Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Theory of Language


The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), most notable for his ideas in the philosophy of language and logic, had a vested interest in the use of language because he believed philosophical problems to arise from its misuse,

“Most of the propositions and questions of philosophers arise from our failure to understand the logic of our language. (They belong to the same class as the question whether the good is more or less identical than the beautiful.) And it is not surprising that the deepest problems are in fact not problems at all.” (1)

Language as Picture the World

In his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), which itself proved a popular text with the logical positivists, Wittgenstein presented what soon became called his “picture theory” of language. According to this idea, language enables people to form pictures of the world, which they are then able to use to communicate with one another. If two or more people can understand one another it is because they share the same picture of the world.

“A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.” (2)

Wittgenstein was inspired by the way traffic accidents were reconstructed in court rooms through the use of toys representing the cars and people involved. Wittgenstein saw language to function in a similar way through it providing people with a picture of the world, which is made up of facts. For example, the words “sky” and “blue” are the building blocks of the meaningful statement “The sky is blue.” These words act as a picture of a fact within the world. Wittgenstein further held to what is often described as “logical atomism,” namely the belief that statements that cannot be reduced to atomic propositions are nonsense, and do not relate to the observable world. He felt that philosophers had produced much confusion by failing to understand the pictorial nature of language, and that metaphysics, which investigates things that transcend the physical world, is misguided. Thus, from this perspective, propositions of science make sense, whereas statements of ethics, theology, and aesthetics do not. Wittgenstein urged philosopher’s to distinguish between sense from nonsense, and to help to construct a clear and logical language. Language and the world, Wittgenstein stated, mirror each other, and that reason enables us to correct any apparent mismatch between the two.

“Our language can be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses.” (3)

Language as Social

Wittgenstein argued that a word can only have meaning within the context of human activity. In Philosophical Investigations (1953), he states that the traditional notion of the meaning of a word being an object it refers to cannot be true. Wittgenstein asks readers to imagine someone growing up alone on an island. This person might use the sound “red” and “green” to distinguish between certain colors, but if he misused the sounds he would not be aware of his mistakes. What this person lacks is a community of language users. Words require rules, and rules are necessarily public, shared conventions. Wittgenstein compared language to chess: if one does not know how to play then he cannot even begin playing. Same with language, which itself requires rules, and a knowledge of these rules.

Wittgenstein’s argument undermined some strong philosophical beliefs, notably that of Rene Descartes. Descartes, widely regarded as one of the most influential philosophers within western philosophical tradition, argued that he could doubt everything, including the existence of other people and objects within the world, but with the sole exception of his own conscious mind. However, Wittgenstein’s idea claims that this is impossible, for thought requires words, and words depend on the existence of other people.

Language Follows Rules

As noted, language is social and follows rules. For example, to understand the word “queen” in a game of chess, one must know that a certain piece should be used in a certain way and not in others. The same is true of all words. To grasp the meaning of words, one needs to know the rules of their use. The word “art” seems to represent a single thing when, in fact, it describes a wide range of activities, and activities that do not have a single, essential thing in common. Wittgenstein called this overlapping similarity “family resemblances.” When, for example, a person says that “pizza was a work of art,” he is playing a particular language game in which the word “art” means something like “perfection” or “magnificent.” However, when a person refers to the “art of painting” he plays a different game in which “art” means something like “profession” or “expertise.” Language, reasoned Wittgenstein, possesses no essential structure but is instead a network of interrelated language games, a view which caused him to reverse his view expressed in Tractatus.


1. Ludwig Wittgenstein quoted by Duncan Richter. 2014. Historical Dictionary of Wittgenstein’s Philosophy. p. 221.

2. Ludwig Wittgenstein. Philosophical Investigations. Translated by Anscombe, G., Hacker, P., Schulte, J. 2010. p. 53.

3. Ludwig Wittgenstein. Philosophical Investigations. Translated by Anscombe, G., Hacker, P., Schulte, J. 2010. p. 19.



  1. Well, I am enthralled. I came searching for something like this after reading a profile of Alexander Grothendiek (The New Yorker, May 16, 2022) Author Rivka Galchen quotes mathematician Barry Mazur: “Grothendiek‘s discoveries opened up mathematics in a way that was analogous to how Wittgenstein (and Saussure) changed our views of language”.

    What? Wittgenstein did that? But I can’t recall a single word he wrote! (And who was Saussure?) Click: My liberal arts education, fine enough when I received it 50 years ago, grows threadbare unless steadily refreshed and augmented

    Your refreshing essay restores Wittgenstein to my mind. Thank you for writing and posting!

    Now, as for Saussure…

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