Commentary on Wittgenstein's
Philosophical Investigations
by Lois Shawver

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Table of Contents
Shawver Commentary
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's dialogues, 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 voice whatever seems most appropriate to the passage, such as the voice of Augustine, early Wittgenstein, but the label I use is somewhat arbitrary, in most instances.  What is important is that you notice that this is the voice that provides the context for Wittgenstein's response.

In addition to the interlocutor, 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 often call this the voice of aporia.

Then, there is a third voice in which Wittgenstein makes an incisive point in the face of the tradition and aporia.  You might think of this as the "voice of clarity." 

The basic format then is:
voice of the interlocutor Everything has an essence."
voice of aporia But is this true?
voice of clarity It seems that this notion has been a presumption.

Of course, this greatly simplifies the content of what Wittgenstein is saying, 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 terms of these voices 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. 

And, for my part, 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."