Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: January 2018

4 - Wittgenstein in the 1930s



In 1929, Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge and philosophical writing, criticizing his own earlier work and turning his focus to how language is used in ordinary life. The next few years were a time of transition between his early and his later work, and are of great interest for anyone who wants to understand the development of his thought. Wittgenstein's writings and lectures during the first half of the 1930s play a crucial role in any interpretation of the relationship between the Tractatus and the Philosophical Investigations. The manuscripts from 1929 record his first steps away from the Tractatus; by the end of 1936, he had written an early version of the Philosophical Investigations.

In “The ‘Middle Wittgenstein’,” written for a Wittgenstein centennial conference held in 1989, I outlined an interpretation of the development of Wittgenstein's work that concentrated on this “middle period.” In that paper, I focused on a number of crucial passages in which he decisively changed his conception of the nature of mind and language, moving away from Tractarian logical atomism, through what I called the “logical holism” of the late 1920s and early 1930s, and from there to his later “practical holism.” These included his brief attraction to the idea of starting with “phenomenological language,” and its replacement by ordinary language in October 1929, and his changing view about rules and rule-following in the first half of the 1930s.

In the first part of this chapter, I return to the question of how to approach the development of Wittgenstein's thought. In the second part, I follow a particular thread in Wittgenstein's writings from the 1930s concerning rule-following and interpretation in order to see what light it casts on larger questions about the relationship between Wittgenstein's way of writing and his philosophical methods.


Talking of “the development of Wittgenstein's philosophy” may seem like a neutral way of describing our topic. However, that very expression lends itself to thinking of Wittgenstein's philosophy as structured in a certain way, as developing from a starting point to an end point, from the early philosophy to the later philosophy, or from the Tractatus to the Philosophical Investigations.