Please read Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, p 2 – 23, taking your time to read slowly and carefully, trying to think out what Wittgenstein is trying to point beyond the words.

Buddha and Wittgenstein are two of my favorite philosophers to study and teach, and they share, as Kalupahana and others have noted, a pragmatic, skeptical and anti-foundationalist view of human thought and reality.  Buddha says in the opening of the Dhammapada, We are what we think, and with our thoughts we make the world.”  If so, is the world logical?  Are we or our thoughts logical, unlike the world?  Many philosophers and common folks have trouble saying anything concrete or complete about thought, even though we each end up thinking a great deal all day long.

Wittgenstein was not a Buddhist, but he did quote Heraclitus twice in his notes, saying all is in flux, you can never step in the same river twice, and that this is where philosophy should start.  Unfortunately, in the Philosophical Investigations, which was published by Wittgenstein’s trusted students after his death in 1953, does not start with flux or with the child before any words are known, but rather with simple language games, forms of life where someone purchases five apples or calls for a slab along with established but simple verbal practices.  Much like many Zen koans, Wittgenstein enjoyed using the imagination to understand how thought works, and he enjoyed staging thought experiments, imaginary situations that show us how we think this way and that way in this or that sort of situation.

Imagine you are a newborn baby again.  Laozi says that only he has achieved the high rank of newborn baby who has not yet learned how to giggle.  The world is somewhat a sensuous blur to the newborn, though we now know they are more capable than previously thought.  Babies only a month or two old can follow and check the gazes of adults, for example. We can say with some certainty that babies sense and feel, even if babies take time and experience to understand coherent things in the world and emotions in themselves.  Wittgenstein wrote that if we truly listen to the cry of a baby we can understand all evil humanity can ever do as the Nazis waged war with the world. Perhaps if we listen to a baby giggle with delight we can understand all the good we can do while doing all the evil.

Imagine now you are two years old and have been around the block in a stroller but don’t know a single word yet.  You still sense the world, and you feel emotions, such as happiness that makes you seek things, sadness that makes you avoid things, tension that makes you excited to do things, and calm that makes you accept things as they are.  You can see grownups put objects in front of you, and when they take the objects away, you can remember the objects, can imagine how they felt, tasted, smelled, sounded and looked. You now have three sources for thought: sensations, emotions and imagination.  Imagination is memory, but it is more than memory, and more than visual images. Eyes often get top billing, and sight is quite the distraction from our other senses, just as listening can distract us from how we are upset, or how we slouch in a chair.

Just as sensation is a mixture of touch, tastes, smells, sounds and sights, and so each thing, including people and places, is a tangle of these, we feel emotions about things, people and places, and these emotions are tangled in with the senses as another element composed of elements, with happiness, sadness, tension, calm and other emotions mixed together and then mixed with sensed things.  We have added imagination, which can remember and recall anything sensed or emoted, a tangle which is then mixed in with the other tangles. The Charvakas, the non-orthodox Indian skeptics, would remind us that Mumbai is imaginary if we don’t sense it, and then if we sense it and feel ways about it, our sensations and emotions go from real to imaginary again. Buddha said that memories and ideas are piles (skandas) we acquire through experience that builds up, and our idea of our own selves is one of these.

We already have quite a tangle of tangles, quite the Codependent Arising that Buddha taught, and when Zhaozhou was asked if if infants have all six types of mind he said it is like a ball tossed into the rapids (Case 80 of the Blue Cliff Record).  However, we have three sources of thought, such that we can look at an apple and feel something, or look at an apple an imagine something, or feel something and imagine an apple that isn’t there, with any combination that we draw and experience together called a thought.  Just as sight is the highest sense according to Plato, and it is quite bright and distractive, there is a fourth element of thought which Buddha, Wittgenstein and many other thinkers have pointed out which is quite a problem and has everything to do with the logic of the ancient Greeks.

Words are the final element that is, itself a tangle of elements.  We learn names for individuals and types of things early, but we also learn the word no quite early, which is not as much a name as an expression of emotion and desire.  Words are not the primary element of thought, but they are of great concern and distraction.  Buddha and the many famed Buddhist masters we have studied have many things to say about words, and the role that words, imagination, emotions and sensations intermix and weave to create our reality and all the suffering and problems of human existence.  Let us bring several of the teachings together that touch on the interweaving of life we have described so far.

Buddha suggested that we calm our imagination and verbal reasoning, the parts of our minds that are continuously added to our underlying sensations and emotions we often ignore, which brings us increasing freedom that we can condition in ourselves.  Just as we can look at our whole field of vision rather than only what we are putting in focus, we can let go of words and what we imagine to sense what we sense and feel what we feel. We can then pay greater attention to what we sense, what we feel, what we imagine and what we and others say, with a greater sense of awareness that we and our thoughts are open-ended, impermanent interweavings of many codependent things.  In the Dhammapada, the Buddha says:

An untroubled mind, no longer seeking to consider what is right and what is wrong, a mind beyond judgements, watches and understands.  Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own thoughts, unguarded, but once mastered, no one can help you as much, not even your father or mother.

You have come out of the hollow, into the clearing.  The clearing is empty. Why do you rush back into the hollow?  Desire is a hollow. Quiet your mind. Reflect. Watch. Nothing binds you.  You are free.

Delight in the mastery of your hands and your feet, of your words and your thoughts.  You have no name and no form. Why miss what you do not have? Empty the boat, lighten the load.  Unbolt the doors of sleep, and awake.

In the Brahmajala Sutta of the Long Discourses, the Buddha says that all critical words about us or others is right in ways and wrong in ways, as words are quite simple but in a complex situation of many elements and angles.  In the Potthapada Sutta, Buddha tells Citta that the sorts of selves are merely names, expressions and figures of speech commonly used in the world which the Buddha himself uses without misperceiving them, seeing that they are one element among others.  In his later, greater thinking according to him, Wittgenstein imagines situations and avoids universal claims about all situations, and avoids a complete typology or zoology of thought, as the situational nature of meaning means that sometimes and in some ways things can be true as well as false.  Buddha says people who take sides don’t see that they are wriggly eels, or see the fear and chaos they cause in others, as we are clearly paying more attention to words than we are situationally aware, paying attention to words but also our own emotions and the emotions of others. Buddha says we can gain extraordinary perception and thus be extra-ordinary ourselves, be exceptional, self-aware individuals, as if paying attention to the objects around us and emotions of others gives us superpowers.

In the central Mahasatipatthana Sutta, which conveys many central Buddhist doctrines for Theravada Buddhists, Buddha says, prefiguring Zen, to be aware of chewing, savoring food, taking a piss or giving a crap.  The body is like a bag of various grains, here this organ and that, there this element or that, and the aware can examine the body with the body as awareness much like a butcher slaughtering a cow at a crossroads, with this part of the cow’s body this way and another part that way, with the body as place that awareness traverses.  When we see bodies in graveyards, bloated and decaying, bitten and picked at by crows, vultures, dogs and jackals, or see a flesh-less, scattered skeleton, we should keep in mind that this and every other body has the same fate. Buddha says there is sensation of the body, emotion and how we feel, awareness of mind, and imaginary mental objects, and anyone who practices being mindful of these four things will become enlightened in this life or in a life after this one, whittling it down to a solid week of awareness for anyone who can.

Nagarjuna taught that all Buddhist concepts are only valid for actual practice and not abstractly in theory.  Like Wittgenstein in his later thought, Nagarjuna taught that things do not have singular essences, but arise out of the complex.  Nagarjuna was influential in Tibetan Buddhism, but also Zen, originally Chinese Chan, Buddhism blended with Daoism in China. Koans, like thought experiments, are stagings of thought such that we can think and feel in ways, and then reverse them, much like Wittgenstein used the optical illusion of the Duck-Rabbit to illustrate.  In the legendary story which serves as the first historical koan, when Buddha holds up the flower and Mahakashapa smiles, this may be because Mahakashapa saw that the Buddha was holding up the flower, but showing how it takes our attention rather than us seeing it can only grow because of everything surrounding it. This is then used to great effect by Mazu, who calls peoples names as they are leaving the room and grabs folks by the nose to show them how to take hold of things.

Huineng, one of the foundational and central patriarchs of Zen, shows in his story that freedom is nothing outside the ordinary mind, otherwise we are shaken, so he tears up texts.  When Huimeng is enlightened by Huineng, he says that now it is like he wades into a stream and feels without words or concepts that it is warm or cold. Huineng teaches two monks that fixating on the flag or on the wind is our minds moving one way or the other in the situation, and Linji, who centralized Zen in his house of the five, says:

Every plant and tree knows how to move back and forth, so does that mean they constitute the Way (Dao)?  To the degree that they move, it is due to the element air. To the degree that they do not move, it is the element earth.  Neither their moving nor their not moving come from any nature innate to them. If you look toward the area of motion and try to grasp the truth there, it will take up its stand in the area of non-motion, and if you look toward non-motion and and try to grasp it there, it will take up its stand in motion.  It is like a fish hidden in a pond who now and then slaps the surface and leaps up. The moving and unmoving are simply two types of situations. Those who are of the Way who depend on nothing who cause the situations to be in motion or be motionless.

Yangshan of the House of Guiyang said, “If I talk of one thing and another, monks struggle forward to take it in.  It’s like fooling children with an empty fist. There’s nothing really there.”  Wittgenstein used the metaphor of letting the fly out of the fly bottle, which he considered the main task of philosophy, clearing ground, as he said, underbrush according to Zhuangzi the Daoist, and Wittgenstein also used the metaphor of the beetle in the box to illustrate the same point.  Many philosophers, such as Russell, whom Wittgenstein worked for in his early thinking, think that there is some sort of logic, some sort of verbal strategy, which secretly underlies good thinking as its common form, but no one can see their own beetle, so we can let the fly out of the bottle, open the box, and see that there really isn’t a beetle in there, there really isn’t a formal logic that structures good thinking or life.  Rather, life is a better or worse interweaving of many elements, which includes speaking and thinking logically, with all sorts of strategies that don’t add up to a formal math or grammar. Wittgenstein steers his later thinking between dogmatism and skepticism, just as Fayan, founder of the Chan House, said, criticizing many Buddhist schools with particular doctrines, “If you get stuck on expressions and pursue words, you will fall back into eternalism or nihilism.

Linji mocked his students for taking notes, saying, “In a big book they copy down the rantings of some old fool… Don’t be too taken up with my pronouncements either.  Why? Because pronouncements are without basis or underpinning, something painted for a time on the empty sky, as with a painter and their many colors.”  Linji also said, which is most illuminating for understanding koans:

Look at the puppets performing on the stage.  Their every movement is controlled backstage.

When someone comes to me, I can tell exactly what they are like.  Whatever circumstances they come from, I take all their words and utterances to be so many dreams and ghosts, but when I see someone who has learned to master the situation, I know that here is the secret meaning of the buddhas.  There’s never been one of these students of the Way who come from all over who didn’t appear before me depending on something, so I start right out by hitting them there. If they come with a raised hand, I hit the raised hand, if they come mouthing something, I hit them in the mouth, and if they come making motions with their eyes, I hit them in the eye.  I have yet to find one who comes alone and free. They’re all caught up in silly devices of old men. When a high-ranking monk of another school, possibly Tiantai, said, “The Three Vehicles and twelve divisions of the teachings make the Buddha-nature clear enough, don’t they?”  Linji said, “They’re wild grass and weeds that have never been cut.”

Zhaozhou put a sandal on his head and left the room, which Nanquan says could have saved the cat.  Wittgenstein had a revelation during his turn towards his later thinking after seeing a motorist give another a rude gesture, because he realized that there barely has to be any logical structure to a simple act of communication if the situation structures the gesture, if passing contempt from one human to another doesn’t take much strategy, thinking or speculation between possibilities at all.  In the second case of the Blue Cliff Record, Zhaozhou says to the assembly, “The ultimate way is without difficulty.  Just avoid picking and choosing. As soon as there are words spoken, ‘This is picking and choosing’ and ‘This is clarity’.  This old monk does not abide in clarity. Do you still preserve anything or not?

A monk asked Zhaozhou, “What about it when the three-pronged sword has not yet fallen?” and he said, “Densely packed together.”  The monk asked, “What about after it has fallen?” and he said, “Wide open spaces.”  Because there is no bedrock level to structure life, life and all of our practices of speaking and thinking with words and imagination are densely interwoven, and we can densely interweave with them or not as much as we choose.  As Wittgenstein said, the trick is to see that you can start and stop doing philosophy whenever you want, interconnecting things as we like in open-ended situations of living, speaking and thinking. A monk asked, “What is the Buddha’s true experience of reality?” and Zhaozhou replied, “Is there anything else you don’t like?”  A monk asked, “What is the fact that I accept responsibility for?” and he replied, “To the ends of time you will never single it out.”  Another monk asked, “If the Great Way has no root, how can it be expressed?”  The master said, “You just expressed it.”  The monk said, “What about ‘no root’?”  The master said, “There is no root.  Where is it that you are being bound up?

In the 89th case of the Blue Cliff Record, Yunyen asks Daowu, “What does the bodhisattva of compassion need so many hands and eyes for?”  Daowu said, “It is like someone groping behind their head for a pillow in the middle of the night.”  Yunyen said, “I understand.”  Daowu said, “How do you understand it?”  Yunyen said, “The body is covered with hands and eyes.”  Daowu said, “You have said quite a bit there, but only four fifths of it.”  Yunyen asked, “How would you say it, elder brother?”  Daowu said, “Throughout the body are hands and eyes.”  Yunyen asked why there are so many, Daowu says it is like trying to grab one thing blindly.  Yunyen says that outside ourselves there are many, but Daowu says that this is four-fifths of it, lacking the head to the other limbs, lacking the one to the many, and says that inside and outside there are many, which is the sum total, the unity of the many being inside and outside, both ourselves and the world a tangle of many elements.  In my favorite case of the Gateless Gate, case 12, Shiyan tells himself every morning to become sober, and not be deceived by others, with their words, and he replies back to himself, “Yes, sir! Yes sir!” We can deceive ourselves with words because life and thought are more than words.

Wittgenstein did not read much Greek, European, Indian or Chinese thought, but he did write, “I have no sympathy for the stream of European civilization and do not understand its goals, if it has any,” (Culture & Value p. 6) and was as pessimistic as Schopenhauer, who inspired Wittgenstein as a boy, as he did Nietzsche, as Schopenhauer argued that the history of a civilization shows us the same thing as the history of a village: that humanity remains human, as does human thought, in spite of the changing historical situation.  Wittgenstein rarely looks happy in pictures, even as a child, and he said, “I’m not sure why we are here, but I’m pretty sure it’s not to be happy.”  Just as Zhaozhou said no one can take a piss for him, even though it is such a simple, stupid thing, no individual can overcome the individual human condition by being born or raised in a culture in common with others, as we each must train our tigers, as we hear in the Daoist Liezi text.

I had the great fortune to learn Nietzsche, Foucault and Wittgenstein from Hans Sluga, and he wrote recently in the Cambridge Companion to Wittgenstein (Second Edition, Time and History in Wittgenstein, 2018), that Wittgenstein went from a timeless conception of concepts in his earlier Tractatus to a position that, “language unwinds in time” in his Philosophical Remarks (PR 68) and, “That everything flows must be expressed in the application of language, and in fact not in one kind of application as opposed to another but in the application.  In anything we would ever call the application of language” (PR 54).

In the Philosophical Investigations and his later work, Wittgenstein speaks of all living forms and practices of truth and meaning as activities (PI 23) that extend into time and space, what Wittgenstein calls forms of life, and language games if and when they involve words.  In his mathematical and logical notes, he increasingly identified mathematics not with static practices, but with transformations and transitions, and argued that math is used in time, “temporally.” (RFM I-23)

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.

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.

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”.  Recall that the Buddha was a similarly privileged son who left it all behind.  Wittgenstein left the school after a short while, became a gardener’s assistant, and then his sister had him design her a horribly modern 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.


Wittgenstein wrote in the preface to his Philosophical 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.

river runs

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said that all is in flux and thus we cannot step in the same river twice.  Some German scholars thought that Heraclitus was the Buddha from India, as both were princes who renounced the throne and both said life is like a river in endless change.  Wittgenstein quoted the two famed thoughts of Heraclitus, the river never twice and all in flux in different notes, and wrote that if we want to understand life 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 deep philosophical question.  Wittgenstein said that this difficult point is perhaps the best place to begin our philosophical investigations, even though this is not the way the Philosophical Investigations begins, focusing rather on children learning language.

Wittgenstein's family

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, 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, 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.

Ludwig Wittgenstein on_rocking_horse

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.  When we ask for a broom, we are not asking for the broom’s handle or for a broom-shaped collection of atoms.  The basic, simple, elemental parts of a chair are pieces of wood or the atoms in them depending on how we are using what parts, just as a chair can be used as a chair, as a door stop or as a philosophical example of a general, familiar object.

Alice Chessboard

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.  Meaning isn’t a mental activity anymore than a rise in butter prices is an independent act of butter.  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.  As the Red Queen tells Alice, there is a game of chess being played all over the world, a both predictable and unpredictable arrangement.

Classroom with chairs

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.

Zhuangzi butterfly pine nap

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 the Rationalist can imagine that this world is the work of a deceiving demon.

set of drawers

Much of Wittgenstein’s thought is focused on the many ways we use language, which is why the Investigations opens with a quote from Augustine rather than Heraclitus.  Wittgenstein says we can imagine a language that works like a chest of drawers, with each word and concept used with a particular type of thing much as a drawer holds either socks or pants.  Naming a thing or group of things is like attaching a name tag or label to them, and using a name to call for a thing is like using a name tag to identify and open a drawer. While we can use such a simple drawer-like language to do things, such as ordering several pillars, slabs and beams to build a house, the languages we use to live our lives have many types of words other than nouns because we use language in many more ways than we use a chest of drawers.  Wittgenstein says that Augustine describes hearing language as a child the way that adults already familiar with language hear an unfamiliar foreign one.

red apple

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.  As we learn language we may or may not have images in mind when using words because of these associations, but words are not simply used to bring images into our heads.  We do not need to imagine an apple whenever we use the word ‘apple’, and the word can be used to identify actual apples just as much as invoke imaginary ones.

train cabin brass

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.  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.

Alice Birds

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.


Because words such as ‘apple’ and ‘pear’ are very much the same every time we hear or see them, we mistakenly think that words are used in one way rather than many, like a simple set of drawers.  When we think and talk about speaking and thinking philosophically, abstracting language and logic from particular complex situations, misunderstandings can arise.  Wittgenstein thought that Logical Positivism, Russell and his earlier work, misunderstood the foundations of things in just this way.  Rather than define ‘and’ in a single, exclusive and rigid way, we can see people using ‘and’ successfully in loose ways and do not need to prevent this from happening by fully solving logic.  We can see language best in the situations where it lives and works, not when it it is on abstract vacation.

Glass Chess Set

Just as the meaning of words depends on how we use them, the ways we classify words in groups depends on how we use the classification.  We could group tools together by the type of job they do, by the combination in which we use them, by when they are available, by weight, by color, or countless other ways depending on whatever purposes we have and situations we find ourselves in.  In a game of chess, we might group pieces into ours and theirs, pieces that are more or less valuable, pieces that can move more space or less, or pieces that can jump over others, using these classifications in various combinations depending on the game we are in, which moves we want to make and which moves we want to avoid, which can change in unpredictable ways in a single game.

old city street coblestones

While we could say that a language simpler than ours is incomplete if it does not suit all our purposes, we could say that the languages we use are all incomplete, as they do not yet contain all of the words and ways to use them that we need for all our possible and future purposes.  Our languages, like old cities, are mazes of large and small buildings, streets and spaces that grew over many years and in many stages, and they are just as “complete” now as they were before the suburbs of modern chemistry and infinitesimal calculus grew around them.

joe lewis boxing coin

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 Wittgenstein argued in his Tractatus and what many philosophers and logicians still wrongly cling to according to Wittgenstein himself.

cezane two apples

The way we use words to directly refer to particular things, the most simple and drawer-like way we do language, can be variously interpreted as it can be used in various ways.  If we point to two apples and use the word ‘zorp’, this could mean apple, or apples, two, red, round, on the table, ready to eat, or any number of things.  If we say, “By ‘zorp’, I mean the number,” we would then have to define ‘number’ by pointing at other things, and there is no final definition in this chain anymore than there is a final house on a street where we can build a new one.  Just as children can learn chess by watching, without ever hearing about rules in words, children learn language by watching, listening and then participating, without ever hearing about the rules of grammar or the rules of when to apply a particular word.  Thus, if a child is familiar with chess, they could learn what the queen piece is and what it does before learning to call it “the queen”.

Alice Humpty Dumpty Yelling

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 language, 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 language works between participants.  Wittgenstein repeatedly used the terms ‘language games’ and ‘forms of life’ to describe what he later found fundamental, as opposed to the ideal Kantian logic he sought in his earlier work.  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.

tennis serve

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 these are with rules or words.

apple diagram

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.


The strength of a thread is not found in a single fiber that runs the whole length, but in the interweaving of many fibers.  Just as the members of a family resemble each other in many overlapping ways rather than sharing one thing all together in common, the ways we use language, games and other things form families that do not have universal underlying forms.  While it seems that red itself can’t be destroyed as red objects can, we can imagine red ceasing to occur in our world and our culture forgetting the color entirely, along with the use of the word and our ability to imagine it.  ‘Red’ does not exist in itself or in a particular location, does not exist truly in the mind or truly in reality without our eyes to see it, but rather in the ways and places we use the color, word and concept, sometimes in the mind and sometimes in the world.  Red is an interweaving of us seeing it separated from other colors as a child by adults who use a word around it while pointing, and it is us having the image of it often coupled with the word, and all of the associations and dissociations we have in our lives with it.

spider web

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.  Like red, 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.

antarctic explorers

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.


Jastrow’s duck-rabbit, a popular optical illusion, can be seen as either a rabbit’s head looking to the right or duck’s head looking to the left.  It was an image that Wittgenstein was pondering as he wrote his final notes.  We could look at it surrounded by rabbits on one page of a book, look at it surrounded by ducks on another page and not notice they are one and the same figure because we see the same thing but see it in two different ways.

Cheshire Cat Executioner

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 tales 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 graf

Wittgenstein similarly said that in debates between realists and idealists, those who say truth and meaning are facts found in the world and those who say they are ideals constructed in the mind, each attack the other’s statements as if they are uncompromising universal declarations and defend their own statements as if they are reasonable common sense that allow for exceptions.  Philosophy should not be about defending an abstract position in thought, but rather unlocking genius, enabling imagination to see new possibilities in all the interconnected things around us.  Truth and meaning are in the world, in the mind, and our minds are in the world along with countless other meaningful, useful things.  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.