In his logico-philosophical treatise, if I have understood correctly, Wittgenstein proposes a demonstration of the fact that philosophical questions are not real problems but the result of misunderstandings in language.

Does the so-called "second Wittgenstein" still hold this view?

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    For those unversed in the jargon, "second Wittgenstein" is the late Wittgenstein of Philosophical Investigations.
    – Conifold
    Dec 21, 2021 at 23:43
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    His earlier view is summarized in Tractatus's WP ref: the book has a therapeutic aim...The confusion that the Tractatus seeks to dispel is not a confused theory, rather the need of any such theory is confused... But his later view is milder and friendlier towards philosophy as referenced here: This conception is considered and ultimately rejected for being too general; that is, as an essentialist account of the nature of language it is simply too narrow to be able to account for the variety of things we do with language... Dec 22, 2021 at 1:14
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    Wittgenstein begins Philosophical Investigations with a quote from Augustine's Confessions, which represents the view that language serves to point out objects in the world... In this picture of language we find the roots of the following idea: Every word has a meaning. This meaning is correlated with the word. It is the object for which the word stands. So clearly the later Wittgenstein recanted his earlier picture theory of language in his Tractatus, in favor of his new use theory of meaning (the "use is meaning" axiom) and the controversial rule-following paradox which Kripke supports... Dec 22, 2021 at 1:22
  • @DoubleKnot Thanks for the quote, it partly answers my question
    – user49505
    Dec 22, 2021 at 10:05
  • you might be interested in this question and its answers : philosophy.stackexchange.com/q/24822/13958
    – hellyale
    Jan 4, 2022 at 19:43

2 Answers 2


What Wittgenstein thought in his second phase is often difficult to parse out -- as he often did not articulate his views in unambiguous terms. Note Wittgenstein himself described Philosophical Investigations as being exploratory and fragmented. Quotes from it can often be used to support directly self-contradicting claims or interpretations.

One way to understand what Wittgenstein thought in this latter phase, is to look at what his students who studied with him thought when applying his thinking more directly to philosophy. These students created a philosophical movement, Ordinary Language Philosophy, which for decades was dominated by these students views. The "Wittgensteinian" phase of the Ordinary Language philosophy movement is therefore a good way to characterize what Wittgenstein thought.

From SEP's entry on Ordinary Language Philosophy, https://iep.utm.edu/ord-lang/#:~:text=Ordinary%20Language%20philosophy%2C%20sometimes%20referred%20to%20as%20%E2%80%98Oxford%E2%80%99,so%20is%20distinct%20from%20the%20Philosophy%20of%20Language%29.

It is notable that, methodologically, Ideal and Ordinary Language philosophy both placed language at the center of philosophy, thus taking the so-called ‘linguistic turn’ (a term coined by Bergmann 1953, pp. 65) – which is to hold the rather more radical position that philosophical problems are (really) linguistic problems.

Certainly both the Ideal and Ordinary Language philosophers argued that philosophical problems arise because of the ‘misuses of language’, and in particular they were united against the metaphysical uses of language. Both complained and objected to what they called ‘pseudo-propositions’. Both saw such ‘misuses’ of language as the source of philosophical problems. But although the Positivists ruled out metaphysical (and many other non-empirically verifiable) uses of language as nonsense on the basis of the Verification Principle, the Ordinary Language philosophers objected to them as concealed non-ordinary uses of language – not to be ruled out, as such, so long as criteria for their use were provided.

As noted in the SEP, these Wittgensteinian OLPs were not fans of metaphysics, and generally considered metaphysical claims to be misuse of language.

Further commentary from the SEP article:

The Ordinary Language philosophers, did not, strictly speaking, ‘reject’ metaphysics (to deny the existence of a metaphysical realm is itself, notice, a metaphysical contention). Rather, they ‘objected’ to metaphysical theorizing for two reasons. Firstly, because they believed it distorted the ordinary use of language, and this distortion was itself a source of philosophical problems. Secondly, they argued that metaphysical theorizing was superfluous to our philosophical needs – metaphysics was, basically, thought to be beside the point. Both objections rested on the view that our ordinary perceptions of the world, and our ordinary use of language to talk about them, are all we need to observe in order to dissipate philosophical perplexity. On this view, metaphysics adds nothing, but poses the danger of distorting what the issues really are.

The concept of philosophy as "therapy" to dismiss philosophical questions, is actually a latter Wittgenstein premise. The early W just dismissed metaphysics as nonsense. This is described in the SEP article as well:

What we do is bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use. (Section 116)

The idea that philosophical problems could be dissolved by means of the observation of the ordinary uses of language was referred to, mostly derogatively, by its critics as ‘therapeutic positivism’ (see the critical papers by Farrell 1946a and 1946b). It is true that the notion of ‘philosophy as therapy’ is to be found in the texts of Wittgenstein (1953, Section 133) and particularly in Wisdom (1936; 1953). However, the idea of philosophy as therapy was not an idea that was taken too kindly by traditional philosophers. The method was referred to by Russell as “…procurement by theft of what one has failed to gain by honest toil” (quoted in Rorty 1992, pp. 3). This view of philosophy was marked as a kind of ‘quietism’ about the real philosophical problems (a stubborn refusal to address them), and even as a kind of ‘nihilism’ about the prospects of philosophy altogether (once ‘misuses’ of language have been revealed, philosophical problems would disappear). It was only later at Oxford that Ordinary Language philosophy was eventually able to shrug off the association with the view that philosophical perplexity is a ‘disease’ that needed to be ‘cured’.

  • Thank you for your answer
    – user49505
    Jan 5, 2022 at 18:07

Early Wittgenstein (Tractatus era) was invested in Russell's paradigm: he wanted to help create a rational, scientific philosophy that supplemented the Empiricist worldview prominent in the Anglophone world. He wasn't against 'philosophical' questions as much as he was against 'metaphysical' questions — questions which could not be reduced to 'natural science' investigations — because metaphysical questions (to the Russellian mindset) contained symbols that could not be resolved to empirical objects. Within that worldview, logical symbols (e.g., words or concepts) were expected to have clear and stable referents; that was seen as an essential component of rational, scientific philosophy.

Later Wittgenstein confronted the problems and paradoxes that arose within Russell's strict rational philosophy, and shifted his view. Symbol/object referents became (for him) conventional: established not by any absolute or fixed necessity, but by rules and standards of use within a language community. Moreover, language communities often had clusters of rules and standards centered around different purposes — what Wittgenstein called 'language games', using 'game' in the sense of a rule-defined interaction for a particular purpose — and so a given symbol might have different usages and meanings depending on which language game it was embedded in. Thus the term 'bed' means one thing in a 'sleep' language game, another in a 'gardening' language game, and something else entirely in a 'sex' language game.

Because of this shift, Wittgenstein's attitude towards metaphysical (philosophical) questions changed. Instead of dismissing such questions as non-meaningful (lacking in referents) as he did in the Tractatus, he now asserted that such questions were the starting point for philosophical 'therapy'. Philosophical therapy involved investigating exactly how terms were being used within a linguistic context — what language games are being invoked, what conventions are in play, etc. — to look for misuses of language. The analogy he might use would be this: if someone playing chess jumps his king diagonally over another piece to capture it, he has used a rule from the wrong game (the way kings behave in checkers). Once he is made aware of the error, he will naturally go back to using chess rules, and the problem will disappear. Likewise, when someone is engaging in 'philosophy', they are (perhaps) applying the wrong language rules in the wrong language game; once the person sees the error in rules and usage, the philosophical problem will simply disappear (be healed).

The second approach is more open to metaphysical problems, because it doesn't rely on a (difficult to parse) correspondence between symbol and referent. It merely relies on the examination and rationalization of conventional usage within linguistic rule-sets. It's a point I think many of the prominent Ordinary Language philosophers overlooked or glossed over.

  • Thank you for your answer
    – user49505
    Jan 5, 2022 at 18:07
  • Ted -- I agree with your premise that Wittgenstein's later thinking has the potential to embrace metaphysics and philosophic questions in general as valid activity. But those views can be interpreted in multiple directions. Why do you reject that the views of his students, who had a lot more interaction with him than just reading PI, should not be reasonably treated as showing how W himself interpreted his revised language views? They were pretty universal in trying to "cure" people who tried to do philosophy.
    – Dcleve
    Jan 5, 2022 at 23:43
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    @Dcleve: Well... To put it in Kuhnian terms, I see Wittgenstein as wrestling with some real philosophical anomalies and on the verge of a paradigmatic moment (which he never quite achieved himself), but I tend to see the Ordinary Language school as a retreat from that: more an effort to revitalize conventional Analytical Philosophy by incorporating some of W's worldview than really expanding W's work. Maybe it's just that I tend to follow W's lead in a different direction... Jan 6, 2022 at 0:35

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