ND: Perhaps one of the most important philosophical texts for those wanting to make the shift to a post-Cartesian or ecologically sounder way of thinking is Wittgenstein’s “Philosophical Investigations”, which was first published shortly after his death in 1951. The book is in two parts, the first consisting of 693 aphorisms, which at first glance are not always so easy to decipher; and the second part being made up of longer notes or reflections on the first. What follows is my attempts to make a close reading of the first 120 aphorisms from Part 1. My special thanks to Lois Shawver, Judy Weintraub, Harry Korman, Ulf Korman, Diana Cook, David Pocock, Tom Strong, and others who joined the reading group formed by Lois Shawver in the 1990s, firstly on the MFTC list and then on the PMTH list to study this text.




The thoughts which I publish in what follows are the precipitate of philosophical investigations which have occupied me for the last sixteen years. They concern many subjects: the concepts of meaning, of understanding, of a proposition, of logic, the foundations of mathematics, states of consciousness, and other things. I have written down all these thoughts as remarks, short paragraphs, of which there is sometimes a fairly long chain about the same subject, while I sometimes make a sudden change, jumping from one topic to another. — It was my intention at first to bring all this together in a book whose form I pictured differently at different times. But the essential thing was that the thoughts should proceed from one subject to another in a natural order and without breaks.

After several unsuccessful attempts to weld my results together into such a whole, I realized that I should never succeed. The best that I could write would never be more than philosophical remarks; my thoughts were soon crippled if I tried to force them on in any single direction against their natural inclination. — And this was, of course, connected with the very nature of the investigation. For this compels us to travel over a wide field of thought criss-cross in every direction. — The philosophical remarks in this books are, as it were, a number of sketches of landscapes which were made in the course of these long and involved journeyings.

The same or almost the same points were always being approached afresh from different directions, and new sketches made. Very many of these were badly drawn or uncharacteristic, marked by all the defects of a weak draughtsman. And when they were rejected a number of tolerable ones were left, which now had to be arranged and sometimes cut down, so that if you looked at them you could get a picture of the landscape. Thus this book is really only an album.

Up to a short time ago I had really given up the idea of publishing my work in my lifetime. It used, indeed, to be revived from time to time: mainly because I was obliged to learn that my results (which I had communicated in lectures, typescripts and discussions), variously misunderstood, more or less mangled or watered down, were in circulation. This stung my vanity and I had difficulty in quieting it.

Four years ago I had occasion to re-read my first book (the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus) and to explain its ideas to someone. It suddenly seemed to me that I should publish those old thoughts and the new ones together: that the latter could be seen in the right light only by contrast with and against the background of my old way of thinking.

For since beginning to occupy myself with philosophy again, sixteen years ago, I have been forced to recognize grave mistakes in what I wrote in that first book. I was helped to realize these mistakes — to a degree which I myself am hardly able to estimate — by the criticism which my ideas encountered from Frank Ramsey, with whom I dicussed them in innumerable conversations during the last two years of his life. Even more than to this — always certain and forcible — criticism I am indebted to that which a teacher of this university, Mr. P. Sraffa, for many years unceasingly practised on my thoughts. I am indebted to this stimulus for the most consequential ideas of this book.

For more than one reason what I publish here will have points of contact with what other people are writing to-day. — If my remarks do not bear a stamp which marks them as mine, — I do not wish to lay any further claim to them as my property.

I make them public with doubtful feelings. It is not impossible that it should fall to the lot of this work, in its poverty and in the darkness of this time, to bring light into one brain or another — but, of course, it is not likely.

I should not like my writing to spare other people the trouble of thinking. But, if possible, to stimulate someone to thoughts of his own.

I should have liked to produce a good book. This has not come about, but the time is past in which I could improve it.



January 1945.


ND – Preface: This is a work which presents LW’s thoughts on meaning, logic, mathematics, consciousness, etc, in the form of short remarks which criss-cross each other, but couldn’t be brought together in a more narrative form. I have made a couple of attempts to put his work into a more narrative form – see for example my papers ‘A taste of Wittgenstein for SFBt-1 & 2” – available on this web site. How grave the “grave mistakes” in Tractatus are is a matter of scholarly debate – some like myself see a great deal of continuity between early and late Wittgenstein; others see almost two different philosophies.




  1. “Cum ipsi (majores homines) appellabant rem aliquam, et cum secundum eam vocem corpus ad aliquid movebant, videbam, et tenebam hoc ab eis vocari rem illam, quod sonabant, cum eam vellent ostendere. Hoc autem eos velle ex motu corporis aperiebatur: tamquam verbis naturalibus omnium gentium, quae fiunt vultu et nutu oculorum, ceterorumque membrorum actu, et sonitu vocis indicante affectionem animi in petendis, habendis, rejiciendis, fugiendisve rebus. Ita verba in variis sententiis locis suis posita, et crebro audita, quarum rerum signa essent, paulatim colligebam, measque jam voluntates, edomito in eis signis ore, per haec enuntiabam.”(Augustine, 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 shewn 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 words 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 word. 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.

Now think of the following use of language: I send someone shopping. I give him a slip marked “five red apples”. He takes the slip to the shopkeeper, who opens the drawer marked “apples”; then he looks up the word “red” in a table and finds a colour sample opposite it; then he says the series of cardinal numbers — I assume that he knows them by heart — up to the word “five” and for each number he takes an apple of the same colour as the sample out of the drawer. —– It is in this and similar ways that one operates with words. —– “But how does he know where and how he is to look up the word ‘red’ and what he is to do with the word ‘five’?” —– Well, I assume that he acts as I have described. Explanations come to an end somewhere. — But what is the meaning of the word “five”? — No such thing was in question here, only how the word “five” is used.


ND – In these first few aphorisms (the one above and the next few which follow) Wittgenstein takes us into the heart of what he is studying, and has us move from considering language as something to do with representation (“ostensive definition”) or a map of the world to it’s use. But we also get to see in this first aphorism the method he uses throughout PI: there is this conversation going on in the last couple of sentences between Wittgenstein and his imaginary interlocutor. As you become more familiar with Wittgenstein’s thinking it will become easier to identify which is Wittgenstein’s voice, and which the imaginary person he is arguing or discussing this with.

  1. The Augustine account of language, which will be deconstructed by LW, contends that language works through a picture theory where words have meaning because the stand for things in the world. This Augustinian account of how language works via representation is the dominant view in Western culture, which seems fine for nouns, but gets a bit shaky with verbs, etc. In the last couple of sentences Wittgenstein is starting to ask some tricky question about representationalism, what does ‘five’ stand for?
  2. That philosophical concept of meaning has its place in a primitive idea of the way language functions. But one can also say that it is the idea of a language more primitive than ours.

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 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.


ND – 2. By imagining a very simple language we begin to see that language works through use – it gets things done. This example of an imaginary culture of builders will be returned to again later in our deliberations of how language works. Note that there is no need to think of the word “block” etc in this example in terms of nouns, etc; it is merely part of an instruction to fetch a particular item.


  1. 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 consist 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.

ND – 3. By comparing Augustine’s description of language to a game we can see that only a narrow part of language conforms to Augustine’s description, other games lie outside it.


  1. Imagine a script in which the letters were used to stand for sounds, and also as signs of emphasis and punctuation. (A script can be conceived as a language for describing sound-patterns.) Now imagine someone interpreting that script as if there were simply a correspondence of letters to sounds and as if the letters had not also completely different functions. Augustine’ conception of language is like such an over-simple conception of the script.

ND – 4. Augustine’s account is simplistic in that it implies that meanings are built from ‘atoms’ of meaning contained in each letter.


5 If we look at the example in §1, we may perhaps get an inkling how much this general notion of the meaning of a word surrounds the working of language with a haze which makes clear vision impossible. It disperses the fog to study the phenomena of language in primitive kinds of application in which one can command a clear view of the aim and functioning of the words.

A child uses such primitive forms of language when it learns to talk. Here the teaching of language is not explanation, but training.

ND – 5. When we look at how language is acquired, say in a child, some of the confusion generated by Augustine’s account is cleared when we realise that language is acquired through training in use rather than through explanations of meanings.

6 We could imagine that the language of §2 was the whole language of A and B; even the whole language of a tribe. The children are brought up to perform these actions, to use these words as they do so, and to react in this way to the words of others.

An important part of the training will consist in the teacher’s pointing to the objects, directing the child’s attention to them, and at the same time uttering a word; for instance, the word “slab” as he points to that shape. (I do not want to call this “ostensive definition”, because the child cannot as yet ask what the name is. I will call it “ostensive teaching of words”. — I say that it will form an important part of the training, because it is so with human beings; not because it could not be imagined otherwise.) This ostensive teaching of words can be said to establish an association between the word and the thing. But what does this mean? Well, it can mean various things: but one very likely thinks first of all that a picture of the object comes before the child’s mind when it hears the word. But now, if this does happen—is it the purpose of the word?—Yes, it may be the purpose.—I can imagine such a use of words (of series of sounds). (Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination.) But in the language of #2 it is not the purpose of the words to evoke images. (It may, of course, be discovered that that helps to attain the actual purpose.)

But if the ostensive teaching has this effect,—am I to say that it effects an understanding of the word? Don’t you understand the call “Slab!” if you act upon it in such-and-such a way?—Doubtless the ostensive teaching helped to bring this about; but only together with a particular training. With different training the same ostensive teaching of these words would have effected a quite different understanding.

“I set the brake up by connecting up rod and lever.”—Yes, given the whole of the rest of the mechanism. Only in conjunction with that is it a brake-lever, and separated from its support it is not even a lever; it may be anything, or nothing.

ND – 6. Does a word have to bring an image to the mind of the speakers? It may. But with the builders, when A said word ‘slab’, B fetched a slab, but there was no necessity for B to have an image was there? Using the analogy of a machine lever, meanings are learnt more through the functions they perform, than the images they evoke; whereas Augustine would have it that the images evoked are primary.


7 In the practice of the use of language (2) one party calls out the words, the other acts on them. In instruction in the language the following process will occur: the learner names the objects; that is, he utters the word when the teacher points to the stone.—And there will be this still simpler exercise: the pupil repeats the words after the teacher—–both of these being processes resembling language.

We can also think of the whole process of using words in (2) as one of those games by means of which children learn their native language. I will call these games “language-games” and will sometimes speak of a primitive language as a language-game.

And the processes of naming the stones and of repeating words after someone might also be called language-games. Think of much of the use of words in games like ring-a-ring-a-roses.

I shall also call the whole, consisting of language and the actions into which it is woven, the “language-game”.

ND – 7. The language is learnt by the teacher pointing or directing the attention of the learner in some manner, and then the pupil repeating the word(s) after the teacher. LW introduces us here to this term “language game”; which you will come upon again & again if you read anything written by a Wittgensteinian scholar; it is perhaps the most important concept. The way attention is directed can be and usually is quite different in different language games; and so the same word can have different meanings in different language games. The whole of a language game consists of the words and the actions into which it is woven.


8 Let us now look at an expansion of language (2). Besides the four words “block”, “pillar”, etc., let it contain a series of words used as the shopkeeper in (1) used the numerals (it can be the series of letters of the alphabet); further, let there be two words, which may as well be “there” and “this” (because this roughly indicates their purpose),that are used in connexion with a pointing gesture; and finally a number of colour samples. A gives an order like: “d—slab—there”. At the same time he shews the assistant a colour sample, and when he says “there” he points to a place on the building site. From the stock of slabs B takes one for each letter of the alphabet up to “d”, of the same colour as the sample, and brings them to the place indicated by A. —On other occasions A gives the order “this—there”. At “this” he points to a building stone. And so on.

ND – 8. LW now expands the language game of our simple culture of imaginary builders, by giving us numerals in the form of letters (e.g. ‘d’ = 4), and colours which we can use by matching colour samples (not words) with different coloured block and slabs etc. Then he adds ‘this’ and ‘there’ to accompany pointing, so that they can utter such orders as “d-blocks-there” and shew a colour sample. Nothing difficult here, he is just preparing the ground to show us that we don’t need images in our head (an idea he introduced in §6) for language to work. He is going to attack the idea that words signify.


9 When a child learns this language, it has to learn the series of ‘numerals’ a, b, c, … by heart. And it has to learn their use.—Will this training include ostensive teaching of the words?—Well, people will, for example, point to slabs and count: “a, b, c slabs”.—Something more like the ostensive teaching of the words “block”, “pillar”, etc. would be the ostensive teaching of numerals that serve not to count but to refer to groups of objects that can be taken in at a glance. Children do learn the use of the first five or six cardinal numerals in this way.

Are “there” and “this” also taught ostensively?—Imagine how one might perhaps teach their use. One will point to places and things—but in this case the pointing occurs in the use of the words too and not merely in learning the use.—

ND – 9. In learning this language game, although a few items may be learnt by pointing (ostensive definition – which would be the primary Augustine method), this is limited and most words, like ‘this’ and ‘there’ can only be learnt through use. This is an important observation of LW’s, and one which I think has been conveniently overlooked by those attached to the Augustinian account.


10 Now what do the words of this language signify? —What is supposed to shew what they signify, if not the kind of use they have? And we have already described that. So we are asking for the expression “This word signifies this” to be made a part of the description. In other words the description ought to take the form: “The word . . . .signifies . . . .”.

Of course, one can reduce the description of the use of the word “slab” to the statement that this word signifies this object. This will be done when, for example, it is merely a matter of removing the mistaken idea that the word “slab” refers to the shape of building-stone that we in fact call a “block” —but the kind of ‘referring’ this is, that is to say the use of these words for the rest, is already known.

Equally one can say that the signs “a”, “b”, etc. signify numbers; when for example this removes the mistaken idea that “a”, “b”, “c”, play the part actually played in language by “block”, “slab”, “pillar”. And one can also say that “c” means this number and not that one; when for example this serves to explain that the letters are to be used in the order a, b, c, d, etc. and not in the order a, b, d, c.

But assimilating the descriptions of the uses of the words in this way cannot make the uses themselves any more like one another. For, as we see, they are absolutely unlike.

ND – 10. The letters, the names of the objects, and the ‘this’ and ‘there’ in this simple language game “are absolutely unlike” in the way they are used, and if “every word signifies something” was a simple truth as Augustine implies, then we might when making mistakes as frequently mistakenly call a ‘slab’ a ‘b’ as often as we call it a ‘block’. But we don’t do we?


  1. Think of the tools in a tool-box: there is a hammer, pliers, a saw, a screw-driver, a ruler, a glue-pot, glue, nails and screw.—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 when we are doing philosophy!

ND – 11. In these next few aphorisms Witt. begins to explore how words have MULTIPLE MEANINGS and/or MULTIPLE USES; and because of this there are limitations to thinking that words ‘signify’. Like tools in a toolbox the application of words differ, and as he pointed out in 10, we seem to be more attuned to the similarity of use or application when we do make mistakes in saying the wrong word. This metaphor of words as tools in a toolbox you find widely used by Wittgensteinians.


  1. It is like 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 valve); 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.

ND – 12. Uses of words differ–like controls in a locomotive. On the surface they appear similar – they are handles – but each is connected differently. (This analogy may also help make more sense of the last line in #6). So like handles in the locomotive, different things happen when different words are used.


  1. 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. (It might be, of course, that we wanted to distinguish the words of language (§8) from words ‘without meaning’ such as occur in Lewis Carroll’s poems, or words like “Lilliburlero” in songs.)

ND – 13. The Augustinian claim that “every word signifies something” is devoid of meaning anything until we say or indicate what we are trying to distinguish as being signifying or non-signifying. That is until we can see it’s application. “Every word signifies something” — this doesn’t help us understand meaning.


  1. 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 thing’s length, the temperature of the glue, and the solidity of the box.”—–Would anything be gained by this assimilation of expressions?—

ND – 14. The idea of words signifying something runs into trouble in a similar way to the way the phrase “All tools modify something” does, because we have created a Procrustean bed when we try to say what the ruler and such like modify – and as such little is gained in our understanding of how language works. We might say that the phrase “all tools modify something” assimilates meaning but confuses understanding.


  1. The word “to signify” is perhaps used in the most straight-forward way when the objects signified is marked with the sign. Suppose that the tools A uses in building bear certain marks. When A shews his assistant such a mark, he brings the tool that has that mark on it.

It is in this and more or less similar ways that a name means and is given to a thing.—It will often prove useful in philosophy to say to ourselves: naming something is like attaching a label to a thing.

ND – 15. The most straight forward case of signifying occurs in naming. Naming something is like attaching a label.


  1. What about the colour samples that A shews to B: are they part of the language? Well, it is as you please. They do not belong among the words; yet when I say to someone: “Pronounce the word ‘the’ “, you will count the second “the” as part of the sentence. Yet it has a role just like that of a colour-sample in a language-game (8); that is, it is a sample of what the other is meant to say.

It is most natural, and causes least confusion, to reckon the samples among the instruments of the language.

((Remark on the reflexive pronoun “this sentence”.- (See #502)))

ND – 16. “It is most natural and causes least confusion” Wittgenstein notes, to take the view that anything, from icons on computers and road signs, to the effect of silence on the tax man, as being potential tools or instruments of language games. This would include, obviously, colour samples. The last sentence is a subject he returns to much later in PI – about §500 to §520 or so.

  1. It will be possible to say: In language (§8) we have different kinds of words. For the functions of the word “slab” and the word “block” are more alike than those of “slab” and “d”. But how we group words into kinds will depend on the aim of the classification,—and on our own inclination.

Think of the different points of view from which one can classify tools or chess-men.

ND – 17. How do we classify different kinds of words? Although we can classify words into different groups, any such classifying will depend on what we wish to do with the classifications. This idea that the context of use is all important is starting to come through.

  1. Do not be troubled by the fact that languages (§2) and (§8) consist only of orders. If you want to say that this shews them to be incomplete, ask yourself whether our language is complete;—whether it was so before the symbolism of chemistry and the notation of the infinitesimal calculus were incorporated in it; for these are, so to speak, suburbs of our language. (And how many houses or streets does it take before a town begins to be a town?) Our language can be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses.

ND – 18. These next 4 aphorisms (18-21) consider language games as forms of life. One metaphor which I’ve seen used frequently by Wittgenstein scholars is the one he introduces here – it is useful to think of language as being like a town which is constantly expanding and building over the top of old structures, but never complete. So if someone was to object that the imaginary primitive builders he introduced us to in (§2) and then developed a little further in (§8), had a language which was incomplete, it is of no consequence, as no language is complete.

  1. 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. —–And to imagine a language means to imagine a form of life.

But what about this: is the call “Slab!” in example (§2) a sentence or a word?— If a word, surely it has not the same meaning as the like-sounding word of our ordinary language, for in §2 it is a call. But if a sentence, it is surely not the elliptical sentence: “Slab!” of our language. —–As far as the first question goes you can call “Slab!” a word and also a sentence; perhaps it could be appropriately called a ‘degenerate sentence’ (as one speaks of a degenerate hyperbola); in fact it is our ‘elliptical’ sentence. —But that is surely only a shortened form of sentence “Bring me a slab”, and there is no such sentence in example (§2).—But why should I not on contrary have called the sentence “Bring me a slab” a lengthening of the sentence “Slab!”?—Because if you shout “Slab!” you really mean: “Bring me a slab”. —But how do you do this: how do you mean that while you say “Slab!”? Do you say the unshortened sentence to yourself? And why should I translate the call “Slab!” into a different expression in order to say what someone means by it? And if they mean the same thing—why should I not say: “When he says ‘Slab!’ he means ‘Slab!'”? Again, if you can mean “Bring me the slab”, why should you not be able to mean “Slab!”?—–But when I call “Slab!”, then what I want is that he should bring me a slab!—–Certainly, but does ‘wanting this’ consist in thinking in some form or other a different sentence from the one you utter?—

ND – 19. ‘Language games’ can be thought of as ‘forms of life’, which although sometimes translatable into other ‘forms of life’ are no less or more real in these other forms.

  1. But now it looks as if when someone says “Bring me a slab” he could mean this expression as one long word corresponding to the single word “Slab!”—-Then can one mean it sometimes as one word and sometimes as four? And how does one usually mean it?—–I think we shall be inclined to say: we mean the sentence as four words when we use it in contrast with other sentences such as “Hand me a slab”, “Bring him a slab”. “Bring two slabs”, etc.; that is, in contrast with sentences containing the separate words of our command in other combinations.—–But what does using one sentence in contrast with others consist in? Do the others, perhaps, hover before one’s mind? All of them? And while one is saying the one sentence, or before, or afterwards?—No. Even if such an explanation rather tempts us, we need only think for a moment of what actually happens in order to see that we are going astray here. We say that we use the command in contrast with other sentences because our language contains the possibility of those other sentences. Someone who did not understand our language, a foreigner, who had fairly often heard someone giving the order: “Bring me a slab!”, might believe that this whole series of sounds was one word corresponding perhaps to the word for “building-stone” in his language. If he himself had then given this order perhaps he would have pronounced it differently, and we should say: he pronounces it so oddly because he takes it for a single word.—–But then, is there not also something different going on in him when he pronounces it,—something corresponding to the fact that he conceives the sentence as a single word?—–Either the same thing may go on in him, or something different. For what goes on in you when you give such an order? Are you conscious of its consisting of four words while you are uttering it? Of course you have a mastery of this language—which contains those other sentences as well—but is this having a mastery something that happens while you are uttering the sentence?—And I have admitted that the foreigner will probably pronounce a sentence differently if he conceives it differently; but what we call his wrong conception need not lie in anything that accompanies the utterance of the command.

The sentence is ‘elliptical’, not because it leaves out something that we think when we utter it, but because it is shortened—in comparison with a particular paradigm of our grammar.—Of course one might object here: “You grant that the shortened and the unshortened sentence have the same sense.—What is this sense, then? Isn’t there a verbal expression for this sense?”—–But doesn’t the fact that sentences have the same sense consist in their having the same use?—(In Russian one says “stone red” instead of ” the stone is red”; do they feel the copula to be missing in the sense, or attach it in thought?)

ND – 20. The authenticity of a language game lies in what it achieves rather than in it’s adherence to a set of grammatical rules. The Augustinian picture theory of language required all sorts of rules to make it appear to work; slowly bit by bit, Wittgenstein is deconstructing these rules. Or raising the question ‘are rules projections we are placing on phenomena?’


  1. Imagine a language-game in which A asks and B reports the number of slabs or blocks in a pile, or the colours and shapes of the building-stones that are stacked in such-and-such a place.—Such a report might run: “Five slabs”. Now what is the difference between the report or statement “Five slabs” and the order “Five slabs!”?—Well, it is the part which uttering these words plays in the language-game. No doubt the tone of voice and the look with which they are uttered, and much else besides, will also be different. But we could also imagine the tone’s being the same—for an order and a report can be spoken in a variety of tones of voice and with various expressions of face—the difference being only in the application. (Of course, we might use the words “statement” and “command” to stand for grammatical forms of sentence and intonations; we do in fact call “Isn’t the weather glorious to-day?” a question, although it is used as a statement.) We could imagine a language in which all statements had the form and tone of rhetorical questions; or every command the form of the question “Would you like to. . .?”. Perhaps it will then be said: “What he says has the form of a question but is really a command”,—that is, has the function of a command in the technique of using the language. (Similarly one says “You will do this” not as a prophecy but as a command. What makes it the one or the other?)

ND – 21. The context of application determines the meaning of utterances in language games. What might have the ‘surface grammar’ of a question (“Isn’t it a nice day today?”) is being used as a statement. Voice tone and facial expression are not sufficient on their own to provide clues to the context of application.

 A language game is a form of life, that we have to join to understand.


  1. Frege’s idea that every assertion contains an assumption, which is the thing that is asserted, really rests on the possibility found in our language of writing every statement in the form: “It is asserted that such-and-such is the case.”—But “that such-and-such is the case” is not a sentence in our language—so far it is not a move in the language-game. And if I write, not “It is asserted that . . . .”, but “It is asserted: such-and-such is the case”, the words “It is asserted” simply become superfluous.

We might very well also write every statement in the form of a question followed by a “Yes”; for instance: “Is it raining? Yes!” Would this shew that every statement contained a question?

Of course we have the right to use an assertion sign in contrast with a question-mark, for example, or if we want to distinguish an assertion from a fiction or a supposition. It is only a mistake if one thinks that the assertion consists of two actions, entertaining and asserting (assigning the truth-value, or something of the kind), and that in performing these actions we follow the prepositional sign roughly as we sing from the musical score. Reading the written sentence loud or soft is indeed comparable with singing from a musical score, but ‘meaning‘ (thinking) the sentence that is read is not.

Frege’s assertion sign marks the beginning of the sentence. Thus its function is like that of full-stop. It distinguishes the whole period from a clause within the period. If I hear someone say “it’s raining” but do not know whether I have heard the beginning and the end of the period, so far this sentence does not serve to tell me anything.

#[ Imagine a picture representing a boxer in a particular stance. Now, this picture can be used to tell someone how he should stand, should hold himself; or how he should not hold himself; or how a particular man did stand in such-and-such a place; and so on. One might (using the language of chemistry) call this picture a proposition-radical. This will be how Frege thought of the “assumption”.]# (This is a footnote)

ND – 22. This and the next couple of aphorims (22-24) could be described as being about the ways in which language objects to being objectified. From 21 you may have wondered how the context of application is determined. At the time Witt. was writing this, there had been a history on the ‘laws of thought’ (cf Boole), the idea that language was based on some sort of logical syntax. Most cognitivists in psychology today still believe this, thinking of mind as a bio-computer. Frege had suggested that we could avoid possible ambiguity by introducing the practice of adding a tag to all our sentences to show how the sentence is to be read. The problem with this, as Wittgenstein points out, it is not possible to step outside of language, and in practice the tag could always be incorporated back into the content. A requirement for a strict adherence of Frege’s suggestion would kill language as a form of life. But this also raises questions about Russell & Whitehead’s Theory of Types (the idea of meta-cognition) – which in turn means re-visiting Gregory Bateson’s work as he relied strongly on the Theory of Types.


  1. But how many kinds of sentence are there? Say assertion, question, and command?—There are countless kinds: countless 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 of a form of life.

Review the multiplicity of language-game 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—
  • Play-acting—
  • 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 Logico-Philosophicus.)

ND – 23. There are numerous ‘forms of life’ and only imagination limits us from identifying further contexts. The reader may find it useful to engage in a number of these language games in the list, rather than just read the list through, to get an experiential sense of just how different each of these activities are. With regard to the dig at himself as author of Tractatus, I see him as saying (elsewhere) that Tractatus had the main aim of showing the limits of a descriptive language; that the important things in life, e.g. ethics and aesthetics, cannot be said in a descriptive language; but they show themselves to us. I don’t think he is disputing that claim, but merely (!) adding that descriptive language is but one language game. The academic climate had restricted thinkers into thinking just descriptive language games. There are multiple others, including expressive language games, like when I hit my thumb with the hammer. Later in PI he explores how I can be trained to give expression to my expressiveness in a descriptive form – just as we saw in §21 a statement about the weather was given in the form of a question. We are beginning to see how confusions arise when we don’t “get” the game in play, and place the content into another language game.


  1. If you do not keep the multiplicity of language-games in view you will perhaps be inclined to ask questions like: “What is a question?”—Is it the statement that I do not know such-and-such, or the statement that I wish the other person would tell me. . . .? Or is it the description of my mental state of uncertainty?—And is the cry “Help!” such a description?

Think how many different kinds of thing are called “description”: description of a body’s position by means of its co-ordinates; description of a facial expression; description of a sensation of touch; of a mood.

Of course it is possible to substitute the form of statement or description for the usual form of question: ” I want to know whether . . . .” or “I am in doubt whether . . . .”—but this does not bring the different language-games any closer together.

The significance of such possibilities of transformation, for example of turning all statements into sentences beginning “I think” or “I believe” (and thus, as it were, into descriptions of my inner life) will become clearer in another place. ( Solipsism.)

ND – 24. The more you try to pin language games down into some sort of taxonomy the more you lose sight of their multiplicity.
 Later in PI, §402 & §403, he looks at the argument going on between Idealists, Solipsists and Realists – each “…attack(ing) the normal form of expression as if they were attacking a statement; the others defend(ing) it, as if they were stating facts recognized by every reasonable human being”. Despite numerous (mostly first time) readers trying to place Wittgenstein into various schools of thought (behaviourism, phenomenology, etc), he wont fit! He states his goal is perspicuity – clear vision – and is trying to (just!!!) show us what is going on. His criss-cross method (which mentions in the preface above) is now showing itself to us; we will revisit some of these subjects again later on. For me, I almost sense a Fibonacci spiral to this, as we encounter something again, say the description-expression difference, but now from higher level.


  1. It is sometimes said that animals do not talk because they lack the mental capacity. And this means: “they do not think, and that is why they do not talk.” But—they simply do not talk. Or to put it better: they do not use language—if we except the most primitive forms of language.—Commanding, questioning, recounting, chatting, are as much a part of our natural history as walking, eating, drinking, playing.

ND – 25. Although we might be inclined to think that animals are limited in their talking because of limits to their thinking, it is just as likely to be the case that they are limited in their thinking because of limits to their talking. Amongst the activities we do as humans, such as walking, eating, drinking, playing, and the like, are commanding, questioning, recounting, chatting; (we might say that the term ‘language use’ or ‘talking’ is a category term). The point also is that we can be led astray and into Cartesian cognitivism, if we think that language is just an outer expression of an inner process.


  1. One thinks that learning language consists in giving names to objects. Viz, to human beings, to shapes, to colours. to pains, to moods, to numbers, etc. . To repeat-naming is something like attaching a label to a thing. One can say that this is preparatory to the use of a word. But what is it a preparation for?

ND – 26. Augustine has led us to think that naming objects is how language is learned, but this is only preparation for use at most. Try this experiment: when talking to someone, pause mid sentence and turn to look out the window. You will discover that language is a primarily an attention sharing game, and not a “telementation” device for transferring ideas from out of my head and into yours. In reference to §25, try the same with an animal, and you will find that’s difficult; humans have a heightened propensity to attention sharing shifts. When I was younger, I used to experiment with the multitude of ways when the Jehovah Witnesses came to the door.


  1. “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.
  • Water!
  • Away!
  • Ow!
  • Help!
  • Fine!
  • No!

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

In languages (§2) and (§8) there was no such thing as asking something’s name. This, with its correlate, ostensive definition, is, we might say, a language-game on its own. That is really to say: we are brought up, trained, to ask: “What is that called?”-upon which the name is given. And there is also a language-game of inventing a name for something, and hence of saying, “This is ….” and then using the new name. (Thus, for example, children give names to their dolls and then talk about them and to them. Think in this connexion how singular is the use of a person’s name to call him!)

ND – 27. When we consider how language is working we begin to see that naming is a secondary and to some extent perfunctory task. Naming is only a small part, or one language game, amongst the many activities that make up language. Note also that he says that it is the sentence that is doing the work, and not the word – even in one-word sentences.


  1. Now one can ostensively define a proper name, the name of a colour, the name of a material, a numeral, the name of a point of the compass and so on. The definition of the number two, “That is called ‘two’ ” — pointing to two nuts — is perfectly exact. — But how can two be defined like that? The person one gives the definition to doesn’t know what one wants to call “two”; he will suppose that “two” is the name given to this group of nuts! – – He may suppose this; but perhaps he does not. He might make the opposite mistake; when I want to assign a name to this group of nuts, he might understand it as a numeral. And he might equally well take the name of a person, of which I give an ostensive definition, as that of a colour, of a race, or even of a point of the compass. That is to say: an ostensive definition can be variously interpreted in every case.

ND – 28. Ostensive definitions (pointing to something and saying it’s name) are unclear. For naming something has to be secondary to understanding use for how else can I know whether you are naming a group of bolts or the number two when you point to two bolts and say “two”. Or for that matter the colour of the bolts? This is usually referred to as the rule-following paradox.


  1. Perhaps you say: two can only be ostensively defined in this way: “This number is called ‘two’ “. For the word “number” here shews what place in language, in grammar, we assign to the word. But this means that the word “number” must be explained before the ostensive definition can be understood. — The word “number” in the definition does indeed shew this place; does shew the post at which we station the word. And we can prevent misunderstandings by saying: “This colour is called so-and-so”, “This length is called so-and-so”, and so on. That is to say: misunderstandings are sometimes averted in this way. But is there only one way of taking the word “colour” or “length”? — Well, they just need defining. — Defining, then, by means of other words! And what about the last definition in this chain? (Do not say: “There isn’t a ‘last’ definition”. That is just as if you chose to say: “There isn’t a last house in this road; one can always build an additional one”.)

Whether the word “number” is necessary in the ostensive definition depends on whether without it the other person takes the definition otherwise than I wish. And that will depend on the circumstances under which it is given, and on the person I give it to.

And how he ‘takes’ the definition is seen in the use that he makes of the word defined.

ND – 29. The whole process of ostensive definitions is circular, a bit like the words in a dictionary defining each other, (but a never ending process as new words are being created all the time); and it is only through looking at the use or the activity they are involved in can the naming be made sense of.

  1. So one might say: the ostensive definition explains the use–the meaning–of the word when the overall role of the word in language is clear. Thus if I know that someone means to explain a colour-word to me the ostensive definition “That is called ‘sepia’ ” will help me to understand the word. — And you can say this, so long as you do not forget that all sorts of problems attach to the words “to know” or “to be clear”.

One has already to know (or be able to do) something in order to be capable of asking a thing’s name. But what does one have to know?

Footnote[Could one define the word “red” by pointing to something that was not red? That would be as if one were supposed to explain the word “modest” to someone whose English was weak, and one pointed to an arrogant man and said “That man is not modest”. That it is ambiguous is no argument against such a method of definition. Any definition can be misunderstood.

But it might well be asked: are we still to call this “definition”?– For, of course, even if it has the same practical consequences, the same effect on the learner, it plays a different part in the calculus from what we ordinarily call “ostensive definition” of the word “red”.]

ND – 30. If we understand the context of use (the application) then the ostensive definition (naming) is not problematic. This is a nice summary of the last few aphorisms – but note his warning that the phrases “to know” or “to be clear” are not unproblematic. John Shotter, a psychologist, has picked up on this well, his papers well worth the read. He draws a distinction between ‘know that’ and ‘know how’. Now what Wittgenstein has been deconstructing is the assumptive base of much Western philosophy that some sort of ‘know that’ knowledge lies at the base of language, some sort of rules, which can be exposed. But at root is ‘know how’. In the ‘sepia’ example here, what is needed is knowledge of colour naming games; the child needs to know that we are pointing to the colour of the object before the naming process will work. ‘Know how’ precedes ‘know that’. Witt. now explores this further.


  1. When one shews someone the king in chess and says: “This is the king”, this does not tell him the use of this piece-unless he already knows the rules of the game up to this last point: the shape of the king. You could imagine his having learnt the rules of the game without ever having been shewn an actual piece. The shape of the chessman corresponds here to the sound or shape of a word.

One can also imagine someone’s having learnt the game without ever learning or formulating rules. He might have learnt quite simple board-games first, by watching, and have progressed to more and more complicated ones. He too might be given the explanation “This is the king”,-if, for instance, he were being shewn chessmen of a shape he was not used to. This explanation again only tells him the use of the piece because, as we might say, the place for it was already prepared. Or even: we shall only say that it tells him the use, if the place is already prepared. And in this case it is so, not because the person to whom we give the explanation already knows rules, but because in another sense he is already master of a game.

Consider this further case: I am explaining chess to someone; and I begin by pointing to a chessman and saying: “This is the king; it can move like this, …. and so on.” – In this case we shall say: the words “This is the king” (or “This is called the ‘king’ “) are a definition only if the learner already ‘knows what a piece in a game is’. That is, if he has already played other games, or has watched other people playing ‘and understood’ — and similar things. Further, only under these conditions will he be able to ask relevantly in the course of learning the game: “What do you call this?” — that is, this piece in a game.

We may say: only someone who already knows how to do something with it can significantly ask a name.

And we can imagine the person who is asked replying: “Settle the name yourself” — and now the one who asked would have to manage everything for himself.

ND – 31. “We may say: only someone who already knows how to do something with it can significantly ask a name”; just as only someone who has some understanding of the game of chess can ask the names of the pieces. We must “prepare a place” before we can make use of names in language games. “Preparing a place” is a common expression in a lot of Wittgensteinian discourse; new ideas don’t catch on until a place has been prepared for them. In the NZ movie “The Dark Horse” Clifford Curtis plays a real world character Genesis Potini, who taught a group of impoverished children to play chess to a competitive level – as in paragraph 2 above, he teaches them to see the board as a battle-ground and the various strategies of attack and defence. Only later do they acquire the rules. ‘Know how’ precedes ‘know that’.


  1. Someone coming into a strange country will sometimes learn the language of the inhabitants from ostensive definitions that they give him; and he will often have to guess the meaning of these definitions; and will guess sometimes right, sometimes wrong.

And now, I think, we can say: Augustine describes the learning of human language as if the child came into a strange country and did not understand the language of the country; that is, as if it already had a language, only not this one. Or again: as if the child could already think, only not yet speak. And “think” would here mean something like “talk to itself”.

ND – 32. Augustine’s account of language acquisition (or the account that is the dominant view) suggests language acquisition is like someone arriving in a new country, or like someone who has already learnt how “to play chess” and just has to learn the new names of the pieces. That is to say a place is already prepared for a number of language games. But as Witt. has shewn us, that’s not how it is, is it?


  1. Suppose, however, someone were to object: “It is not true that you must already be master of a language in order to understand an ostensive definition: all you need-of course!-is to know or guess what the person giving the explanation is pointing to. That is, whether for example to the shape of the object, or to its colour, or to its number, and so on.” – And what does ‘pointing to the shape’, ‘pointing to the colour’ consist in? Point to a piece of paper. – And now point to its shape – now to its colour – now to its number (that sounds queer). – How did you do it? – You will say that you ‘meant’ a different thing each time you pointed. And if I ask how that is done, you will say you concentrated your attention on the colour, the shape, etc. But I ask again: how is that done?

Suppose someone points to a vase and says “Look at that marvellous blue — the shape isn’t the point.” — Or: “Look at the marvellous shape — the colour doesn’t matter.” Without doubt you will do something different when you act upon these two invitations. But do you always do the same thing when you direct your attention to the colour? Imagine various different cases. To indicate a few:

  • “Is this blue the same as the blue over there? Do you see any difference?” —
  • You are mixing paint and you say “It’s hard to get the blue of this sky.”
  • “It’s turning fine, you can already see blue sky again.”
  • “Look what different effects these two blues have.”
  • “Do you see the blue book over there? Bring it here. “
  • “This blue signal-light means ….”
  • “What’s this blue called?’ — Is it ‘indigo’?”

You sometimes attend to the colour by putting your hand up to keep the outline from view; or by not looking at the outline of the thing; sometimes by staring at the object and trying to remember where you saw that colour before.

You attend to the shape, sometimes by tracing it, sometimes by screwing up your eyes so as not to see the colour clearly, and in many other ways. I want to say: This is the sort of thing that happens while one ‘directs one’s attention to this or that’. But it isn’t these things by themselves that make us say someone is attending to the shape, the colour, and so on. Just as a move in chess doesn’t consist simply in moving a piece in such-and-such a way on the board — nor yet in one’s thoughts and feelings as one makes the move: but in the circumstances that we call “playing a game of chess”, “solving a chess problem”, and so on.

ND – 33. In order for ostensive definition to work you first need to know how to direct your attention to what in particular is being pointed to; to have some idea of the language game being played. And there are lots of different ways of directing your attention (activities).

  1. But suppose someone said: “I always do the same thing when I attend to the shape: my eye follows the outline and I feel….”. And suppose this person to give someone else the ostensive definition “That is called a ‘circle’ “, pointing to a circular object and having all these experiences — cannot his hearer still interpret the definition differently, even though he sees the other’s eyes following the outline, and even though-he feels what the other feels? That is to say: this ‘interpretation’ may also consist in how he now makes use of the word; in what he points to, for example, when told: “Point to a circle”. — For neither the expression “to intend the definition in such-and-such a way” nor the expression “to interpret the definition in such-and-such a way” stands for a process which accompanies the giving and hearing of the definition.

ND – 34. In preparing a place for an ostensive definition, it is not words alone that prepare that place. Perhaps there needs to be some sort of co-ordination (of activity) between speaker and listener in the way attention is directed.


  1. There are, of course, what can be called “characteristic experiences” of pointing to (e.g.) the shape. For example, following the outline with one’s finger or with one’s eyes as one points. — But this does not happen in all cases in which I ‘mean the shape’, and no more does any other one characteristic process occur in all these cases. — Besides, even if something of the sort did recur in all cases, it would still depend on the circumstances — that is, on what happened before and after the pointing — whether we should say “He pointed to the shape and not to the colour”.

For the words “to point to the shape”, “to mean the shape”, and so on, are not used in the same way as these: “to point to this book (not to that one), “to point to the chair, not to the table”, and so on. — Only think how differently we learn the use of the words “to point to this thing”, “to point to that thing”, and on the other hand “to point to the colour, not the shape”, “to mean the colour”, and so on.

To repeat: in certain cases, especially when one points ‘to the shape’ or ‘to the number’ there are characteristic experiences and ways of pointing — ‘characteristic’ because they recur often (not always) when shape or number are ‘meant’. But do you also know of an experience characteristic of pointing to a piece in a game as a piece in a game? All the same one can say: “I mean that this piece is called the ‘king’, not this particular bit of wood I am pointing to”. (Recognizing, wishing, remembering, etc. .)

ND – 35. In preparing a place for an ostensive definition we are tempted to say it lies in pointing to that object, but obviously the difference between say pointing to the shape and pointing to the colour involves more than just pointing. But what is this ‘more than’? Wittgenstein gives various examples of how we might point to say the shape of an object – but there is no one way. It’s like a joke, you either get it or you don’t. So we might have to give the child a number of examples, and then we see by their subsequent actions whether they ‘got it’.


  1. And we do here what we do in a host of similar cases: because we cannot specify any one bodily action which we call pointing to the shape (as opposed, for example, to the colour), we say that a spiritual [mental, intellectual] activity corresponds to these words.

Where our language suggests a body and there is none: there, we should like to say, is a spirit.

ND – 36. Because we find it difficult to say what this difference is between say pointing to the shape versus pointing to the colour we are tempted to say a metaphysical or spiritual or ‘mental’ thing is happening. We are strongly tempted to say that the imagination must be involved.


  1. What is the relation between name and thing named? — Well, what is it? Look at language-game (§2) or at another one: there you can see the sort of thing this relation consists in. This relation may also consist, among many other things, in the fact that hearing the name calls before our mind the picture of what is named; and it also consists, among other things, in the name’s being written on the thing named or being pronounced when that thing is pointed at.

ND – 37. What is the role of mental imagery in naming? In considering the relationship between the name and the thing named we are tempted to say that a mental image must exist for us to make the connection. But this is incidental. In (2) ‘slab’ got the worker to fetch the slab (no mental imagery was necessary).


  1. But what, for example, is the word “this” the name of in language-game (§8) or the word “that” in the ostensive definition “that is called ….”? — If you do not want to produce confusion you will do best not to call these words names at all. — Yet, strange to say, the word “this” has been called the only genuine name; so that anything else we call a name was one only in an inexact, approximate sense.

This queer conception springs from a tendency to sublime the logic of our language — as one might put it. The proper answer to it is: we call very different things “names”; the word “name” is used to characterize many different kinds of use of a word, related to one another in many different ways; — but the kind of use that “this” has is not among them.

It is quite true that, in giving an ostensive definition for instance, we often point to the object named and say the name. And similarly, in giving an ostensive definition for instance, we say the word “this” while pointing to a thing. And also the word “this” and a name often occupy the same position in a sentence. But it is precisely characteristic of a name that it is defined by means of the demonstrative expression “That is N” (or “That is called ‘N’ “). But do we also give the definitions: “That is called ‘this’ “, or “This is called ‘this’ “?

This is connected with the conception of naming as, so to speak, an occult process. Naming appears as a queer connexion of a word with an object. — And you really get such a queer connexion when the philosopher tries to bring out the relation between name and thing by staring at an object in front of him and repeating a name or even the word “this” innumerable times. For philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday. And here we may indeed fancy naming to be some remarkable act of mind, as it were a baptism of an object. And we can also say the word “this” to the object, as it were address the object as “this” — a queer use of this word, which doubtless only occurs in doing philosophy.

Footnote [What is it to mean the words “That is blue” at one time as a statement about the object one is pointing to — at another as an explanation of the word “blue”? Well, in the second case one really means “That is called ‘blue’ “. — Then can one at one time mean the word “is” as “is called” and the word “blue” as ” ‘blue’ “, and another time mean “is” really as “is”?

It is also possible for someone to get an explanation of the words out of what was intended as a piece of information. {Marginal note: Here lurks a crucial superstition.}

Can I say “bububu” and mean “If it doesn’t rain I shall go for a walk”? — It is only in a language that I can mean something by something. This shews clearly that the grammar of “to mean” is not like that of the expression “to imagine” and the like.]

ND – 38. In philosophising about the relationship between names and the thing named ‘language goes on holiday‘, as it so often does in philosophising, as we dream up sublime explanatory fictions; in this case the notion of the necessity of mental imagery accompanying naming, which obviously doesn’t happen when I call something ‘this’ or ‘that’. There are many different types of things (activities) which are called ‘names’ (naming), and because they share this one word we lose sight of seeing how it happens in practice (such as in (§2)), as we lose ourselves in our imaginations trying to find the common thread. [NOTE: The sense in which “this” is the “only genuine name” refers to us calling this particular item (say a chair) “this” rather than a “chair” – calling it “this” is very specific to it, whereas calling it a “chair” places it in a class of objects.] There is a more immediate and obvious sense to how “this” and “that” engage us in directing our attention. The processes (activities) involved in meaning (“we mean such and such”) are quite different than the processes (acivities) involved in imagining. [With regard to the ‘Here lurks a crucial superstition’ is a reference to the dual nature of “is” which he deals with again in §558-568.] Besides the “language goes on holiday”, he also uses the phrase at other times of “language is idling” – and this is one of the major snares in doing philosophy he is trying to warn us of. Because we have turned language back on itself – we are using language to explore or expose or deconstruct language, language’s everyday use has gone on holiday, or is idling. Another of his metaphors is that our intelligence has been bewitched by language – and so his philosophy is a form of therapy for helping us get clear.


  1. But why does it occur to one to want to make precisely this word into a name, when it evidently is not a name? — That is just the reason. For one is tempted to make an objection against what is ordinarily called a name. It can be put like this: a name ought really to signify a simple. And for this one might perhaps give the following reasons: The word “Excalibur”, say, is a proper name in the ordinary sense. The sword Excalibur consists of parts combined in a particular way. If they are combined differently Excalibur does not exist. But it is clear that the sentence “Excalibur has a sharp blade” makes sense whether Excalibur is still whole or is broken up. But if “Excalibur” is the name of an object, this object no longer exists when Excalibur is broken in pieces; and as no object would then correspond to the name it would have no meaning. But then the sentence “Excalibur has a sharp blade” would contain a word that had no meaning, and hence the sentence would be nonsense. But it does make sense; so there must always be something corresponding to the words of which it consists. So the word “Excalibur” must disappear when the sense is analysed and its place be taken by words which name simples. It will be reasonable to call these words the real names.

ND – 39. Here’s a puzzle – can a word have a meaning if it’s ‘bearer’ no longer exists? If the name refers to something, is it a mental image when the object no longer exists? But we have seen that mental images are not necessary for words to work (think of ‘slab’ in (§2)). The Augustinian thinker might argue that underlying words for objects that come and go from existence, there must be some ‘real names’ for indestructable simples (which are like indestructable atoms).


  1. Let us first discuss this point of the argument: that a word has no meaning if nothing corresponds to it. — It is important to note that the word “meaning” is being used illicitly if it is used to signify the thing that ‘corresponds’ to the word. That is to confound the meaning of a name with the bearer of the name. When Mr. N. N. dies one says that the bearer of the name dies, not that the meaning dies. And it would be nonsensical to say that, for if the name ceased to have meaning it would make no sense to say “Mr. N. N. is dead.”

ND – 40. If a name or word did have to correspond with something in the world, then the death of Julius Ceasar would imply that his name no longer had meaning, which is clearly nonsense. We are using the word “meaning” incorrectly if we think a word has to correspond with or signify a thing.


  1. In §15 we introduced proper names into language (§8). Now suppose that the tool with the name “N” is broken. Not knowing this, A gives B the sign “N”. Has this sign meaning now or not.? — What is B to do when he is given it? — We have not settled anything about this. One might ask: what will he do? Well, perhaps he will stand there at a loss, or shew A the pieces. Here one might say: “N” has become meaningless; and this expression would mean that the sign “N” no longer had a use in our language-game (unless we gave it a new one). “N” might also become meaningless because, for whatever reason, the tool was given another name and the sign “N” no longer used in the language-game. — But we could also imagine a convention whereby B has to shake his head in reply if A gives him the sign belonging to a tool that is broken. — In this way the command “N” might be said to be given a place in the language-game even when the tool no longer exists, and the sign “N” to have meaning even when its bearer ceases to exist.

ND – 41. Obviously we can still use names of objects in language games even when those objects no longer exist in the world. Such events may well call into existence new conventions or language games, such as B shaking his head in this example.

  1. But has for instance a name which has never been used for a tool also got a meaning in that game? — Let us assume that “X” is such a sign and that A gives this sign to B — well, even such signs could be given a place in the language-game, and B might have, say, to answer them too with a shake of the head. (One could imagine this as a sort of joke between them.)

ND – 42. ….or even if they have never existed. So long as we use such names appropriately to some language game, e.g. “pass me the tyre-jill”.


  1. For a large class of cases — though not for all — in which we employ the word “meaning” it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.

And the meaning of a name is sometimes explained by pointing to its bearer.

ND – 43. This is Wittgenstein’s grand conclusion of this section – that in most cases the meaning of a word is its use in a language game; and in most cases, but not all, the meaning of a name is sometimes explained by pointing to its bearer. (You will never see Witt. making a universal declaration – this is as close as he gets: “for a large number of cases, but not all” …. Or “X is sometimes explained by …’ – actually he doesn’t give explanations often as he wants to get rid of all explanations (aboutness language games) so we see how it is with perfect perspicuity.


  1. We said that the sentence “Excalibur has a sharp blade” made sense even when Excalibur was broken in pieces. Now this is so because in this language-game a name is also used in the absence of its bearer. But we can imagine a language-game with names (that is, with signs which we should certainly include among names) in which they are used only in the presence of the bearer; and so could always be replaced by a demonstrative pronoun and the gesture of pointing.

ND – 44. Although some language games are played in the presence of the bearer of the name(s) and others are not; it is those games played in the presence of the bearer where the name could be replaced by a demonstrative pronoun such as ‘this’ or ‘that’ and the gesture of pointing.

  1. The demonstrative “this” can never be without a bearer. It might be said: “so long as there is a this, the word ‘this’ has a meaning too, whether this is simple or complex.” — But that does not make the word into a name. On the contrary: for a name is not used with, but only explained by means of, the gesture of pointing.

ND – 45. But although ‘this’ and ‘that’ can never be used without a bearer, they are not names in themselves, just the means to explain names. ‘This’ and ‘that’ are aspects of the activity of pointing and names are not; names are only explained by pointing.


  1. What lies behind the idea that names really signify simples? — Socrates says in the Theaetetus: “If I make no mistake, I have heard some people say this: there is no definition of the primary elements — so to speak — out of which we and everything else are composed; for everything that exists in its own right can only be named, no other determination is possible, neither that it is nor that it is not….. But what exists in its own right has to be ….. named without any other determination. In consequence it is impossible to give an account of any primary element; for it, nothing is possible but the bare name; its name is all it has. But just as what consists of these primary elements is itself complex, so the names of the elements become descriptive language by being compounded together. For the essence of speech is the composition of names.”

Both Russell’s ‘individuals’ and my ‘objects’ (Tractatus Logico-Pbilosophicus) were such primary elements.

ND – 46. The atomistic notion that the world is built up from atoms, and language from primary names has held Western culture in it’s spell for a long time; it is a deep rooted discourse capturing most, including Wittgenstein when he wrote the Tractatus. Recall back in §27 that it is sentences that provide meaning not a word (although there can be one word sentences). He is now returning to this deeply held idea that is so central in Western cultural thinking.


  1. But what are the simple constituent parts of which reality is composed? — What are the simple constituent parts of a chair? — The bits of wood of which it is made? Or the molecules, or the atoms? — “Simple” means: not composite. And here the point is: in what sense ‘composite’? It makes no sense at all to speak absolutely of the ‘simple parts of a chair’.

Again: Does my visual image of this tree, of this chair, consist of parts? And what are its simple component parts? Multi-colouredness is one kind of complexity; another is, for example, that of a broken outline composed of straight bits. And a curve can be said to be composed of an ascending and a descending segment.

If I tell someone without any further explanation: “What I see before me now is composite”, he will have the right to ask: “What do you mean by ‘composite’? For there are all sorts of things that that can mean!” — The question “Is what you see composite?” makes good sense if it is already established what kind of complexity — that is, which particular use of the word — is in question. If it had been laid down that the visual image of a tree was to be called “composite” if one saw not just a single trunk, but also branches, then the question “Is the visual image of this tree simple or composite?”, and the question “What are its simple component parts?”, would have a clear sense — a clear use. And of course the answer to the second question is not “The branches” (that would be an answer to the grammatical question: “What are here called ‘simple component parts’?”) but rather a description of the individual branches.

But isn’t a chessboard, for instance, obviously, and absolutely, composite? — You are probably thinking of the composition out of thirty-two white and thirty-two black squares. But could we not also say, for instance, that it was composed of the colours black and white and the schema of squares? And if there are quite different ways of looking at it, do you still want to say that the chessboard is absolutely ‘composite’? — Asking “Is this object composite?” outside a particular language-game is like what a boy once did, who had to say whether the verbs in certain sentences were in the active or passive voice, and who racked his brains over the question whether the verb “to sleep” meant something active or passive.

We use the word “composite” (and therefore the word “simple”) in an enormous number of different and differently related ways. (Is the colour of a square on a chessboard simple, or does it consist of pure white and pure yellow? And is white simple, or does it consist of the colours of the rainbow? — Is this length of 2 cm. simple, or does it consist of two parts, each 1 cm. long? But why not of one bit 3 cm long, and one bit 1 cm. long measured in the opposite direction?)

To the philosophical question: “Is the visual image of this tree composite, and what are its component parts?” the correct answer is: “That depends on what you understand by ‘composite’.” (And that is of course not an answer but a rejection of the question.)

ND – 47. If we are going to use the notion of composites, we need to provide a context for how we are using it, for the world can be divided up in any manner of ways; and we need to be clear how the speaker is dividing the world up. If we are asked what are the composite parts of a particular tree, and answer ‘branches’, we have offered a ‘grammatical’ answer, which is an answer which speaks of our agreement as to what we will consider to be the composition of trees. To answer the question within this agreement we have to point out the particular branches of that tree. And although in some cases “common sense” suggests an obvious way of dividing up a thing into parts – say a chessboard – there may always be other ways of looking at it. “Active” and “passive” have different meanings in the context of grammar than in the context of human activity. We need to negotiate or explicate the context when someone utilises the notion of composites.


  1. Let us apply the method of §2 to the account in the Theaetetus. Let us consider a language-game for which this account is really valid. The language serves to describe combinations of coloured squares on a surface. The squares form a complex like a chessboard. There are red, green, white and black squares. The words of the language are (correspondingly) “R”, “G”, “W”, “B”, and a sentence is a series of these words. They describe an arrangement of squares in the order:


1 2 3
4 5 6
7 8 9




And so for instance the sentence “RRBGGGRWW” describes an arrangement of this sort:





Here the sentence is a complex of names, to which corresponds a complex of elements. The primary elements are the coloured squares. “But are these simple?” — I do not know what else you would have me call “the simples”, what would be more natural in this language-game. But under other circumstances I should call a monochrome square “composite”, consisting perhaps of two rectangles, or of the elements colour and shape. But the concept of complexity might also be so extended that a smaller area was said to be ‘composed’ of a greater area and another one subtracted from it. Compare the ‘composition of forces’, the ‘division’ of a line by a point outside it; these expressions shew that we are sometimes even inclined to conceive the smaller as the result of a composition of greater parts, and the greater as the result of a division of the smaller.

But I do not know whether to say that the figure described by our sentence consists of four or of nine elements! Well, does the sentence consist of four letters or of nine? — And which are its elements, the types of letter, or the letters? Does it matter which we say, so long as we avoid misunderstandings in any particular case?

ND – 48. The world can be divided up into parts and composites of parts in any number of ways, and what does it matter how we divide the world up so long as we avoid misunderstandings in any particular case. The failure to recognise the diversity of ways the world can be divided up since the time of Plato’s Theaetetus with it’s notion of ‘natural’ or ‘given’ ‘simples’ accounts for much misunderstanding.


49.. But what does it mean to say that we cannot define (that is, describe) these elements, but only name them? This might mean, for instance, that when in a limiting case a complex consists of only one square, its description is simply the name of the coloured square.

Here we might say — though this easily leads to all kinds of philosophical superstition — that a sign “R” or “B”, etc. may be sometimes a word and sometimes a proposition. But whether it ‘is a word or a proposition’ depends on the situation in which it is uttered or written. For instance, if A has to describe complexes of coloured squares to B and he uses the word “R” alone, we shall be able to say that the word is a description — a proposition. But if he is memorizing the words and their meanings, or if he is teaching someone else the use of the words and uttering them in the course of ostensive teaching, we shall not say that they are propositions. In this situation the word “R”, for instance, is not a description; it names an element — but it would be queer to make that a reason for saying that an element can only be named! For naming and describing do not stand on the same level: naming is a preparation for description. Naming is so far not a move in the language-game — any more than putting a piece in its place on the board is a move in chess. We may say: nothing has so far been done, when a thing has been named. It has not even got a name except in the language-game. This was what Frege meant too, when he said that a word had meaning only as part of a sentence.

ND – 49. Taking the simplest case of a single blue or red square on a page which we name ‘red’ or ‘blue’, the question arises as to whether when someone utters ‘red’ he is naming or describing it (This is the dilemma Plato describes in Theaetus – refer (§46)). Well it depends on the context he utters it in. Imagine flicking through a book of pages of coloured squares like those in (§48), some pages of multi-squares and some of singletons. Describing to someone what you are seeing on each page, you might say ‘red’ on encountering a single red square. In this context ‘red’ is a description. But if you are teaching someone the names of the colours by pointing and saying the word ‘red’, it is not a description but a name. Some of the misunderstandings that arise from the mistaken assumptions of the theory of simples (the world is made up of given simples) occur, because naming is an integral aspect or consequence of dividing the world up in a particular way and precedes the descriptions we may later make, (similar to setting up the chess board before playing); and forgetting this we all to easily fall into the trap of thinking we have made some empirical observation about the world when we merely named something. Recall §27 again, it is sentences that have meaning, even single word sentences, and not words themselves.

  1. What does it mean to say that we can attribute neither being nor non-being to elements? — One might say: if everything that we call “being” and “non-being” consists in the existence and non-existence of connexions between elements, it makes no sense to speak of an element’s being (non-being); just as when everything that we call “destruction” lies in the separation of elements, it makes no sense to speak of the destruction of an element.

One would, however, like to say: existence cannot be attributed to an element, for if it did not exist, one could not even name it and so one could say nothing at all of it. — But let us consider an analogous case. There is one thing of which one can say neither that it is one metre long, nor that it is not one metre long, and that is the standard metre in Paris. — But this is, of course, not to ascribe any extraordinary property to it, but only to mark its peculiar role in the language-game of measuring with a metre-rule. — Let us imagine samples of colour being preserved in Paris like the standard metre. We define: “sepia” means the colour of the standard sepia which is there kept hermetically sealed. Then it will make no sense to say of this sample either that it is of this colour or that it is not.

We can put it like this: This sample is an instrument of the language used in ascriptions of colour. In this language-game it is not something that is represented, but is a means of representation. — And just this goes for an element in language-game (§48) when we name it by uttering the word “R”: this gives this object a role in our language-game; it is now a means of representation. And to say “If it did not exist, it could have no name” is to say as much and as little as: if this thing did not exist, we could not use it in our language-game. — What looks as if it had to exist, is part of the language. It is a paradigm in our language-game; something with which comparison is made. And this may be an important observation; but it is none the less an observation concerning our language-game — our method of representation.

ND – 50. Because the world can be divided up in any manner of ways, we can attribute neither existence nor non-existence to the so-called ‘elements’ potentially called forth in the act of naming, for the name or word is an instrument in the language game we will play – a game that may later involve making propositions about examples of the so-called ‘elements’. (“What looks as if it had to exist is a part of the language.”) The Paris metre occupies the position of a name and then later is used in the generation of propositions about the world (refer §49). Those more mathematically minded might want to study George Spencer Brown’s ‘Laws of Form’ for an interesting side tour of a subject that has been of extreme interest to scholarly mystics since time immemorial.


  1. In describing language-game (§48) I said that the words “R”, “B”, etc. corresponded to the colours of the squares. But what does this correspondence consist in; in what sense can one say that certain colours of squares correspond to these signs? For the account in (§48) merely set up a connexion between those signs and certain words of our language (the names of colours). — Well, it was presupposed that the use of the signs in the language-game would be taught in a different way, in particular by pointing to paradigms. Very well; but what does it mean to say that in the technique of using the language certain elements correspond to the signs? — Is it that the person who is describing the complexes of coloured squares always says “R” where there is a red square; “B” when there is a black one, and so on? But what if he goes wrong in the description and mistakenly says “R” where he sees a black square — what is the criterion by which this is a mistake? — Or does “R”s standing for a red square consist in this, that when the people whose language it is use the sign “R” a red square always comes before their minds?

In order to see more clearly, here as in countless similar cases, we must focus on the details of what goes on; must look at them from close to.

ND – 51. Here’s a puzzle – what goes on when we are using the names or signs? How do signs (words, names) work? What is the connection between the sign (word) and the objects they correspond with? The allure of Augustinian representationalism is almost overwhelming here, we want to say that the words or signs in (§48), “R”, “B”, etc., ‘represent’ the colours red, black, etc. But if we do that we privilege the colours red, black, etc., as the “true meaning” or “essence” that the signs or words connect to. What is being overlooked or forgotten (“we must look from close to”) is that both the colours themselves and the words or signs are all products of how we divided the world up; and frequently, in use, we could just as easily hold up a piece of red sample as utter the word ‘red’. The description in (§48) merely set up a correspondence between “R” and the colour red, a correspondence which could be set up in a number of different ways (e.g using paradigms, putting labels on things, etc – not one of which is necessary and sufficient for all language games). The agreement to divide the world up this manner, to play this game, although perhaps overlooked when we are entranced by representationalism, is not completely forgotten, because when someone makes a mistake, we make immediate reference to these implicit agreements (“the criteria”) to say a mistake has been made. There is also no need to privilege mental criteria to play this language game. If we want to understand this better we need to look at the details of different cases. He will very shortly make one of his most quoted remarks – “Don’t think, but look!” (PI §66) – which I take to mean perceptual knowledge precedes conceptual; it is all too easy to get lost in our heads, when sometimes we have to sit quietly just watching what’s actually going on in these puzzles.


  1. If I am inclined to suppose that a mouse has come into being by spontaneous generation out of grey rags and dust, I shall do well to examine those rags very closely to see how a mouse may have hidden in them, how it may have got there and so on. But if I am convinced that a mouse cannot come into being from these things, then this investigation will perhaps be superfluous.

But first we must learn to understand what it is that opposes such an examination of details in philosophy.

ND – 52. If I carry certain presuppositions (especially those taught by cultural traditions, in this case the notion that certain ‘elements’ always correspond to the signs; or that something cannot come out of nothing) I may think that examining the details of what is happening is superfluous. In order to answer such a question (§51) we not only have to look closely as to what is happening, but we must also understand what opposes us from making such examinations.


  1. Our language-game (§48) has various possibilities; there is a variety of cases in which we should say that a sign in the game was the name of a square of such-and-such a colour. We should say so if, for instance, we knew that the people who used the language were taught the use of the signs in such-and-such a way. Or if it were set down in writing, say in the form of a table, that this element corresponded to this sign, and if the table were used in teaching the language and were appealed to in certain disputed cases.

We can also imagine such a table’s being a tool in the use of the language. Describing a complex is then done like this: the person who describes the complex has a table with him and looks up each element of the complex in it and passes from this to the sign (and the one who is given the description may also use a table to translate it into a picture of coloured squares). This table might be said to take over here the role of memory and association in other cases. (We do not usually carry out the order “Bring me a red flower” by looking up the colour red in a table of colours and then bringing a flower of the colour that we find in the table; but when it is a question of choosing or mixing a particular shade of red, we do sometimes make use of a sample or table.)

If we call such a table the expression of a rule of the language-game, it can be said that what we call a rule of a language-game may have very different roles in the game.

ND – 53. Let’s start unravelling this puzzle of how signs (words) are being used by looking at cases where the sign (word) was the name of something (say a square of colour). We would say that we know that “R” means red if we had observed children being taught say by pointing etc.,; or we would say ‘”R” means red’ if it was set down in writing, say in a colour chart with the names under each (or a dictionary for other words). It’s not difficult to see how this colour chart (dictionary) might become a tool in the use of language. Back in §48 we described a complex with the sentence “RRBGGGRWW”; and so we can imagine using the chart (or table or dictionary) to interpret the complex into a sentence, or the sentence into a complex (depending if you are the sender or receiver). We can think of the chart (table or dictionary) as occupying the same role as memory. But because the chart is also a product of how we divided up the world (a world that can be divided up how we choose – refer §48) it can be said to be an expression of a rule of the language game (e.g. R=red); and as we shall see rules can have a number of different roles in the game.


  1. Let us recall the kinds of case where we say that a game is played according to a definite rule.

The rule may be an aid in teaching the game. The learner is told it and given practice in applying it. — Or it is an instrument of the game itself. — Or a rule is employed neither in the teaching nor in the game itself; nor is it set down in a list of rules. One learns the game by watching how others play. But we say that it is played according to such-and-such rules because an observer can read these rules off from the practice of the game — like a natural law governing the play. — But how does the observer distinguish in this case between players’ mistakes and correct play? — There are characteristic signs of it in the players’ behaviour. Think of the behaviour characteristic of correcting a slip of the tongue. It would be possible to recognize that someone was doing so even without knowing his language.

ND – 54. Thinking of the different roles rules can play in a game think of a game played according to a definite rule e.g. chess. Some rules might be useful in teaching – “focus on controlling the 4 central squares” – but such a rule is not an instrument of the game itself, such as “white moves first”, or “pawns move one square except…” etc are. And an observer may notice other rules (invisible rules so to speak) they appear to be following, say rules of etiquette, which might be picked up by noticing how people correct themselves or apologize at times. Just as you as an observer learnt the etiquette rules of the game by observing; one might also learn the game (chess) by observing, and not have learnt its rules.

  1. “What the names in language signify must be indestructible; for it must be possible to describe the state of affairs in which everything destructible is destroyed. And this description will contain words; and what corresponds to these cannot then be destroyed, for otherwise the words would have no meaning.” I must not saw off the branch on which I am sitting.

One might, of course, object at once that this description would have to except itself from the destruction. — But what corresponds to the separate words of the description and so cannot be destroyed if it is true, is what gives the words their meaning — is that without which they would have no meaning. — In a sense, however, this man is surely what corresponds to his name. But he is destructible, and his name does not lose its meaning when the bearer is destroyed. — An example of something corresponding to the name, and without which it would have no meaning, is a paradigm that is used in connexion with the name in the language-game.

ND – 55. The Augustinian paradigm would have us fix this rule which says that “R means red” by saying that the thing it signifies is indestructable. But this leads us into this paradox of how “Excalibar has a sharp blade” has meaning even though Excalibar no longer exists. The paradox can be resolved by an appeal to an example (such as the Paris Metre); an example can serve as a paradigm or invisible rule in a language game, which is not itself destroyed when the objects it refers to are destroyed.

 Is this a reference to emergent properties?


  1. But what if no such sample is part of the language, and we bear in mind the colour (for instance) that a word stands for. — “And if we bear it in mind then it comes before our mind’s eye when we utter the word. So, if it is always supposed to be possible for us to remember it, it must be in itself indestructible.” — But what do we regard as the criterion for remembering it right? — When we work with a sample instead of our memory there are circumstances in which we say that the sample has changed colour and we judge of this by memory. But can we not sometimes speak of a darkening (for example) of our memory-image? Aren’t we as much at the mercy of memory as of a sample? (For someone might feel like saying: “If we had no memory we should be at the mercy of a sample”.) — Or perhaps of some chemical reaction. Imagine that you were supposed to paint a particular colour “C”, which was the colour that appeared when the chemical substances X and Y combined. — Suppose that the colour struck you as brighter on one day than on another; would you not sometimes say: “I must be wrong, the colour is certainly the same as yesterday”? This shews that we do not always resort to what memory tells us as the verdict of the highest court of appeal.

ND – 56. However despite our attempts to fix these paradigms or rules, which govern how we will use words, such as with the Paris metre or dictionary, there is certain fluidity to these paradigms, and even memory cannot be trusted to fix them.


  1. “Something red can be destroyed, but red cannot be destroyed, and that is why the meaning of the word ‘red’ is independent of the existence of a red thing.” — Certainly it makes no sense to say that the colour red is torn up or pounded to bits. But don’t we say “The red is vanishing”? And don’t clutch at the idea of our always being able to bring red before our mind’s eye even when there is nothing red any more. That is just as if you chose to say that there would still always be a chemical reaction producing a red flame. — For suppose you cannot remember the colour any more? — When we forget which colour this is the name of, it loses its meaning for us; that is, we are no longer able to play a particular language-game with it. And the situation then is comparable with that in which we have lost a paradigm which was an instrument of our language.

ND – 57. If we forget the paradigm of how to use a word, the word will lose it’s meaning. As we earlier noted in §27, it is not the word but the sentence that is doing the work in making meaning.


  1. “I want to restrict the term ‘name’ to what cannot occur in the combination ‘X exists’. — Thus one cannot say ‘Red exists’, because if there were no red it could not be spoken of at all.” — Better: If “X exists” is meant simply to say: “X” has a meaning, — then it is not a proposition which treats of X, but a proposition about our use of language, that is, about the use of the word “X”.

It looks to us as if we were saying something about the nature of red in saying that the words “Red exists” do not yield a sense. Namely that red does exist ‘in its own right’. The same idea — that this is a metaphysical statement about red — finds expression again when we say such a thing as that red is timeless, and perhaps still more strongly in the word “indestructible”.

But what we really want is simply to take “Red exists” as the statement: the word “red” has a meaning. Or perhaps better: “Red does not exist” as ” ‘Red’ has no meaning”. Only we do not want to say that that expression says this, but that this is what it would have to be saying if it meant anything. But that it contradicts itself in the attempt to say it — just because red exists ‘in its own right’. Whereas the only contradiction lies in something like this: the proposition looks as if it were about the colour, while it is supposed to be saying something about the use of the word “red”. — In reality, however, we quite readily say that a particular colour exists; and that is as much as to say that something exists that has that colour. And the first expression is no less accurate than the second; particularly where ‘what has the colour’ is not a physical object.

ND – 58. Often when we say “X exists” (e.g. ‘red exists’) we are not making an empirical or metaphysical assertion about the world, but are ‘licensing’ the word for use in language games. We would be better off saying “red has meaning” than “red exists” (except that this utterance would become contradictory if we tried to say “red has no meaning”). Forgetting this distinction between meaning and existence creates muddles.


  1. “A name signifies only what is an element of reality. What cannot be destroyed; what remains the same in all changes.” — But what is that? — Why, it swam before our minds as we said the sentence! This was the very expression of a quite particular image: of a particular picture which we want to use. For certainly experience does not shew us these elements. We see component parts of something composite (of a chair, for instance). We say that the back is part of the chair, but is in turn itself composed of several bits of wood; while a leg is a simple component part. We also see a whole which changes (is destroyed) while its component parts remain unchanged. These are the materials from which we construct that picture of reality.

ND – 59. We are all too frequently mesmerized because of our ability to conjure up images when we utter words, which invites us into thinking that these categories reflect reality, forgetting that the world can be divided up in a myriad of ways. These images serve as the paradigms (“Paris Meters” so to speak) of our language games. This idea of elementary particles and pure essences is gradually being undermined through this section; we begin to see everything as composites.


  1. When I say: “My broom is in the corner”, — is this really a statement about the broomstick and the brush? Well, it could at any rate be replaced by a statement giving the position of the stick and the position of the brush. And this statement is surely a further analysed form of the first one. — But why do I call it “further analysed”? — Well, if the broom is there, that surely means that the stick and brush must be there, and in a particular relation to one another; and this was as it were hidden in the sense of the first sentence, and is expressed in the analysed sentence. Then does someone who says that the broom is in the corner really mean: the broomstick is there, and so is the brush, and the broomstick is fixed in the brush? — If we were to ask anyone if he meant this he would probably say that he had not thought specially of the broomstick or specially of the brush at all. And that would be the right answer, for he meant to speak neither of the stick nor of the brush in particular. Suppose that, instead of saying “Bring me the broom”, you said “Bring me the broomstick and the brush which is fitted on to it.”! — Isn’t the answer: “Do you want the broom? Why do you put it so oddly?” — Is he going to understand the further analysed sentence better? — This sentence, one might say, achieves the same as the ordinary one, but in a more roundabout way. — Imagine a language-game in which someone is ordered to bring certain objects which are composed of several parts, to move them about, or something else of the kind. And two ways of playing it: in one (a) the composite objects (brooms, chairs, tables, etc.) have names, as in (§15); in the other (b) only the parts are given names and the wholes are described by means of them. — In what sense is an order in the second game an analysed form of an order in the first? Does the former lie concealed in the latter, and is it now brought out by analysis.’ — True, the broom is taken to pieces when one separates broomstick and brush; but does it follow that the order to bring the broom also consists of corresponding parts?

ND – 60. The picture representational view of language stemming from Augustinianism lures us into thinking that a more analysed statement is more accurate or true than an unanalysed one; but if it is a matter of getting things done then the unanalysed is usually more useful.


  1. “But all the same you will not deny that a particular order in (a) means the same as one in (b); and what would you call the second one, if not an analysed form of the first?” — Certainly I too should say that an order in (a) had the same meaning as one in (b); or, as I expressed it earlier: they achieve the same. And this means that if I were shewn an order in (a) and asked: “Which order in (b) means the same as this?” or again “Which order in (b) does this contradict?” I should give such-and-such an answer. But that is not to say that we have come to a general agreement about the use of the expression “to have the same meaning” or “to achieve the same”. For it can be asked in what cases we say: “These are merely two forms of the same game.”

ND – 61. If we were to ask whether the analysed and unanalysed statement were the same, our answer would be determined in part by whether they achieve the same end. But it is not always clear that this is their intent (i.e. to achieve the same end).


  1. Suppose for instance that the person who is given the orders in (a) and (b) has to look up a table co-ordinating names and pictures before bringing what is required. Does he do the same when he carries out an order in (a) and the corresponding one in (b)? — Yes and no. You may say: “The point of the two orders is the same”. I should say so too. — But it is not everywhere clear what should be called the ‘point’ of an order. (Similarly one may say of certain objects that they have this or that purpose. The essential thing is that this is a lamp, that it serves to give light; — that it is an ornament to the room, fills an empty space, etc., is not essential. But there is not always a sharp distinction between essential and inessential.)

ND – 62. It is not always apparent just what the point or intent of a statement is, and the lure to offer a more analysed version of the statement, because we think the meaning lies in what the words represent, may blinker us further from noticing the context of the statement, or what it intends to achieve.


  1. To say, however, that a sentence in (b) is an ‘analysed’ form of one in (a) readily seduces us into thinking that the former is the more fundamental form; that it alone shews what is meant by the other, and so on. For example, we think: If you have only the unanalysed form you miss the analysis; but if you know the analysed form that gives you everything. — But can I not say that an aspect of the matter is lost on you in the latter case as well as the former?

ND – 63. It must remain an open question as to whether the analysed version with it’s greater attention to detail is more useful (or closer to the intention of the speaker) than the unanalysed with it’s greater awareness of context. It can be a matter of ‘losing the forest for the trees’.


  1. Let us imagine language game (§48) altered so that names signify not monochrome squares but rectangles each consisting of two such squares. Let such a rectangle, which is half red half green, be called “U”; a half green half white one, “V”; and so on. Could we not imagine people who had names for such combinations of colour, but not for the individual colours? Think of the cases where we say: “This arrangement of colours (say the French tricolor) has a quite special character.”

In what sense do the symbols of this language-game stand in need of analysis? How far is it even possible to replace this language-game by (§48)? — It is just another language-game; even though it is related to (§48).

ND – 64. The analysed form may create a different language game and the point of the original language game in the unanalysed form be lost. As noted in §19, it could be a different form of life.


  1. Here we come up against the great question that lies behind all these considerations. — For someone might object against me: “You take the easy way out! You talk about all sorts of language-games, but have nowhere said what the essence of a language-game, and hence of language, is: what is common to all these activities, and what makes them into language or parts of language. So you let yourself off the very part of the investigation that once gave you yourself most headache, the part about the general form of propositions and of language.”

And this is true. — 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”. I will try to explain this.

ND – 65. This and the next few aphorisms target the question “what is the ‘nature’ of language?” This was touched on briefly in §§23-25. He starts here by noting that this current work (‘Investigations’) could be criticised for failing to provide a definition of just what language is, what the essence of a language game or language is; but we will see that there is no one thing in common, but a series of overlapping relationships which gives language it’s form.


  1. Consider for example the proceedings that we call “games”. I mean board-games, 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 disappear.

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.

ND – 66. When we look at a variety of games from ‘ring around the rosie’ to Olympic games or card games, we find a criss-crossing and over-lapping of similarities and differences, but no one thing that is common to them all, other than the word ‘game’ – so too with language.


  1. I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances”; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way. — And I shall say: ‘games’ form a family.

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.

But if someone wished to say: “There is something common to all these constructions — namely the disjunction of all their common properties” — I should reply: Now you are only playing with words. One might as well say: “Something runs through the whole thread — namely the continuous overlapping of those fibres”.

ND – 67. As with what is today called “fuzzy logic” these criss-crossing and over-lapping of similarities and differences, with no one feature in common to all, can perhaps best be called “family resemblances”. Wittgenstein’s ‘family resemblances’ replaces Plato’s ‘essences’ – and so we start to see that all sorts of words suggest a ‘family resemblance’ – e.g the word ‘food’ (like ‘number’ above) could include wax food as well as rotten food, there is no one single feature. Try finding the essence of “good”; or “thought”; or “language”, or as he suggests here “number”.


  1. “All right: the concept of number is defined for you as the logical sum of these individual interrelated concepts: cardinal numbers, rational numbers, real numbers, etc.; and in the same way the concept of a game as the logical sum of a corresponding set of sub-concepts.” — It need not be so. For I can give the concept ‘number’ rigid limits in this way, that is, use the word “number” for a rigidly limited concept, but I can also use it so that the extension of the concept is not closed by a frontier. And this is how we do use the word “game”. For how is the concept of a game bounded? What still counts as a game and what no longer does? Can you give the boundary? No. You can draw one; for none has so far been drawn. (But that never troubled you before when you used the word “game”.)

“But then the use of the word is unregulated, the ‘game’ we play with it is unregulated.” — It is not everywhere circumscribed by rules; but no more are there any rules for how high one throws the ball in tennis, or how hard; yet tennis is a game for all that and has rules too.

ND – 68. It could be objected that just as the word ‘number’ can be used to refer to the collection of subsets that include rationale numbers, cardinal numbers, real numbers, etc., so too could the term ‘games’ be bounded in a similar manner; but games cannot be completely bounded in rules, just as in tennis there are no rules as to how high or hard one throws the ball. The desire to bound every last detail in rules is a legacy of atomism (a grammatical error!). “It ain’t cricket!” I hear you cry.


  1. How should we explain to someone what a game is? I imagine that we should describe games to him, and we might add: “This and similar things are called ‘games’ “. And do we know any more about it ourselves? Is it only other people whom we cannot tell exactly what a game is. — But this is not ignorance. We do not know the boundaries because none have been drawn. To repeat, we can draw a boundary — for a special purpose. Does it take that to make the concept usable? Not at all! (Except for that special purpose.) No more than it took the definition: 1 pace = 75 cm. to make the measure of length ‘one pace’ usable. And if you want to say “But still, before that it wasn’t an exact measure”, then I reply: very well, it was an inexact one. — Though you still owe me a definition of exactness.

Footnote: [Someone says to me: “Shew the children a game.” I teach them gaming with dice, and the other says “I didn’t mean that sort of game.” Must the exclusion of the game with dice have come before his mind when he gave me the order?]

ND – 69. We use the word ‘game’ without having an exact sense of ‘boundedness’ for the term, although we could give it one like we did for ‘pace’ (= 75cms); but this would make the term no more useable (except for the special purpose we drew the boundary for). The grammatical error Augustunian thought leads us into is in thinking that these concepts can be tied down tightly.


  1. “But if the concept ‘game’ is uncircumscribed like that, you don’t really know what you mean by a ‘game’.” — When I give the description: “The ground was quite covered with plants” — do you want to say I don’t know what I am talking about until I can give a definition of a plant?

My meaning would be explained by, say, a drawing and the words “The ground looked roughly like this”. Perhaps I even say “it looked exactly like this.” — Then were just this grass and these leaves there, arranged just like this? No, that is not what it means. And I should not accept any picture as exact in this sense.

ND – 70. The grammar of Augustine leads us at times into thinking that a concept needs to be sharply defined or bounded before we can understand each other, but don’t rough ideas and broad generalizations often provide us with an exact idea of what the other meant?


  1. One might say that the concept ‘game’ is a concept with blurred edges. — “But is a blurred concept a concept at all?” — Is an indistinct photograph a picture of a person at all? Is it even always an advantage to replace an indistinct picture by a sharp one? Isn’t the indistinct one often exactly what we need?

Frege compares a concept to an area and says that an area with vague boundaries cannot be called an area at all. This presumably means that we cannot do anything with it. — But is it senseless to say: “Stand roughly there”? Suppose that I were standing with someone in a city square and said that. As I say it I do not draw any kind of boundary, but perhaps point with my hand — as if I were indicating a particular spot. And this is just how one might explain to someone what a game is. One gives examples and intends them to be taken in a particular way. — I do not, however, mean by this that he is supposed to see in those examples that common thing which I — for some reason — was unable to express; but that he is now to employ those examples in a particular way. Here giving examples is not an indirect means of explaining — in default of a better. For any general definition can be misunderstood too. The point is that this is how we play the game. (I mean the language-game with the word “game”.)

ND – 71. Don’t we frequently use rough ideas (‘stand about there for the photograph’) and broad generalizations to achieve things in language, and we know we are successful when we witness the other employ these examples in a particular way; and this hasn’t required sharply defined concepts has it? These examples can also be thought of as flexible “paris meters”, for they act to prepare a place and set up the language games we wish to play.


  1. Seeing what is common. Suppose I shew someone various multi-coloured pictures, and say: “The colour you see in all these is called ‘yellow ochre’ “. — This is a definition, and the other will get to understand it by looking for and seeing what is common to the pictures. Then he can look at, can point to, the common thing.

Compare with this a case in which I shew him figures of different shapes all painted the same colour, and say: “What these have in common is called ‘yellow ochre’ “.

And compare this case: I shew him samples of different shades of blue and say: “The colour that is common to all these is what I call ‘blue’ “.

ND – 72. Although it may seem that we are learning concepts primarily through ostensive definition (pointing and naming), we are doing so only through entering into tacit or unspoken agreements with each other to direct our attention in particular ways, to look for particular similarities and differences; for example we agree to look in a different way when we are looking for what’s common amongst various samples of different shades of a particular colour than when we are looking for the common feature of a particular colour amongst many competing ones. We are being taught how this or that word is used.


  1. When someone defines the names of colours for me by pointing to samples and saying “This colour is called ‘blue’, this ‘green’ ….. ” this case can be compared in many respects to putting a table in my hands, with the words written under the colour-samples. — Though this comparison may mislead in many ways. — One is now inclined to extend the comparison: to have understood the definition means to have in one’s mind an idea of the thing defined, and that is a sample or picture. So if I am shewn various different leaves and told “This is called a ‘leaf’ “, I get an idea of the shape of a leaf, a picture of it in my mind. — But what does the picture of a leaf look like when it does not shew us any particular shape, but ‘what is common to all shapes of leaf’? Which shade is the ‘sample in my mind’ of the colour green — the sample of what is common to all shades of green?

“But might there not be such ‘general’ samples? Say a schematic leaf, or a sample of pure green?” — Certainly there might. But for such a schema to be understood as a schema, and not as the shape of a particular leaf, and for a slip of pure green to be understood as a sample of all that is greenish and not as a sample of pure green — this in turn resides in the way the samples are used.

Ask yourself: what shape must the sample of the colour green be? Should it be rectangular? Or would it then be the sample of a green rectangle? — So should it be ‘irregular’ in shape? And what is to prevent us then from regarding it — that is, from using it — only as a sample of irregularity of shape?

ND – 73. Even if a particular schematic example of a leaf was held as the model of ‘leafiness’ it is only a model to the degree we have reached an agreement to call it one; and when pointing to a colour and naming it how do we know that the colour and not the shape of the object is being pointed to; again only because a prior agreement has been made to look for colour and not shape; and these agreements can be called ‘preparing a place’ for ostensive definitions. Imagine teaching an infant colours; how do you coach the child to see you are pointing to colours and not shapes. We have to know what game is being played here first.


  1. Here also belongs the idea that if you see this leaf as a sample of ‘leaf shape in general’ you see it differently from someone who regards it as, say, a sample of this particular shape. Now this might well be so — though it is not so — for it would only be to say that, as a matter of experience, if you see the leaf in a particular way, you use it in such-and-such a way or according to such-and-such rules. Of course, there is such a thing as seeing in this way or that; and there are also cases where whoever sees a sample like this will in general use it in this way, and whoever sees it otherwise in another way. For example, if you see the schematic drawing of a cube as a plane figure consisting of a square and two rhombi you will, perhaps, carry out the order “Bring me something like this” differently from someone who sees the picture three-dimensionally.

ND – 74. If you see a sample of a drawing which looks like a Canadian Maple leaf to you then you will fetch something different from me who views this same drawing as an example of frog’s or duck feet – we may each have different ‘rules’ or ‘agreements’ or ‘contexts’ that we view the same concept or word in.


  1. What does it mean to know what a game is? What does it mean, to know it and not be able to say it? Is this knowledge somehow equivalent to an unformulated definition? So that if it were formulated I should be able to recognize it as the expression of my knowledge? Isn’t my knowledge, my concept of a game, completely expressed in the explanations that I could give? That is, in my describing examples of various kinds of game; shewing how all sorts of other games can be constructed on the analogy of these; saying that I should scarcely include this or this among games; and so on.

ND – 75. We all seem to know what a ‘game’ is although we cannot say what it is; but we can show people that we have this knowledge by demonstrating examples of it’s use: knowledge lies in the demonstrated use of the word and not in a formula defining it (or as the Zen analogy has it – when the centipede stopped to count his feet he froze). (see also 78 below.) Or what about aesthetics/ethics, that was so important in the Tractatus – something I know when I see it but struggle to say, or can’t say it?


  1. If someone were to draw a sharp boundary I could not acknowledge it as the one that I too always wanted to draw, or had drawn in my mind. For I did not want to draw one at all. His concept can then be said to be not the same as mine, but akin to it. The kinship is that of two pictures, one of which consists of colour patches with vague contours, and the other of patches similarly shaped and distributed, but with clear contours. The kinship is just as undeniable as the difference.

ND – 76. If someone was to draw sharper boundaries to a picture (concept) which only had vague contours for me, they may place those boundaries in a different place than I (I may not want to define the concept any further) – think of the idea of ‘good’. I see this occurring a great deal in the philosophy of ethics where there is a family resemblance amongst various writers.


  1. And if we carry this comparison still further it is clear that the degree to which the sharp picture can resemble the blurred one depends on the latter’s degree of vagueness. For imagine having to sketch a sharply defined picture ‘corresponding’ to a blurred one. In the latter there is a blurred red rectangle: for it you put down a sharply defined one. Of course — several such sharply defined rectangles can be drawn to correspond to the indefinite one. — But if the colours in the original merge without a hint of any outline won’t it become a hopeless task to draw a sharp picture corresponding to the blurred one? Won’t you then have to say: “Here I might just as well draw a circle or heart as a rectangle, for all the colours merge. Anything — and nothing — is right.” And this is the position you are in if you look for definitions corresponding to our concepts in aesthetics or ethics.

In such a difficulty always ask yourself: How did we learn the meaning of this word (“good” for instance)? From what sort of examples? in what language-games? Then it will be easier for you to see that the word must have a family of meanings.

ND – 77. When we contemplate the learning of concepts like ‘good’ we recognise that we have learnt it from use in various language games, and having emerged from out of those language games it seems to have an ‘independent existence’, to be a ‘thing-in-itself’; and appearing to be a ‘thing-in-itself’ we are drawn to go searching within it for it’s esssence; and we do that at the cost of losing sight of it’s contextualness, and no longer recognise that it is an aspect of the eco-system. But when we focus on it’s context of use we begin to recognise it has a family resemblance, rather than sharp boundaries. Wittgenstein got into some arguments with potential publishers of the Tractatus, when he told them that the most important things, aesthetics and ethics (which are the same) are not in the book, but its what the book is about.


  1. Compare knowing and saying:

how many feet high Mont Blanc is —

how the word “game” is used —

how a clarinet sounds.


If you are surprised that one can know something and not be able to say it, you are perhaps thinking of a case like the first. Certainly not of one like the third.

ND – 78. When we compare ‘knowing’ and ‘saying’ we find that there is a vast array of things we know but can’t say, like the smell of coffee, riding a bicycle, the sound of a clarinet, how the word ‘game’ is used; and probably far less than we imagined things we know and can say, such as the height of a particular mountain we know. This being the case why have the social sciences in particular focused so much on the saying and ignored the knowing without being able to say? The reader is encouraged to look at Wittgensteinian scholar John Shotter’s work on ‘know how’ and ‘know that’, and even ‘know from’. Perceptual knowledge (clarinet sound) is quite different from conceptual knowledge (the height of Mont Blanc); and is prized in a non-literate culture and undervalued in a literate one.


  1. Consider this example. If one says “Moses did not exist”, this may mean various things. It may mean: the Israelites did not have a single leader when they withdrew from Egypt — or: their leader was not called Moses — or. there cannot have been anyone who accomplished all that the Bible relates of Moses — or: etc. etc. — We may say, following Russell: the name “Moses” can be defined by means of various descriptions. For example, as “the man who led the Israelites through the wilderness”, “the man who lived at that time and place and was then called ‘Moses’ “, “the man who as a child was taken out of the Nile by Pharaoh’s daughter” and so on. And according as we assume one definition or another the proposition “Moses did not exist” acquires a different sense, and so does every other proposition about Moses. — And if we are told “N did not exist”, we do ask: “What do you mean? Do you want to say …… or …… etc.?”

But when I make a statement about Moses, — am I always ready to substitute some one of these descriptions for “Moses”? I shall perhaps say — By “Moses” I understand the man who did what the Bible relates of Moses, or at any rate a good deal of it. But how much? Have I decided how much must be proved false for me to give up my proposition as false? Has the name “Moses” got a fixed and unequivocal use for me in all possible cases? — Is it not the case that I have, so to speak, a whole series of props in readiness, and am ready to lean on one if another should be taken from under me and vice versa? Consider another case. When I say “N is dead”, then something like the following may hold for the meaning of the name “N”: I believe that a human being has lived, whom I (1) have seen in such-and-such places, who (2) looked like this (pictures), (3) has done such-and-such things, and (4) bore the name “N” in social life. — Asked what I understand by “N”, I should enumerate all or some of these points, and different ones on different occasions. So my definition of “N” would perhaps be “the man of whom all this is true”. — But if some point now proves false? — Shall I be prepared to declare the proposition “N is dead” false — even if it is only something which strikes me as incidental that has turned out false? But where are the bounds of the incidental? – If I had given a definition of the name in such a case, I should now be ready to alter it.

And this can be expressed like this: I use the name “N” without a fixed meaning. (But that detracts as little from its usefulness, as it detracts from that of a table that it stands on four legs instead of three and so sometimes wobbles.)

Should it be said that I am using a word whose meaning I don’t know, and so am talking nonsense? — Say what you choose, so long as it does not prevent you from seeing the facts. (And when you see them there is a good deal that you will not say.)

(The fluctuation of scientific definitions: what to-day counts as a observed concomitant of a phenomenon will to-morrow be used to define it.)

ND – 79. Words gain their meaning through agreements on how they will be used, but sometimes these agreements are not clear, but this does not always prevent us from using them. As we noted in §49 and §50 naming stems from agreements to divide the world up in a particular way; even in less than precise ways, as we see here. And having done so, the description and naming confusions, mentioned in §49, begin to “construct realities”.


  1. I say “There is a chair”. What if I go up to it, meaning to fetch it, and it suddenly disappears from sight.? –“So it wasn’t a chair, but some kind of illusion”. — But in a few moments we see it again and are able to touch it and so on. — “So the chair was there after all and its disappearance was some kind of illusion”. — But suppose that after a time it disappears again — or seems to disappear. What are we to say now? Have you rules ready for such cases — rules saying whether one may use the word “chair” to include this kind of thing? But do we miss them when we use the word “chair”; and are we to say that we do not really attach any meaning to this word, because we are not equipped with rules for every possible application of it?

ND – 80. The agreements (call them ‘rules’ if you will) we make on how to use words are never completely precise, and tend to be provisional; for example that document is too thin to be called a book and too thick to call it a pamphlet – call it what you like so long as you see the ambiguity here. Frequently we do not notice just how imprecise the rules (agreements) are, and only notice this when some unusual situation arises, and the ‘rules’ seem to disappear on us. Think of switching value logic (e.g. i=√-1) as an example of something coming and going – we developed new rules for this.


  1. F. P. Ramsey once emphasized in conversation with me that logic was a ‘normative science’. I do not know exactly what he had in mind, but it was doubtless closely related to what only dawned on me later: namely, that in philosophy we often compare the use of words with games and calculi which have fixed rules, but cannot say that someone who is using language must be playing such a game. — But if you say that our languages only approximate to such calculi you are standing on the very brink of a misunderstanding. For then it may look as if what we were talking about were an ideal language. As if our logic were, so to speak, a logic for a vacuum. — Whereas logic does not treat of language — or of thought — in the sense in which a natural science treats of a natural phenomenon, and the most that can be said is that we construct ideal languages. But here the word “ideal” is liable to mislead, for it sounds as if these languages were better, more perfect, than our everyday language; and as if it took the logician to shew people at last what a proper sentence looked like.

All this, however, can only appear in the right light when one has attained greater clarity about the concepts of understanding, meaning, and thinking. For it will then also become clear what can lead us (and did lead me) to think that if anyone utters a sentence and means or understands it he is operating a calculus according to definite rules.

ND – 81. Philosophers have made an error in thinking that language can be interpreted by a model of formal logic, with it’s fixed meanings and rules: the mistake is the assumption that natural language is an approximation to formal logic, for this assumption leads us to think that we can appeal to logicians to improve our language to have us talking more “correctly”. He is saying he made this error with the Tractatus.


  1. What do I call ‘the rule by which he proceeds’? — The hypothesis that satisfactorily describes his use of words, which we observe; or the rule which he looks up when he uses signs; or the one which he gives us in reply if we ask him what his rule is? — But what if observation does not enable us to see any clear rule, and the question brings none to light? — For he did indeed give me a definition when I asked him what he understood by “N”, but he was prepared to withdraw and alter it. — So how am I to determine the rule according to which he is playing? He does not know it himself. — Or, to ask a better question: What meaning is the expression “the rule by which he proceeds” supposed to have left to it here?

ND – 82. Because we can sometimes articulate a rule we were following when engaging in some regularity, such as in playing chess, we all too readily jump to the conclusion that regularity is the following of rules; but why can’t there be regularity without the following of rules? Look back at §78 where we discussed the difference between saying and knowing. See Leudar & Costall (2009) ‘Against Theory of Mind’ which shows we socially navigate not by a set of internalized rules.


  1. Doesn’t the analogy between language and games throw light here? We can easily imagine people amusing themselves in a field by playing with a ball so as to start various existing games, but playing many without finishing them and in between throwing the ball aimlessly into the air, chasing one another with the ball and bombarding one another for a joke and so on. And now someone says: The whole time they are playing a ball-game and following definite rules at every throw.

And is there not also the case where we play and — make up the rules as we go along? And there is even one where we alter them — as we go along.

ND – 83. It is possible to draw an analogy between people playing with a ball in a field and language, such that in both games there are times when they are following definite rules, but there are also times when they are making up the rules or changing them or mixing them up as they go along. The rules do not confine every movement, and just as there are no rules to say how high a tennis player tosses a ball in serving (§68); so too can we in language (metaphorically) throw balls in the air by making up words and meanings as we proceed.


  1. I said that the application of a word is not everywhere bounded by rules. But what does a game look like that is everywhere bounded by rules? whose rules never let a doubt creep in, but stop up all the cracks where it might? — Can’t we imagine a rule determining the application of a rule, and a doubt which it removes — and so on?

But that is not to say that we are in doubt because it is possible for us to imagine a doubt. I can easily imagine someone always doubting before he opened his front door whether an abyss did not yawn behind it, and making sure about it before he went through the door (and he might on some occasion prove to be right) — but that does not make me doubt in the same case.

ND – 84. It is not a requirement of games that they be everywhere bounded by rules, which shows that they can be played without being tightly bound by rules. We might imagine ourselves making up rules to fill the apparent gaps in the rules or agreements we enter into with each other in playing language games, but it will always be possible to imagine other gaps.


  1. A rule stands there like a sign-post. — Does the sign-post leave no doubt open about the way I have to go? Does it shew which direction I am to take when I have passed it; whether along the road or the footpath or cross-country? But where is it said which way I am to follow it; whether in the direction of its finger or (e.g.) in the opposite one? — And if there were, not a single sign-post, but a chain of adjacent ones or of chalk marks on the ground — is there only one way of interpreting them? — So I can say, the sign-post does after all leave no room for doubt. Or rather: it sometimes leaves room for doubt and sometimes not. And now this is no longer a philosophical proposition, but an empirical one.

ND – 85. Even with the tightest of rules, there is space for interpretation – for example we admire the pianist’s interpretation of Beethoven’s 5th. As we saw in §75 if we do know what the sign-post (or ‘rule’ or ‘agreement’ in our language game) intends we can demonstrate that ‘knowing’ by giving expression to various examples; and thereby show empirically that for which there is no doubt.


  1. Imagine a language-game like (2) played with the help of a table. The signs given to B by A are now written ones. B has a table, in the first column are the signs used in the game, in the second pictures of building stones. A shews B such a written sign; B looks it up in the table, looks at the picture opposite, and so on. So the table is a rule which he follows in executing orders. — One learns to look the picture up in the table by receiving a training, and part of this training consists perhaps in the pupil’s learning to pass with his finger horizontally from left to right; and so, as it were, to draw a series of horizontal lines on the table.

Suppose different ways of reading a table were now introduced; one time, as above, according to the schema:




another time like this:



or in some other way.




— Such a schema is supplied with the table as the rule for its use.

Can we not now imagine further rules to explain this one? And, on the other hand, was that first table incomplete without the schema of arrows? And are other tables incomplete without their schemata?

schema3ND – 86. Hidden from view are the years of training that lead us to interpret any rules in a particular way – and these often only become apparent when we teach the game to a child. A “place was prepared” by the training so that most of us do not need the arrows in the first schema; this only becomes obvious perhaps, when we start showing other possibilities. Lois Shawver’s shows this by having us imagine the builders in §2 with a table –


…and now adding arrows –





…but also allowing for a schema where the name and the object are not horizontally aligned –






Can we not imagine further rules, how you hold your tongue when reading the table? Or in the other direction, was the first table above incomplete without the arrows?

  1. Suppose I give this explanation: “I take ‘Moses’ to mean the man, if there was such a man, who led the Israelites out of Egypt, whatever he was called then and whatever he may or may not have done besides.” — But similar doubts to those about “Moses” are possible about the words of this explanation (what are you calling “Egypt”, whom the “Israelites” etc.?). Nor would these questions come to an end when we got down to words like “red”, “dark”, “sweet”. “But then how does an explanation help me to understand, if after all it is not the final one? In that case the explanation is never completed; so I still don’t understand what he means, and never shall!” — As though an explanation as it were hung in the air unless supported by another one. Whereas an explanation may indeed rest on another one that has been given, but none stands in need of another — unless we require it to prevent a misunderstanding. One might say: an explanation serves to remove or to avert a misunderstanding —- one, that is, that would occur but for the explanation; not every one that I can imagine.

It may easily look as if every doubt merely revealed an existing gap in the foundations; so that secure understanding is only possible if we first doubt everything that can be doubted, and then remove all these doubts.

The sign-post is in order — if, under normal circumstances, it fulfills its purpose.

ND – 87. Even if we make a rule to reduce misunderstanding about a particular word or phrase, there is no guarantee that rule also will not result in some further misunderstanding – there is no way to get certainty that we are talking about the same thing by further defining a word. Cartesian science operates on the basis of systematic doubt to arrive at certainties; certainty isn’t to found in this way. There is a book, published posthumously called ‘On Certainty’ that contains numerous Wittgenstein aphorisms on this. Explanations can go on forever, but if you understand what is being said then no explanation is necessary. There is a know-how knowledge that is being achieved here; once you start using the word ‘Moses’ in a way we both agree to use it we can go on. The sign post is in order as we have reached a customary way of using it – the usual custom is not to take the dent in the tail of the arrow as the direction to go in.


  1. If I tell someone “Stand roughly here”– may not this explanation work perfectly? And cannot every other one fail too?

But isn’t it an inexact explanation? — Yes; why shouldn’t we call it “inexact”? Only let us understand what “inexact” means. For it does not mean “unusable”. And let us consider what we call an “exact” explanation in contrast with this one. Perhaps something like drawing a chalk line round an area? Here it strikes us at once that the line has breadth. So a colour-edge would be more exact. But has this exactness still got a function here: isn’t the engine idling? And remember too that we have not yet defined what is to count as overstepping this exact boundary; how, with what instruments, it is to be established. And so on.

We understand what it means to set a pocket watch to the exact time or to regulate it to be exact. But what if it were asked: is this exactness ideal exactness, or how nearly does it approach the ideal? — Of course, we can speak of measurements of time in which there is a different and as we should say a greater, exactness than in the measurement of time by a pocket-watch; in which the words “to set the clock to the exact time” have a different, though related meaning, and ‘to tell the time’ is a different process and so on. — Now, if I tell someone: “You should come to dinner more punctually; you know it begins at one o’clock exactly” — is there really no question of exactness here? because it is possible to say: “Think of the determination of time in the laboratory or the observatory; there you see what ‘exactness’ means”?

“Inexact” is really a reproach, and “exact” is praise. And that is to say that what is inexact attains its goal less perfectly than what is more exact. Thus the point here is what we call “the goal”. Am I inexact when I do not give our distance from the sun to the nearest foot, or tell a joiner the width of a table to the nearest thousandth of an inch?

No single ideal of exactness has been laid down; we do not know what we should be supposed to imagine under this head – unless you yourself lay down what is to be so called. But you will find it difficult to hit upon such a convention; at least any that satisfies you.

ND – 88. As a culture we have a love affair with precision, but adding more detail or rules is often unnecessary to getting the task done or for understanding to occur.


  1. These considerations bring us up to the problem: In what sense is logic something sublime?

For there seemed to pertain to logic a peculiar depth — a universal significance. Logic lay, it seemed, at the bottom of all the sciences. — For logical investigation explores the nature of all things. It seeks to see to the bottom of things and is not meant to concern itself whether what actually happens is this or that. — It takes its rise, not from an interest-in the facts of nature, nor from a need to grasp cause connexions: but from an urge to understand the basis, or essence, of everything empirical. Not, however, as if to this end we had to hunt out new facts; it is, rather, of the essence of our investigation that we do not seek to learn anything new by it. We want to understand something that is already in plain view. For this is what we seem in some senses not to understand.

Augustine says in the Confessions “quid est ergo tempus? si nemo ex me quaerat scio; si quaerenti explicare velim, nescio”. — This could not be said about a question of natural science (“What is the specific gravity of hydrogen?” for instance). Something that we know when no one asks us, but no longer know when we are supposed to give an account of it, is something that we need to remind ourselves of. (And it is obviously something of which for some reason it is difficult to remind oneself.)

ND – 89. The idea runs deep in our culture that nature follows rules or principles, and if we could figure out the underlying rules then we could understand everything. [The Rule-Following Paradox.] A grand theory of everything, the logic that seems just out of our grasp but we seem to glimpse flashes of it here and there, so sublime. Newton said he had just found a shiny pebble or prettier shell, whilst a great ocean of truth awaits discovery all about. Augustine approached the sublime by citing time as an example: “What therefore is time? If you don’t ask me, I know – if you ask me, I don’t know.” We’d thought that with logic we would expose the hidden ‘truth’ or ‘essence’ of things like ‘time’ or ‘intelligence’. But we have seen here that if there are misunderstandings about such matters our clarity comes from finding the context the term is being used in rather than seeking an underlying “logically true” meaning.


  1. We feel as if we had to penetrate phenomena: our investigation, however, is directed not towards phenomena, but, as one might say, towards the ‘possibilities‘ of phenomena. We remind ourselves, that is to say, of the kind of statement that we make about phenomena. Thus Augustine recalls to mind the different statements that are made about the duration, past present or future, of events. (These are, of course, not philosophical statements about time, the past, the present and the future.)

Our investigation is therefore a grammatical one. Such an investigation sheds light on our problem by clearing misunderstandings away. Misunderstandings concerning the use of words, caused, among other things, by certain analogies between the forms of expression in different regions of language. — Some of them can be removed by substituting one form of expression for another; this may be called an “analysis” of our forms of expression, for the process is sometimes like one of taking a thing apart.

ND – 90. Typically, instead of looking to see what is going on when we use these terms (e.g. ‘time’, ‘intelligence’, etc) which might enable us to see more clearly the context the term is being used in; we extract the term from it’s context and then make speculative hypotheses or imaginations about the term (e.g. “have you noticed how fast time goes when you’re having fun?”) as we attempt to penetrate the ‘logic’ of the phenomena. But our investigations here are more grammatical, in the sense that misunderstandings are removed when we understand the context of use; and this sometimes happens when we can replace one term or expression (which is causing confusion or misunderstanding) with another (e.g. “funny” with “peculiar” if we don’t mean humerous). This taking language apart and seeing how one term can be replaced by another, rather than searching for the underlying essence, can be called an ‘analysis’ of our forms of expression. If we clear up the grammatical confusions on how we are using a word, say time, we may then be able to sit quietly, just looking. “Don’t think, but look!” (PI §66).


  1. But now it may come to look as if there were something like a final analysis of our forms of language, and so a single completely resolved form of every expression. That is, as if our usual forms of expression were, essentially, unanalysed; as if there were something hidden in them that had to be brought to light. When this is done the expression is completely clarified and our problem solved.

It can also be put like this: we eliminate misunderstandings by making our expressions more exact; but now it may look as if we were moving towards a particular state, a state of complete exactness; and as if this were the real goal of our investigation.

ND – 91. Don’t be fooled by this notion of ‘analysis’ into thinking that there is an end task. Just as the pre-Wittgensteinian goal of “logic” was to discover the true essence of all phenomena; there is a lure in thinking that the goal of our investigations is to now find the ‘essences’ of phenomena by removing all ambiguity or misunderstandings about how a term or phrase is being used, and thus reveal or bring to light an exact meaning for all time. There is a useful interview, conducted by David Peat, with Werner Heisenberg on physics, philosophy, and biology (currently found with the google search ‘Wittgenstein + Quantum’) where Heisenberg says he prefers PI to the Tractatus. He says we don’t know if the idea of words having a precise meaning (as the Tractatus claimed) fits reality; when we use words like position or velocity we cannot know how far these words take us. Later in that interview, Heisenberg says he doesn’t know what the words ‘fundamental reality’ means; if by that we mean a reality that can be captured (represented) in words.


  1. This finds expression in questions as to the essence of language, of propositions, of thought. — For if we too in these investigations are trying to understand the essence of language — its function, its structure, — yet this is not what those questions have in view. For they see in the essence, not something that already lies open to view and that becomes surveyable by a rearrangement, but something that lies beneath the surface. Something that lies within, which we see when we look into the thing, and which an analysis digs out.

The essence is hidden from us‘: this is the form our problem now assumes. We ask: “What is language?”, “What is a proposition?” And the answer to these questions is to be given once for all; and independently of any future experience.

ND – 92. Back in §81 Wittgenstein referred to Ramsey’s comment that logic (and by inference the study of language) was a “normative science”, suggesting that the task was to search for the exact ‘essence’ or the ‘true meaning’ of phrases, and that once ‘dis-covered’ would remain so for eternity. But we (Witt.) are not interested in digging out what is beneath the surface, but in seeing various ways a phrase might be read or used, in the full recognition, as we saw in §83, that games do not always have fixed rules, and players can change them as they play. Previously (to PI) philosophy (including the Tractatus) went about the search for the essence of language in the wrong way; like the sciences it tried to penetrate beneath the surface to see what makes it tick (as if ‘the essence is hidden from us’), but the method here (in PI) is to take an overview, to see language as a whole, to see how it works in everyday life. If we take a word like ‘knowledge’, and remove it from its context in everyday speech, like say a physicist would do with the word ‘electron”, and then it starts to appear increasingly mysterious to us, especially the more we study it; but when we pull out of this dive into some sort of search for a metaphysical “true” meaning, and study its everyday use, we gain clarity, and may even see different ways the same word (including ‘knowledge’) is employed in different language games. Later in PI we get to see how new language games come into existence, first as an expression, “wow’, “ouch” and then later refined into more descriptive forms.


  1. One person might say “A proposition is the most ordinary thing in the world” and another: “A proposition — that’s something very queer!” — And the latter is unable simply to look and see how propositions really work. The forms that we use in expressing ourselves about propositions and thought stand in his way.

Why do we say a proposition is something remarkable? On the one hand, because of the enormous importance attaching to it. (And that is correct). On the other hand this, together with a misunderstanding of the logic of language, seduces us into thinking that something extraordinary, something unique, must be achieved by propositions. — A misunderstanding makes it look to us as if a propositions did something queer.

ND – 93. If we are seduced by the illusion that words and phrases contain hidden essences we start struggling to undestand how language can work, and so it appears very strange. We might be led into thinking that the form propositions take, for example, are fixed for all time. But when we utilise this method of comparative analysis that has us looking at what we can see (e.g. asking what would happen if we used this word rather than that one, etc), and not hidden essences, we do not lose sight of the context of application; and thus can see how language is working, which does not seem so strange. “Slab”.


  1. ‘A proposition is a queer thing!’ Here we have in germ the subliming of our whole account of logic. The tendency to assume a pure intermediary between the propositional signs and the facts. Or even to try to purify, to sublime, the signs themselves. — For our forms of expression prevent us in all sorts of ways from seeing that nothing out of the ordinary is involved, by sending us in pursuit of chimeras.

ND – 94. The traditional or Augustinian account of language suggests to us that words represent pure ‘essences’, or that propositions have a fixed (or eternal) form; and we are seduced into searching for these intermediary chimeras or ‘ghosts’ when we are asked how language works; imagining that perhaps we can see past the word or sign itself and stare at the “pure form” it (supposedly) represents. We are seduced by this cultural notion that words contain their meanings within them, and so language is “sublimed” as we endeavour to find the meanings in absence of the context of use. This seduction distracts us from the non-queerness of language.


  1. “Thought must be something unique”. When we say, and mean, that such-and-such is the case, we — and our meaning — do not stop anywhere short of the fact; but we mean: this — is — so. But this paradox (which has the form of a truism) can also be expressed in this way: Thought can be of what is not the case.

ND – 95. When I say “it is raining” I am saying it directly and there is nothing between my statement and the world, no ghostly sublime meaning that we need to pass through for understanding to occur. This becomes apparent when we realise that we can express the same meaning by saying what is not the case (“it is not a fine day here”). If language and thought depended on representation then how was Sartre able to write so much on “nothingness”?


  1. Other illusions come from various quarters to attach themselves to the special one spoken of here. Thought, language, now appear to us as the unique correlate, picture, of the world. These concepts proposition, language, thought, world, stand in line one behind the other, each equivalent to each. (But what are these words to be used for now? The language-game in which they are to be applied is missing.)

ND – 96. Divorced from their context of use words like ‘good’, ‘energy’, ‘God’, ‘nothingness’, etc., seem to us to require a correlate, a picture, a Platonic ‘ideal’, which they represent. When we reflect upon the indeterminism or vagueness of these terms they appear “queer”, and this ‘queerness’ lures us into thinking there must be a unique and eternal meaning. And in turn we are drawn into thinking that the propositions in which these phrases or words are used have some fixed or rule governed eternal form which can be ‘divined’ by logical reasoning. And in turn we are lured into thinking that if we discover such a logical structure we will have advanced our knowledge about the world.


  1. Thought is surrounded by a halo. — Its essence, logic, presents an order, in fact the a priori order of the world: that is, the order of possibilities, which must be common to both world and thought. But this order, it seems, must be utterly simple. It is prior to all experience, must run through all experience; no empirical cloudiness or uncertainty can be allowed to affect it — It must rather be of the purest crystal. But this crystal does not appear as an abstraction; but as something concrete, indeed, as the most concrete, as it were the hardest thing there is (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus No. 5.5563).

We are under the illusion that what is peculiar, profound, essential, in our investigation, resides in its trying to grasp the incomparable essence of language. That is, the order existing between the concepts of proposition, word, proof, truth, experience, and so on. This order is a super-order between — so to speak — super-concepts. Whereas, of course, if the words “language”, “experience”, “world”, have a use, it must be as humble a one as that of the words “table”, “lamp”, “door”.

ND – 97. This aphorism refers to section 5 of Tractatus, and the illusion that there is “something like a final analysis of our forms of language, and so a single completely resolved form of every expression” (§91 above). In §5.4711 of the Tract. he wrote: “To give the essence of a proposition means to give the essence of all description, and thus the essence of the world”; and in §5.511 he refers to this Platonic realm as “the great mirror”, and being prior to the world can’t be influenced by the world. §5.557 “The application of logic decides what elementary propositions there are. What belongs to its application, logic cannot anticipate. It is clear that logic must not clash with its application. But logic has to be in contact with its application. Therefore logic and its application must not overlap.” Which lead us to §5.5563 (which he refers to here in PI §97) “In fact, all the propositions of our everyday language, just as they stand, are in perfect logical order.–That utterly simple thing, which we have to formulate here, is not a likeness of the truth, but the truth itself in its entirety. (Our problems are not abstract, but perhaps the most concrete that there are.)” In other words it was thought that the order of language and thought mirrored the ordering process of the world, both were ‘governed’ by the same ‘laws’. This elusive pure crystal (Truth with a capital “T”) appears to lie just between “the concepts of proposition, word, proof, truth, experience, and so on” (“This order is a super-order between — so to speak — super-concepts”). It may be more useful to regard logic as simply the rules for the use of words (like the rules of chess); rather than as a reflection of the ordering process of the universe itself. When we are not under this illusion that logic is a super-order, then terms “language”, “experience”, “world” have just as humble a use as “table”, “lamp” or “door”.


  1. On the one hand it is clear that every sentence in our language ‘is in order as it is’. That is to say, we are not striving after an ideal, as if our ordinary vague sentences had not yet got a quite unexceptionable sense, and a perfect language awaited construction by us. — On the other hand it seems clear that where there is sense there must be perfect order. — So there must be perfect order even in the vaguest sentence.

ND – 98. We could be enticed into thinking that the task of philosophy is to make language more precise and to remove all vagueness; that philosophy’s task is to construct the perfect language – the language of logic. But in everyday life there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the use of vague sentences, such that exact sentences are superior. They have a perfect order in themselves. A sentence which may appear extremely vague when presented in isolation gets things done perfectly when the users of the language are familiar with the context of application. We need to drop the idea that the task of philosophy and language was to produce the perfect picture of the world; but this doesn’t prevent us seeking a perspicuous (clear) view.


  1. The sense of a sentence — one would like to say — may, of course, leave this or that open, but the sentence must nevertheless have a definite sense. An indefinite sense — that would really not be a sense at all. — This is like: An indefinite boundary is not really a boundary at all. Here one thinks perhaps: if I say “I have locked the man up fast in the room — there is only one door left open” — then I simply haven’t locked him in at all; his being locked in is a sham. One would be inclined to say here: “You haven’t done anything at all”. An enclosure with a hole in it is as good as none. — But is that true?

ND – 99. This aphorism has to do with whether language games need to be completely bound by rules. If we leave something open in explaining the meaning of a sentence, it seems as if we have failed completely; as if we claimed to have locked a man in a room, when one door is open. But if there are spaces for interpretation and negotiation in a sentence does it make it less useful than those sentences where that is not so obvious? We are again puzzling over the Rule-Following Paradox, the compelling idea that there must be some sort of sublime and complete logic that guarantees words are being interpreted correctly.


  1. “But still, it isn’t a game, if there is some vagueness in the rules“. — But does this prevent its being a game? — “Perhaps you’ll call it a game, but at any rate it certainly isn’t a perfect game.” This means: it has impurities, and what I am interested in at present is the pure article. — But I want to say: we misunderstand the role of the ideal in our language. That is to say: we too should call it a game, only we are dazzled by the ideal and therefore fail to see the actual use of the word game” clearly.

ND – 100. One might object that if there is vagueness in the rules, one has no game at all. But this only means that it is not a ‘perfect’ game in the sense of the idealised myth of ‘perfection’ as this pure form in the ‘great mirror’. To say it is not a game at all is to be simply dazzled by an ideal. If we “get it” – the use that is, then there is no need to go on giving more and more rules.


  1. 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. Meanwhile we do not as yet see how it occurs there, nor do we understand the nature of this “must”. We think it must be in reality; for we think we already see it there.

ND – 101. The myth of a super-order concealed in language which mirrors a super-order which must be found in reality lures us into thinking that we can see it there. Our conceptual world has become more real than our perceptual one. For when we look at the world there are regularities there – regularities which can be expressed through our language of logic. And now our nets of reasoning are placed over the world as more real than the world. If we were a Martian following Hume’s notions on cause and effect, and watched a cat walk back and forth past a gap in a fence, we would notice that the head is always followed by the tail; and so we might conclude that there is a logical or lawful connection between the head and the tail. “The head causes the tail”. What we fail to recognise is that this apparent regularity is a result of dividing the world up in a particular way. “We think it must be in reality…” (§101).


  1. The strict and clear rules of the logical structure of propositions appear to us as something in the background — hidden in the medium of the understanding. I already see them (even though through a medium): for I understand the propositional sign, I use it to say something.

ND- 102. The Tractatus implied that hidden mental mechanisms carried out logical operations, thus mediating between language and reality; ‘meaning’ occurs, according to the logical positivists, because I recognise the proposition before me as a form of one of the logical propositions (of which Copi lists 9). In formal logic this is done by breaking statements into chunks (objects) which can be represented by letters, and then arranging them with the operations signs – or; and; if,then; etc. The presumption is that this is what is going on in us when we make sense of sentences (and if it is then it would make sense to make language as precise and exact as possible). But consider this: if someone says “Either I’m crazy or I am in love” they have presented the beginnings of a syllogism, which may be followed with, “If I am crazy my friends would have me locked up”; and concluding with “Therefore I must be in love”; completing the syllogism. But another could more simply say “I’m moonstruck”. The latter can get the meaning conveyed more quickly than the formal syllogism; which belies the necessity of postulating hidden mental syllogistic processes at work. PI elevates poetic expressions whereas positivism privileges precise syllogisms.


  1. The ideal, as we think of it, is unshakable. You can never get outside it; you must always turn back. There is no outside, outside you cannot breathe. — Where does this idea come from? It is like a pair of glasses on our nose through which we see whatever we look at. It never occurs to us to take them off.

ND – 103. The ideal of the general propositional form seems to compel us into accepting this argument that any sentence or proposition that makes sense must do so because it contains one of these forms of logical proposition; and any attempt to describe that sentence or proposition in a manner which lacks that logic seems to result in nonsense. It seems like an inescapable trap. It doesn’t occur to us to take the glasses off. In Zen the master holds a stick over a student’s head and says “what is it – if you say it is a stick I’ll beat you with it; if you say it is not a stick I will beat you with it. Quick, quick, what is it, or 40 wacks for you!” I know what I’d do – grab the stick!


  1. We predicate of the thing what lies in the method of representing it. Impressed by the possibility of a comparison, we think we are perceiving a state of affairs of the highest generality.

ND – 104. Many of our efforts to describe what we take to be the structure of reality consists in projecting our grammar onto reality, and then describing what we find as if it were independent of language and thought. This occurs in many different ways. For example we might see a “manning-running process” and describe it as “a man running” and later compare it with “a man sitting” and from that infer that there is this independent entity called “a man”. And so grammar demanded of Descartes an “I” who was thinking or doubting. In the late 1940’s Wittgenstein wrote on this: “Why is it so difficult to describe these everyday appearances? Isn’t it almost as though one wanted to describe a picture which one saw behind a fine & complicated wire netting, so that one almost runs the risk of taking for a trait of the picture what is a feature of the netting” (Manuscript 130). This theme was also touched upon in the Tractatus with: “At the basis of the whole modern view of the world lies the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena” (6.371); and “Laws, like the law of causation, etc., treat of the network and not of what the network describes” (6.35). Unfortunately the positivists took from Tract. the notion that we could avoid mistaking the properties of the symbolism for the properties of the thing by avoiding metaphor and sharpening the definition of words; but that only led them into predicating sharp and distinct boundaries to things where perhaps there were none.


  1. When we believe that we must find that order, must find the ideal, in our actual language, we become dissatisfied with what are ordinarily called “propositions”, “words”, “signs”.

The proposition and the word that logic deals with are supposed to be something pure and clear-cut. And we rack our brains over the nature of the real sign. — It is perhaps the idea of the sign? or the idea at the present moment?

ND – 105. This refers to the error of Tractatus, of when spellbound by the notion of a super-order we struggle to find the “real names” and the “true propostional form” in ordinary language, so we imagine an ideal world where the pure sign or pure propositional form resides. In our search for the ideal form of representation we become dissatisfied with the expressions of everyday language because they contain all sorts of ambiguities and possibilities for misunderstandings, and we rack our brains over what someone really meant by this or that. Our difficulty in finding the pure meaning of a word should have served as a clue that our predicating of it as “precise and clear cut” was misguided. In the grip of our obsession we are led to think that the idea of the sign or word, or the idea at the present moment (a mental correlate of the physical sign or word), is the pure or ideal form. We are driven to think that there must almost be a sign within the sign – the essence or essential meaning of the word.


  1. Here it is difficult as it were to keep our heads up, — to see that we must stick to the subjects of our every-day thinking, and not go astray and imagine that we have to describe extreme subtleties, which in turn we are after all quite unable to describe with the means at our disposal. We feel as if we had to repair a torn spider’s web with our fingers.

ND – 106. If PI is viewed as therapy, then the therapy for projection of idealism, or for subliming language is to be here with the ordinary everyday use of language. But the lure of idealism makes it difficult to hold our heads up and see that words like “language”, “experience”, “world” have a use as humble as “table”, “lamp”, and “door”; and should not be elevated or inflated to a grandiose status of super-concepts (#97). Drawn into the illusion it appears that language has extreme subtleties that ordinary language cannot capture or describe adequately; and so language appears to be full of holes (ambiguities and vagueness). And so it seems that we are attempting to repair these extreme subtleties with cumbersome ordinary language, and it seems almost impossible. But it’s an illusion, for there is nothing to repair as language is perfect as it is (#98).


  1. The more narrowly we examine actual language, the sharper becomes the conflict between it and our requirement. (For the crystalline purity of logic was, of course, not a result of investigation: it was a requirement.) The conflict becomes intolerable; the requirement is now in danger of becoming empty. — We have got on to slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk: so we need friction. Back to the rough ground!

ND – 107. Our deconstruction has occurred here as we have increasingly seen that the workings of ordinary language will not fit the Procrustean bed we built with the sublimation of logic. The requirement of the crystalline purity of logic begins to become empty (i.e. no longer a requirement at all). So let’s return to seeing how people use language everyday. But wait, if we toss out logic it gets a bit slippery, because statements could seemingly take on any meaning at all, and communication lost. The way out of this is to look at the rough ground of how everyday statements are actually used by people, here is our friction.


  1. We see that what we call “sentence” and “language” has not the formal unity that I imagined, but is the family of structures more or less related to one another. — But what becomes of logic now? Its rigour seems to be giving way here. — But in that case doesn’t logic altogether disappear? — For how can it lose its rigour? Of course not by our bargaining any of its rigour out of it. — The preconceived idea of crystalline purity can only be removed by turning our whole examination round. (One might say: the axis of reference of our examination must be rotated, but about the fixed point of our real need.)

The philosophy of logic speaks of sentences and words in exactly the sense in which we speak of them in ordinary life when we say e.g. “Here is a Chinese sentence”, or “No, that only looks like writing; it is actually just an ornament” and so on.

We are talking about the spatial and temporal phenomenon of language, not about some non-spatial, non-temporal phantasm. [Note in margin: Only it is possible to be interested in a phenomenon in a variety of ways]. But we talk about it as we do about the pieces in chess when we are stating the rules of the game, not describing their physical properties.

The question “What is a word really?” is analogous to “What is a piece in chess?”

ND – 108. Well we now are recognising that “sentence” or “proposition” and “language” are not super-concepts as we were once led to think, but are terms with a family resemblance (#67). Naively we might think that if language contains vague predicates (and not just apparently vague predicates) then logic would be deprived of it’s rigour, and be thus destroyed altogether. But the solution to this apparent dilemma is resolved by turning the puzzle around and seeing that logic is a game we can play if we wish, it is just that it is no longer the only game in town. All that is lost is the preconceived notions we had about it occupying a crystalline base to our thinking. So in doing logic we are doing what we do when we talk in everyday life about, say, a piece of writing – “these Chinese characters here are a Chinese sentence”, or, “but those other Chinese characters over there are not a sentence but a piece of calligraphic art that says nothing”. When we play the logic game we are talking about spatial and temporal relationships we may find interesting to discuss; but not anything eternal that lies at the root of all utterances and meaning. The way we talk when we do the philosophy of logic is similar to the way we talk when we discuss the rules of a game; so the question “what is a word?” holds a similar place in the philosophy of logic as the question “what’s a piece?” when we are, say teaching someone to play chess.

Footnote: [Faraday in The Chemical History of a Candle: “Water is one individual thing — it never changes.”]

ND – Footnote. There is some question as to which aphorism this footnote attaches itself. It is at the bottom of the page which contains #104-108. It may well relate to them all, in the sense that it is about this notion of a formal unity, an essence, a common identity, which the idealism of language lures us into thinking must be the case. In his lectures Witt. once asked: “Could this nature change in time? A chair can change, but how about hydrogen? Is this an experiential matter?” (Philosophical Grammar, 339).


  1. It was true to say that our considerations could not be scientific ones. It was not of any possible interest to us to find out empirically ‘that, contrary to our preconceived ideas, it is possible to think such- and-such — whatever that may mean. (The conception of thought as a gaseous medium.) And we may not advance any kind of theory. There must not be anything hypothetical in our considerations. We must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place. And this description gets its light, that is to say its purpose, from the philosophical problems. These are, of course, not empirical problems; they are solved, rather, by looking into the workings of our language, and that in such a way as to make us recognize those workings: in despite of an urge to misunderstand them. The problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have always known. Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.

ND – 109. For Wittgenstein philosophy was therapy for the maladies of the mind, and it has no need of science or scientific tools, instead we need to remind ourselves of things so obvious that we fail to notice them or their importance. Previously philosophers saw themselves as working scientific-like in uncovering the ‘laws of thought’ through logic so as to be able to say what can and cannot be thought. These philosophers were seeking explanations or advancing theories of what they believed to be happening in the gaseous medium they conceived the mind to be. Each time they did this they drew us into thinking we now saw something which lay below the surface. But the type of problems that philosophy is faced with are not empirical problems in need of explanation, so much as they are muddles in need of rearrangement, and when rearranged the ‘muddles’ are not so much ‘solved’ as ‘dissolved’. This is acheived when we stick to description alone, and avoid offering any explanation or hypothesis. One of the great difficulties of renouncing all theory is that zen-like our philosophical therapy in dissolving problems seems to leave us free but with nothing for the mind to grasp (an explanation); and so we have difficulty in recognising the solution for what it is, for it seems to ask us to accept as complete something which seems incomplete, and thus we are tempted to go beyond the solution as we hanker for an explanation. Philosophical therapy is the onging battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.


  1. “Language (or thought) is something unique” — this proves to be a superstition (not a mistake!), itself produced by grammatical illusions.

And now the impressiveness retreats to these illusions, to the problems.

ND – 110. And if we return to look at this slogan which occupied us in #93-95 we begin to see more clearly how it is a superstition rather than a mistake. Because a thought gives meaning to words it seems to be both a picture and an interpretation at the same time, and thus when we reflect on it, or think about it seems queer, or something unique, so we go searching for these mental ghosts. But we don’t have any feeling or sense of interpreting when we are talking and reading and writing do we, and it is an illusion to think we do. An illusion generated by the demands of our traditional metaphors or ways of thinking about how the mind works. Seeing this our impresiveness may now be turned to the illusions or problems themselves, to see how they are generated.


  1. The problems arising through a misinterpretation of our forms of language have the character of depth. They are deep disquietudes; their roots are as deep in us as the forms of our language and their significance is as great as the importance of our language. — Let us ask ourselves: why do we feel a grammatical joke to be deep? (And that is what the depth of philosophy is.)

ND – 111. In many ways these problems or illusions run deep in us as we have had this belief in language working through representation for a long time, and so these illusions are now deeply rooted in our grammar. So our concern with them is in no way trivial. We can get a glimpse of this depth when we look at how grammatical jokes work – take for example Lewis Carroll’s “We called him a ‘tortoise’ because he taught us”.


  1. A simile that has been absorbed into the forms of our language produces a false appearance, and this disquiets us. “But this isn’t how it is!” — we say. “Yet this is how it has to be!”

ND – 112. The ‘tortoise’ joke worked because we can misinterpret forms of expression, there is a change in notation. Such changes can generate conflicts and incongruities as well as humour. A simile or metaphorical frame is absorbed (the grammatical form) when we are describing something, that may not be apt later on in the conversation, and thus generate conflict or incongruity or humour. Take for example time. We can measure the total duration of some event, but the event is never present totally (only bits of it are at any one moment). So we get into this puzzle about the nature of ‘time’, not recognising that we switched metaphorical frames; and this leads us into dreaming up or pursuing all sorts of chimeras because we think we can unify ‘time’ as a ‘simple’ in one framework of understanding.


  1. “But this is how it is –” I say to myself over and over again. I feel as though, if only I could fix my gaze absolutely sharply on this fact, get it in focus, I must grasp the essence of the matter.

ND – 113. This danger of wanting to find the ‘true meaning’ of an expression by focusing on the expression itself and/or the frame of mind one uses it in, lures us in again and again, with it’s feeling that if I just try hard enough I’ll be able to grasp the essence. Let’s instead focus on the practice. Steve de Shazer, the SFBT urged therapists to “stay on the surface” and not go digging around for deeper meanings to client’s utterances.


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

ND – 114. He is saying that he himself was drawn into such an illusion when he wrote the Tractatus. Because we can say something it must mean something which actually is. Because I can say “the time has gone quickly today”, the illusion compels us to say that there must be some ‘thing’ called ‘time’, and we begin searching for it. In my commentary to #104 I quoted a section from Manuscript 130 where he says we run the risk of taking for a trait of the picture what is a feature of the net we are looking through. The same metaphor is employed here when he says we are tracing the frame but are under the illusion we are outlining the thing. The metaphors and similes which language utilise get drawn into the description.


  1. A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.

ND – 115. This is an oft repeated line by many Wittgenstein influenced writers – “A picture held us captive“. I think here it has the general use that metaphors and similes that we employ in language ensnare us in this search for the essence of particular words; but possibly also refers to the previous aphorism about how he was captured as the author of Tractatus in thinking that language must have an essence, and that essence of all language lies in “the general form of propositions”, which he tried to expose.


  1. When philosophers use a word — “knowledge”, “being”, “object”, “I”, “proposition”, “name” — and try to grasp the essence of the thing, one must always ask oneself: is the word ever actually used in this way in the language-game which is its original home? —

What we do is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.

ND – 116. For the empiricists “knowledge” is virtually unachievable as all doubt has to be removed; “being” for Bertrand Russell was a property belonging to everything thinkable on the grounds that if it didn’t have ‘being’ it couldn’t be thought of; an “object” in the Tractatus was a super-concept; “I”, for a lot of the personality psychologists appears to be some sort of spiritual entity (the real self) rather than just a conversational referent; and we have already discussed the sublimation of “proposition” and “name”(is ‘this’ and ‘there’ real names?). In each case the word has been divorced from it’s original and ordinary use and bestowed a metaphysical grandeur. Our task in philosophical therapy is to return words to their ordinary use. (Actually he was almost onto this during his Tractatus years, for he wrote: “The correct method in philosophy would really be the following: to say nothing except what can be said, i.e. propositions of natural science — i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy — and then, whenever someone else wanted to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had failed to give a meaning to certain signs in his propositions. Although it would not be satisfying to the other person — he would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy — this method would be the only strictly correct one.” [6.53] The difference here (in PI) is that it is not “the propositions of natural science”, for they also too frequently contain metaphysical ghosts, but ordinary language use.) Another metaphor he employs elsewhere to explicate this point is that the philosopher plays draughts with chess pieces and thinks the game retains some of the spirit of chess.


  1. You say to me: “You understand this expression, don’t you? Well then — I am using it in the sense you are familiar with.” — As if the sense were an atmosphere accompanying the word, which it carried with it into every kind of application.

If, for example, someone says that the sentence “This is here” (saying which he points to an object in front of him) makes sense to him, then he should ask himself in what special circumstances this sentence is actually used. There it does make sense.

ND – 117. Wittgenstein talks about the ‘sense’ of a sentence, as distinct from the ‘meaning’ of a word. So here the antagonist complains that he is using the word ‘knowledge’ or ‘being’ or ‘object, etc., in a sense that you are familiar with. And so we might be lured into thinking that the sense of a sentence is some kind of ghostly atmosphere, and that it can attach itself to words such as these, and stick to them no matter what the circumstances of use are. But we really do have to look closely at the circumstances of use if we are to understand or make sense of a sentence, it is not carried by it. For example, someone might claim that the sentence “this is here” makes sense to him, but we would need to see what the circumstances of use is before we could agree that it does make sense.


  1. Where does our investigation get its importance from, since it seems only to destroy everything interesting, that is, all that is great and important? (As it were all the buildings, leaving behind only bits of stone and rubble.) What we are destroying is nothing but houses of cards and we are clearing up the ground of language on which they stand.

ND – 118. Traditionally Western philosophy has focused on developing grand narratives on what it considers the essential problems of life, and when Wittgenstein draws their attention to a misleading remark or some other distinction in their work, they are apt to dismiss this as an inessential trivial matter. Yet for Wittgenstein, these are the problems; but it leaves the traditional philosopher with a sense of “a loss of problems”. Wittgenstein’s work was about dispelling the illusions that are generated by language, and in doing so clarifying the manner in which language works. Metaphorically it might be said that he is removing the picture we had painted on the window in a manner which not only allows us to look at life more directly, but also exposes us to the way in which we paint pictures.


  1. The results of philosophy are the uncovering of one or another piece of plain nonsense and of bumps that the understanding has got by running its head up against the limits of language. These bumps make us see the value of the discovery.

ND – 119. For Wittgenstein there is no essence of language (“the general propositional form”) in which the world’s essence is mirrored. And so the results of his philosophy is the untangling of our knotted understandings by exposing us to our compulsion to transgress the bounds of sense. For Wittgenstein to philosophize was to destroy idols. We generate these knots whenever we attempt to bridge the gap between words or signs and the world (or things), because that just creates more words (signs), and these are metaphysical ghostly entities (#105). And these are the bumps we run our head up against. By having these bumps exposed to us the questions which were generating them begin to dissappear (dissolve) and we begin to find value in the peace which follows as we accept the limits of language. The fly is out of the bottle (#309).


  1. When I talk about language (words, sentences, etc.) I must speak the language of every day. Is this language somehow too coarse and material for what we want to say? Then how is another one to be constructed? — And how strange that we should be able to do anything at all with the one we have!

In giving explanations I already have to use language full-blown (not some sort of preparatory, provisional one); this by itself shews that I can adduce only exterior facts about language.

Yes, but then how can these explanations satisfy us? — Well, your very questions were framed in this language; they had to be expressed in this language, if there was anything to ask!

And your scruples are misunderstandings.

Your questions refer to words; so I have to talk about words.

You say: the point isn’t the word, but its meaning, and you think of the meaning as a thing of the same kind as the word, though also different from the word. Here the word, there the meaning. The money, and the cow that you can buy with it. (But contrast: money, and its use.)

ND – 120. The philosophical questions we encounter arise out of our language and the problems must be tackled in our language, for even if we could invent another language with a different structure these same problems would not arise and could not be explored (although others peculiar to such a new language might). It may seem at times that our everyday language is too coarse and material to get to the subtle and abstract distinctions we want to use in order to understand language, but you will notice that even the most technical of languages develop from or gain their meanings from non-technical ones. And besides, if our language was too coarse then it would seem to be useless, but it is not is it? Throughout Wittgenstein has shown that there are no ghostly shadows linking words and things (or deeds); there are just exterior facts about language which can be described. If there is anything beyond the utterance it is the circumstances in which that utterance is made. Any claims that philosophers make about their work being concerned with essences, and thus deals with morally loftier topics is based on misunderstandings. “We are not justified in having any more scruples about our language than the chess player has about chess, namely none” (Philosophical Grammer 121). Words are not attached to an independent meaning any more than money is attached to a purchasable item, but both can be used (words to mean something, and money to purchase items).


Please feel free to e-mail me with any suggested changes to my readings of any of these aphorisms. Hopefully I will find the time to post more in the future.



A further set of readings on the first 100 aphorisms are offered by Lois Shawver at: