Selected quotes of Ludwig Wittgenstein and commentary

Wittgenstein himself did a lot of cutting and pasting with his own aphorisms. Here I’ve gathered some quotes by and about Wittgenstein which I personally found useful and important, and put it under headlines listed below. In some cases I add my own comments. It includes some general topics, such as Wittgenstein’s metaphilosophy, and other more specific topics such as quotes under headline “difficulty and simplicity”. Most important in the philosophy of Wittgenstein, as I see it, concerns the logical/empirical distinction, what Ray Monk says “lies at the heart of Wittgenstein’s entire philosophy”.

How philosophy is done
The aim of philosophy
Philosophy versus science
Wittgenstein on logic
Wittgenstein on difficulty and simplicity
Wittgenstein’s philosophical method
Philosophy as therapy
Philosophy about playing according to the terms of the listener
Philosophy is an activity and not a theory
Progress and the non-progress of philosophy
Wittgenstein on ethics, spirituality and religion
Difference and similarity between the early and the later Wittgenstein
Wittgenstein in different contexts
Wittgenstein’s influence and aftermath

How philosophy is done

The work of the philosopher consists in assembling reminders for a particular purpose. PBT

Learning philosophy is really recollecting. We remember that we really used words in this way. PBT

The problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have known since long. PI

If there were theses in philosophy, they would have to be such that they do not give rise to disputes. For they would have to be put in such a way that everyone would say, Oh yes, that is of course obvious. As long as there is a possibility of having different opinions and disputing about a question, this indicates that things have not yet been expressed clearly enough. Once perfectly clear formulation – ultimate clarity – has been reached, there can be no second thoughts or reluctance any more, for these always arise from the feeling that something has now been asserted, and I do not yet know whether I should admit it or not. If, however, you make the grammar clear to yourself, if you proceed by very short steps in such a way that every single step becomes perfectly obvious and natural, no dispute whatsoever can arise. Controversy always arises through leaving out or failing to state clearly certain steps, so that impression is given that a claim has been made that could be disputed.

What kind of investigation are we carrying out? Am I investigating the probability of cases that I give as examples, or am I investigating their actuality? No, I’m just citing what is possible and am therefore giving grammatical examples. PBT

(The quote above is also mentioned here)

Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it.

One might think: if philosophy speaks of the use of the word “philosophy” there must be a second — order philosophy. But it is not so: it is, rather, like the case of orthography, which deals with the word “orthography” among others without then being second — order. PI

(One may say that Wittgenstein’s philosophy of philosophy is a kind of philosophy rather than metaphilosophy – however, I think it’s fine to call it “metaphilosophy” also and meaning that it is philosophy and metaphilosophy at the same time)

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The aim of philosophy

The aim of philosophy is to erect a wall at the point where language stops anyway. PBT

Our only task is to be just. That is, we must only point out and resolve the injustices of philosophy, and not posit new parties – and creeds. PBT

Explaining Tractatus:
The aim of the book is to set a limit to thought, or rather — not to thought, but to the expression of thoughts: for in order to be able to set a limit to thought, we should have to find both sides of the limit thinkable (i.e. we should have to be able to think what cannot be thought). It will therefore only be in language that the limit can be set, and what lies on the other side of the limit will simply be nonsense.

My father was a businessman and I am a businessman too; I want my philosophy to be businesslike, to get something done, to get something settled.

(According to Ray Monk, the ‘transitional phase’ in Wittgenstein’s philosophy came to an end with the realization expressed in the quote above. It so to say, marked a turn from the earlier to the later Wittgenstein.)

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Wittgenstein on philosophy versus science

Philosophers constantly see the method of science before their eyes, and are irresistibly tempted to ask and answer questions in the way science does. This tendency is the real source of metaphysics and leads the philosopher into complete darkness. – BB

(The quote above is also mentioned in this post)

Our interest does not fall back upon these causes of the formation of concepts; we are not doing natural science; nor yet natural history – since we can also invent fictitious natural history for our purposes PI

Scientific understanding is given through the construction and testing of hypotheses and theories; philosophical understanding, on the other hand, is resolutely non-theoretical. What we are after in philosophy is “the understanding that consists in seeing connections.” – Ray Monk

Is scientific progress useful for philosophy? Certainly. The realities that are discovered lighten the philosopher’s task, imagining possibilities (LWPP I)

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Wittgenstein on logic

Logic pervades the world: the limits of the world are also its limits. So we cannot say in logic, “The world has this in it, and this, but not that.” For that would appear to presuppose that we were excluding certain possibilities, and this cannot be the case, since it would require that logic should go beyond the limits of the world; for only in that way could it view those limits from the other side as well. We cannot think what we cannot think; so what we cannot think we cannot say either. (TLP)

(One cannot go beyond logic. Logic cannot tell us what the world contains and what it not contains, since logic cannot exclude anything.)

“3×18 inches won’t go into 3 feet”. This is a grammatical rule and states a logical impossibility. The proposition “three men can’t sit side by side on a bench a yard long” states a physical impossibility; and this example shows clearly why the two impossibilities are confused. (Compare the proposition “He is 6 inches taller than I” with “6 foot is 6 inches longer than 5 foot 6”. These propositions are of utterly different kinds, but look exactly alike.)

(Here is a post where I discuss this issue further, On logic and Socratic method etc)

Wouldn’t one have to say, that there is no sharp boundary between propositions of logic and empirical propositions? The lack of sharpness is that of the boundary between rule and empirical proposition. (OC)

The distinction between the two types of proposition [grammatical/logical and material/empirical] lies at the heart of Wittgenstein’s entire philosophy: in his thinking about psychology, mathematics, aesthetics, and even religion, his central criticism of those with whom he disagrees is that they have confused a grammatical proposition with a material one, and have presented as a discovery something that should properly be seen as a grammatical […] innovation.
Thus, in his view, Freud did not discover the unconscious; rather, he introduced terms like “unconscious thoughts” and “unconscious motives” into our grammar of psychological description. […] The question to ask of such innovations is not whether these “newly discovered” entities exist or not, but whether the additions they have made to our vocabulary and the changes they have introduced to our grammar are useful or not.
– Ray Monk

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Is philosophy easy or hard? Wittgenstein on difficulty and simplicity

What makes a subject difficult to understand — if it is significant, important — is not that some special instruction about abstruse things is necessary to understand it. Rather it is the contrast between the understanding of the subject and what most people want to see. Because of this the very things that are most obvious can become the most difficult to understand. What has to be overcome is not difficulty of the intellect but of the will.

A man will be imprisoned in a room with a door that’s unlocked and opens inwards; as long as it does not occur to him to pull rather than push it.

Teaching philosophy involves the same immense difficulty as instruction in geography would have if a pupil brought with him a mass of false and far too simple ideas about the course and connections of the routes of rivers and mountain chains.

A pupil and a teacher. The pupil will not let anything be explained to him, for he continually interrupts with doubts, for instance as to the existence of things, the meaning for words, etc. The teacher says “Stop interrupting me and do as I tell you. So far your doubts don’t make sense at all.”

My difficulty is only an — enormous — difficulty of expression.

(I think no coincidence it was an early Wittgenstein who said this (in 1915). When he got older and wiser he would not have said same thing, I think. However he wouldn’t have said that he was wrong in the first place either.)

It is one of the chief skills of the philosopher not to occupy himself with questions which do not concern him.

Never stay up on the barren heights of cleverness, but come down into the green valleys of silliness.

(Don’t be a snob, humble yourself and take interest in the ordinary. (This may not be what Wittgenstein had in mind, but it is what I came to think of))

Here is a post I’ve written which raises these issues about philosophy, difficulty and simplicity: Philosophy, dialogue and interest for the ordinary

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Wittgenstein’s philosophical method

[My] method consists essentially in leaving aside the question of truth and asking about sense instead – CV

Don’t think, but look! – PI 66

What I give is the morphology of the use of an expression. I show that it has kinds of uses of which you had not dreamed. In philosophy one feels forced to look at a concept in a certain way. What I do is suggest, or even invent, other ways of looking at it. I suggest possibilities of which you had not previously thought. You thought there was one possibility, or only two at most. But I made you think of others. Furthermore, I made you see that it was absurd to expect the concept to conform to those narrow possibilities. Thus your mental cramp is relieved, and you are free to look around the field of use of the expression and to describe the different kinds of uses of it. – Lectures of 1946 – 1947

(the last two quotes mentioned I discuss further in the text “Don’t think, but look!” – The most common misconception about Wittgenstein)

One of the earliest historical instances of the ‘dialogic’ […] is Socratic irony; and it is interesting that this is in some sense too the implicit genre of Wittgenstein’s Investigations. The Investigations are a voice in dialogue with itself and an implied other, digressing and doubling back, so that the reader is not supplied with ready-made truth as in the monologism of a Russell, but invited to share in the unfoldings, quickenings and arrestings of the discursive process, with its jokes, aphorisms, unanswered questions, parables, exclamations and wonderings aloud. – Terry Eagleton

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Philosophy as therapy

“What is your aim in Philosophy?” “To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle”

For Wittgenstein, all philosophical problems are confusions arising from a failure to see clearly whether sentences have sense. They are brought about because we look at sentences and assume that they say something. This is easily done because we confuse forms of expression that has a similar appearance and assume that the application is the same. – Dawn M Wilson

Wittgenstein is probably the philosopher who has helped me most at times of difficulty. He’s a kind of saviour for times of great intellectual distress – as when you have to question such evident things as ‘obeying a rule’. Or when you have to describe such simple (and by the same token, practically ineffable) things as putting a practice into practice. – Pierre Bourdieu

(Notice how Bourdieu describes Wittgenstein like a therapist (helper/saviour), who helps you see the simple, evident. Text on Bourdieu and Wittgenstein – here & here)

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Philosophy not about telling how it is, but about playing according to the terms of the listener

You can have things now just as you choose. You only need to say how you want them. So (just) make a verbal picture, illustrate it as you choose – by drawing comparisons etc.! Thus you can – as it were – prepare a blueprint. – And now there remains the question how to work with it. -Zettel

One of the most important tasks is to express all false thought processes so characteristically that the reader says, “Yes, that’s exactly the way I meant it”. To make a tracing of the physiognomy of every error. Indeed we can only convict someone else of a mistake if he acknowledges that this really is the expression of his feeling. // For only if he acknowledges it as such, is it the correct expression. -PBT

What the other person acknowledges is the analogy I am proposing to him as the source of his thought. -PBT

Can be compared with quote by Kierkegaard “If One Is Truly to Succeed in Leading a Person to a Specific Place, One Must First and Foremost Take Care to Find Him Where He is and Begin There.”

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Philosophy is an activity and not a theory

Philosophy is not a body of doctrine but an activity.

A philosopher who is not taking part in discussions is like a boxer who never goes into the ring.

[We] may not advance any kind of theory. There must not be anything hypothetical in our considerations. All explanation must disappear, and description alone must take its place.

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Wittgenstein on progress and the non-progress of philosophy

Our civilization is characterized by the word progress. Progress is its form, it is not one of its properties that it makes progress. Typically it constructs. Its activity is to construct a more and more complicated structure. And even clarity is only a means to this end and not an end in itself. For me on the contrary clarity, transparency, is an end in itself I am not interested in erecting a building but in having the foundations of possible buildings transparently before me. So I am aiming at something different than are the scientists and my thoughts move differently than do theirs.

Each sentence that I write is trying to say the whole thing, that is, the same thing over and over again and it is as though they were views of one object seen from different angles.

(What is it he tries to say over and over again? What we note is that the entire philosophy of Wittgenstein seems to circle around the logical/empirical (grammatical/material) distinction)

I would […] say that the later Wittgenstein’s position is really a no philosophical position, according to what is normally meant by ‘a philosophical position’. Almost everything he is doing is in the service of reaching complete clarity on various specific points, and not in the service of developing a new philosophical position – Soren Stenlund

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Wittgenstein on ethics, spirituality and religion

I would like to say ‘This book is written to the glory of God’, but nowadays that would be chicanery, that is, it would not be rightly understood. It means the book is written in good will, and in so far as it is not so written, but out of vanity, etc., the author would wish to see it condemned. He cannot free it of these impurities further than he himself is free of them.

In a letter to Ludwig von Flicker, about his book Tractatus:
You won’t — I really believe — get too much out of reading it. Because you won’t understand it; the content will seem strange to you. In reality, it isn’t strange to you, for the point is ethical. I once wanted to give a few words in the foreword which now actually are not in it, which, however, I’ll write to you now because they might be a key for you: I wanted to write that my work consists of two parts: of the one which is here, and of everything which I have not written. And precisely this second part is the important one.

Kierkegaard was by far the most profound thinker of the last century. Kierkegaard was a saint.

The symbolism of Christianity is wonderful beyond words, but when people try to make a philosophical system out of it I find it disgusting. – In a letter to his friend Maurice O’Connor Drury

Make sure that your religion is a matter between you and God only.

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Difference and similarity between the early and the later Wittgenstein (Tractatus and the Philosophical investigations)

No two works could be as different in form and style as the Tractatus and the posthumously published Philosophical Investigations (our chief source for Wittgenstein’s later work). The former, as we have seen, is esoteric, almost unintelligible without a considerable knowledge of logic and technical philosophy. The latter is simple, written in plain language, free of even the commonest philosophical terminology; it contains a wealth of examples alluding to the humblest life situations; its method of argument is straightforward and follows common sense. – Bilsky, Cobitz
-This is from an article written 1954, before Wittgenstein was widely known.

“Wittgenstein’s career comprises two quite different, though closely related, conceptions of philosophical practice”, which “do not neatly divide inte ‘early’ and ‘later’ Wittgenstein; there are elements of both in each”. They can be called “romantic” and “prosaic”. The first develops “the traditional spiritual or existential problems of meaning and value that lie in the zone of overlap between philosophy and religion”. The other deal with “the driest (if deepest) and least extensively engaging areas of logic and language”. – John Churchill

The philosophy of the ‘later Wittgenstein’ can be seen as a continuation of absolutely the same project. Whereas, however, the early Wittgenstein had believed that this task is to be accomplished once and for all, the technique of this ‘cleaning up’ was, according to the later Wittgenstein, that of recurrent analysis. – Nikolay Milkov

(there is an organic unity between the early and the later Wittgenstein, I agree it is much the ‘same project’)

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Wittgenstein in different contexts; mathematics, academical philosophy, psychology, and literature/art

Wittgenstein would speak of himself as ‘a disciple of Freud’ and ‘a follower of Freud’ – Rush Rhees

Terry Eagleton called Wittgenstein the philosopher of poets and composers, playwrights and novelists.

(Here I present an article which compares the Wittgensteinian way of doing philosophy with how literature is read – “Reading literature and doing philosophy” by Dawn M Wilson)

[Wittgenstein] once assured a student that ‘no assistant lecturer in philosophy in the country had read fewer books on philosophy than he had.’ He read a great deal of Plato, but no Aristotle at all! Most of his favorite authors were suggestive and moral, rather than rigorous and logical, in their writings; in addition to Kierkegaard, Saint Augustine, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy are often mentioned. – Charles Creegan (

(We may remind us of that most books and articles that is written on Wittgenstein is written by academical philosophers. Academical philosophers may be inclined to treat Wittgenstein’s texts as posts in a dialogue with classical western philosophers such as Aristotle and Kant (people that Wittgenstein never took any particular interest in), when Wittgenstein himself rather was in dialogue with novelists such as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky on one side, and people concerned with the foundations of mathematics (such as Frege) on another side.
It’s not just that Wittgenstein didn’t read much philosophy, he was never schooled in philosophy. Wittgenstein’s path in to philosophy was through an interest in the foundations of mathematics.)

(Since Wittgenstein wasn’t schooled as a philosopher, he could (to larger extent than others) more easily stand outside from the field of philosophers I think (using the field term from Pierre Bourdieu). (Would be interesting to make a Bourdieusian analysis on this. EDIT: Here is an Bourdieusian analysis of Wittgenstein and the field of philosophers, Marketing Wittgenstein @ UnderstandingSociety blog)

Wittgenstein to his friend Norman Malcom, who was becoming professional academical philosopher:
Congratulations to your PhD! And now: may you make good use of it! By that I mean: may you not cheat either yourself or your students. Because, unless I’m very much mistaken, that’s what will be expected from you.

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Wittgenstein’s influence and aftermath

Those chosen few who sat at his feet at Cambridge University and absorbed the new method of analysis consider Wittgenstein the greatest revolutionary in philosophy since Hume, possibly even since Socrates. – Bilsky Corbitz

Wittgenstein’s texts must be seen as the beginning of a movement, and not as a dogma which must only be quoted.
– Nikolay Milkov

Academic philosophy in our day stands to Wittgenstein as intellectual life in Germany in the first decades of the last century stood to Kant. Kant had changed everything, but no one was sure just what Kant had said—no one was sure what in Kant to take seriously and what to put aside. To think seriously, in Germany in those days, was either to pick and choose from Kant or to find some way of turning one’s back on him altogether. Philosophers are in an analogous situation now, twenty years after the publication of the Investigations. One must either reject Wittgenstein’s characterization of what philosophy has been or find something new for philosophy to be.

In this situation, philosophers are torn between the traditional Kantian ideal of purity —Philosophie als strenge Wissenschaft—and the sort of post-professional, redemptive, private purity of heart which Wittgenstein seemed to suggest might be possible. – Richard Rorty (written in 1970’s)


Works by Wittgenstein
– BB = Blue Book
– CV = Culture and Value
– LWPP = Last writings on philosophy of psychology
– OC = On certainty
– PBT = Philosophy in Big Typescript
– PI = Philosophical Investigations
– TLP = Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
– Zettel

Dawn M Wilson – Reading literature and doing philosophy
Nikolay Milkov – Kaleidoscopic Mind – and essay in post-Wittgensteinian philosophy
Ray Monk – Duty of genius

(reference list is far from complete, if there is any particular quote you wonder about – please tell me, and I can check it’s reference)


About Dandre

Former student of philosophy, maths and literature. Now studying master program in sociology. Some thinkers of central interest include Ludwig Wittgenstein, C. G. Jung and Pierre Bourdieu.
This entry was posted in Language and communication, Literature and art, Logic and science, Metaphilosophy, Wittgenstein and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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