Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Major Works

Wittgenstein, Ludwig.  Major Works. New York: Harper Perennial, [reprint] 2009.

This collection doesn’t have Phil. Investigations, but it does contain Tractatus, the Blue and Brown Books, and On Certainty.

Even though LW later criticized Tractatus, it’s my favorite of his works.  The way of analysis in it is near perfect and it is much easier to follow than Brown and Blue Books.


By correlating language and world, Wittgenstein is saying I can’t step outside my world.  What is the world? It is the totality of existent atomic facts (2.04).

Metaphysics: objects from the substance of the world.  Substance is form + content (7-8).

He advances the bold thesis that everything is decided by logic (81).

Language and Pictures:  we see pictures of facts, where the picture is a model of reality (2.12; 4.01).

Representation: the picture is like a scale applied to reality (2.1512).  The relation which makes it a picture also belongs to that picture.  Yet, the picture cannot represent its form of representation.  It can only show it.

States of affairs

Signs: a simple sign in a proposition is a “name” (3.202).

A proposition cannot say anything about itself, for the propositional sign cannot be contained in itself (3.332). I think what he means by this is in his next line: “a function cannot be its own argument.”   I think Wittgenstein sees propositions as similar to functions. If the function F(fx) could be its own argument, then there would be the proposition F(F(fx)), and so on.

Blue Book

Key argument: the sign gets its significance from the system of signs, from the language to which it belongs (90).  As he says later on, “Language games are the forms of language with which a child begins to make use of words” (105).

Thoughts on intention: he denies that intention is a particular mental process (125).  Well, true if by it we mean that intentionality isn’t located in the mind. It is a movement of the mind to the object.

Conclusion: it is the particular use of a word that gives it its meaning (171).


1) What is the difference between a sign and the meaning of a sign (127)?

The Brown Book

Augustine learned to speak by learning the names of things (179).  LW then introduces his famous “brick” illustration. A guy points and says “brick.”  What he means is throw him the next brick. We know this because the “language-game” background is construction.

As James K. A. Smith helpfully notes, “Community precedes correspondence” (Smith, Who’s Afraid of Relativism? 53).  In other words, meaning isn’t just “the object for which the word stands.”

A language game is a system of communication. They are “complete in themselves, as complete systems of information” (185).  From that we can say that a sentence is a sign within a language game.

LW resists the idea of universals.  Let’s take his example. You have an array of red objects.  What is common to each of them? You would naturally say “red.” We would call that the universal “redness.”  So far, so good. He suggests it doesn’t work like that. “Let’s take a language (and that means again a culture) in which there existed no common expression for light blue and dark blue, in which the former, say, was called Cambridge, the latter Oxford.  If you asked a man of this tribe what Cambridge and Oxford have in common, he would be inclined to say “Nothing”” (252).

Hmm.  Okay. I suppose that works on colors.  I don’t think his rebuttal works on other types of universals.

That’s the essence of the book and I think it is fairly on point.  Wittgenstein’s genius is in very clear illustrations. I do feel this book could have been 100 pages shorter.

On Certainty

Take the question “How do you know?” The answer to that question presupposes “This can be known in that way.”  The original question was GE Moore’s “How can I know this is my hand?” The answer is to show it (sec. 40).

Wittgenstein wants to remove “this transcendent certainty, which is connected with your concept of spirit” (sec. 47). How do you know mathematical rules?  You know them by doing them. Full stop. He is pushing back against the idea of a relation between term A and term B.

LW does allow for a correspondence “between rule and meaning” (sec. 62).

Summary of argument: when language games change, there is a change in concepts, and with concepts the meaning of words change (65).

Moving on, if everything is now a language-game, then logic becomes a description of a language-game. If something’s being correct depends upon its place in a language game, and logic is usually one of the ways we can tell that, then logic, too, must be within a language-game.

This means that “all testing, all confirmation….takes place already within a system” (sec. 105). A system isn’t a point of departure.  It is the field in which our arguments have life. When we first believe something, we believe the whole system of propositions (141).

This totality of judgment is a “world-picture.” It is the “substratum of all my enquiring and asserting” (162).

Nota bene: my judgments characterize the way I judge. A proposition doesn’t always have to be “fixed” to be reliable.  They are like an axis. The axis is always moving but the moving body revolves around it (152).

LW has some excellent suggestions about the nature of doubt (115). Doubting always presupposes certainty. Doubt is parasitic upon certainty. In fact, I can doubt many things that are important, but that is irrelevant.  I can doubt its absolute truth but if it is working fine within my language game, then I don’t worry too much about the doubting. I think this is the clearest statement of pragmatism in LW.

Conclusion: a language-game is only possible if one trusts something (509).   Truth is doxastic.


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