There are two famous stages of Wittgensteins thought, which are the early and the later. Early Wittgenstein’s work, Tractatus, was very important to the philosophy of language. The most important part of the Tractatus is Wittgenstein’s picture theory of language.
Propositions correspond to the world and reality. For instance one would say, “There is a black wooden table outside” this statement would picture a black wooden table which is outside at this present moment. The names within the sentence picture actual objects in the world and the whole statement pictures reality as it is. According to Wittgenstein they are the facts which make up the world, not things, and these facts are state of affaires. He believes that the state of affairs determines the proposition and that the proposition is a picture of what reality really is. By analyzing the picture-proposition one can derive meaning from reality. Wittgenstein’s so-called picture theory of language brings the thought that there is a strong connection between sense and verification. Words in a sentence only make sense in relation to the whole sentence and the context itself. For Wittgenstein all propositions are either true or false and he is trying to show what can be correctly stated as meaningful language. He says that values, ethics, and religious claims are not in the world. “Ethics cannot be put into words. Ethics is transcendental”.
At this point the logical positivists are agreeing very much with Wittgenstein’s views on language and the meaning it has. The positivists believed that there are basically two meaningful types of statements: tautologies and empirically verified propositions. According to the positivists, any statement or proposition that did not fit in either of these two categories was meaningless. Statements such as “God exists” or “God does not exist” were seen to be meaningless since they were not tautologies and they could not be proved nor disproved by empirical means. Wittgenstein claimed that the things that we cannot talk about were actually more important than the things we can say. In fact Wittgenstein once said, “My work consists of two parts; the one presented here plus all that I have not written. And it is precisely this second part that is the more important one”. What Wittgenstein did not comment on in the Tractatus is more important according to him. This is precisely where he breaks from the logical positivists.
After working out his early philosophy of language, Wittgenstein became increasingly dissatisfied with this account of the way language operates, discovering more and more different types of sentences that didn’t seem to work in the way assumed in this picture theory. The most striking difference between the early and later Wittgenstein is the way he sees language. In contrast, the Investigations opens by locating language within practical and everyday reality – someone buying apples, builders on a building-site – thus emphasizing that language is a tool, “a form of life,” that we use to achieve various sorts of things.
Traditional theories of meaning in the history of philosophy were aimed on referring to something exterior to the proposition which provides it with sense. This “something” could be a thing or an idea in the mind. Language for Wittgenstein is just language-games, thus the only way to understand language is to understand its language game. Wittgenstein is attacking what is called essentialism. Essentialism says that there are essences to things, in particular, language. Therefore when one talks on circles or cars or phones, there is some type of essence that they all are connected to. Wittgenstein argues that the meaning of language is defined on how it is used in any particular language-game. However the use of a word, is not given to any sort of constructive theory building, as in the Tractatus. Rather, when investigating meaning, the philosopher must “look and see” the variety of uses to which the word is put and such looking is done with reference to particular cases, not thoughtful generalizations. “The meaning of a word is its use in the language”. For instance the word materialism has two different meanings in different language-games. In metaphysics it means that the basic substance of reality is completely material, but in political theory and economics, materialism is defined as the obsession with wealth and material things such as money, homes or cars. The understanding and meaning is different in each situation, thus one needs to understand the meaning of the word in its context.
According to Wittgenstein language is completely public and not private since it is rule based. The rules are public and in order to understand a word, sentence, or proposition, one must understand the public rules which exist within any given language game. A person cannot make their own private language. All language is learned through society and is a form of life according to Wittgenstein. Any type of language deemed to be a “private language” is really determined by the public rules and external reality.
Wittgenstein maintains in all his early and later works that philosophy is an activity of clarifying propositions and preventing us from being led off track by the misleading appearances of ordinary language. His view of language-games seems to completely go against the logical positivist’s view of language. He preferred ordinary language over philosophical language because philosophical language in itself creates problems of definitions. However the difference between the two works, lies in the method employed to clarify propositions. The earlier method of philosophy was to analyze propositions in order to reveal their hidden logical structure, however the later Wittgenstein, while still maintaining that the task of philosophy is to critique language, and states that the method to clarify propositions is to show how they are applied in language games. This later method is concerned with the grammar of language and how language is used; it has nothing to do with criticizing the nature of language.