Wittgenstein’s philosophy: Language and Mind-Body Problem


Ludwig Wittgenstein is an austrian philosopher, who studied engineering before going to Cambridge to work under Bertrand Russell‘s tuition. Out of a mass of philosophical writings the Tractatus Logico-philosophicus was the only book to be published in his litetime. Of the posthumous publications the most important are :

Philosophical Investigations

Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics

On certainty

Wittgenstein and Language Games

Throughout his career, despite the differences between his earlier and later phases, Wittgenstein had an abiding preoccupation with the scope and limits of language, and, in particular, with the consequences for the philosopher of the fact that he is, perforce, a user of a common language. In the Tractatus he is concerned primarly with language as a representing medium, a means of conveying how things are in the world; he attempts to set out in the most general terms what must be true of the world and of language to make such representation possible. The world, or reality, here is simply that which is represented; to equate it, as has sometimes been done, with the sum of our sense data is to write a particular value into Wittgenstein’s quite general formulae. There seems to be little reason in principle why, say, a materialist should find the Tractatus unacceptable. The world, we are told, is the totality of facts, the existence of certain situations, or states of affairs. Facts can be more or less complex, but the theoretical limit of analysis – in practice, it would seem, unattainable – would be atomic facts, which cannot be analysed into simpler facts, and which are mutually independent.

The linguistic counterparts of these are atomic propositions which relate to atomic facts as ‘pictures’ thereof. The basic conditions of being a picture in the sense are one-to-one correspondence of elements between picture and thing pictured and a common structure or ‘logical form’

According to Wittgenstein, all our propositions consist of such pictures. Admittedly, because of the telescoping and short-cuts of primary discourse, most of them do not appear to meet the conditions mentioned. But, in Wittgenstein’s view, if they were fully analysed they would emerge as sets of his atomic propositions which do meet them; all propositions are thruth-functions of atomic propositions, in the sense that their thruth-values are fully determined by the truth-values of their constituent atomic propositions.

Later in his work, the picture analogy gives place to the tool and game analogies : language is compared to a bag of of carpenter’s tools, each with its own particular function and technique of use, or with a range of games (tennis, golf, cricket, …) each with its own equipment, its own rules, its own criteria of success and failure. And, of course, new tools and new games can be added infinitely. A linguistic move, like a move on the sports field, is to be seen as a move within a particular game, and can only be judged permissible or not, accordingly. There are no all-embracing criteria of assessment to which we can appeal.

Philosophers have been traditionally inclined to look for simplicity and uniformity where none exist, and hence to ignore the important differences in function between such superficially similar sentences as ‘He has a good mind’ and ‘He has a big head’. The attempt to assimilate ine function of language to another is, for Wittgenstein, the source of many of our time problems. Bad Philosophy is what happens when “language goes on holiday”, when it is taken away from its everyday functions. Good Philosophy is a therapy, a process not of offering a new solution, to, say, the problems of mind-body relations as traditionally posed, but a patiently “assembling reminders” of how a term like “mind” actually functions in the language-game which is its original home.


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