‘Philosophy’ has always been Bunk: Wittgenstein

Here, for the next almost 2 pages, is the nub of Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein exposed language mistakes at the heart of Philosophy.  So much so that he felt that Philosophy ought to give up and concentrate on curing them.  But it seems to me he didn’t take his own advice and continued churning out Philosophy.

His thought is divided into early and late. There was a leap between them.

His first great theory was that of Logical Atomism, after the start made by Bertrand Russell:  that statements that have always been problems for Philosophy need analysing into their hidden logical elements to see what they actually logically consist of; and that this makes most of the problems of Philosophy disappear!

Logical atomism was an exposé of the false mystery of many words and statements that had set philosophers to philosophizing for 2500 years.  If they had first analysed them down into their constituent logical atoms referring to facts in the world, there would have been no need for ‘philosophizing’!

It is the ’surface grammar’ of statements that had obscured their logical atoms.

Wittgenstein went further at this stage in saying that these logical constituents themselves need analysing to see whether they refer to empirically valid facts.  If they don’t, they’re meaningless!  (He made an exception for statements of logic or maths which aren’t about real facts in the world, but he thought they were nevertheless meaningful.)

Facts, facts, facts! The thing about ‘facts’ is that they are verifiable entities or happenings in sensed reality; they can be proved true or false.  The important thing is their verifiability.

‘Picture-theory’ was the term used by W. for his idea that the world is composed of atomic facts which can then be pictured in atomic thoughts and then expressed in atomic statements.

There was also a revolt in all this against Hegel’s Absolute Idealism, which still held sway in the late 19th century.  The latter had stated that everything in the world is One and cannot be separated into atoms which the logical atoms of statements are supposed to refer to. (I may not have got that exactly right without refreshing my memory of Hegel.)

W. said that the meaning of a statement lay in its empirical verification by the senses, often by scientific method. This was taken up by the Logical Positivists of the Vienna Circle in the 1920s to be the last word on Meaning and Epistemology.  They too rejected metaphysics because it revealed ultimate ‘facts’ by deriving them logically from axioms in the head, not by grounding them in the senses.

But the later Wittgenstein was already drifting away.  Meeting the Vienna Circle, who were still interested in his early philosophy, re-stimulated his interest in philosophy which he had grown tired of.   He now thought that his earlier claims that he had achieved a final analysis of language were mistaken.  He began to think now that meaningful statements don’t necessarily refer to verifiable facts at all: that they aren’t confined to the representing, to the picturing, of sensory or scientific facts in the world, plus logic and maths.

Wittgenstein said now that words simply have their meanings in what the speaker intends them to mean (you don’t say!) in front of an audience who understands his meanings (you don’t say!)  Words may not refer to verifiable facts or even entities at all (you don’t say!).  Words may only mean what you use them for in the context you share with your audience.  This is what he called a ‘language-game’, each game having its own rules.

They may also express one’s feelings or values (You don’t say!).

This sounds like simply saying that you can say anything as long as your words have the same meaning for you as your audience has of them, and these may not refer to facts at all!  (You don’t say!) They may refer to God or the after-life or to downright untruths. ‘God’ for example isn’t a fact to many people, but He is to others. So the word ‘God’ has meaning to them.  (That’s a pretty respectable old example!)

That sounds the same as everyone’s naïve opinion that one can talk about millions of theories, opinions, wishful thoughts, or downright untruths, and still be meaningful!  It was unnecessary for him to bring in the term ‘language game’.

And bringing in the necessity for verifiable facts is to create an over-strict and sterile concept of the meaning of human language.

He went even further for ancient philosophical words like Truth, Beauty, Courage, and the Good.  These he considered to be ‘special purpose’ concepts which have their meanings entirely in their uses and don’t apply to entities at all, let alone verifiable facts.1 This is further gone into 2 sections below.

Bertrand Russell, probably at this stage of the later Wittgenstein, complained that W. had ‘grown tired of serious thinking and invented a doctrine which would make [it] unnecessary‘.2  Wittgenstein on his side came to think of Russell as ‘superficial and glib.’3

Now, even more so, W. felt he had abolished Philosophy as it had been practised!  Philosophy had been wasting its time and should stick henceforward to curing its mistakes of language or to the natural sciences.

The early W. is said to have focussed largely on logic and objective truth, while the later W. on language and psychology.

He turned Philosophy into Linguistic Analysis in half the Western world.  But it was still listed under ‘Philosophy’, and strangely enough became even more lacking in ‘human sensibility to human life’ — one only has to look at Quine (see later chapter of mine) and at Kripke.

That’s the nub of Wittgenstein.  Leave it at that, or try the following sections.


Wittgenstein’s Early Philosophy, mainly his Logical Atomism, was published in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921).

This book apparently consists of points numbered in stages, sub-stages and sub-sub-stages, such as 1, 1.1, and 1.1.2   Oi!

It was mainly an account of his Logical Atomism, and presumably also of his strictly factual definition of what constitutes meaningfulness of language.

Bertrand Russell wrote the introduction to it, but W. said at some stage that BR had shown fundamental misunderstandings.1

The next 7 paragraphs will supplement what I have written above on the early Wittgenstein’s Logical Atomism and Factual Meaningfulness:

Firstly, he said, the philosopher’s job is to break down each statement into its unstated atoms.  The age-old philosophical puzzling about many statements then falls away.  So, W. came to believe at this stage already that the philosopher’s job was to clear up linguistic misunderstandings.

Some of these hidden atoms will refer to facts and are therefore meaningful; and some will not refer to facts and are therefore meaningless.  A ‘true’ statement consists of atoms which truly picture the world, as well of course as mere logical operators like ‘if’, ‘not’, ‘and’ and ‘or’.

I have not quite grasped why, but both Russell and W. found it important to note that humanity gives names to facts (to objects or states of affairs in the world).4

Very importantly, Aesthetic judgments (about what is beautiful), and Ethical judgments (about what is good) don’t picture objective facts and can’t therefore be proved true or false.  Metaphysics is also not based on facts in the reality of the world.  So all of them fall into the category of meaninglessness.

Wittgenstein’s comment on this exclusion of aesthetics and ethics was, ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’.5  (But surely, I think, W. must already have realized there was something inadequate in his strictly factual definition of meaningfulness if it excluded these.)

To W., the statements of logic and of mathematics are meaningful, even though they are simply symbolic tautologies, i.e. true only by virtue of the meaning of their terms and not picturing facts at all.  (How did he argue this?)

Here is a long statement from here6, almost verbatim in places, and stating what looks like W.’s overall position on Philosophy at this stage:  He had said in the Tractatus that ‘philosophy is not one of the natural sciences’ but ‘aims at the logical clarification of thoughts’.  Philosophy is not descriptive but elucidatory. Philosophy’s aim is to clear up confusion.  Philosophers should not concern themselves so much with what is actual, for example keeping up with the latest popularization of science (that’s obvious, I think!).  The philosopher’s job should be with the possible, or rather with the conceivable. ‘This depends on our concepts and the ways they fit together as seen in language. What is conceivable and what is not, what makes sense and what does not, depends on the rules of language, of grammar.’

This seems already at this early stage to be saying that Philosophy should not aim to discover profound truths but can only stick to clearing up confusion in what is basically language.

Ancient philosophical problems can be solved by Logical Atomism translating them into a logically clarified language.  But W. apparently saw that that such language would be sterile and do no useful work.7 But I can’t see this.  For me it would only be sterile after applying the strict necessity for facts facts facts.

  1. seems to have pointed out against himself that his statements comprising the Logical Atomism in his Tractatus are meaningless in that they don’t express basic data of sense-experience, or of logic or maths either.


More on the late Wittgenstein     

The later philosophy of Wittgenstein was prepared for publication by others after his death, in the form of his Philosophical Investigations (1953).  It is accounted brilliantly aphoristic but that is in places like disconnected paragraphs.  It became just as influential as his Tractatus.

Wittgenstein’s final relaxed position that the meaning of statements is what the speaker intends, to an audience who know what’s intended, was a break from the classical philosophic view that meaning is purely representation (still believed in by the early W. that words are pictures of facts).

According to W., Philosophy had always and obviously consisted of logical analysis to solve all its problems.  But these were largely pseudo-problems that arose from misuse of language.1 He thought firstly that this could be cured by his Logical Atomism and later also by his final relaxed theory of meaningfulness of statements.   Philosophers should first do linguistic analysis based on these two theories, before attempting logical analysis.

His Special-Purpose Concepts:

I think that what follows here is pretty good stuff by W.   It is in addition to his relaxed, general theory of meaning of his late period.

  1. said that there are ‘empirical’ concepts like ‘red’, ‘magnetic’ and ‘alive’ that stand for a specific property each. But ‘Truth’ and other special-purpose concepts have no essence and can’t be reduced to a single meaning or definition. Horwich uses the term ‘conceptual pluralism’ for this.2

Philosophers and others had said for instance that the meaning of Truth (and therefore of all truths) is that it corresponds to reality, others that all truths are useful, or are rationally coherent, and so on.  Each of these views falls short of encompassing the essence of Truth.2

  1. said that ‘Truth’ or ‘True’ is simply a word or concept with different uses, often trivial ones. The search for a single entity, let alone Plato’s metaphysical entity in heaven, was always a language-mistake.2

It might for instance be used as a way of economizing on words, like when one says ‘e=mc2 is true’ instead of saying ‘it is the case that e=mc2’.  Or when one says ‘Einstein’s last words were true’ instead of ‘Einstein’s last words were that E=mc2, and E does equal mc2 ‘.

Saying that a statement is true is even equivalent to simply the statement itself.  So, “e=mc2 is true” is equivalent to ‘E=mc2”, which saves even more words (as I got from one of my listed sources).

So Wittgenstein urged philosophers to “bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use”.7 (This kind of opinion of the later W. ushered in the era of Ordinary Language Philosophy8 which was something specific within Analytic Philosophy as a whole and which I’m not going to go into here.)

Trying to find a single essence for each special-purpose concept helped lead the ancient philosophers into the fallacies of metaphysics.  (And in other ways too, philosophers of the purely rationalistic, non-empiricist kind are tempted to ask and answer in the way science does, as I have said more than once already.)

I remember that when I started studying Philosophy and imagined myself in the crowd around Socrates and being asked a question like ‘What is Truth?’, I felt suddenly agape and speechless.  Was it because I just couldn’t fix on Truth as being any single entity or concept at all?  But I was unable to articulate it.


For the later Wittgenstein, the job of philosophy should be ‘the treatment of an illness’, the illness being ‘the bewitchment of intelligence by language’.8


The mistakes in language that Wittgenstein pointed out should have been obvious from the beginning of Philosophy, yet philosophers never saw them and kept passing on their faulty thinking.

For my unphilosophic mind, there are even more basic mistakes in philosophical thinking, one of them being the idea that logicking with words supersedes what comes to one in one’s senses, when it is words that derive from our senses.  That’s the nearest I can presently conceive it.


Lynch10 agrees with W. that Philosophy has made mistakes, and that it should stick to correcting language mistakes, but Lynch says that Philosophy has improved our thinking and acting on ethical questions.  Socrates did so.  Lynch believes the Enlightenment philosophers did so too, when they said we should base our beliefs on rational evidence. And Locke came up with the theory that there are human rights.

  1. was right, says Lynch, 10 to show that special-purpose concepts should have been seen for what they are, just concepts in ordinary language, and not turned into metaphysical entities. Yet, says Lynch, they turn out themselves to be historically-shaped metaphysical assumptions. (I haven’t understood that last sentence, and I don’t think Lynch gives examples.)


The following paragraphs seem to show that W.’s revelations of language mistakes are connected to something more basically and generally wrong with Philosophy.

Let me first repeat a paragraph from above:

Here is a long statement from here6, almost verbatim in places, and stating what looks like W.’s overall position on Philosophy at this stage:  He had already said in the Tractatus that ‘philosophy is not one of the natural sciences’ but ‘aims at the logical clarification of thoughts’.  Philosophy is not descriptive but elucidatory. Philosophy’s aim is to clear up confusion.  Philosophers should not concern themselves so much with what is actual, for example keeping up with the latest popularization of science (that’s obvious, I think!).  The philosopher’s job should be with the possible, or rather with the conceivable. ‘This depends on our concepts and the ways they fit together as seen in language. What is conceivable and what is not, what makes sense and what does not, depends on the rules of language, of grammar.’

Horwich2 uses the term ‘scientistic’ for W.’s view of what Philosophy had always wrongly been trying to do, to ‘arrive at simple, general principles, and to uncover profound explanations, and to correct naïve opinions.’ (I think this is just re-stating W.’s point, above, that Philosophy is unsuited to trying to discover basic truths of reality but should stick to justifiability in language. Philosophy should not be descriptive but merely elucidatory.6)

Lynch uses the term ‘reductive explanation’ for ‘scientism’:  A reductive explanation tells us the essence of X, what all and only X’s have in common.  (I haven’t understood that. I don’t think it means the same as that science is a reductionism on human sensibility to the experiences of human life.)

The philosopher, said W., has also presumed to produce theories on such lofty matters as the nature of consciousness, how knowledge of the external world is possible, whether our decisions can be truly free, about the structure of a just society, and so on, by means of pure reasoning — by logical deduction and sophisticated supporting arguments.2

But, said W., such purely mental activity cannot provide fundamental insights into the human condition or the ultimate character of the universe, or how we are to arrange our lives.  Philosophy can only arrive at conceptual, analytic, a priori truths.2 It can only correct language mistakes.

(I gather that this simply means that Philosophy wasn’t just making mistakes of language as it went along, but that its whole hopes for what it could do were a pipe-dream from the start.)

Wittgenstein writes in his The Blue Book: ‘Our craving for generality has [.. one] source . . .the method of science. . . of reducing the explanation of natural phenomena to the smallest possible number of primitive natural laws; and, in mathematics, of unifying the treatment of different topics by using a generalization. . .This . . .is the real source of metaphysics, and leads the philosopher into complete darkness.  I want to say . . . that it can never be our job to reduce anything to anything, or to explain anything . . . . ‘

(Perhaps Philosophy was forced into thinking it had to provide knowledge about the Universe and about anything and everything because there was no Science available at the time.)

  1. also thought ‘that traditional philosophy is necessarily pervaded with oversimplification, analogies unreasonably inflated, exceptions to simple regularities wrongly dismissed’. (One needs examples of these.)


I think that students of Philosophy should be informed from the very beginning of the scepticism of Wittgenstein towards it.  This would have helped orientate people like me who were puzzled at why Philosophy always sounded so wrong-headed and consisting of false problems caused by mistakes in language.


The topic of ‘private language’ was something that bothered W., and which I haven’t grasped at all:  He said it was impossible to have a private language to express one’s own experiences and inner mental states.  That follows, I suspect, from his view that one’s words and their meanings can only exist in a social language-game.  This seems also to have been seen as a refutation of Descartes’ Cogito, ergo sum, which statement I do not understand.


Towards the end of his life, W. was still bothering with such things as ‘external world scepticism’ — whether one can be certain there is a world out there and not just in one’s mind!  To me, it seems a typical pseudo-problem of Philosophy that shouldn’t have bothered him, the sort of thing that would have bothered Descartes.


Here is some biography of W. that I have summarized towards showing what kind of mind he had:

He and his family were very musical.

He studied mechanical engineering in Berlin and then at the University of Manchester for his doctorate.  He became a research student in an engineering laboratory and did research on the behaviour of kites in the upper atmosphere.  He did aeronautical research on a propeller with small jet engines on the end of its blades; he designed and tested a prototype.

But he had also studied in Germany briefly under mathematician-philosopher Gottlob Frege who urged him to read Bertrand Russell.  So he read Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica (1913) which explained that mathematics was just logic; and went to Cambridge in 1912 to study philosophy under G.E. Moore, and was also tutored there by Russell.11,1

His major interests were philosophy, music and travelling.1 He became a passionate, though troubled and doubting, convert to Christianity.  His family had been Jewish for 4000 years but had converted a generation or two earlier.  He served on the Russian front in the Austro-Hungarian Army in WWI where he devoured Tolstoy’s commentary on the Gospels.

He was of the Left but not Marxist.  He went to Russia in the 1930s but left after a short time.1


  1. https://academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Ludwig_Wittgenstein
  2. https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/03/was-wittgenstein-right/)
  3. http://encyclopedia.kids.net.au/page/be/Bertrand_Russell
  4. https://www.philosopher.org.uk/ where it deals with W.s Tractatus.
  5. http://www.philosophypages.com/hy/6s.htm
  6. https://iep.utm.edu/wittgens/
  7. https://www.philosophybasics.com/philosophers_wittgenstein.html
  8. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ordinary_language_philosophy
  9. https://www.philosopher.org.uk/ in its post on Analytic Philosophy: Language Games.
  10. https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/05/of-flies-and-philosophers-wittgenstein-and-philosophy/