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A Modernist Reading of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations

When reaching for an image expressive of the complex challenges that Wittgenstein faces in Philosophical Investigations, Stephen Mulhall chooses as the cover illustration to his Inheritance and Originality Barnett Newman’s Canto II.1 When reaching for a painter emblematic of the condition of modernism in painting, Michael Fried also turns to Newman’s work.2 We might think of both choices as reflecting Stanley Cavell’s insistence that a work of human creativity, such as a painting or a philosophical discussion, has a scene and that the demarcating of such a scene, a process rendered highly self-aware in Newman’s paintings, is essential to understanding the particular kind of work that it is. Cavell urges us to think of philosophy as having not only a scene but also scenes of various types and to think of an accounting or demarcating of those scenes as essential to a full accounting of what philosophy is and of what the people who participate in those scenes aim to do and to become.3 Philosophy is also self-reflexive. As Mulhall writes in exploring these ideas, “For Cavell, what a distinctively philosophical problem might be is itself a philosophical problem, and one of its most fundamental ones.”4 These two questions—the question of how and when philosophy is staged and the question of how the scenes of philosophy acquire their distinctively philosophical character—are unavoidable, for both Mulhall and Cavell, in the condition of modernism. Similarly, what they call the “burden of modernism” refers to the challenge that artists and philosophers in the condition of modernism shoulder as they [End Page 177] investigate the mechanisms through which art and philosophy are able to establish their distinctive identities.

Mulhall’s interpretations of Wittgenstein and Cavell in Inheritance and Originality foreground this challenge: “The work of the writing of [Wittgenstein’s] Investigations and [Cavell’s] The Claim of Reason,” he claims, “appears as essentially modernist” (12). For many other theorists of modernism, such challenges primarily afflict the arts. Michael Fried, for example, describes the ways in which modernism presents problems for painting and sculpture. Fried highlights the means by which modernist painters and sculptors strive to protect their works from pressures external to them, pressures such as the blurring of boundaries between art forms or the leveling and commodifying effects of the entertainment industry. In exploring those challenges, he emphasizes the dialectic between the interior and the exterior of a work of art. In his essay “Three American Painters: Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Frank Stella,” Fried characterizes Barnett Newman’s Cathedra, for instance, as a staged interaction between the inner content of the painting—the space on the canvas on which the paint is applied—and the outer framing, which serves to demarcate the painting from the surrounding environment. Fried builds on Clement Greenberg’s sense of modernism as the distillation of properties definitive of the various arts—the properties capable of demarcating one field of art from another. In his essay “The New Sculpture,” Greenberg argues that “a modernist work of art must try, in principle, to avoid dependence upon any order of experience not given in the most essentially construed nature of its medium. This means, among other things, renouncing illusion and explicitness. The arts are to achieve concreteness, ‘purity,’ by acting solely in terms of their separate and irreducible selves.”5 Following Greenberg and Fried, we see that Cathedra asks in its composition the very question of what a painting is, both by reflecting on the properties of its own medium and by challenging conventions for determining where the content of a painting begins and ends.6

Cavell himself claims to feel the burden of modernism most acutely in musical composition. The burden is expressed in two ways, first, as a threatened loss of established conventions for composing and for listening (“serious composers have, and feel they have, all but lost their audience”), and, second, as a set of anxieties about the properties and processes that are definitive of musical composition (“crises in the internal, and apparently irreversible, developments within their own artistic procedures”).7 Strangely, in these discussions, Cavell explicitly states that forms of writing are not subject to the crisis he attributes to music:

Writers do not share the severe burden of modernism which serious musicians and painters and sculptors have recognized for generations: a writer can still work with the words we all share, more or less, and have to share; he still, therefore, has an audience with the chance of responding to the way he can share the words more than more or less.

(“Music Discomposed,” 187)

It is true that Cavell claims to “have wished to understand philosophy not as a set of problems but as a set of texts,” and that his own readings of Wittgenstein show a [End Page 178] deep sensitivity to the literary properties of Wittgenstein’s writing. But, like Fried and Greenberg, Cavell views the condition of modernism as having the greatest implications for the nonliterary arts.8

Mulhall, by contrast, reads texts such as Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments, Heidegger’s Being and Time, Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, and Cavell’s own The Claim of Reason as sharing many of the same problems that challenge painters, sculptors, and composers in the condition of modernism. These texts are, according to him, deeply sensitive to the question of what constitutes a proper opening, and a proper closing, for philosophical reflection. Remarking on Kierkegaard, he writes that “there can be no authentic modern philosophy that does not find the matter of its own beginning questionable, and find its own beginning (and hence its own goal or end) in such questioning” (328). Similarly, in a discussion of Cavell’s reading of Wittgenstein in The Claim of Reason, he argues that “any such reading should begin by reflecting on its own beginnings” (2). Moreover, the texts he cites continually return to a posture of self-reflection, in which the claims they advance about the nature of language, the nature of subjectivity, or the nature of philosophy are turned back on themselves. On this view, it is characteristic of the condition of modernism that artists and writers who confront its burdens must draw on resources internal to their works (including works of philosophical writing) in addressing questions about those works’ origins and claims to authority. As Mulhall argues, “No text that fails to measure up to the claims it advances can count as genuinely philosophical”. …; “Some texts are produced under conditions which entail that the reader’s preliminary, tradition-grounded, orientation cannot be trusted, and so they must bear most of the responsibility of establishing the terms on which they can be understood” (8, 24).

For Mulhall, Cavell’s The Claim of Reason is an exemplary case in which such a responsibility is borne willingly, and openly, by the writer: “On this reading, the opening sentence of The Claim of Reason tells us that its fundamental task is to begin providing the terms needed to understand its teaching, terms which will also make sense of this book’s modes of self-criticism, its criticism of earlier texts by Cavell, and its criticism of other philosophers” (4). If Mulhall is correct in thinking of the condition of modernism as characterized by the contesting of the authority of established, or “tradition-grounded,” conventions of demarcation and criticism, then a composer, painter, or sculptor—or philosophical writer—shoulders the burdens of that condition by establishing new such conventions through mechanisms internal to his or her own practice. The authority of a composition, painting, sculpture, or text is generated within the modernist work. But for that very reason, such authority cannot be absolute, and it is instantly subject to new contestations of its own status.

I propose in what follows to reflect on the modernism of Philosophical Investigations by reading it in conjunction with the visual staging of modernism in Newman’s Cathedra. I choose Cathedra as a point of comparison because it most clearly exhibits a problem central to Investigations, namely the problem of framing. In observing the dialectic between the canvas of Cathedra and its frame, we come to a better understanding of how Investigations interacts with its own exterior. I expand on Mulhall’s argument [End Page 179] that philosophical writing, like music, painting, or sculpture, is deeply implicated in the challenges of modernism. In particular, I look at a set of specific strategies that Wittgenstein uses in Philosophical Investigations as he stages the crisis of modernism around a discussion of the nature of language. Cavell, Fried, Greenberg, Mulhall, and others agree in characterizing the burden of modernism as a problem of framing. I draw on Newman’s Cathedra as an example of modernist painting in which the framing of Investigations is given a particularly instructive form of visual expression.

Newman’s Cathedra

Newman painted Cathedra in 1951. Like Vir Heroicus Sublimis and the Onement series, painted during the late 1940s and early 1950s, Cathedra appeared during a moment of breakthrough in Newman’s work. Throughout the 1950s and afterward, Newman continued what he had begun in these early paintings. He experimented with large fields of color that are interrupted as the eye moves across the canvas by vertical strips of often monochromatic paint. Cathedra is itself essentially monochromatic (others from the same period are polychromatic), though the gradient of deep blue color changes modestly around the canvas. Two blue rectangular fields are separated by a thin gap of carefully controlled white paint, placed slightly off-center so as to make the left rectangular field marginally smaller than the right. There is a second, more muted stripe close to the right edge of the canvas (fig. 1).9

One of the basic features of modernist works of art is that they take themselves as their principal subject matter. Newman’s Cathedra is about itself in two senses: it takes the question of what distinguishes its interior from its exterior as a main theme, and it understands that question as a crisis in the nature of its own medium. The problem of how to demarcate the inside of Cathedra from the outside is shown to be inseparable from the problem of what the essential properties of painting are and how those properties allow us to distinguish paintings from sculpture, from photographs, from children’s scribblings, or from the walls on which paintings are hung. My argument is that Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations is equally about itself, and in the same two senses. First, as Cavell and Mulhall observe, it takes the question of what distinguishes the scene of philosophy—here the philosophical text—from what it is not as its principal theme. Second, it stages the question of framing as a crisis in the nature of its own medium, namely the nature of words.

Michael Fried is an admirer of Newman, placing him in a small group of twentieth-century painters and sculptors who explore questions of framing and demarcation with particular intensity. In “Three American Painters,” Fried describes the significance of the white vertical bands of color in Cathedra in the following terms: “The bands amount to echoes within the painting of the two side framing edges; they relate primarily to those edges, and in so doing make explicit acknowledgement of the shape of the canvas” (233). He characterizes the relation between the interior colored portions of the canvas and the surrounding edges of the frame as “deductive.” The white bands [End Page 180] “demand to be seen as deriving from the framing edge—as having been ‘deduced’ from it” (233). For Fried, the relation he is calling “deductive” involves the ability of a painting to establish and enforce a distinction between itself and its exterior. He argues that modernist painters such as Newman highlight shape and color—rather than, for example, the illusion of a third dimension—as the properties that demarcate painting from other forms of art. Here, for instance, he describes color as literally “creating” the “space” of the painting:

Fig 1. Framing relations of Cathedra.
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Fig 1.

Framing relations of Cathedra.

In a painting such as Cathedra the eye explores the colored field not by entering a traditional illusionistic space full of conventional clues to the tactility of objects or their relations to one another in tactile space, but by perceiving nuances, fluctuations, and properties of color alone, which together create the different but closely related illusion of a space addressed exclusively to eyesight.


To speak of the vertical bands inside the painting as having been deduced from the vertical edges of the frame suggests a kind of priority of the latter over the former. But to speak of the distribution of color as “creating” the space of the canvas suggests just the opposite. It is better, I think, and more in the spirit of Fried’s own ideas, to say rather that the interior and the exterior of the painting exist in a relation of codeduction or coproduction. The frame of Cathedra, as the outer edge of something with an interior, functions as a frame only in relation to what it frames. What is inside and what is outside the painting stabilize each other.

Especially illuminating in the viewing of Cathedra is the continuous movement of the eye between the vertical strips within the painting and the vertical strips of external material that frame the canvas. As I have remarked, lines of demarcation, in a condition of modernism, must bear the awareness of their own elastic and constructed character. They are claims to authority that nevertheless open themselves repeatedly to forms of criticism and self-criticism. They are forever anxious about their own status, forever [End Page 181] threatened by new processes of change and overcoming. In Cathedra, the relation between interior and exterior is stable, but the stability that constructs the interior of the painting is dynamic rather than static. It follows the logic of T. S. Eliot’s “Chinese jar,” which “moves perpetually in its stillness.”10 As with the Chinese jar, it is the motion beneath the motionless that accounts for the distinctiveness of the work—that allows it to demarcate itself from what surrounds it. The relation between interior canvas and exterior frame strengthens as the viewer bounces back and forth between a series of verticals, confining the activity of viewing within the colored spaces marked off by the oscillating activity of the eye. The eye halts its activity at the verticals of the frame, where the shaping of colored spaces ends, and then returns back along the direction from which it came, thereby constructing the frame. The loosely rendered depiction of Cathedra in figure 1 dramatizes this process.

Fried observes that the vertical bands “amount to echoes” of the vertical lines of the frame. We can see in figure 1 multiple examples of the echoing relation. The eye of the viewer becomes captured by these various relations, bouncing alternately between the different vertical options. The painting achieves its framing when the eye reaches the limiting verticals—when it runs out of new colored spaces—and recoils in the opposite direction. It is because the framing function is occasioned by relations immanent within the work that I have described Fried’s analysis of Cathedra as a thesis of codeduction or coproduction. No line is in itself absolutely internal or absolutely external to the work. The verticals produce the space of the painting through a set of interactions between them, and only then does such a space become describable as possessing interior and exterior parts. Only then, we might say, does it become describable as a distinctive painting. What begins for Newman as an awareness of a lack of authoritative criteria for the delineation of a painting and a reflection on the nature of the medium of painting thus becomes, through the manipulation of shape and color, an attempt to construct a stable interior using resources internal to Cathedra itself. But, crucially for the modernism of the painting, Cathedra continues to disclose the essential effaceability of its self-structuring frame. In the absence of definitive external—one might say, for reasons I discuss shortly, “metaphysical”—criteria for establishing that frame, the outcome of Cathedra is to show that the overcoming of the boundary between interior and exterior nevertheless remains a standing possibility in the condition of modernism.

The Modernism of Philosophical Investigations

The aptness of Mulhall’s description of Philosophical Investigations as “essentially modernist” becomes apparent as we compare the framing relations in Investigations to the framing relations of Cathedra. If we think of Newman as staging the burden of modernism through the production of multiple interactions between the units of his painting, we can think of Wittgenstein as staging that burden through the production of analogous forms of interaction between the units of his text. If modernism demands, among other things, a process of reflection on the medium of performance, then for [End Page 182] Newman, the medium of painting is color and shape, and the units that serve as relata in the interactions he produces are manifestations of that medium. For Wittgenstein and other similar writers, the medium of philosophical reflection is words, and the units that serve in the interactions that he provokes are similarly designed to make the nature of his own medium a principal issue. We can gloss this comparison by saying that, for Newman, the question “What is a painting?” provokes the question “What are shape and color?” Similarly, for Wittgenstein, the question “What is philosophical reflection?” provokes the question “What is a word?” In thinking about the self-structuring of Investigations, there are three relations that I want to highlight in particular (fig. 2).

Fig 2. The modernism of Philosophical Investigations.
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Fig 2.

The modernism of Philosophical Investigations.

The three elements on the left side of the frame are aspects of the interior of Investigations. Investigations is a composition in words; Wittgenstein undertakes its principal philosophical work (the overcoming of a metaphysical view of language) in part 1, between remarks §1–§693; and the words of part 1 aggregate into a distinctive philosophical project called “Philosophical Investigations.” The three elements on the right side of the frame reflect pressures external to the main philosophical work of Investigations, pressures that contest the nature of philosophical reflection by contesting the medium in which it occurs. The medium of words is demarcated in opposition to things that are not words; part 2 of the text contains a peculiarly different mode of philosophical reflection than part 1; and Wittgenstein’s earlier Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is the philosophical text most clearly antithetical to the aims of Investigations.11

Wittgenstein’s task in Investigations is conditioned by the need to strike a balance between these opposing pressures. In relation to the first opposition, between words and nonwords, he aims to produce two seemingly incompatible outcomes. As itself a philosophical text, Investigations labors under the burden of affirming, or of conferring a particular kind of privilege on, the medium of its own execution. It must affirm the distinctiveness of its own words. However, the particular semantic content of the words [End Page 183] that execute the work of Investigations leads to an affirmation of the ultimate elasticity and violability of the boundary between words and nonwords. The words of Investigations threaten to undermine themselves. The achievement of both ends, seemingly opposed, depends on Wittgenstein’s sense of what kind of threat is involved here and of what might be meant by the idea of conferring a particular kind of privilege on words.

The question of what “privilege” means in this context is linked to Wittgenstein’s sense of what makes one kind of thing different from another kind of thing. A metaphysical, or extraphysical, distinction between words and nonwords traces the privilege that we accord to words to a nonmaterial property or properties that all words share. In the case of the Tractatus, words can be distinguished from nonwords according to a highly specific logical function that they serve rather than according to the accidental empirical, or material, properties that they possess. On such a view, privilege thus denotes the idea that the criteria underlying the distinctiveness of words are built into the very nature of human representation and do not depend on historical decisions about how to organize human experience.

In Philosophical Investigations, with the Tractatus and other forms of linguistic Platonism in mind, Wittgenstein strikes the balance between the distinctiveness of his words and the larger continuities between words and nonwords by replacing such metaphysical criteria with everyday ones. He now attacks the idea that “thought is surrounded by a halo”, that “logic … presents an order, in fact the a priori order of the world”, that “thought, language … [are] the unique correlate, picture, of the world”, that “a proposition is a queer thing”, that there is “a peculiar depth—a universal significance” to logic, that our words and signs are something “sublime” (§97, §96, §94, §89, §38, §89, §94). Instead, he argues that, insofar as words do have a kind of privilege in our everyday experience, the criteria that make them so are themselves ordinary rather than transcendent. As he says in §105, we incline toward such metaphysical ideals only when “we become dissatisfied with what are ordinarily called ‘propositions,’ ‘words,’ ‘signs.’” The emphasis here is on the word “ordinarily.” It is true, of course, that we have classificatory terms for propositions, words, signs, and other linguistic items and that the fact of such forms of classification is a profound and far-reaching aspect of many human forms of life. But he urges us to see the distinctiveness of these distinctively classified items as conventional rather than given.

In developing the significance of everyday material criteria in the legislating of the word/nonword distinction, Wittgenstein emphasizes a set of accidental empirical properties that our words share and to which we have developed a kind of psychological (Wittgenstein might even say emotional) attachment. Again, the kind of contrast that Wittgenstein highlights is between an (everyday) attachment into which we grow as we become habituated to particular empirical patterns and a (metaphysical) attachment to acts of representation out of which we cannot opt, because such acts are an a priori and absolute condition of human experience as such. In §134, for example, it is the banality of a proposition’s audible expression that nevertheless enforces a distinction between propositions and nonpropositions—“One feature of our concept of a proposition,” Wittgenstein notes, “is sounding like a proposition.” Similarly, in [End Page 184] describing the empirical activity of reading, Wittgenstein places special emphasis on the visible properties of written words: “For the mere look of a printed line is itself extremely characteristic—it presents, that is, a quite special appearance, the letters all roughly the same size, akin in shape too, and always recurring; most of the words constantly repeated and enormously familiar to us, like well-known faces” (§167; see also §156–§71 passim).

In our everyday lives, the uniformity of words facilitates numerous basic activities, such as reading, writing, speaking, and listening. And because the word/nonword distinction is something into which we grow—something that informs our growth into the particular kinds of human beings that we are—Wittgenstein notes that changes to the ordinary sensible properties of words can be felt as deeply disruptive (though not, contra the Tractatus, as damaging to the very possibility of experience itself). “Think of the uneasiness we feel when the spelling of a word is changed,” he writes, in a remark that recalls Heidegger’s views on the indefinable anxiety we feel when our habitual expectations are frustrated (§167).12

In reflecting on the nature of words, Wittgenstein dismantles one boundary, enforces another, and, as I argue, provides the tools for the overcoming of that second boundary as well. That is, he repudiates metaphysical construals of the word/nonword distinction, but he nevertheless insists on the everyday distinctiveness of words as a medium—words are as familiar and reliable as “well-known faces”; disruptions to our everyday relationship to words cause “uneasiness.” But in tracing that distinctiveness to a set of accidental empirical consistencies that we devise (socially, historically, technologically), he opens the everyday boundary between words and nonwords to new forms of overcoming. Alongside Mulhall’s separate theses about the self-reflexivity of Philosophical Investigations and the self-structuring of philosophical texts and philosophical traditions, it is that particular three-part dialectic that I am calling the modernism of Investigations.

Just as we may think of the modernist painter as engaged in an exploration of the broad continuum between painting and nonpainting, so too Wittgenstein challenges any such constructed boundary by exploring the broad continuum between verbal and nonverbal forms of practice. In the middle writings, for example, he vastly expands his application of the word “language” to include a “language of gestures” (Brown Book, 84; Philosophical Grammar, 56, 129), a “language of numbers” (Philosophical Remarks, 71), a “language of imagining” (Philosophical Grammar, 83), a “picture-language” (123, 129, and many other examples), a language of music (4; Brown Book 166), a language of tables (Philosophical Grammar, 124; Brown Book, 82, 89–90, 96), a “language of drawing” (Philosophical Grammar, 83), a “language of commands” (142), “signal-language” (142), a language of arrows (Blue Book, 33), “special technical languages” (Brown Book 81), and, of course, several examples of “word-language” (e.g., Philosophical Grammar 56, 83, 123, 129). In Philosophical Investigations, he argues for the permeability of the boundary between words and nonwords more directly. In §65, for example, he expresses his new sense that there is no deep and permanent terrain of language—no deep “logical scaffolding” (Tractatus 3.42, 4.023, 6.124)—but rather our variegated applications of the term “language” in ordinary circumstances: [End Page 185]

Instead of producing something common to all that we call language, I am saying that these phenomena have no one thing in common which makes us use the same word for all—but that they are related to one another in many different ways. And it is because of this relationship, or these relationships, that we call them all “language.”

The expansion of the term “language” and the resulting demystification of the boundary between language and what is not language then reverberates through Investigations itself, establishing it as the instrument of a particular kind of philosophical project. If the criteria that distinguish words from nonwords are everyday and empirical, then the criteria that demarcate larger verbal structures, such as texts, will bear the trace of the same everyday and empirical features. The ideal of the philosophical text as the communication of absolute and uncontaminated metaphysical truths (of the kind we read in the Tractatus, for example), rendered possible by the deployment of absolute and uncontaminated words, yields, in Investigations, to the idea of the philosophical text as an everyday artifact, held together by empirical conventions for seeing something or reading something as a word or as a text. As with Cathedra, the boundary between the words within the text and the nonwords outside the text is not as precise and easily established as the metaphysical tradition might hope.

Having determined the nature of words as the principal concern of Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein continues to stage the modernism of the text through additional means. The complex dialectic of construction and overcoming evident in the opposition between words and nonwords achieves new expression in part 2 of the text, where the concept of “aspect-seeing” can be seen as a form of immanent reflection on the verbal bias that Wittgenstein himself assumes in part 1.13 Investigations is laden with mereological problems, involving how the preface relates to what follows, how the peculiarly structured remarks from §1 to §693 interrelate, and whether to think of parts 1 and 2 as constituting one or two distinctive philosophical texts.14 The particular interaction that I want to highlight, however, is given expression by Wittgenstein in §168, where he reflects on the conditions that determine whether we see our environment as containing merely “arbitrary pothooks and flourishes” or whether we see it as containing words. Having established the word/nonword boundary as an empirical distinction shaped by human conventions, he uses section 6 of part 2 to discuss the conditions that enforce such conventions in our everyday lives.

As part of the dialectic that I have described as being indicative of the modernism of Investigations, section 6 of part 2 reflects on the empirical conditions for our seeing or hearing something as a word (rather than as something else). It also, however, reveals itself to be a highly distinctive form or mode of philosophical activity, namely, the exploration of philosophical ideas through pictures and ideograms or through an interaction among pictures, ideograms, and words rather than through words alone. The pictures here are not mere examples of what the words around them describe but are deeply implicated in the philosophical work of coming to see the verbal environment as conventionally structured. That is, they are integral to this particular form of philosophical reflecting (we literally see the conventionalism of vision), raising anew [End Page 186] the question of what a philosophical text is and why (or if) philosophical reflection must occur in words. At their most direct, the pictures that Wittgenstein uses—a cube, a duck-rabbit, a triangle, a double cross, a smiling face—help us to reflect on the conventions that feed into our seeing them as one type of cube rather than another, as a duck rather than a rabbit, as a black cross rather than a white one, as a human face rather than arbitrary marks. But they also equip us to reflect on the conventions that feed into our seeing (or hearing) some parts of our environment as words or as other forms of language. As we experience the dawning of a new aspect in the duck-rabbit, we look at Wittgenstein’s words as bearing many of the same physical possibilities. It is telling, for example, that Wittgenstein’s discussion of the “dawning” of aspect in a familiar face in section 6 of part 2 reproduces the image of words in §167 as “well-known faces.”

The Medium of Philosophy

These two expressions of modernism in philosophical writing—the distinguishing of words from nonwords, the distinguishing of philosophy in words (part 1) from philosophy in pictures (part 2)—trigger a more encompassing dialectic between the interior and the exterior of Philosophical Investigations as a text. A central part of Cavell’s and Mulhall’s engagement with the philosophical tradition sees a philosophical text as being determined in its status by its responsiveness to other texts (rather than, for example, as a set of responses to permanent and free-standing philosophical problems). Here we find in new form the aspect of modernism that I described earlier in relation to painting, namely the coproductive relation between the interior and the exterior of the work.

The clearest textual exterior to Philosophical Investigations—the text to which it is most clearly responsive—is the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and so it is the content of that work that performs the most powerful framing role with respect to Investigations as a philosophical text itself.15 The metaphysical disposition of the Tractarian model of language marks it as an especially stark exterior for Philosophical Investigations. On the metaphysical conception, the criteria for something’s being a word are absolute, and they follow from the “transcendental” conditions of human subjectivity (6.13). On the carefully delineated Tractarian model, something becomes a word if and only if it serves as one of the “elements of a picture” (2.13, 3.22). In Investigations, however, Wittgenstein rejects the inflexibility of the pictorial model, openly tracing two of the most flawed theses in the philosophy of language—that all instances of language follow a single set of rules (compare §23 to 3.11, 3.14, 3.202) and that complexity in language and complexity in the world are reducible, without remainder, into “simple” elements (compare §46 to 2.02–2.021, 3.2–3.202, 3.23, 3.25, 3.3442)—to the Tractatus. In the Tractatus, the distinction between a word and a nonword is set down by the absolute conditions of logical form (“a picture has logico-pictorial form in common with what it depicts” [2.2]). In Wittgenstein’s middle and later writings, however, that line of demarcation loses its precision and becomes subject instead to a range of everyday factors. Wittgenstein’s project in Investigations then becomes the overcoming of the [End Page 187] metaphysical model, and the distinctiveness of that project is produced, or deduced, from the distinctiveness of the antecedent Tractarian view.

We might say that the Tractatus suppresses the burden of modernism by suppressing acknowledgment of its own medium, which causes a crisis within its own performance. That is, the defining of words and propositions according to their metaphysical role in pictorial relations produces a crisis for the language of the Tractatus itself, for the simple reason that Wittgenstein’s own propositions in the text are not pictures of any facts in the world. One criterion for evaluating a philosophical work, as we have seen, is whether it “measure[s] up to the claims it advances.” In the case of the Tractatus, the words that express the metaphysical model are not countable as words according to the metaphysical model. In the Tractatus, the crisis is postponed until the penultimate remark, when Wittgenstein finally and famously acknowledges the untenability of his own medium, retreating to what he believes is a productive silence: “My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them—as steps—to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.) He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright” (6.54).

Various strategies for mitigating the crisis of medium in the Tractatus have been proposed, but I admit to finding the general attempt at any such mitigation unconvincing, and I do not want to dwell on the particularities of the various proposals.16 For my present purposes, the crisis is rather indicative of a further type of philosophical framing. The contrast with Investigations is again stark. On the everyday model, Wittgenstein now insists that the medium of philosophical reflection must not make claims about itself that exceed the fact of its being an everyday construction. In §121, for example, he refuses the idea of a pure and privileged language of philosophy, placing the language of philosophy on a common plane with our everyday words: “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 them being second-order.”

Using the example of the word “philosophy,” Wittgenstein makes the more general point that strategies for reflecting on language cannot seek a medium in which the ordinary characteristics of that language are absent or overcome, and he develops this point by making the everyday nature of the Investigations’ own medium a central theme, thereby suggesting new possibilities for overcoming or redrawing the empirical boundaries that hold that medium in place. Wittgenstein expresses the idea most clearly in §120: “When I talk about language (words, sentences, etc.) I must speak the language of every day.” To the objection that everyday language is “too coarse and material” for the purposes of philosophical reflection, Wittgenstein responds: “In giving explanations I already have to use language full-blown (not some sort of preparatory, provisional one).” [End Page 188]

Jumping over the Boundary

My proposal has been that Wittgenstein stages the modernist problem of framing around a set of relations that foreground the nature of words as the medium of philosophical reflection. The aim of his writing is to establish a boundary around the text that is sufficient to enable philosophical reflection to occur but that shows the boundary itself to be unenforceable at anything other than an everyday level. In concluding, I turn briefly to Wittgenstein’s own remarks about what the marking of any such boundary (between word and nonword, between text and nontext, between parts of a text, between one text and another) involves and why, to steal a phrase from Stanley Cavell, it is a practice worth having. According to Wittgenstein, boundaries are neither given nor absolute but rather purposive and elastic, as he makes clear in Investigations (“we can draw a boundary—for a special purpose” [§69]). In thinking about the challenges of philosophical reflection in a condition of modernism, we can read Wittgenstein’s lengthier remark in §499 as a statement about Investigations itself:

But when one draws a boundary, it may be for various kinds of reason. If I surround an area with a fence or a line or otherwise, the purpose may be to prevent someone from getting in or out; but it may also be a part of a game and the players supposed, say, to jump over the boundary; or it may shew where the property of one man ends and another begins; and so on. And so if I draw a boundary line that is not yet to say what I am drawing it for.

Here, in short, is Wittgenstein’s account of what Cavell, Fried, Mulhall, and others describe in relation to music, painting, sculpture, and philosophical writing. With Investigations, Wittgenstein is himself drawing boundaries. He is constructing a particular philosophical scene, the purpose of which is to overcome a metaphysical tradition that distorts our relation to our own words. But he is also providing resources that lead us to view that boundary as transgressable when we find it to be constructed rather than given, to be purposive rather than permanent, and when our everyday purposes grow and change. Sometimes it can be the purpose of the game “to jump over the boundary.”

I have used Barnett Newman’s Cathedra as a guide in understanding the framing relations that structure Philosophical Investigations, but I make no claim that the comparison between them is perfect or complete. How far Newman goes in suggesting the ultimate transgressability of his paintings is a matter for the viewers of his paintings to judge. To describe the process of reading Investigations as one of jumping over the boundaries on which it relies for its own work, however, means seeing the continuum that Wittgenstein opens between words and nonwords as central to that work. It also means seeing the oscillation of the reader between Investigations’ various oppositions as resonant of the oscillations of the eye as it views Cathedra. While there may be a sense in which words have been essential to the practice of philosophy, Wittgenstein repudiates the idea that there is anything essential about words themselves, apart from the empirical fact that human cultures choose to build their practices on them. At its most basic, the notion of an interior to a philosophical text is the notion of a space of words. In accepting the condition of modernism, Wittgenstein affirms that space as [End Page 189] distinctive for the duration of his own philosophical purpose but also shows the framing of the space to be collapsible once that purpose has been served. In other words, he shows words to be elemental in the construction of the scene of philosophy, just as color and shape are elemental in the scene of painting; but, in the same gesture, he weakens our inclination to think of words as absolutely distinguishable from the forms of multimediated practice beyond the text. The clear tension in these two aims follows naturally from the burden of modernism.

W. P. Grundy

W. P. Grundy received his PhD at King’s College, University of Cambridge. He has held teaching and research positions at Cambridge, the University of Colorado, and the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.


1. I refer to the following texts by Wittgenstein: Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997); Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Remarks, trans. Raymond Hargreaves and Roger White, ed. Rush Rhees (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1975); Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Grammar, trans. Anthony Kenny, ed. Rush Rhees (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1974); Ludwig Wittgenstein, Preliminary Studies for the “Philosophical Investigations,” Generally Known as The Blue and Brown Books, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1969); Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. C. K. Ogden (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1922).

2. Michael Fried, “Three American Painters: Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Frank Stella,” in Michael Fried, Art and Objecthood, (1965; rpt., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 213–65.

3. Stanley Cavell, “The Argument of the Ordinary: Scenes of Instruction in Wittgenstein and in Kripke,” in Stanley Cavell, Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 64–100.

4. Stephen Mulhall, Inheritance and Originality: Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Kierkegaard (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001), 7.

5. Clement Greenberg, “The New Sculpture,” in Clement Greenberg, Art and Culture: Critical Essays, (1958; rpt., Boston: Beacon Press, 1989), 139.

6. See also Stephen Mulhall, ed., The Cavell Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), 3.

See also Stephen Mulhall, ed., The Cavell Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), 3.

7. Stanley Cavell, “Music Discomposed,” in Stanley Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say? (1965; rpt., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 187.

8. Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Scepticism, Morality and Tragedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 3; see also Mulhall, Inheritance and Originality, 6–10.

9. Although a color block print is not amenable to reproduction in black and white, figure 1 illustrates the relations implicit in the painting. A color image of the painting can be found on the journal’s Print Plus Platform at http://modernismmodernity.org.

10. T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets (New York: Harcourt, 1943), 19.

11. The mereology of Philosophical Investigations is complex, and there may be some dispute about whether I am right to describe part 2 as being external rather than internal to the text’s primary concern. For the moment, I want to postpone that problem because, in a sense that will become clear, it does not matter to my argument. Though I characterize part 2 as exerting external pressure on the work of Investigations, my discussion shows this boundary to be overcome in the process of the text’s philosophical work.

12. The empirical uniformity of words can also be a source of philosophical confusion, however, when we mistakenly consider such accidental uniformity as evidence of deeper metaphysical properties that all words share. In a portentous remark earlier in Investigations, Wittgenstein diagnoses [End Page 190] the seductions of philosophy as involving exactly such a confusion of empirical with metaphysical uniformity—“Of course, what confuses us is the uniform appearance of words when we hear them spoken or meet them in script or print. For their application is not presented to us so clearly. Especially when we are doing philosophy!” (PI §11).

13. Illuminating discussions of aspect-seeing can be found in Malcolm Budd, Wittgenstein’s Philosophy of Psychology (London: Routledge, 1989), 77–99, Cavell, The Claim of Reason, 354–82, and Stephen Mulhall, On Being in the World: Wittgenstein and Heidegger on Seeing Aspects, (London: Routledge, 1990).

14. Mulhall considers some of these ideas in Inheritance and Originality. See especially 6–9, 11–23.

15. Wittgenstein explicitly voices a desire to bridge the texts in the preface to Philosophical Investigations: “Four years ago I had occasion to re-read my first book (the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus) and to explain its ideas to someone. It suddenly seemed to me that I should publish those old thoughts and the new ones together: that the latter could be seen in the right light only by contrast with and against the background of my old way of thinking.”

16. Discussions of section 6.54 of the Tractatus can be found in James Conant, “Elucidation and nonsense in Frege and early Wittgenstein” in The New Wittgenstein, ed. Alice Crary and Rupert Read (London: Routledge, 2000), 174–217, Cora Diamond, “Ethics, Imagination and the Method of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus” in The New Wittgenstein, 149–73, and P. M. S. Hacker, “Was He Trying to Whistle It?,” in The New Wittgenstein, 353–88. [End Page 191]