• Pranay Bhati

Wittgenstein On Language

Updated: Feb 3

By Pranay Bhati


This article tries to make clear the main outline of Wittgenstein's thought and his contribution to the philosophy of language. Considered by many as the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, his philosophy is often divided into two periods. The earlier period, exemplified by his book Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and the later period, primarily expressed through his book philosophical investigations. The "early Wittgenstein" focused primarily on the logical relationship between propositions and the world and he believed that by providing an account of the logic underlying this relationship, he had solved all philosophical problems. The "later Wittgenstein", however, rejected many of the assumptions of the Tractatus, and instead argued that words gain meaning by being understood as their use within a given language-game. Ludwig Wittgenstein believed a lot of unhappiness comes in this world because we can’t let other people know what we mean clearly enough (Proops, 2001). As such, Communication problems were the main areas he picked for his research. This paper will look at both the earlier and later period of Wittgenstein and how his work contributed to language.

The Early Wittgenstein

Wittgenstein's main aim of writing his book Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is to show that the problems of philosophy can be solved by coming to a proper understanding of how language works. He puts this by saying that we shall solve the problems of philosophy when we understand the logic of our language. This thought is central to his philosophy and remains present in earlier and later phases. Still, Wittgenstein's views about ‘the logic of language’ differ markedly in these two phases, with the later taking as its basis a repudiation of some of the earlier phase's most central themes. His objective is to solve the problems of philosophy, and he intends to do so by showing how language works. Philosophical problems cannot be solved by empirical means, by looking through a telescope or microscope, or by conducting experiments in a laboratory (Grayling, 2001). They are conceptual and logical problems, requiring conceptual and logical investigation. Since classical antiquity, great many philosophers have attempted the task of clarifying and answering the questions of philosophy. Almost every philosopher who contributed to philosophy agrees to the importance of studying metaphysical concepts like existence, knowledge, truth, value, etc. Wittgenstein runs contrary to this thought. His view is that the proper task of philosophy is not one of engagement with the issues mentioned, for in his opinion they involve spurious problems which are arisen as a result of misunderstandings about language. The proper task of philosophy, he says, is to make the nature of our thought and talk clear, for then the traditional problems of philosophy will be recognized as Illusionary and therefore vanish. Wittgenstein’s philosophy, in both his earlier and later works, attempts to solve the traditional philosophical problems through this method only. He argues that language possess an underlying logical structure, which provides limits to what can clearly and meaningfully be said. The importance of this, in Wittgenstein's view, is that what can be said is the same as what can be thought; so that once one has grasped the nature of language, and therefore of what can clearly and significantly be thought, one has shown the limit beyond which language and thought become nonsense. It is this area, beyond the boundaries of sense, where in Wittgenstein's opinion traditional philosophical problems arise. Wittgenstein in one of his letters to Russel wrote “The main point [of the Tractatus] is the theory of what can be expressed by propositions i.e., by language (and, which comes to the same thing, what can be thought), and what cannot be expressed by propositions, but only shown; which, I believe, is the cardinal problem of philosophy.” The issue of these claims for Wittgenstein is that the proper task of philosophy is to say nothing except what can be said, i.e., the propositions of natural science " i.e., something that has nothing to do with philosophy " and then, whenever someone else wanted to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had failed to give a meaning to certain signs in his propositions (Wittgenstein, 1921). But this negative result is not the whole story, for in Wittgenstein's view such matters as ethics and aesthetics, religion, and the ‘problems of life’ are not themselves ruled out as nonsensical. (Wittgenstein, 1921). There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical Here ‘showing’ rather than ‘saying’ is all that is possible. (Wittgenstein, 1921). Wittgenstein also mentions that some truly significant issues are identified by what the Tractatus does not say, as the Tractatus shows from within the limits of language what is important. Therefore, the tractus attempts to reveal the nature of language and its relation to the world, which in effect amounts to explaining how meaning attaches to the propositions we assert. In his book Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein developed a linguistic theory of language called picture theory of language or picture theory of meaning. The main reason for why he developed this theory was in trying to understand how people communicate with one another through language, how we can transpose different ideas to each other with articulated sense. By adopting Logical positivism and Logical Atomism, it was also with the intent to try to unearth an understanding of what is true in reality and how language is used to describe these realities. In order to understand the relation between language and the world, he developed a metaphysics to understand this relation. The main thesis of the tractus is that structure of language consists of complex propositions which consists of atomic propositions such as necessary names and logical connectors among others (Kuusela & Mcginn,2011). As language is a tool used to describe a simple object which are combined or are in a state of affairs which the complex proposition depicts. The language to world connection is, therefore, a picturing relation. Thus, words and language serve as pictures of reality to describe reality. In simple terms, the way we communicate is through language but more refined through the transportation of mental pictures. Words trigger within us pictures of how things are in the world which enable us to imagine pictures of facts, describing something in relation with another connects them together and helps another person to paint a picture in their mind and understand. People communicate by exchanging pictures between themselves but even so communications break down between people. This is because we are many a times not able to paint the correct and accurate pictures that we want them to see. In other words, communication breaks down as people may have the wrong pictures of what we mean. These problems of communication starts because we don’t have a clearer picture of what we mean in our own heads. We say meaningless or muddled or unelaborated things which go nowhere in minds of another. Furthermore, another danger associated with this is that we take more meaning from words than they were intended. Against this Wittgenstein gives a plea to all – speak more carefully and less impulsively. whereof one cannot speak, therefore must be silent. The workings of language depend upon its underlying logical structure. The world and human thought in general have a coupling structure in the laws of logic meaning they have the same logical structure; therefore, to solve the problems of philosophy we must, says Wittgenstein, make clear to ourselves the nature of that underlying logical structure the best way to understand such phenomenon in the world is by using symbols to either model or picture reality. The Picture theory of meaning was inspired by Wittgenstein’s reading of a Paris courtroom case wherein figurative models of toy cars were used to represent and understand the happenings of a car clash. These toy cars were used to represent events that may or may not have occurred. In the use of such models, it was required to be stipulated which models corresponded to which objects and which relations between toys were meant to represent which relation between those objects. Wittgenstein’s observed that better understanding of the world required pictorial representation to acknowledge what occurred or could occur. More accurately, he believed that the logical structure of pictures is isomorphic with language i.e., the combination of elements in a picture represents the combination of objects in a state of affairs. What Wittgenstein reiterates is that both language and the world have a structure. Language consists in propositions, and these are compounds made up of what he calls elementary propositions, which in turn are combinations of names. Names are the ultimate constituents of language. Correspondingly, the world consists in the totality of facts, and facts are compounded out of states of affairs, which in turn are compounded out of objects. Each level of structure in language matches a level of structure in the world. The objects, which are the ultimate constituents of the world, are denoted by the ultimate constituents of language, the names; names combine to form elementary propositions, which correspond to states of affairs; and each of these further combines to form, respectively, propositions and the facts which, in a sense to be explained, those propositions ‘picture’. What he concludes is that without the logical structure of proposition whereby the use of simple sign and symbols relate in a state of affairs, such a sign is meaningless, therefore, only propositions which picture reality are relevant. Those propositions that don’t manifest or picture a reality we can know are not true and are those which he referred to as nonsense. And because the content of ethics, religion, and the ‘problems of life’ lie outside the world & outside the realm of facts and their constituent states of affairs & nothing can be said about them. To try to say anything about them is, given the way language works, to fall into nonsense. This does not, as mentioned, mean that ethics and the rest are themselves nonsense. It is only the attempt to talk about them which is so. In Wittgenstein's view, matters of ethical and religious significance show themselves; they cannot be stated. Thus, all philosophical problems are actually language problems and metaphysics is nothing but the outcome of the same. According to Wittgenstein, all philosophical question of the past such as the definitions of metaphysical can’t be answered as they are of a language problem and not of philosophical problems.

Later Wittgenstein

During his later years, Wittgenstein himself attacked the core doctrine of his picture theory of meaning to him believing that’s an oversimplification of thought and language in relation to the world. He specifically attacked its fundamental basis which was that of logical atomism but essentially attacked the idea that words strictly get their meaning by standing for objects. He realized that neither propositions nor the possible state of affairs it depicts, which he had argued share simple facts of logical forms or that of proposition, has the same logical form but that all such meaning are not contingent but dependent on different cultural perspectives and the varying utility of those words within particular cultures. Therefore, the meaning of words develops from its localized utility and perspectivism rather than from holistic logic of universalism. Wittgenstein in his later philosophy largely shies away from systematic philosophizing and shows great aversion to it. The meaning of an expression is its use in the multiplicity of practices which go to make up language. Language is not something complete and autonomous which can be investigated independently of other considerations, for language is woven into all human activities and behaviour, and accordingly our many different uses of it are given content and significance by our practical affairs, our work, our dealings with one another and with the world we inhabit; a language, in short, is part of the fabric of an inclusive ‘form of life’. Since language depends on our culture and ‘forms of life’, the notion of a private language becomes nonsensical. It becomes pointless to develop a Private Language that describes inner sensations of a person only they could understand as no criteria could be fixed for the proper use of those words. A lot of our self-understanding depends on the works of others. As such, language developed publicly and communally over many centuries. Talking about inner sensations isn’t similar to talking about overt things in environment, except that object referred by both are not in the public view. Language becomes a public tool for the understanding of private life. The concept of knowledge, doubt, and justification operate differently when talking about private language. For example, people other than me can know I am in pain by observing my overt behaviour: the fact they cannot feel my pain is no impediment to their knowledge. Conversely, I don’t “know” I am in pain, as pain is something I feel, not an object of knowledge (Grayling, 2001). He argues that philosophical problems will vanish when the workings of language are properly grasped. Until philosophers apply the remedy of looking into those workings, they are like flies trapped in a bottle, helplessly buzzing about. The aim in philosophy is to show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle (Wittgenstein, 1967). This is done by understanding how language is used in a particular context. language is not one uniform thing. It’s used to report, inform, affirm, deny, speculate, playact, sing, guess riddles, make jokes, solve problems, translate, request, thank and, much else besides this. All these different activities Wittgenstein calls ‘Language Games’ (Wittgenstein, 1967). These are multiple of these ‘games’ and they represent the patterns of intention of an individual. words can be used for playing the Rational prediction from available facts or words as an instrument of comfort and security. Misunderstandings arise when we don’t understand which kind of game someone is involved in. Working out these games is key to good communication. The earlier sections describe how language learning through naming objects (a key argument of the Tractatus) is intrinsically flawed (Ahmed, 2010). It’s not wrong to say that words name things and people are taught the meaning of words usually by pointing one's finger at the object named. But this demonstrative method cannot be the fundamental relationship joining language to the world because in order to understand that an object is being named the learner should understand at least part of that language already namely, the language-game of naming objects. Meaning that, a certain word might evoke an image or, because of memory associations, say, a pleasant feeling but these do not constitute the word's meaning or one's understanding of it. There are no strict definitions or certain boundaries that determine our use of words. No strict definition of ‘game’ can include all games while excluding all that are not games. The relationship between all those characterized under ‘games’ is like the relationship of members of a family; there is resemblance but not such that a rigid name can be given to it. Their boundaries are flexible. The purpose of these investigation into their relationship is not to give an underlying theory explaining the surface features of language. Instead, Wittgenstein asserts there is nothing beneath this surface. Therefore, philosophy should focus on how language is outwardly used and not used to develop metaphysical theories which generalize how language works. In conclusion, Wittgenstein ideas give an original form to thoughts and points of view. Many of Wittgenstein’s ideas becomes essential to unearth and put light on the essential problems we have with language in a sociological sense when it comes to understanding, interpretation, and truth.

Pranay is a second-year B.A.LL.B. student at NLU-Delhi.


  1. Proops, I. (2001). The New Wittgenstein: A Critique. European Journal Of Philosophy, 9(3), 375-404.

  2. Grayling, A., & Wittgenstein, L. (2001). A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  3. Wittgenstein, L. (1921). Tractatus logico-philosophicus.

  4. Kuusela, O., & Mcginn, M. (2011). The Oxford handbook of Wittgenstein. Oxford: University Press.

  5. Wittgenstein, L. (1967). Philosophical investigations, Transl, by G.E.M. Anscombe, (Repr.). Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

  6. Ahmed, A. (2010). Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations: A Reader's Guide. Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd.