Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951 CE) , my favorite modern European philosopher, said that teaching Ethics is impossible.  Now that we have reached the end of our Ethics course, it is useful to wrap up by considering what we are doing when we learn about Ethics, and whether or not what we learn can be put into meaningful practice.  Why would Wittgenstein say that Ethics is unteachable, and does this mean that an Ethics class, including ours, is meaningless?


Wittgenstein had two periods of this thinking.  His early work is found in his Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, the only book published in his lifetime.  In this book, Wittgenstein presented the world with his truth table method of logic, which is still taught today in logic classes, thoroughly replacing Aristotle’s syllogisms.  This early work was foundational for Logical Positivism and the Vienna Circle, dominating Analytic thought until the 1960s.  Wittgenstein spent the twenty years between returning to Cambridge in 1929 and his death in 1951 writing, revising and reordering notebooks that would become his Philosophical Investigations and other posthumous works, arranged and published by those he trusted most after his death.  He considered publishing his Investigations alongside his Tractatus to show his later thinking in contrast against the “grave mistakes” of his earlier work.

Wittgenstein philosophical investigations cover

In an end of the century poll in the year 2000, philosophy professors from America and Canada were asked to list the five most important books that influenced their own work.  When the results were tallied, the Philosophical Investigations was first, and the Tractatus was fourth.  The Philosophical Investigations was cited far more frequently than any other book, was listed first on far more ballots, and crossed over more into many different disciplines and areas of study than any other book.

hitler-and-wittgenstein class photo closeup

Wittgenstein’s Father was one of the richest men in Austria, who made a fortune in steel and invested in American bonds during the Great Depression.  Though his father was Protestant and his mother Jewish, Ludwig was baptized Catholic because of antisemitism at the time.  The Wittgenstein family, with many brothers and sisters, were known for great artistic talent and suicidal depression.  Wittgenstein attended elementary school for a brief time with Adolf Hitler.  Wittgenstein was two days younger than Hitler, but because he was put forward a grade and Hitler was held back a grade Wittgenstein was two years ahead.  Both he and Hitler hated the school and their lessons.

wright brothers glider

As Wittgenstein was completing his undergraduate education, the Wright brothers successfully flew their motorized glider.  They telegraphed the US Army to tell them the news, but the Army refused to believe them for another three years.  Wittgenstein began studying in Berlin to become an engineer with an interest in flight, but after failing in his attempt to build a better propeller, he began studying mathematical theory and philosophy of mathematics, becoming entranced with the Logical Positivism of Frege and Russell.

Bertrand Russell

Wittgenstein went to see Frege, but Frege did not understand his questions and advised him to see Russell in Britain, which he did in 1911.  He showed up unannounced to Russell’s room at Trinity College and impressed him with his intense and brilliant arguments, most famously about whether there certainly was not a rhino in the room with them.  Russell became convinced that the young Austrian was going to carry his own work forward and be his successor, solving the remaining problems of logic that Russell’s work on the foundations of mathematics had left open.  Russell had shown there were contradictions unresolved in Frege’s work with Set Theory, but Russell had become frustrated trying to solve these contradictions with his Theory of Types, which also contained unresolved contradictions.

Wittgenstein in norway

Wittgenstein, an eccentric and difficult personality, was never fully comfortable at Cambridge and often got into disagreements with Russell, threatening to leave many times before fleeing to Norway where he finished his Tractatus.  He tried to get it published, but no one would take it, so Russell intervened back in Cambridge, wrote an introduction to it and had it published.  Wittgenstein read the introduction and realized Russell had greatly misunderstood his work.  Believing that his Tractatus had solved all the problems of Logic, Wittgenstein left Russell and Cambridge again and went to be a school teacher in Austria.  He gave away his portion of the family fortune, anonymously to writers but also to his rich family saying, “They won’t be corrupted by it”.  He left the school after a short while, became a gardener’s assistant, and then his sister had him design her a house.

wittgenstein house

While finishing the house, he was contacted by members of the Vienna Circle, Positivists who hoped that Wittgenstein’s Tractatus could give a solid foundation for science and logic.  Realizing that they had misunderstood his work much like Russell, Wittgenstein became increasingly disgusted.  He began to realize that there were fundamental problems with his Tractatus and truth tables, and got into intense arguments with the Vienna Circle members, at one point turning his back on his guests and reading Tagore, an Indian transcendental poet, out loud until they left.  For the rest of his life, Wittgenstein thought the Logical Positivists misunderstood his Tractatus.

Cambridge King's college

In 1929, he decided to return to Cambridge to correct his thinking and teach.  To his horror, when he arrived at the train station he was greeted by a vast crowd of intellectuals as the author of the Tractatus, the work he now thought was wrong.  The famous economist John Maynard Keynes wrote to his wife, “Well, God has arrived.  I met him on the 5:15 train“.  Wittgenstein continued to lecture at Cambridge, developing his ideas.  In 1934, he visited Soviet Russia and considered defecting, saying that he wanted to be a plumber and work with his hands.  When he was told that the Soviets would put him to work as a philosophy professor in Moscow or elsewhere, he returned to Britain.

Wood Fire Oven

In one passage from Lectures and Conversations, notes of his seminar students, Wittgenstein attacked the reductionist approach of Freud, boiling all of human behavior down into the drives towards sex and violence.  Wittgenstein proposes a thought experiment: If we cook a human being down to carbon ash in an oven, are we left with the essence of the human being?  A human being is a carbon-based life form, so carbon is a dominant element.  Consider that we could cook a human down to water in the same oven, and claim that because humans are 3/5ths water we have the essence of the person.  Would it be correct to say that humans are essentially ash, or essentially wet?  Why not?


A human being is a complex situation that is not reducible to a single element.  The properties of carbon or water do not in themselves explain how humans behave or what they mean to us.  If we cooked people down to ashes or water, we have destroyed the complex situation and can no longer investigate how they work.  In the same way, a person is not merely their DNA.  While carbon, water and DNA have very important, even necessary roles to play in any person, they are not exclusively the essence or meaning of the complex that is a human individual.

secret cellar wittgenstein

In the same way, Freud boils human thought and behavior down to sex as if it alone explains anything.  Wittgenstein asks, what would Freud say is the secret meaning of an openly sexual dream?  More sex? Wittgenstein says in the Lectures and Conversations that we have to avoid the “lure of the secret cellar”, the urge to boil situations down to a single element like Freud tried to boil human relations, meaning and the mind down to sex or Wittgenstein himself had tried to boil logic down to its simple and essential structure.  Life is unfortunately not like an episode of Scooby-Doo, where problems are finally resolved after we pull the mask off the single villain, who would have gotten away with it were it not for meddling teenagers, revealing everything important and tying up all loose ends.

Wittgenstein's PokerIn the book Wittgenstein’s Poker, there is an interesting account of Popper’s infamous argument with Wittgenstein.  In 1946 at Cambridge, Karl Popper gave a visiting lecture about the nature of philosophical problems to the Moral Science Club, of which Wittgenstein was the president.  Popper, Russell and Wittgenstein began heatedly arguing about the nature of truth, and Wittgenstein, pacing the aisles in frustration, grabbed a poker from the fireplace and began to gesture with it wildly as he spoke.  Russell asked Wittgenstein to put the poker down, but he refused.  Wittgenstein demanded that Popper give him one example of a universal moral principle, to which Popper replied, “Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers”.  Wittgenstein, furious that Popper had made a joke rather than offer a serious universal example, dropped the poker and left the room in disgust.  Clearly, Popper thought he had bested Wittgenstein, though Popper did not in fact answer the question with a universal underlying law.

The Philosophical Investigations

Wittgenstein wrote in the preface to his Investigations, which he penned before he died and was subsequently published posthumously, that he never found a satisfying order for his later thoughts because they were interconnected in complex ways, like many sketches of landscapes from different perspectives composed over long wandering journeys.  The following is my attempt to weave Wittgenstein’s thoughts together to put the ideas in a more teachable sequence.

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said that all is in flux and we cannot step in the same river twice.  Wittgenstein quoted these two thoughts in different notes and wrote that if we want to understand the forms of life we live, talk out and think through, we must learn to feel at home in primeval chaos.  Our world and ways of life in it continuously change, and so our lives are full of doubts and uncertainties. The bustle of life is not exactly regular, repeating itself often but never entirely, and neither are the ways we speak and think about it.  Uncertainty is in the roots of life and every philosophical question. Wittgenstein said that this difficult point is perhaps the best place to begin doing Philosophy, which includes Ethics.

Would we want to exchange our unpredictable lives of uncertainty for predictable lives of certainty?  Would we want to know what will happen to us in the future, or what exactly we will do next week? Would we want to know what others feel and think, eliminating the possibility of lies, jokes, games and mysteries?  It is not clear that we would trade our lives in for certainty, as living in certainty would be quite unfamiliar and possibly unpleasant. It is quite clear that we would not trade our lives in for complete chaos. Thankfully, there are things that remain somewhat the same that we grow to trust as familiar, familiar people such as parents, family, friends, doctors, teachers and authorities, familiar objects such as food, toys, tools, and furniture, and familiar places such as home, school, parks, stores, streets, roads and trails.

We absorb the ways of each of these things as we familiarize with them growing up, learning what things are included and excluded, gathered and divided, added and subtracted, as we watch many things getting done and many mistakes being made all around us.  We watch things get broken into smaller, simpler parts or included in larger, complex groups depending on how they are used. We learn to trust and distrust things being included and excluded as we learn to talk and think.

Just as we are not taught to play chess in our minds without a board and pieces, meaning is not privately inside our minds but rather public, shared practices in familiar circumstances where we have learned how to do things.  Most of the time, in familiar everyday cases, we easily understand and use words, but the stranger the case the less clear it is what to say or how what is said should be used. If all cases were abnormal the ways we use words would not work, just as if lumps of cheese unpredictably changed size weighing and pricing cheese would be useless and thus meaningless.

We come to feel familiar with many ways of doing things, just as we feel with old friends, but ways that are different feel unfamiliar, strange and odd, as we feel with complete strangers who approach us with unknown purposes.  Most everyday ways feel neither familiar nor strange and we pay them little attention, as we do with random people we pass on the street. We learn to trust ourselves and others, and even objects and places, but not completely. We misunderstand and are misunderstood, creating problems that require interaction and negotiation.  Much of the time we trust the familiar without thinking, sitting in a chair that happens to collapse, and other times we trust with too much thinking, reasoning away what we hope isn’t true. Regardless, trusting as we do in situations that are always somewhat unknown and unfamiliar is the background and backdrop of all the ways we speak and think about what is and isn’t.

Wittgenstein remarked that if he looked out his window and saw a strange unfamiliar world that he would suppose he’d gone mad.  Trust is so central to truth and meaning, to grounding the ways of our lives, that if we found ourselves in an unfamiliar world, we would doubt our own senses and reasoning, the most trustworthy and reliable sources of experience and evidence in our lives.  This is why Zhuangzi the Daoist can wonder if he is a butterfly dreaming he is a man and Descartes can imagine that this world is the work of a deceiving demon.

We teach young children language by directing their attention to things and saying words to help them form associations, and things which have been associated together increasingly feel as if they fit and belong.  Consider that children learn to use words such as ‘this’ and ‘that’, but we cannot point to what ‘this’ or ‘that’ are in themselves as they are used to refer to many different things, but children learn to use these words by watching others use them, associating the act of pointing to or talking about things with the words in sorts of situations.  Just as a brake lever in a train cabin is only a break in conjunction with the rest of the machine, words are useful because they are situated in the familiar background of our lives.

In Wonderland, a duck is asked if he knows what the word ‘it’ means, and he replies that for him ‘it’ typically is a rock or a worm, and the question is what did the archbishop find.  We do not need to think of complete descriptions of what we mean in words as we mean things with words, just as we do not need to be conscious of whether we use four words or five to mean something with certainty.  The meaning of what we say is not found in words alone, but in the entire situation of using them. Because language works in familiar living situations, we can still use names of people and objects long after they are dead and gone.

The meaning of a word is overall the way it is used.  Just as a toolbox holds many different tools, such as a hammer, pliers, saw, screwdriver, ruler, glue, nails, screws and other useful things for putting things together and taking things apart, languages have many types of words that are used in many ways.  Similarly, a train cabin has a crank which is moved in circles, a switch that can be on or off, a brake which is intensified with greater pressure and other mechanisms. The various ethical conceptions we learned about in the first half of the course and the ethical problems in the second half are like tools and common situations of tool use.  We can see language best in the situations where it lives and works, not when it it is “on vacation”, as Wittgenstein said, abstracted from its situations.

The forms of life we live, including the language games we play, are not set in permanent stone.  There is no fixed number of ways of using language or thought, with new ways being added and others forgotten, just as we see in the history of mathematics and the sciences.  We can use a picture of a boxer to do many things, such as show someone how to stand, how not to stand, how someone once stood, and countless other things. Language and thought give us innumerable tools to use, and each tool can be used in innumerable ways.  This is entirely opposite the idea that there are a fixed number of forms that complete logic as a set, with each used in a single, universal way, what many philosophers, logicians, mathematicians and scientists wrongly cling to according to Wittgenstein himself.

While we can use words in many different ways and invent new ways to use them, we typically use them in ways we share with others because language would not work as it does without familiar practices and routines.  We cannot say “Bu bu bu,” out of the blue and mean “If it doesn’t rain I’ll go for a walk”. We could get familiar with saying “Bu bu bu” as a regular practice, but saying only once lacks significance as no meaningful association forms.  Humpty Dumpty tells Alice in Through the Looking Glass that when HE uses a word, it means just what he wants it to, but Humpty is an immature egg who doesn’t seem aware that language is a shared practice in which neither the sender nor receiver has complete control or the final word on how the situation is interpreted.

Rather than search for the essential and universal form of all Ethics, putting faith in a final authority that will settle all disputes in this or that area of our lives, we should investigate the interrelated variety of ways that things work and don’t work between participants.  Wittgenstein repeatedly used the terms ‘language games’ and ‘forms of life’ to describe what he found fundamental. Games do not all share one common thing, but board games and card games and ball games are interrelated in many overlapping ways. Sometimes there are multiple players or winners and losers, but not always.

Games do not need to be perfect to be playable.  Our ways and practices rest on unspoken assumptions and expectations.  We only try to describe what our presuppositions and expectations are when we suppose that someone else doesn’t share them and needs to.  The use of a word, like a move in a game, is not entirely bounded by rules, just as there are no rules about how high or hard one can throw the ball when serving in tennis.  We draw boundaries and use rules for specific purposes, such as when there are problems. Because we do not often have problems recognizing the family resemblances shared by games or plants, we do not need to completely define what games, plants or our concepts of Ethics are with rules or words.

Descriptions and rules are not complete explanations, but tools we use for particular problems.  Just as we can tell someone to hang out in a general area rather than stand in a precisely defined spot, we do not always need to replace blurred pictures with sharper ones or general loose conceptions of apples with absolutely complete ones.  What would a complete understanding of apples be, and why would we need it? When we speak about apples in general as apples, we aren’t tracking all of their individual movements. We often need concepts and practices that are open to variation, which is how we learn and teach others through general examples that roughly apply but allow for innumerable exceptions.  We can make our understandings and expressions more exact in ways, but this can mislead us into thinking that complete exactness is our actual and achievable goal.

Just as a sign is placed where it will prevent many from going the wrong way but cannot completely prevent anyone from going the wrong way, ethical rules can prevent misunderstandings but not entirely.  Rules, like signs, can be doubted or interpreted differently. Descriptions, reasons and rules are useful, and can rest on other descriptions, reasons and rules, but because there can always be further disputes about descriptions, further descriptions could always be useful, such that no final description makes further descriptions and conceptions impossible.  Because reasons can remove doubts and misunderstandings, we wrongly think they can remove them all even though further doubts and misunderstandings are always conceivable.

The strength of a thread is not found in a single fiber that runs the whole length, but in the interweaving of many fibers.  Thinking is a similar interweaving. To fully describe our everyday thinking in words would be like trying to repair a spider’s web with our fingers.  Thinking is an interweaving of different elements such as feelings, images and words, and it need not be grounded in one more than another in any particular thought.  When we ask ourselves what reason we have to fear that fire will hurt our hand or expect a table will resist our touch, innumerable reasons drown each other out as we’ve had innumerable experiences.  Perhaps this is why Wittgenstein said that teaching Ethics is impossible, not because it can’t be described, as all things can be described and described again, but because we only learn how to be ethical by living through particular situations, much as we learn about love from loving others and not describing how love feels in words.

The more we seek an ideal universal logic or set of rules in how we speak, think and act, the farther we are from finding good footing in our world, as if trying to walk on slippery ice without a hint of friction.  In order to take significant steps forward in understanding the forms of life we live, we must turn away from the crystal clear ideal world of timeless ghosts that view things from nowhere in particular and return to the rough ground of actual existence, where things can always be slightly more complicated and we can always be quite misinformed in this or that space and at this or that time.  As Wittgenstein said, the point of philosophy is not to spare others the trouble of thinking, but to help others stimulate new thoughts of their own by showing them all the situations they’re in.

Thankfully, our world that we share is full of friction, largely because we share it.  Ethics is about thinking through interacting with others, much as Buddha, Confucius and Jesus said we should treat others the way we want to be treated.  We think to deal with the unfamiliar and unknown in others, which fundamentally concerns whether or not they are working for our interests or against our interests, with or against our feelings and thoughts.  In the middle of Wonderland, the Cheshire Cat tells Alice that everyone in Wonderland is mad, and illustrates this by comparing cats and dogs, with dogs thinking cats are backwards for wagging their tails when angry and growling when happy.  Alice says she calls it purring, not growling, and the cat says she can call it whatever she likes. Everyone is crazy because people do things in particular ways against other people, making everyone backwards and insane to someone opposed to them.

Wittgenstein liked the duck-rabbit optical illusion as an example of looking at one thing appearing two opposite ways, and he reflected that not only would someone raised in a tribe of ducks likely see it one way and another of a rabbit tribe see it the other, but that anyone reading a storybook might look at the image surrounded by ducks and see a duck on one page and then see the same image surrounded by rabbits and see a rabbit on another page, with no recognition that they saw the same image twice.  Perhaps Ethics cannot be taught in words and lectures alone, but it can be shown rather than said, displayed in situations of various interests and perspectives. When the interests and perspectives of others line up with our own, we feel that they are sane and trustworthy, even at their worst. When they don’t line up with ours, we feel frightened and paranoid, sometimes with good reason. This is part of the fundamental human situation, what some might call the human condition.

Wittgenstein said that you can’t command someone who can’t read ancient Greek to read it, but you can command them to go learn ancient Greek and then come back and read it.  Ethics is much like this, in that we read and learn about familiar and unfamiliar situations of human interests and grapple with what we feel and how we think about these things, hopefully such that we can recognize these sorts of situation in our lives as we live them.  A classroom is a situation where you can think abstractly and safely, in a less immediate and less dangerous situation, about the situations you encounter immediately. The result is not simply a form of fixed knowledge, a set of information, but an opportunity to rethink how we feel.  By taking a step back and developing concepts as tools, we may not have final answers for life but we can enable ourselves to act with a wider view in the actual world.