unaffected.

In its language-game [a claim to know something apparent, like that one is sitting in a chair] is not presumptuous. There, it has no higher position than, simply, the human language-game. For there it has its restricted application. But as soon as I say this sentence outside its context, it appears in a false light. For then it is as if I wanted to insist that there are things that I know. God himself can’t say anything to me about them (OC §554).

We know how we know, how to check claims against reality in everyday practice–if someone says there are 46 chairs in the next room, go and count them. None of this calls for any metaphysics. Wittgenstein “would like to reserve the expression ‘I know’ for the cases in which it is used in normal linguistic exchange” because “it is as if ‘I know’ did not tolerate a metaphysical emphasis.” (OC §260, §482). We have a philosophy designed for a God, as the Tractatus sought, and so utterly useless to us. When we philosophize, echoing Hume and Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein asks, “let us be human” (CV 30).

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