According to Wittgenstein, language is an essentially public activity between minds; and language is structured by a grammar so that this communication can indeed occur. I think, the notion of language is equivalent to grammar (a structuring); as grammar stipulates the range and form of the expression of the language.

But minds also think, and this is a private activity; so it cannot be of the form of any kind of language, and so cannot have any kind of grammar, hence any kind of structuring.

Does he make the claim that thinking cannot be rationally explicated to any extent, ie given some kind of structure?

(I'm tempted to conflate thinking with conciousness, but I think that would be a mistake.)

  • Following Wittgenstein, language is public because there can't be a private language. Also, meaning is given by use. He refers to 'private language'in Philosophical Investigations (§259, etc).
    – Mikenemite
    Commented Jan 13, 2014 at 5:58

2 Answers 2


But minds also think, and this is a private activity

What's more, Wittgenstein makes this argument explicitly with his "Beetle Box" thought experiment (in the Philosophical Investigations.) And, what's more, he also shows that much thought is not of a propositional nature, and does not work well with traditional notions of epistemology; one cannot be mistaken about having one's tooth ache.

Does he make the claim that thinking cannot be rationally explicated to any extent, ie given some kind of structure?

No he does not, and the fact that we are able to discuss his writings here and now demonstrates that his thinking can be rationally explicated to some extent; the claim that you suggest would be self-defeating.

I'd recommend that you have a go at the Philosophical Investigations-- it is that very rare kind of book that matches a high degree of accessibility (it is fairly easy to follow Wittgenstein's arguments, and does not require any particular knowledge of the prior philosophical tradition) with some very serious challenges to traditional ways of seeing things.

  • I think this answer is a little misleading. Nowhere does Wittgenstein suggest that thinking is a private activity. It can be private, but it can also be public - such as when, for example, I choose to express my thoughts. In that case, they are no longer private (it really is that simple).
    – adrianos
    Commented Jun 19, 2012 at 12:06
  • 1
    I don't think it's quite that simple, as the "expression of the thoughts" is not identical to the thoughts themselves-- which is why I framed the answer the way I did: thinking is private, but it can be rationally explicated when expressed. I'll edit for clarity, though. Commented Jun 19, 2012 at 12:38
  • The expression is of course distinct from the thought. It is what makes the thought public. But the thought itself becomes public! He made his thoughts on his marriage public on the talk show, etc. As W says, "So someone can hide his thoughts from me by expressing them in a language I don't know. But where is the mental thing which is hidden?" (RPP vol 2, 564) This seems to me to be important in grasping W's view of thinking.
    – adrianos
    Commented Jun 19, 2012 at 19:47
  • I read W as arguing that expressions are not reducible to thoughts; the mental thing is not hidden by expressing the thoughts in a foreign language; they are hidden because they are mental, and only partially expressed. If a lion could speak, we could not understand him. Commented Jun 19, 2012 at 20:47
  • I believe that you said as much in your own answer; there is no single true representation, nor need there be. Commented Jun 19, 2012 at 20:54

Does he make the claim that thinking cannot be rationally explicated to any extent, ie given some kind of structure?

It is important to understand with Wittgenstein that he has a particular understanding of 'explanation' which differs from that most commonly found in analytic philosophy. Commonly, 'explanations' are given by formal analysis - most typically, in recent decades, giving the structure of sentences or propositions in terms of a calculus (this holds true of logical positivism and truth conditional semantics, the two main strands of linguistic analysis in the 20th century).

Wittgenstein, by contrast, sees such activities as providing not inner structures but representations of language - he stresses that there is no single true representation and nor need there be. A 'proposition' is a 'family resemblance' concept and has no single structure or essence. Explanation of language, for Wittgenstein, is given through showing the underlying grammar (which differs from the superficial or 'surface grammar') of sentences. Grammar, in this sense, is determined by how the sentence is really used (not only by philosophers!), and what connections it has with other sentences.

It would be mistaken, on such an account, to think there is a grammar of thinking. If one wishes to understand what thinking is, one could look to the uses of the word 'thinking' and its cognates. Philosophy has no other means of explaining a term. If there is some other discipline, a science or empricial psychology, which can explicate thinking and any 'structure' it may have, then that is fine, but not the domain of Wittgenstein's investigations and not the domain of philosophy.

  • so, for 'Grammar, in this sense, is determined by how the sentence is really used', you're talking for descriptive grammars, and against prescriptive grammars? Commented Jun 25, 2012 at 20:59
  • I don't think W uses that distinction. If we describe a use, that description (if correct) can be made into a rule for use. These rules are constitutive of meaning. Divergences between actual use and correct use - between descriptive and prescriptive grammars - are not differences of meaning. So they are not the 'grammatical rules' W has in mind.
    – adrianos
    Commented Jun 26, 2012 at 16:22
  • I can't see how rules or a grammar can constitute meaning, is this what W is argueing for? Commented Jun 26, 2012 at 22:19
  • Yes. Meaning is determined by use. The use of a word is determined by the rules for the use of that word. Using words in speech is a rule governed activity. The rules for use are constitutive of what W calls 'grammar' - this is an idiosyncratic use of the term 'grammar' however. These rules determine what combinations of expressions are allowed and disallowed, i.e. which ones makes sense and which don't e.g. 'door' can go with 'open' but not with 'happy'. One of W's greatest insights is that what appear to be necessary truths are in general grammatical rules.
    – adrianos
    Commented Jun 30, 2012 at 10:46
  • Ok, hows does this work with 'two and two are four'? Surely this is a neccessary truth of logic, and not language; or are you subsuming logic under language? Commented Jun 30, 2012 at 19:19

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .