Source: John Farndon. Do You Still Think You're Clever? p. 27.

Warning: The author didn't study philosophy. "LONDON-BASED AUTHOR JOHN FARNDON studied earth sciences and English literature at Cambridge University but has since written on just about every topic imaginable."

  The mistake, Wittgenstein argued, is in thinking philosophy can answer these questions. It comes partly from a flawed view of language that insists that if a word has meaning, there must be a thing attached to that meaning. The philosopher asks, 'What is reality?' 'What is justice?' or 'What is the mind?' and then goes looking with logic for the identity of that thing — and of course can't find it, because they are just words. That's why the search has gone on fruitlessly for centuries. But if you remember that language is variable, and words simply mean what people understand them to mean in a particular setting, the problem vanishes. That's why if you say Wittgenstein is 'right' and I understand what is meant by 'right' in this context, no more needs be said.
  Indeed, Wittgenstein challenged the idea of logic as an ultimate arbiter of truth. 2 + 2 = 4 is not an ultimate truth, he asserted, but just something that makes sense arithmetically. If you were to say 2 + 2 = 97 it would not be false — just nonsense. The philosopher's task is to reveal such nonsenses.
  Deciding whether a proposition is logically true or false is entirely missing the point, Wittgenstein went on to say, since language has many other meaningful uses. This may seem a trivial observation, he admitted, but that's the point. Philosophy 'does not teach us new facts, only science does that,' he wrote. 'But the proper synopsis of these trivialities is enormously difficult, and has immense importance. Philosophy is in fact the synopsis of trivialities.'

Googling the bolded clause yielded no simple explanation.

  • Taking the given example of “deciding whether a proposition is true or false is missing the point since language has many other uses” as “trivial”, then it is these types of things which the later “trivialities”. What are “these types of things”? He doesn’t say, but generalizing from the single example might lead us to conclude he means “common sense observations” (which are “trivial” to observe).
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Dec 24, 2017 at 7:15

2 Answers 2


Triviality: "something that is not important: trifle."

The quote is from Moore's report of Wittgenstein "new" thinking (post-tractarian):

In answer to the question why this "new subject " ["new philosophy"] should be called "philosophy " he said in that though what he was doing was certainly different from what, e.g. Plato or Berkeley had done, [...]. But he had also said that the "new subject " did really resemble what had been traditionally called "philosophy " in the three respects that (1) it was very general, (2) it was fundamental both to ordinary life and to the sciences, and (3) it was independent of any special results of science ; that therefore the application to it of the word "philosophy " was not purely arbitrary.

He said that the "new subject" consisted in "something like putting in order our notions as to what can be said about the world", and compared this to the tidying up of a room where you have to move the same object several times before you can get the room really tidy.

He also said that he was not trying to teach us any new facts : that he would only tell us "trivial" things [emphasis added] - "things which we all know already" ; but that the difficult thing was to get a "synopsis" of these trivialities [emphasis added], and that our "intellectual discomfort" can only be removed by a synopsis of many trivialities - that "if we leave out any, we still have the feeling that something is wrong".

In this connexion he said it was misleading to say that what we wanted was an "analysis", since in science to "analyse" water means to discover some new fact about it, e.g. that it is composed of oxygen and hydrogen, whereas in philosophy "we know at the start all the facts we need to know".

I [Moore] imagine that it was in this respect of needing a "synopsis" of trivialities that he thought that philosophy was similar to Ethics and Aesthetics.

The conclusion is: according to W, the "new" role of philosophy was not the discovery of "deep" truths, like, e.g. the logical foundations of mathematics and the definition of number (see the tradition of Frege and Russell that is the source of the inquiries of the tractatus) but the "elucidation" of language uses.


I agree with the answers above but would like to try setting out what I think Wittgenstein purely from his texts. Philosophy, he tells us, discloses no new facts : that is the work of the special sciences and other studies. It concentrates on what we know perfectly well, particularly on language we use everyday. It's what it does with those 'trivialities' that matters. Take the example of games. We use the word 'game' everyday. No deep concepts are involved but if we consider this triviality we see what we probably didn't expect : that games have nothing in common. Games do not have a set of common and distinctive features by virtue of which they are all called games. In some the aim is to win; in others to lose. In some there is only one player; in others, two or more players. Some games involve instruments or materials; others don't. Some games, such as chess, are governed by strict rules; others are made up as we go along. Some have tight time-limits, others pooter on indefinitely until we tire of them.

This, Wittgenstein suggests, though it deals with trivialities tells us something important about language; that while for some terms it is right to look for necessary and sufficient conditions ('X is a square in plane geometry if and only if t has four equal sides and four internal right angles'), for others this is the merest waste of time. Yet this waste of time goes on incessantly as when people ask about 'the' meaning of 'democracy' as if 'democracy' can be defined in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. The Gettier problem about propositional knowledge is equally misguided : 'S knows that p if and only if' - but 'knowledge', even propositional knowledge, is too loose and porous a concept to be pinned down by necessary and sufficient conditions.

The facts on which these Wittgensteinian conclusions are based are all trivial. We are all familiar with terms such as 'games' and 'knowledge' and yet we fail to see at how they are actually used - 'don't look for the meaning, look for the use' as Wittgenstein's view is often summed up : and when we do look for the use, we find very often that our approach to the meaning had led us radically stray. We look for the essence of games or democracy - their essential nature - when they have none. Doing this sort of thing for a wide variety of terms of more or less importance to philosophy is a 'synoptic' exercise. It liberates us from the strait-jacket of essentialism as a general approach to philosophical analysis.

You must log in to answer this question.