As some of you may know (I tend to discuss and talk quite a bit with you fine folk on this topic), I attend a local gathering of people who wish to discuss (somewhat) simple topics of philosphy. It's a cozy, relaxed gathering, where a handfull of people from the local community meet and sometimes fund guest-lecturers to give us presentations.

This was one such time.

He talked a lot about Wittgenstein's "philosophical investigation", and I must admit that it left me a little overwhelmed.

The speaker seemed to imply that the writing style in Philosophical investigation should have been the norm in the philosophical field.

Now, I've been trying to understand what was ment by this. I didn't understand fully what this "writing style" he was reffering too was, or how it could be used as a norm?

Could anyone fill me in on why this style isn't the norm?

  • Seems to overlap a bit maybe with philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/8818/…, although that's Tractatus and not PI -- at any rate there seems to be a basic question about 'why read W' at stake here that needs to be answered in either case
    – Joseph Weissman
    Nov 24, 2014 at 23:15
  • In terms of how he was using the term "writing style" ask your invited speaker. Without knowing what he meant, it's hard to comment or answer...
    – virmaior
    Nov 25, 2014 at 4:21
  • @JosephWeissman Thank you, I will read up on that, and update my question if I see it fit or don't get the answer from there.
    – ViRALiC
    Nov 25, 2014 at 7:10
  • @virmaior This is true. I will ask the speaker by email, and update my question accordingly!
    – ViRALiC
    Nov 25, 2014 at 7:11
  • 2
    I agree with the central premises of P.I. but Wittgenstein is one of the most overrated writers ever. That book is just horrifically boring. Congratulations to whomever makes it to the end. Thankfully, the style is not one that has been much imitated, I think. Nov 26, 2014 at 14:24

3 Answers 3


It would be a terrible disaster if philosophy lost any of its forms of presentation, from Dialog, to Aphoristic, to Mathematical, to Historical, to Polemic, this one, which I guess I would describe as Contrastive.

The form in Philosophical Investigations is good for what it is good for, wending your way through ground that has been covered by many people before you, but which is not converging toward a single solution.

But there are a lot of times where you want to simply lay out your own view, not compare it to everyone else's, and let the community compare and contrast alternatives on its own terms. Wittgenstein was a grand master of detail, and he was very unattached and even-handed. So he could honestly present most contrasting views, without accidentally skewing too much.

Most people should not write this way, because they are not him. Someone like Feyerabend, or Neitsche, for instance, gains a great deal of clarity in presentation by degrading and lampooning their adversaries, showing how their particular perspective shows light where it was absent, without expecting folks to read only their take, and truly believe everyone else is a fool. Socrates had the same gift in many Dialogs.

And there is little point in multiple people laying out one another's opinions in the long run, unless there is an undue quantity of confusion around things. Language usage is something that eternally spews confusion, so doing it once in a while is a great service to the discipline, but if this style of presentation became the norm, philosophy in general could become offensively redundant and onerous to address.

Bertrand Russel went about the same thing a totally different way. He wrote a number of books from different, clear perspectives, that all contradict. This is more reasonable, in my opinion, if it makes him look very strange in the end, when you try to take all of his work as an integrated whole.


Somewhat paradoxically for such a brilliant philosopher, Wittgenstein believed that philosophy is not a science. He believed that there are no philosophical truths. And that there were no philosophical theories. Instead, he believed that philosophy ought to be a kind of therapeutic activity. He believed that our thoughts are led astray by language in many ways, and that it ought to be the function of the philosopher to uncover the misleading ways of language, and to rid us of the ensuing errors. According to Wittgenstein, although there is no philosophical knowledge, there is a kind of important philosophical wisdom.

The literary style of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations is bound up with Wittgenstein's philosophical outlook. For instance, Wittgenstein abstains in it from employing technical terms, and from formulating formal theories.

So here is one reason why the style of Philosophical Investigations is so rare. Most philosophers do not share Wittgenstein's "therapeutic" view of philosophy. Unlike Wittgenstein, they do believe in the existence of philosophical truths, and in the worth of trying to formulate formal philosophical theories. However difficult it would be to get it right.


I am a bit confused by your friend's remark because although Wittgenstein wrote in clear prose, sometimes is more vague than Hegel's. However, I can shed some light on why his writing style may be considered examplary:

  1. Being an engineer by education he valued clarity. His sentences are short and to the point.

  2. He was extremely honest. Very few would have the courage to dismiss their whole body work as mistaken like he did with his later philosophy. He has 0 pretension and snobbishness, which is always annoying.

  3. Very few philosophers mentions this, but he is actually very funny. Especially his writings on the philosophy of mathematics contain some big lols.

  4. Convenient text breakdown. Wittgenstein preferred short paragraphs that he numbered, making it easier to digest his writings.

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