Commentary on Wittgenstein's
Philosophical Investigations

by Lois Shawver

The source  of the text of the Philosophical Investigations is  According to this website, the electronic text of the Philosophical Investigations was developed by Hsiu-hwang Ho and   Tze-wan Kwan with the assistance of programming assistant  Ting-yat Chui and technical assistant   Hei-yin Lau, and made available on the World Wide Web, August 10, 1998.   The website states that this page was constructed for private use within the Chinese University of Hong Kong only.



Table of Contents

Wittgenstein's book is written in numbered aphorisms.  The following links will take you to each set of aphorisms. 




Availability of this book in print:

Traditionally, English translations of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations are published with the original German on the left-hand side of the page and the right.  I find this very useful, especially when speaking with a German audience.  I even found it useful in studying German.  Wittgenstein's German is unusually easy for a native English speaker to learn to read, and even easier, of course, with the translation on the right side of the page.

Amazon carries this traditional English/German version of the book.

You might also like to read a little about Wittgenstein's remarkable life (he gave away a vast fortune to charity, for example).  This short book by Norman Malcolm is, undoubtedly,  the best short introduction to Wittgenstein, the man.

See a trailer for a movie on Ludwig Wittgenstein and Jean-Francois Lyotard scripted and narrated by Lois Shawver, directed by Ludo Gielen

Click here



Shawver Commentary:

This commentary in the pages of this website is not meant to replace your reading of Wittgenstein in the original. For that, of course, you will need to acquire the book. 

This commentary is meant to give you a taste of Wittgentein, or, if you are really ready, to help you get started.  The problem is that while Wittgenstein's writing style is quite beautiful, almost poetic,  it is so unusual, that all of us, it seems, need a little help in the beginning.  It is my hope that after you read this commentary, however, that his meanings will appear transparent to you when you hold your copy of this wonderful book in your hands.

One of the most difficult or misleading aspects of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations is the way in which he uses multiple voices to converse with himself.  To have a sense of understanding Wittgenstein, you need to be able to hear these different voices.

The Philosophical Investigations is written in aphorisms, short numbered passages that are loosely tied together in terms of theme.  He often begins an aphorism with a quoted passage.  For example, he begins the first aphorism with a quotation from Augustine.  Most quoted passages are not actual quotes, however, but rather Wittgenstein's construction of a kind of interlocutor.  This interlocutor might be thought of in terms of Augustine, Plato, characters in Plato, Bertrand Russell or even early Wittgenstein, or perhaps just a vague composite of these various figures.  At any rate, this voice (and it is not always in quotes) represents the problem that Wittgenstein tries to think through.  I will call this the voice of tradition and symbolize it at times as "T". 

It is useful to think of there being two additional voices.  One is the voice that discovers perplexities or aporia.  This voice is often, but not always, introduced with a dash and it often, but again not always, begins with the word "But".  I will call this the voice of aporia and symbolize it at times as "A". 

Then, there is a third voice in which Wittgenstein makes an incisive point in the face of the tradition and aporia.  Wittgenstein wanted this voice to be completely clear.  I will symbolize it at times as "C". 

So, the basic format of many of the aphorisms is: 

voice of Tradition Everything has an essence.
voice of 
But is this true?
voice of 
It seems that this notion has been a presumption.

Of course, these examples greatly simplify the content of all Wittgenstein will say, and, not every passage has quite this form. But if you look for these different voices, it should assist you making sense of what you find in these pages. 

I suggest that you never presume that these voices are all there in any given passage.  He sometimes introduces, for example, a thought experiment that he calls "language games", and in those cases it does not make much sense to speak of these three voices.  But, you might examine a passage to see if thinking of it in these terms helps that passage make sense to you.  If it does, then you're probably right in presuming that the passage in question adopts this standard format. 

When I see this format being used, I will often call your attention to it, referring to it at times as "LW's standard format."