Can anyone explain the argument in section 50 of PI, as it seems important enough not to gloss over (that "if this thing did not exist we could not use it in our language game- - what looks like as if it had to exist is part of our language".)

The second paragraph begins "One would, however, like to say: existence cannot be attributed to an element, for if it did not exist, one could not even name it and so one could say nothing at all of it", and Wittgenstein then goes on to try to show that some things are neither one thing nor not that thing (again I don't understand this - but this time because I don't understand what is being said, rather than if he is saying it's the case).

My grandfather does not exist, and can be named.

Does anything hinge on this, besides whether or not anything can be simple or composite, on which I agree with him anyway (what something is composed of is a matter of perspective, 64 squares or 2 colours, and likewise a visual image of a tree is composite or simple dependent on what you mean and the language game you are involved with: this seems about right - if you're counting trees e.g.)?

  • i think, in general, i'm getting a bit confused as to when he's talking about all as opposed to some language games. e.g., do names "point" in any language game?
    – user62233
    Jan 15, 2021 at 7:05
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    There is a difference between the existence of an individual thing (a particular: my grandfather) and the use of "existence" when applied to concepts: a concept is not "instantiated" when there are no objects that "satisfy" the concept. This second case does not implies that the concept is meaningless. There are no "existing" dinosaurs but we can speak in a meaningful way of dinosaurs. Jan 15, 2021 at 7:49
  • yes i agree but i don't see how that answers the question @MauroALLEGRANZA he's already explained that words can be meaningful in a language without naming something that exists sections 40 and 41
    – user62233
    Jan 15, 2021 at 7:50
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    A discussion of PI, 50 is in Measure for measure? Wittgenstein on language-game criteria and the Paris standard metre bar by Dale Jacquette, into Arif Ahmed (editor), Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations : A Critical Guide (Cambridge University Press, 2010) Jan 15, 2021 at 15:38

2 Answers 2


Welcome, anon.

Perhaps the portion of §50 that you quote makes sense in light of Jolley's remarks later in the section on the standard meter (metre), his elucidation of its role in Wittgenstein's argument :

Wittgenstein’s denial that we can say either that the standard meter is a meter long or that it is not— when it is serving as an instrument of the language— is not bizarre obscurantism ... When used as an instrument of the language, the standard meter provides for the possibility that other things, bedknobs and broomsticks, can be said to be or not be a meter long. The standard meter does so by giving the sign “meter” a sense. But if we think the standard meter away, if we think away what gives the sign “meter” a sense, then nothing can be said to be a meter long or not a meter long, because the sign is senseless. The claim then is no more mysterious than would be the claim that something can be said neither to be nor not to be abracadabra (where that sign has no sense, is nonsense). The language-game of metric measurement in this way presupposes the meter-stick. (K.D. Jolley, 'Mensurable Confusion? Wittgenstein’s Meter-Stick and Beyond', The Pluralist , Vol. 5, No. 2 (Summer 2010), pp. 105-140: 127.)

This analysis, if correct, would not make Wittgenstein's argument vulnerable to the example (well used, btw) of your grandfather. It also exactly applies to the 'elements'.


Wittgenstein is trying to point out that the relationship between language and objective reality is always (on some level) a matter of convention. If we dig into any object reference far enough, we will always come to a kind of linguistic tautology: X means [...] because we have as a language group decided (somehow) that X means [...].

The standard meter rod in Paris (or the modern definition that a meter is the length of the path of light in vacuum after 1/299792458th of a second) is 'one meter' because someone, somewhere, said it was 'one meter' and we all (more or less) agreed with him. Or put another way, if I were to declare that 'one meter' is the length of my outspread arms, people will tell me I'm wrong not for any physical, objective reason, but because what I've said disagrees with what someone else previously said, which everyone else already agrees with.

In effect, Wittgenstein is noticing a pervasive and deep-seated illusion. If we pick up a brick, we think the brick must exist because we have a word for it. It's a brick, and 'a brick' is what it is. And clearly something in the objective world exists because we are holding it in our hand, so the association is natural. But for some being without the word 'brick' in its head — a space alien, a cat, a newborn baby — this 'brick' isn't distinguished in any obvious way from a rock, a piece of wood, a coffee mug, etc. For such beings 'bricks' do not exist, even if the thing that we call 'a brick' is sitting right in front of them. We have to teach them "this is what we call 'a brick'", thus bringing them into the language convention in which 'brick' is defined. After that, 'bricks' will become part of the (ostensibly) natural and immutable order of their world.

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