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Contemporary Philosophy

Philosophical and Pedagogical Beginnings: Philosophical Investigations

B. Savickey
Long Island University, C.W. Post

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ABSTRACT: The Philosophical Investigations is an inherently pedagogical work. Wittgenstein claims throughout his later writings to be teaching a method and this method is both philosophical and pedagogical. It is the claim of this paper that if we do not take Wittgenstein's methodological claim seriously, we do not engage with the text in the manner for which it was written. Consequently, we begin and end in the wrong places and the text becomes (in the words of Wittgenstein) 'variously misunderstood, more or less mangled and watered-down.' §1 is philosophically and pedagogically complex. It presents the philosophical problems to which Wittgenstein will respond in the text which follows and it also, significantly, presents their solution. An investigation of the philosophical and pedagogical questions raised in the opening remark of the Investigations will demonstrate that we have not yet begun to use Wittgenstein's method and his writings to their full potential.

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The Philosophical Investigations is an inherently pedagogical work. Wittgenstein claims throughout his later writings to be teaching a method, and this method is both philosophical and pedagogical. According to Moore and Fann he remarked to the effect that it did not matter whether his results were true or not, what mattered was that a method had been found (Moore 1993: 113). During the 1930s Wittgenstein also described the Investigations as a textbook; 'a textbook, however, not in that it provides knowledge (Wissen), but rather in that it stimulates thinking (Denken)'. (1) He claimed that the remarks which he wrote enabled him to teach philosophy well. (2) Although generally acknowledged within the secondary literature, these methodological claims have not altered our use of (or response to) Wittgenstein's text. If we do not take these claims seriously, however, we do not engage with the text in the manner for which it was written. Consequently, we begin and end in the wrong places and the text becomes (in the words of Wittgenstein) 'variously misunderstood, more or less mangled and watered-down' (PI xe). (3) An examination of §1 provides an introduction to the philosophical and pedagogical complexity of Wittgenstein's Investigations.

Wittgenstein begins the Investigations with a quotation from Augustine's Confessions. Augustine writes:

When they (my elders) named some object, and accordingly moved towards something, I saw this and I grasped that the thing was called by the sound they uttered when they meant to point it out. Their intention was shewn by their bodily movements, as it were the natural language of all peoples: the expression of the face, the play of the eyes, the movement of other parts of the body, and the tone of voice which expresses our state of mind in seeking, having, rejecting, or avoiding something. Thus, as I heard these words repeatedly used in their proper places in various sentences, I gradually learnt to understand what objects they signified; and after I had trained my mouth to form these signs, I used them to express my own desires (PI 1).

According to Wittgenstein these words give us a particular picture of the essence of human language; a picture in which individual words name objects and sentences are combinations of such names. In this picture of language he claims that we find the roots of the following idea: Every word has a meaning. This meaning is correlated with the word. It is the object for which the word stands. Wittgenstein suggests that Augustine does not speak of there being any difference between kinds of words, and if we describe the learning of language in this way we are thinking primarily of nouns and names. In response he writes: Now think of the following use of language: I send someone shopping with a slip marked 'five red apples'. The individual takes the slip to the shopkeeper who opens a drawer marked 'apples'; looks up the word 'red' in a table and finds a colour sample opposite it; then says a series of cardinal numbers by heart up to the word 'five' and for each number takes an apple of the same colour as the sample out of the drawer (PI 1). He concludes this example with the words, 'It is in this and similar ways that one operates with words'.

If we read this example conventionally it appears to illustrate a philosophical point. The standard reading of this passage is that even the simple transaction of buying apples demonstrates that we use different kinds of words in different ways. While not denying this interpretation, it is not immediately clear why Wittgenstein would need to describe this particular use of language in order to remind us of our different uses of words. If this is the only purpose of the example it merely serves to emphasize or repeat the explicit point which has already been made in the opening remark. Such a reading raises significant pedagogical and philosophical difficulties however. First, why does Wittgenstein use a trivial and fictitious example to describe a use of language? If the example is meant to illustrate a point isn't its impact or usefulness undermined by its trivial and fictitious nature? Further, why does Wittgenstein choose a 'shopping example' to begin his magnum opus? Why does the transaction between the shopper and the shopkeeper involve a slip of paper, a colour-chart and a labelled drawer (for we do not ordinarily shop for apples in this way)? Is Wittgenstein being pedantic? Or suggestive? Repetitive? Or facetious?

In addition to these pedagogical questions such a reading raises serious philosophical difficulties. If this example and its concluding words express a philosophical position it is equally unsatisfactory. If Wittgenstein is providing this example to prove (and not merely to illustrate) the claim that 'it is in this and similar ways that one operates with words' isn't the example too general or incomplete to be of use? We will respond as the interlocutor who asks (immediately following the example): 'But how does the shopkeeper know when and how to look up the word 'red' and what [they are] to do with the word 'five'?' Wittgenstein's response -- that he assumes that the shopkeeper acts as he has described and that explanations come to an end somewhere -- would strike us as humorous if not so infuriating. Explanations come to an end somewhere and one of the most shocking aspects of the Investigations is that explanations come to an end here -- in this opening remark. §1 ends with one final question: 'But what is the meaning of the word 'five'?'. Wittgenstein answers, 'No such thing was in question here, only how the word 'five' is used'. This appears to preempt the interlocutor and end all discussion -- a very strange way to begin a philosophy book.

Several points are worth noting before offering a rereading of this passage. First, in response to Augustine's description of the learning of language (and the philosophical picture of meaning which it expresses) Wittgenstein offers a description not an explanation. He provides an example not a theory, and the use of language which he describes is both trivial and fictitious. In response, the interlocutor asks for an explanation; expresses an Augustinian picture of language -- for only the words 'red' and 'five' (and not the word 'apples') require an explanation; and Wittgenstein both anticipates and articulates this response in his opening remark. If, instead of reading this example conventionally, we accept Wittgenstein's invitation to think of this use of language it will begin, not end, our investigation and discussion. The philosophical and pedagogical question raised by this request is: How do we think of this use of language? The text, with its trivial and fictitious example; its numerous voices (from Augustine and the shopkeeper to the interlocutor(s) and Wittgenstein himself); and its emphasis on the shopkeeper acting as Wittgenstein has described suggests that the shopping scene be played-out and the entire remark read aloud (in more than one voice).

The remark can be played-out and read aloud in a variety of ways. It will involve numerous different individuals (depending on how we read it) and if played-out it will involve a slip with three words, a table of words and colour samples, a drawer labelled 'apples' and five red apples. The scene itself may be played-out in different ways: it may involve two adults or an adult and a child; one or both may be literate or illiterate; one or both may or may not speak the language written on the paper; the shopper may or may not speak and the shopkeeper may or may not speak except when counting. Once we imagine different possibilities it becomes apparent that although Wittgenstein includes details in his description which are not normally a part of our shopping activities, there are many other details which he leaves out. Now, instead of being pedantic or repetitive his example appears, if not incomplete, at least open to various readings.

Wittgenstein's remark appears to raise more questions than it answers. However, the nature of our questions and the answers we seek change with our varied readings. They now involve methodological beginnings and endings. For we can only give meaning to the claim that 'it is in this and similar ways that one operates with words' if we can think meaningfully of this use of language and it is not immediately apparent that we can do so. Wittgenstein's concluding comment is more than conspicuously general. To paraphrase §13 of the Investigations, 'when we say: "it is in this and similar ways that one operates with words" we have so far said nothing whatever; unless we have made clear exactly what distinction we wish to make'. One of Wittgenstein's aims in philosophy is to help us recognise when we have said 'nothing whatever' (enabling us to go from disguised to patent nonsense). His claim that 'it is in this and similar ways that one operates with words' marks the beginning not the end of the investigation.

In response to the question of how to think of this use of language Wittgenstein teaches a method in the text which follows. In other words, he teaches us how to think about the use of our words. Wittgenstein calls this philosophical method 'grammatical investigation' and it describes the use of our words for the purpose of philosophical clarification. Grammatical investigation involves a variety of different grammatical techniques. Among the most important and most frequently used are those involving ordinary language, questions, language-games, particular cases and analogies. (4) Many of these techniques are demonstrated in this opening remark. Significantly, the questions raised in the opening example also hold the methodological key to their solution. Wittgenstein's shopping example serves several important philosophical and pedagogical purposes.

First, the example of shopping for apples is an ordinary, everyday activity. It involves human actions and interactions as well as human language. We are all familiar with these actions and there is nothing extraordinary or mysterious about shopping for apples, nor anything about this scene that we might discover at a later date which would offer further philosophical insight. Wittgenstein describes ordinary, everyday activities throughout his later writings. He writes that:

it is difficult as it were to keep our heads up, - to see that we must stick to the subjects of our every-day thinking, and not go astray and imagine that we have to describe extreme subtleties, which in turn we are after all quite unable to describe with the means at our disposal (PI 106).

He also uses particular cases as an antidote to philosophical cravings for theory and generality.

The use of language described in the opening remark also involves ordinary language. The language of the example involves the words 'five red apples' and the remark is itself written in ordinary language. (The language of Augustine, Wittgenstein and the interlocutor(s) is and remains ordinary. It is neither abstract nor abstruse.) The description and use of ordinary language is an important methodological tool in Wittgenstein's later philosophy. He writes that:

all reflections can be carried out in a much more homespun manner than I used to do. And therefore no new words have to be used in philosophy, but rather the old common words of language are sufficient...(P 191)

According to Wittgenstein the solutions to philosophical difficulties 'must be homespun and ordinary' [or ordinary and trivial] if they are correct (P 167). And he writes that what we do is bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use (PI 116). §1 also describes a very simple use of language; one which allows us to examine it in a clear and detailed manner. In describing this example, 'we see activities, reactions which are clear-cut and transparent' (BB 17). This is a methodological technique which Wittgenstein further develops in his use of language-games. Language-games are objects of comparison which enable us to examine our use of words in primitive kinds of application so that we can command a clear view of the aim and functioning of our words.

Both his example of the use of language in §1 and his subsequent use of language-games (in §2 and throughout the Investigations) exemplify a descriptive method. According to Wittgenstein we must do away with all explanation and description alone must take its place (PI 109). It is for this methodological reason that he offers a description in response to Augustine's words of confession, and why he does not fulfil the interlocutor's request for an explanation. It is not that his example requires an explanation and he cannot or will not give it, but that the example raises the issue of asking for and offering explanations in response to philosophical confusion. Wittgenstein is not withholding explanations, information, or answers, rather he is questioning the request for an explanation itself.

His choice of a fictitious example further supports this reading. In choosing a fictitious example he focuses our attention on something other than facts, theories or arguments. The issue of the truth or falsity of his example is irrelevant for its purpose is pedagogical. He offers a fictitious example as a pedagogical tool; one which he explicitly discusses and demonstrates throughout his later writings. He claims that 'nothing is more important for teaching us the concepts we have than constructing fictitious cases' (CV 74e). With reference to another fictitious case, he writes:

It is pure fiction. What is it for? It is a waste of time. What can one do by doing what we did? This: the way in which people look at the non-fictitious case can be changed. We are inclined to compare some phenomena with something: I ask you to compare them with something else (WLPP 168).

Another important philosophical and pedagogical aspect of this example is that there is nothing inner or hidden in Wittgenstein's description of this use of language. In response to Augustine's description of the learning of language (which expresses a particular picture of 'meaning' and the essence of human language) Wittgenstein describes a use of language in which everything is open to view. In response to a philosophical temptation to equate 'meaning' with mental entities (etc.) he remarks 'let us adopt the method we just described of replacing the mental image by some outward object seen, e.g. a painted or modelled image' (BB 5). In this opening example words are written on a slip of paper, a colour-chart and a drawer. Wittgenstein is not claiming that this is how we operate with words when we shop for apples (nor that shopkeepers always use charts and labelled drawers, or count out loud from one to five) although many philosophical theories of language make similar claims by substituting mental entities (or charts, etc.) for these 'outward objects seen'.

The purpose of Wittgenstein's description is again pedagogical. Everything is open to view and nothing is hidden. Yet the interlocutor is still tempted to ask for an explanation of the use of language in response to the description. Why is an explanation required when everything has been described? That everything is open to view and has been described is ensured by using a fictitious example. Wittgenstein suggests that the request for an explanation is itself based on a misunderstanding of how language functions (or on a particular picture of the essence of human language). He anticipates the interlocutor's question: 'But what is the meaning of the word 'five'?' However, it is the question itself which expresses misunderstanding. Thus Wittgenstein answers '-- No such thing was in question here, only how the word 'five' is used.' And its use has already been described. What is impressive about this pedagogical technique is that it challenges the philosophical idea that we think in our heads (and that the essence of language is something inner, hidden or mental) by teaching us how to use our eyes, ears and bodies when engaged in philosophical investigation.

That everything is open to view and nothing is hidden also clarifies Wittgenstein's choice of a shopping example (for the opening remark of his text). He asks, 'When does the question arise what a [person] has in [their] mind? Not when I buy things in a shop' (WLPP 57). We do not ordinarily wonder what is going on in someone's mind when they are shopping. When and why particular philosophical problems and cases arise is also addressed methodologically throughout the text. This involves the complex and varied use of particular cases. According to Wittgenstein, philosophers use examples which no one ever thinks of using in any other connection. He writes that he is not criticizing this because it does not occur in practical life. What he is criticizing is the fact that philosophers do not give these examples any life. According to Wittgenstein, we must invent a surrounding for our example (AWL 24).

The grammatical rather than theoretical or explanatory nature of this example is also highlighted by the choice of this shopping example. The scene involves a play-on-words (a grammatical joke as it were). The shopkeeper deals in goods and trades with customers. The German word for 'trade' (handeln) is also the word for 'act' (handeln). In Wittgenstein's example the shopkeeper acts as he has described (as he himself emphasizes when challenged by the interlocutor). The shopkeeper not only 'trades' as Wittgenstein describes, but in using this term he emphasizes the actions into which the words are woven. It is a grammatical play-on-words in response to the interlocutor's request for an explanation. As such it is not a false or inadequate answer, nor again the dismissal of the question. Rather, it is the rejection of a question which asks for an explanation and the response to a question which expresses a riddle or a philosophical puzzle. As with many grammatical jokes we only understand the question after we have heard the answer (or punch line). Instead of an explanation Wittgenstein offers a punch line, turning the question back on itself and raising the serious methodological issue of the meaning(fulness) of our questions. The complex and varied use of questions (and responses) throughout Wittgenstein's text is another important philosophical and pedagogical technique. He writes that 'commonly the first mistake we make in a philosophical investigation lies in the philosophical question itself.' (5) The varied use of humour (from the sublime to the ridiculous) is also methodologically important in his writings.

Contrary to first impressions, Wittgenstein's response to both Augustine and the interlocutor demonstrates that while challenging and complex his form of response is never disrespectful or dismissive. He opens the Investigations with the words of Augustine. He chooses these words, not because he could not find the concept expressed as well by others, but because the concept must be important if so great a mind held it. Augustine's words validate and confirm shared philosophical temptations and concerns and Wittgenstein responds with respect.

He continues by suggesting that if we describe the learning of language in this way we are thinking primarily of nouns and names. This is another significant pedagogical move for these descriptive investigations require our acknowledgement and response. Wittgenstein does not present Augustine's words in order to refute them (as a theory or philosophical position). Rather he presents them so that we might recognise our own thinking in these words and in his response. The need for us to acknowledge shared philosophical temptations and concerns is of great pedagogical importance. If we do not recognise these philosophical problems as our own then Wittgenstein claims that he has not yet described our use of language (or philosophical problems) clearly enough. He chooses words of confession with which to open his text (and confesses his own philosophical temptations and confusions throughout the text which follows). Methodologically, our own recognition and response is also required.

Wittgenstein's response to the interlocutor, although appearing dismissive, attempts to understand and resolve the complex philosophical confusion which gives rise to the request for an explanation. In response to the request for an explanation Wittgenstein attempts, not to give an explanation, but to demonstrate that it is not what is needed. Further, he does not set up the words of Augustine or those of the interlocutor as 'straw men' arguments in order to refute their positions in a simplistic or inaccurate way. Such criticism would be so inadequate as to be absurd (although this reading of the text has been articulated in numerous articles within the secondary literature). Rather the entire remark raises methodological issues about forms of philosophical criticism and response. Not only do we have Wittgenstein's response to Augustine's words of confession; we also have the interlocutor's response to Wittgenstein; Wittgenstein's subsequent response to the interlocutor; the varied responses of the secondary literature; and our response to all of the above.

§1 is philosophically and pedagogically complex. If we take Wittgenstein's methodological claims seriously our philosophical investigations begin and end differently than if we read his text conventionally. (Ironically, if we take his method seriously his philosophy becomes more natural and more playful.) What are often identified as the weaknesses of his text are in fact the strengths of his philosophical and pedagogical method. When viewed pedagogically his text has integrity, coherence and honesty. It is creative and imaginative, humorous and poetic, challenging and responsive, generous and engaging; all important aspects of pedagogical and philosophical practices. More often than not our negative response to his text is influenced by the mixed reactions of the secondary literature, which Shanker describes as 'the symptoms of a philosophical community's unpreparedness to absorb the radical new themes with which it finds itself confronted' (Shanker 1986: 2). (In other words, we begin in the wrong place.)

If we begin with Wittgenstein's own words and text we discover that his philosophical investigations require our participation and response. We must engage in grammatical investigation for it cannot be learned by hearing lectures or passively reading texts. His philosophical remarks (like §1) present, not the end (-result) of his investigations, but the beginning of our own. We are constantly reminded of this by the blank space between the remarks on the page. Such space calls for our response and without it the text is incomplete. The text is methodologically incomplete without our philosophical engagement; it is not incomplete because fragmentary or composed of remarks. (6)

Wittgenstein concludes his preface to the Investigations with the following famous (or infamous) words: 'I should not like my writing to spare other people the trouble of thinking. But, if possible, to stimulate someone to thoughts of [their] own' (PI xe). Teaching and learning are reciprocal acts and Wittgenstein is aware of such pedagogical issues. When he writes that anything readers can do for themselves leave to them he is not withholding information or philosophical explanations (CV 77e). Rather he is acknowledging that to teach a method involves not merely allowing students or readers to do for themselves what they are capable of doing, but allowing them to practise or do for themselves what only they can do for themselves. They must be allowed to think for themselves if they are truly to be stimulated to thoughts of their own. This is one reason why Wittgenstein does not want to spare others the trouble of thinking.

If we take the trouble to think about the philosophical and pedagogical questions raised in §1 we will discover their solutions. In the opening remark of the Investigations Wittgenstein presents the philosophical problems to which he will respond in the text which follows. He also, significantly, presents their solution. An understanding of the opening passage (in all of its complexity and density) is nothing less than an understanding of his later philosophy. As Kerr writes, with reference to §1, 'Wittgenstein has no more to show us: we might as well stop reading at this point if we want only to hear the result of his work. For most readers, however, it would be premature to go no further' (Kerr 1989: 58). Wittgenstein continues his philosophical investigations in order to teach us his method.

Wittgenstein once remarked that a book on philosophy with a beginning and ending is a sort of contradiction (AWL 43). His text is, however, filled with beginnings and endings. Where he begins in §1 is also where he ends. According to Wittgenstein, 'we now demonstrate a method, by examples; and the series of examples can be broken off' (PI 122). §1 is one such example. If we take the trouble to think about the philosophical and pedagogical questions raised in the opening of the Investigations we will discover that we have not yet begun to use Wittgenstein's method (and his writings) to their full potential. In marked contrast to much of the secondary literature, which reads this text as the end of philosophical inquiry or concludes that everything of interest and importance has been incorporated into conventional theories and explanations, the Investigations itself suggests that we remain, some fifty years after the writing of its preface, at the beginning of our philosophical and pedagogical investigations.

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(1) MS 119 (3.10.37) as quoted in Hilmy 1987: 6.

(2) MS 118 (12.9.37) as quoted in Hilmy 1987: 20.

(3) The following abbreviations are used after quotations in the text: (PI) Philosophical Investigations, (P) 'Philosophy' in Philosophical Occasions, (BB) The Blue and Brown Books, (WLPP) Wittgenstein's Lectures on Philosophical Psychology 1946-1947, (AWL) Wittgenstein's Lectures Cambridge 1932-1935 and (CV) Culture and Value.

(4) For a detailed study of Wittgenstein's method of grammatical investigation and his various grammatical techniques see Savickey 1999.

(5) MS 124, p.278 as quoted in Baker and Hacker 1983: 478.

(6) For further discussion see Savickey 1998.


Baker, G. and P.M.S. Hacker (1983) Wittgenstein: Understanding and Meaning. An Analytical Commentary on the Philosophical Investigations, vol. 1, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Hilmy, Stephen (1987) The Later Wittgenstein: The Emergence of a New Philosophical Method, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Kerr, Fergus (1989) Theology After Wittgenstein, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Moore, G. E. (1993) 'Wittgenstein's Lectures in 1930-1933', in J. Klagge and A. Nordman (eds) Philosophical Occasions 1912-1951, Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company.

Savickey, Beth (1998) 'Wittgenstein's Nachlass', Philosophical Investigations 21: 4.

__________ (1999) Wittgenstein's Art of Investigation, London: Routledge.

Shanker, S. G. (1986) 'Introduction: Approaching the Investigations', in Ludwig Wittgenstein: Critical Assessments, vol. 2, London: Croom Helm.

Smeyers, Paul and James Marshall (eds) (1995) Philosophy and Education: Accepting Wittgenstein's Challenge, Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1968) Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

__________ (1969) The Blue and Brown Books: Preliminary Studies for the 'Philosophical Investigations', Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

__________ (1980) Culture and Value, eds. G. H. von Wright and H. Nyman, trans. P. Winch, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

__________ (1982) Wittgenstein's Lectures 1932-1935, ed. Alice Ambrose, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

__________ (1988) Wittgenstein's Lectures on Philosophical Psychology 1967-47, ed. P. T. Geach, London: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

__________ (1993) Philosophical Occasions 1912-1951, eds J. Klagge and A. Nordman, Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company.

__________ (1993) 'Philosophy' in Philosophical Occasions 1912-1951, eds J. Klagge and A. Nordman, Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company.

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