Ludwig Wittgenstein

About Wittgenstein:

Biletzki, Anat, Matar, Anat, "Ludwig Wittgenstein", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2002 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>

3.6 Private Language, Grammar and Form of Life

Philosophical Investigations was published posthumously in 1953. It comprises two parts. Part I, consisting of 693 numbered paragraphs, was ready for printing in 1946, but rescinded from the publisher by Wittgenstein. Part II was added on by the editors, trustees of his Nachlass.

Three celebrated notions, which are closely related, ensue in the Wittgensteinian conversation: private language, form of life, and the notion of grammar. Directly following the rule-following sections in PI, and therefore easily thought to be the upshot of the discussion, are those sections called by interpreters "the private-language argument". Whether it be a veritable argument or not (and Wittgenstein never labeled it as such), these sections point out that for an utterance to be meaningful it must be possible in principle to subject it to public standards and criteria of correctness. For this reason, a private- language, in which "individual words ... are to refer to what can only be known to the person speaking; to his immediate private sensations ... " (PI 243), is not a genuine, meaningful, rule-governed language. The signs in language can only function when there is a possibility of judging the correctness of their use, "so the use of [a] word stands in need of a justification which everybody understands" (PI 261).

Wittgenstein adopts the term ‘grammar’ in his quest to describe the workings of this public, socially governed language, using it in a somewhat idiosyncratic manner. Grammar, usually taken to consist of the rules of correct syntactic and semantic usage, becomes, in Wittgenstein's hands, the wider -- and more elusive -- network of rules which determine what linguistic move is allowed as making sense, and what isn't. This notion replaces the stricter and purer logic which played such an essential role in the Tractatus in providing a scaffolding for language and the world. Indeed, "Essence is expressed by grammar ... Grammar tells what kind of object anything is. (Theology as grammar)" (PI 371, 373). The "rules" of grammar are not mere technical instructions from on-high for correct usage; rather, they express the norms for meaningful language. Contrary to empirical statements, rules of grammar describe how we use words in order to both justify and criticize our particular utterances. But as opposed to grammar-book rules, they are not idealized as an external system to be conformed to. Moreover, they are not appealed to explicitly in any formulation, but are used in cases of philosophical perplexity to clarify where language misleads us into false illusions. Thus, "I can know what someone else is thinking, not what I am thinking. It is correct to say ‘I know what you are thinking’, and wrong to say ‘I know what I am thinking.’ (A whole cloud of philosophy condensed into a drop of grammar.)" (PI, p.222).

Grammar is not abstract, it is situated within the regular activity with which language-games are interwoven: " ... the term ‘language-game’ is meant to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life" (PI 23). What enables language to function and therefore must be accepted as "given" is precisely forms of life. In Wittgenstein's terms, agreement is required "not only in definitions but also (queer as this may sound) in judgments" (PI 242), and this is "not agreement in opinions but in form of life" (PI 241). Used by Wittgenstein sparingly -- five times in the Investigations -- this intriguing concept has given rise to interpretative quandaries and subsequent contradictory readings. Forms of life can be understood as changing and contingent, dependent on culture, context, history, etc; this appeal to forms of life grounds a relativistic reading of Wittgenstein. On the other hand, it is the form of life common to humankind, "the common behavior of mankind" which is "the system of reference by means of which we interpret an unknown language" (PI 206). This is clearly a universalistic turn, recognizing that the use of language is made possible by the human form of life. Lest this universalism be taken to an extreme, Wittgenstein reminds the reader that as philosophers " ... we are not doing natural science, nor yet natural history" (PI p.230).

excerpts from Philosophical Investigations (trans. G. E. M. Anscombe)