So I was listening to this Podcast about Wittgenstein the speakers are the Professor of Philosophy of University of South Hampton - Ray Monk, Senior Lecturer of University of York - Mary Macgin and Bary Smith Senior Lecturer of Philosophy London. It seems all 3 philosophers cannot agree on the fine points of Wittgenstein.

Given Wittgenstein used the notion of language games to argue that one does not need to define them (language games) itself and a lot of other terms. Can the emergence of different interpretations of Wittgenstein be seen as a failure of his thesis? Or does one argue with the change in times different language games are being played and thus the essence is lost? (Which would then make Socrates question "what is justice?" relevant all over again but additionally meaningful with emergence of any new language game)

  • "different versions" of Wittgenstein maybe means that Wittgenstein's thought changed in time (a fact quite common to most philosophers). May 25, 2022 at 7:15
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA in the podcast they are talking mostly about Philosophical Investigations May 25, 2022 at 7:16
  • Do you mean that "different versions" means different interpretations? Alos this is common to every philosopher. May 25, 2022 at 7:18
  • 1
    @MauroALLEGRANZA yes "different interpretations" (i'll edit the question). I was loosely aware of this phenomena but I think the question articulates it well why this should be specially relevant to Wittgenstein? May 25, 2022 at 7:21
  • The basic reason that every philosophical text is complex and natural language per se is subject to multiple interpretations; thus, we can read the same text from different points of view, with different backgrounds and with different "expectations" May 25, 2022 at 7:25

2 Answers 2


What does the emergence of different interpretations of Wittgenstein signify?

I'm going to answer the question from a different angle: the competition of interpretations have nothing to do with Wittgenstein's work per se, though his work may illuminate why multiple interpretations occur.

In the broadest sense, it signifies properties of natural language: ambiguity and vagueness. But, I'd add a third significant factor: first principles. That Wittgenstein, particularly through his notions of family resemblance, has shaped the conversation that resulted in the linguistic turn or, say, the nature of definition (particularly through prototype theory), in modern linguistics is coincident.

Philosophical arguments come in roughly two flavors: one, where everyone agrees on the general ideas that go into a posteriori reasoning, and two, where there's much ado made about a priori reasoning that precedes discussion. In linguistics, one might hear the phrase 'semantic frame'. In rhetoric, this is observed in the notion of 'framing a debate'. In law, one often hears about 'arguing the facts'. Most broadly, sociologists call this (unsurprisingly) framing. From WP:

In the social sciences, framing comprises a set of concepts and theoretical perspectives on how individuals, groups, and societies organize, perceive, and communicate about reality.

In the language of logic and argumentation theory, one could say there are arguments about premises, and there are arguments about inference. And in fact, to make things more confusing, since there is a body of theory about inference itself, one can argue about premises related to inferences, and about inferences about inference. The end result of this is that philosophical discourse which is conducted through natural language is inherently open to interpretation, an idea that snaked its way right into modern philosophy in ways such indeterminancy of translation and underdetermination of theory being two.

Can the emergence of different interpretations of Wittgenstein be seen as a failure of his thesis?

Not at all. Actually it's a confirmation. You invoke the notion of language games, and to distill, this is just the notion that agents who use language derive and invent meaning based on a normative or goal-oriented basis. That is, it is important to see language as an exchange of sound with the agendas of the agents involved, a notion that is in essence an organizing principle of pragmatics. And if different agents (read philosophers) have different values and goals, shouldn't we expect that they attempt to create and use language to achieve different ends, and thus they differ in their artifacts such as definitions and theories? Of course!

Furthermore, this is important to understand, because it leads into a very revolutionary idea at the time, the notion that the meaning of language, semantics, is not strictly speaking a property of an entity called language, but a process of interpretation of agency. This is part of the focus of the linguistic turn, where the philosophy of language experienced some serious growth.

Of course, this wouldn't surprise LW at all. The preface to Tractatus starts thusly:

Perhaps this book will be understood only by someone who has himself already had the thoughts that are expressed in it -- or at least similar thoughts.

So, what's up with the interpretations of LW's work? Maybe the best starting point to answer that question is what's up with the interpretations of Aristotle's? Plato's? Kant's? Russell's? What's up with the nature of language and interpretation to begin with?

  • I feel this answer could be used for religious scripture as well. So is it possible one interprets Wittgenstein in a way Wittgenstein did not intend? And is that legitimate? May 25, 2022 at 15:01
  • Also thanks for your regular wonderful answers on this community :) some of which I am the beneficiary of May 25, 2022 at 15:02
  • Your welcome. We are here in a cooperative venture to lift discourse on the Internet beyond the Kardashians and cat videos, and insofar as everyone participates in our community, the world is a better place. Thus, I owe you the same quality and quantity of thanks...
    – J D
    May 25, 2022 at 15:03
  • As for the former, it boils down to your views of "legitimacy". I am a pluralist in many regards, and I don't see a problem with philosophy entertaining multiple interpretations of a theory. In fact, I see it as a strength. Were LW still alive, he might rebut claims, or even change his positions a third time, but be that as it may, it is the discourse of disagreement itself that I believe is the strength of philosophy as a practice (my metaphilosophical views). Certainly, we should use language games by their context. In heart surgery, miasma theory should be rejected for germ theory...
    – J D
    May 25, 2022 at 15:06
  • 1
    As for your religious comments, read Paul Ross's profile. He's bright and surely would agree with you. philosophy.stackexchange.com/users/3867/paul-ross
    – J D
    May 25, 2022 at 15:09

If you want to understand the situation around Wittgenstein's work, you are going to have to study it. I put a list of resources, and introductory remarks to his work, in this post here: Introductory lectures to Wittgenstein's ideas

The Private Language Argument, which I would argue is the most significant contribution by Wittgenstein, was developed from just a few of his late remarks, and the 'Beetle in a Box' thought experiment. It's the very opposite of a failure, to have made such a fundamentally simple, provocative point, that has implications towards the foundations of how we think. Wittgenstein ruthlessly avoided jargon, and used the minimum of words - and that can make his remarks seem deceptively simple. They are not.

Different interpretations of Wittgenstein have indeed flourished. See The New Wittgenstein, for a key step in the development, particularly in recasting the link between his early and late work. Personally, I follow the 'resolute reading', that "some of the propositions of the Tractatus are withheld from self-application, they are not themselves nonsense, but point out the nonsensical nature of the Tractatus" quoted from here. Which relates to his later works not repudiating the Tractatus, but fundamentally sharing purposes with it.

I really like this article about what he was at with describing the Tractatus as a ladder to be thrown away after use: Nāgārjuna, Nietzsche, and Rorty’s Strange Looping Trick. I see a deep kinship between Wittgenstein's work, and Hofstadter's ideas of strange-loops and tangled-hierarchies, and that style of observing patterns of thought.

I regard a great deal of Wittgenstein's import as being from his provocations, from his asking questions, not his answering of them. That is surely like Socrates, and no mark of failure in philosophy.

  • While you definitely answer it cannot be seen as a failure of his thesis. Is the conclusion we celebrate the questions Wittgenstein's questions as worthy of consideration, thought and the philosophical endeavor? May 25, 2022 at 13:38
  • But regardless thanks for your study material :) May 25, 2022 at 13:46
  • @MoreAnonymous: Yes. He is pointing towards truths that are unsayable, I see that as his thesis en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – CriglCragl
    May 25, 2022 at 13:47

You must log in to answer this question.

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