I've read the Tractatus and am now working my way through Investigations, and I have a few questions about their relationship to one another. Obviously I've heard that the latter is critical of the claims made in the former (as well as claims made by the "logical positivist" school more generally, a term I still don't quite understand either), but how exactly does Wittgenstein justify his critiques?

For example, in aphorism 23 of Investigations, W enumerates multiple examples of language games - "Giving orders and obeying them, describing the appearance of an object, ..." etc - and then says that "it is interesting to compare the multiplicity of the tools in language and 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 Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus)". What specifically about the "structure of language" in his earlier work is he trying to undermine here by demonstrating this "multiplicity"? If the Tractatus can be seen as essentially an attempt to systematize and make unambiguous the use of language, i.e. to make it as logical as possible (feel free to challenge this interpretation), how does the multiplicity of language games in our actual language challenge this general project? How does this multiplicity prove that our actual language cannot still be mapped onto some more general "ur-language" that avoids ambiguities, i.e. one of pure logic? In other words, is it possible that rather than being in conflict, the Tractatus and the Investigations are really doing two different things -- the former describing how or language should function in order to be as unambiguous as possible, and the latter describing how our actual language works, perhaps with all its illogical and nonsensical elements? Related to this question, doesn't the fact that Wittgenstein is able to clarify the differences between certain types of language games using language suggest that there might be such an "ur-language", or language with which all other language games can be described with?

Sorry if my questions seem vague, but I don't really know how to ask them in another way. I'd be happy to try and clarify my thoughts if needed/asked. Thanks!

  • The point of the Tractatus was to clear out the philosophical confusions stemming from attempting to express "what can not be expressed by propositions". Wittgenstein concluded that the Tractatus was guilty of that very sin, because "language is much more complex than logicians and the author of the Tract. Log. Phil. have imagined". One symptom of it was the color-exclusion problem, which showed that the idea of analysis into elementary propositions is untenable
    – Conifold
    Feb 21, 2019 at 19:39
  • 2
    But the point of PI is not to argue with the Tractatus. By the time of the PI the Tractatus should already be seen as a failure, based on earlier self-criticisms. PI does the work of therapy once the failure of an attempted "system" is already acknowledged, as well as that any "system" for language will fail. It is to "show the fly a way out of the bottle" instead. A good review of Wittgenstein's evolution from the Tractatus to PI is Development of Wittgenstein's Philosophy by Kuusela.
    – Conifold
    Feb 21, 2019 at 19:44

1 Answer 1


The transition from Tractatus to Philosophical Investigations is a complex process.

I've found very useful the analysis of Merrill & Jaakko Hintikka, Investigating Wittgenstein (1986).

For sure, in later Wittgenstein there are many new philosophical problems not considered into the Tractatus, as well as a new perspective on the many aspects of natural language.

But there is at least one fundamental problem that is common to every phase in the development of Wittgenstein's thought : the relation between language and world.

In the Tractatus, this relation is explained by way of the so-called picture theory.

Thorugh the use of truth-functions, Wittgenstein reduce the question of language-world connection to the comparison of elementary sentences with reality. The nature of this comparison is quite obscure :

4.05 Reality is compared with a proposition.

Very soon, Wittgenstein rejected this tehory, but the problem remains. In a notebook of 1929 there are comments like this :

"My leading idea is that a proposition is compared with the reality."

And in Philosophical Remarks we have : "When a language is first learned, connections are as it were established between language and actions [...] And comparison doesn't consist in confronting the representation with what it represents and through this confrontation experiencing a phenomenon."

"If you think of propositions as instructions for making models, their pictorial character becomes even clearer."

The pivotal idea of late Wittgenstein is the idea of language-games : they play a crucial role in language learning.

See Philosophical Grammar : "The connection between words and things is set up by the teaching of language."

And :

What is the relation between a name and the object named, say, the house and its name? [...] the relation we are concerned with is established [...] by the particular role which they play in the practice of our language as we have been sketching it.

And see The Blue Book : "We are inclined to forget that it is the particular use of a word only which gives a word its meaning."

The primacy of language games is asserted many times in Philosophical Investigation :

Look on the language-game as the primary thing. (PI, I, 656)

Where is the connexion effected between the sense of the expression "Let's play a game of chess" and all the rules of the game? Well, in the list of rules of the game, in the teaching of it, in the day-to-day practice of playing. (PI, I, 197)

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