What does it mean to say that we can attribute neither being nor non-being to the elements? One might say: if everything that we call “being” and “non-being” consists in the obtaining and non-obtaining of connections between elements, it makes no sense to speak of the being (non-being) of an element; just as it makes no sense to speak of the destruction of an element, if everything that we call “destruction” lies in the separation of elements. |25| One would like to say, however, that being cannot be attributed to an element, for if it did not exist, one could not even name it, and so one could state nothing at all about it. But let us consider an analogous case. There is one thing of which one can state neither that it is 1 metre long, nor that it is not 1 metre long, and that is the standard metre in Paris. But this is, of course, not to ascribe any remarkable property to it, but only to mark its peculiar role in the game of measuring with a metre-rule. Suppose that samples of colour were preserved in Paris like the standard metre. So we explain that “sepia” means the colour of the standard sepia which is kept there hermetically sealed. Then it will make no sense to state 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, by means of which we make colour statements. In this game, it is not something that is represented, but is a means of representation. - And the same applies to an element in language-game (48) when we give it a name by uttering the word “R” - in so doing we have given that object a role in our language-game; it is now 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 game; something with which comparisons are made. And this may be an important observation; but it is none the less an observation about our language-game - our mode of representation.

Wittgenstein, Philosophical investigations, part 1, paragraph 50.

Let's suppose we have a language game with you, guys. The primary elements are the constituents of atom, i.e. protons and electrons. And now I'm saying that there's also blablaton. You start to search for it. But you don't find any signs of its existence. In the microscope you can still see protons, electrons, but not blablaton (it has to be seen if it existed, let's suppose).

So if I say that blablatons exist, is it really the case that my proposition would have no sense? Just intuitively - it's obviously false. Explain me where I'm wrong.

  • i would think that "blablatons" do not exist, but you cannot say that the primary elements exist or do not. what is the issue with that?
    – andrós
    Commented Apr 16 at 12:17
  • @user66697 what do you mean by "you cannot say that the primary elements exist or do not"? Commented Apr 16 at 12:21
  • 1
    that primary elements are not the sort of things that we can speak of the being or non-being of. it's been a long time since i read wittgenstein, and tbh i cannot remember what the elements he's talking about are, but if it really matters i can read through the paragraphs before this one?
    – andrós
    Commented Apr 16 at 12:25
  • 1
    Yes, "blablatons exist" is "sensical" and false. And "elements" referred to by W in this and previous paragraphs are not "atomic" but generic: he describes a pattern of colored squares and says " Here the sentence is a complex of names, to which corresponds a complex of elements. The primary elements are the coloured squares." Commented Apr 16 at 12:36
  • Isn't this a duplicate? It's the same passage you quoted in the other question.
    – causative
    Commented Apr 16 at 14:53

1 Answer 1


The puzzling discussion about the Paris metre means that the statement "The standard metre is one metre long" is a sort of analytical (logical?) truth: it is a definitional axiom of the language-game of measuring and we have to presuppose it in order to play the game.

The Paris metre is the paradigm that we use as the standard for the construction of all other measures of length in the metric system that will be used to measure things. Thus, the Paris rod itself cannot be measured, not because it is impossible to do this, but because the two possible answer of the measurement are both nonsensical: the answer "The standard metre is less (more) than one metre long" is impossible and the answer "The standard metre is one metre long" is trivial (tautologuous...)

Thus, asserting that statement is to use the words outside the usual circumstances that gives them significance, outside the language game of measuring things.

Note: the puzzle is in some sense a version of Plato's Third man argument: is largeness large?

"Primary elements" is reminiscent of objects in Tractatus (2.01) where objects/things are not the foundations of the furniture of the world: 1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things.

This is still there in the PI with the reference to Frege's context principle: "§49. 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."

This is crucial: for Frege the meaning of a word can be understood only in the context of a sentence. Wittgenstein made a sort of generalization of this principle: the meaning of a word can be understood only in the context of a language game.

Now we are left with the puzzling first sentence of §50. "What does it mean to say that we can attribute neither being nor non-being to elements?"

If we can understand it in the context of the previous example regarding Paris metre, maybe we can read in terms of Quine's dictum "to be is to be a value of a variable".

An object exists in the context of a language game that uses (and names) it: every language game has his own ontological committments and thus it is nonsensical to try to discuss them inside the language game itself.

To accept a name in the context of a language game precedes any predication which employ it, and such acceptance is not subject to true/false judgement.

  • The Paris rod cannot be said to be 1m long, because it is trivial/tautologous to say it is 1m long? That's like saying we cannot assert an axiom of a logical system is true because it is trivial/tautologous to do so. The fact it is tautologous is the best reason to assert it.
    – causative
    Commented Apr 16 at 14:57
  • And what about theorems derived from the axioms - do you also claim these cannot be asserted? That would discard all the theorems of mathematics.
    – causative
    Commented Apr 16 at 15:30
  • it's because it's a "means of representation" @causative rather than something represented. how do you get the metre rod outside itself to measure itself? if it defines what "1 metre" is and there's only one rod., given that measuring things, like language, is a game with rules. it may be tautologous that it's a metre, but not in that game
    – andrós
    Commented Apr 16 at 22:04
  • @user66697 It's already lined up to measure itself, with the first mark at the first mark and the last mark at the last mark, so you don't need to move it "outside itself" - it's already in place. Or you could mark the length on another measuring stick, and use the second stick to measure it.
    – causative
    Commented Apr 16 at 22:15
  • i think we get each other. i would disagree that it measures itself.
    – andrós
    Commented Apr 16 at 22:46

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