Look Closely

“Read a page of print, and you can see that; there is something special going on, something highly characteristic. — Well what does go on when I read the page? I see printed words, and I utter words. But of course, that is not all, for I might see printed words and utter words, and still not be reading. Even if the words which I utter are those which, according to an existing alphabet, are supposed to be read off from the printed ones. — And if you say that reading is a particular experience, then it becomes quite unimportant whether or not you read according to some generally recognized alphabetical rule.” (PI, ¶165)


From my first reading of paragraphs 156 to 171 of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (PI), I was struck by their reflexive nature, analogous perhaps to Russell’s infuriating paradox. The spiralling web of critique ensured I could barely read them. Reading about what it is to read. The avenue of thought we are guided down in PI leads us to reflexively question what it is to be guided (Wittgenstein himself addresses this very issue in ¶173-178), what is to know, or to understand (¶150-155). Attempting to write about these passages, in a formal academic style I was stymied at every turn by the ideas from this very book. The inevitable abstractions one necessarily makes when discussing, in generalised terms, the ideas or work of another are paralysing when held against the standards of investigation in which this book has tutored me. Look closely, find meaning in usage, don’t take abstractions, generalisations at face value. This paragraph, notably, ignores these standards in an attempt to engage more directly with the rules of the game of which I am a part. The passages that follow range from attempts at emulating Wittgenstein’s investigative style, to outright and deliberate rebellions against it, and dialogues with Wittgenstein’s ghost. They are reflections on what it is like, for me, to read the PI; how the words have made their way into my form of life, how some of these ideas in their abstracted forms were already a part of my form of life. I believe that the most honest manner in which I may write about what Wittgenstein has been able to share with me, is through the recounting of personal experience. I am situated. As a reader, as a student of the social sciences, as a member of contemporary Western society, as an individual; this situatedness provides the veil through which I am able to interpret the language games that reverberate in my sphere, but also those played with us by Wittgenstein in the PI. I hope that these vignettes are able to communicate some of this experience in an enjoyable and thought provoking way.


As a teenager, remaining seated, trying to get my legs out of the way whilst my peers navigate the pews, towards the aisles and walk slowly to the front of the church, palms upwards, one hand cupped above the other. I still don’t know which hand goes on top, but it appears important.

The one time I ate the body of Christ, the middle aged lady teacher at the school camp who handed me the wafer, first took my hands and with eyebrows turned down towards the center, rearranged them, palms up, one hand above the other, slightly cupped; but I’ve long since forgotten which she put on top. This, after two days of hearing how everyone is welcome in God’s church. Since that day, on the rare occasion I find myself in the midst of this Christian ritual, I sit. Sometimes lifting myself slightly from the wooden bench, the beginnings of a move towards the aisle, but I then imagine standing to the side as the others walk past me. There I would be in full view. At least remaining seated I am somewhat protected, only those directly around me will see; I am an alien to this group activity (¶126).

Fifteen years later, under the vivid golden and blue light into which sand and the hands of man transform the sun’s rays, I sit, stand and kneel with the elderly people in my vicinity, pick up and open the book that lies before me as the others, I sing, I shake their hands and after two or three repetitions am able to repeat without raised eyebrows and near in unison with the owner of the hand “Friede sei mit dir”, (the spelling however I Googled when writing this section). (¶157, 161). Yet, when the moment comes, after the robed men raise their arms in a V to the sky, crack the wafer in half, waving a hand up, down, left and right, and walk solemnly down the three steps to the place where the congregation meets the pulpit, again I sit. Is this religion? (¶90, 157)


In the third row, each raised slightly from the last, under the 20 meter high ceiling, I follow the gesticulations of an old man in a grey sweater vest, as he motions toward a giant image projected on the wall behind him. As he speaks I add lines of messy text to the notebook open before me; “each application of a rule is an extension of the rule – no two situations being identical”, “must be renegotiated each time”, “Wittgenstein”.  Months later, fingers resting on keys, and the words begin to come. “This brief foray into but a few of the many equivocal issues surrounding the right to exercise religious beliefs, brings to mind Wittgenstein’s insights on the application of rules; for every new situation to which a rule is to be applied, the rule itself must necessarily be updated”. I had at this point, never read more than a page or two of Wittgenstein’s own work. (¶143-146)


Snow is still somewhat of a novelty for me; most days when I look out the window in the morning and see snow on the ground, I go and walk around the park with a friend. Yesterday, whilst stomping my big brown leather boots in the melting snow of the Stadspark, trying to talk out the consequences of my own philosophical investigations on my teaching practice, Marcel asked me; “Isn’t it always a good thing to be honest?”. “Ahh, ahh, ahh, ummmm. That’s a bad question!” I exclaimed.

Honestly, I couldn’t care less”, is this a face-saving tactic for noncommittal?

“Now, let’s just be honest here…” a precursor to an attack? An excuse for a lack of tact?

“I want you to be honest with me” a request to tell someone the things you think that they don’t want to hear? Or an insecure person asking for a good acting job?

“He was only being honest when he told the student that they would likely fail the exam”

“Do you honestly believe that philosophy will get you anywhere?” Are you serious?


Opening the book, it falls naturally to the page I am looking for, and I begin to read. I scan each word, each line, and when I come to a question mark I take my pencil and draw a small vertical line next to the corresponding paragraph number in my notebook. Every fifth line is diagonal, and crosses the previous four. As I scan the pages some of the words correspond to an inner voice, but little more happens than the lines in the notebook. At this reading I do not stop between sentences, stare out the window, perhaps scribble a few words in my notebook and slowly turn back to the page again (¶156). I simply identify a certain mark, with which I am infinitely familiar, and I scrape some graphite against a flat sheet of bleached tree pulp (¶162). Am I counting questions as I draw these lines? Or more accurately perhaps, am I counting the occurrences of the punctuation symbol, the question mark? Or am I counting question marks when I look again at the notebook, after the scanning and drawing the small lines for the whole section, and tally the total count for each paragraph and subsequently the section? (¶143-146) Am I counting in the same way as this guy?


“Who left the music on?” Walking upstairs, we hear voices singing in the room above, the realisation that for the last hour, he had left Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion blaring out of the giant speaker boxes, with no one in the room. A hint of comedy to lighten the effect of one’s own error. Where do irony and comedy fit into a logical system of language? Deliberate violations of truth conditions (or, following Kripke, assertability conditions) are funny when the audience responds by continuing the violation, by laughter, or by feigning misunderstanding and thus continuing the joke. “I don’t know dude, maybe someone really wanted to listen to Bach and they broke into your room”.

Funniest Home Videos offers us another example. The young girls swings her softball bat and strikes the ball directly at her father’s crutch. This is funny. We laugh. Perhaps that then is what funny is. But consider the teenager who, sitting in the classroom, uses extreme self-restraint to avoid bursting into fits as her friend silently imitates their teacher behind his back. No laughter, still funny?


I do the same for personal pronouns. Each iteration of the words “me”, “I”, or “my” printed on the page, and taken in by my eye, is followed by a small mark in my notebook. The plural first person pronouns receive their own column. This time there are more pauses, I try to imagine him talking, to me, about “us”. “Now we would, of course, like to say…” (¶156) Should we Wittgenstein? You don’t know me! You would like to say something, about what you assume I would like to say, and why you think I am wrong. But I already consumed you, in bite size chunks and the flavour is hard to cleanse. I no longer can see what I would have liked to say.

Tallying the marks, over the fifteen paragraphs; thirty seven question marks, one hundred and seven first person plural pronouns, seventy three first person singular pronouns. Paragraphs 165, 166 and 169 contribute fifty four of the occurrences of these singular first person pronouns, in which they are used nearly exclusively as the voice in a personal account of experience. Sharing with the reader the thoughts that arose for him when engaging in the examples that he invites us to consider.

At the kitchen table, I strike my own forehead, and groan audibly. “Idiot, this is exactly the wrong way! Didn’t you learn anything?” Counting the pronouns and punctuation marks; it is difficult to think of a more “surface” scraping manner in which to approach a text.

It’s sinking in, and seeping out of the seams. The game is one we can all play. The “you”, the “I”, the “us”, what are they in context, if not invitations to come out into the light and play your game? But with the way you write… The conversation over coffee; “I think he is arguing against a perspective I have already rejected” and not “I think we were wrong all this time about truth conditions and meaning; we’ve been looking in the wrong places, in the wrong way”. (¶340)


What is a travel? Not to travel, but a travel. When a player, in the game of basketball, whilst holding the “live” ball and without dribbling, takes more than two steps, or lifts their pivot foot. Watching the NBA, time after time I count three steps, sometimes four; watching “Shaqtin a fool” we see a “Guinness World Record” ten steps, and the whistle is not blown, the referee does not stop the game. Two steps and a hint of a third in NCAA basketball and the referee shoots his arm into the air, blows a piercing note from the whistle waiting between his lips, makes the characteristic rotating hand motion, the game stops and the ball is handed to the defensive team on the sideline. The rule is the same, and superficially leaves little room for interpretation. But the whistle, the hand signal, the cheers or boos from the crowd and the handover of the ball (and often profanities and appeals of innocence from the offender) are the signposts by which this is recognised, the criteria for entry into the statistical record. If everyone in the crowd knows your name, you appear to be allowed more steps. How many steps until you’re playing a different game?

Shaq calls these “uncalled travels”, but we have seen that the “call” is only one aspect of what on the surface appears an uncomplicated definition. It might perhaps be better to call them “uncalled, unbooed, unhandwaved, unangrily-retorted…. travels”. And what if the “call” is not the “right” one, the player doesn’t violate the rule, but he does hear the whistle, see the hand movement, experience the wrath of the crowd and so forth?


When we peel back the outer layers, the whole thing dissipates. (¶126)

What is your game, Ludwig? How has it functioned? You did not bring about the end of formal logical analytic philosophy. I took two subjects in it last semester. People get paid to do it, they write papers, a few people read the papers. My mother doesn’t wonder what I mean when I say I’m being ‘honest’, or when I talk about ‘religion’ doing such-and-such. When I asked a girl; “Do you want to watch a movie with me this weekend?” she said “Are you asking me on a date?”, I said “What is a date?”, she said “No”.

The paradoxical situation in which you put us; if you were going to end philosophy it would have been here. (¶133) Every word that wants to find its way onto the page, every moment in which I experience the essence of understanding, every time I find true meaning in what you say, and I try to catch it, your own words cut it down in a stroke. Undermining anything that could be said. You had to have seen it coming, “what then is the essence of reading?”, we should like to say that this statement functions abstractly, that it challenges a preconceived notion of propositional language. But we can’t. Unless we ignore you, and say something about what you are saying, whilst ignoring what you are saying. The circles are too tight. (¶125)

You leave enough space, even demand, that we do not consume the PI and regurgitate, we must work with it and from it. Like a puzzle that can be solved in infinite ways. I can’t repeat your ideas, but they lend me something and have done so for many others. They are a spark, a turn, a slap on the face. Wake up man! There are other ways.


The train sways gently from side to side, I draw a “}” around a paragraph of text on “Enactivism and the Unity of Perception and Action” and write to one side “Wittgenstein paper”. Classic computational theory- divisions. In the lecture hall: “It seems to me like these arguments are basically linguistic misunderstandings, they are talking about the same thing but have different definitions. If cognition is dynamically and inextricably linked to perception and action, or if they are the same thing, makes little or no difference when we get to a functional level”; “Ok, when you get to the details it gets complicated, yes”. I spend the rest of the lecture shaking my head.

I email someone Hacking’s “Making Up People”. Rereading the first paragraph I recall the feeling of first finding this idea, and this family of ideas, meetings with Trudy. Now I respond exasperatedly to myself, “Do we really have to keep making this argument about categorisation? Where does this idea originate, that our labels for things are precise and clean cut? Even accepting natural kinds for their face value regarding inanimate physical stuffs, where was the assumption that this kind of mapping of concept onto the world would be valid for the infinite variation of biological stuffs?”

“The traditional realist… finds it amazing that the world could so kindly sort itself into our categories” (p164) You are in his work, your name is on his pages. Can I be guided by your words, in the game as you played it, when your words are already a part of my form of life? The games we are playing are not the same anymore, you are a part of my form of life, but not the inverse. I am not reading what you wrote, not exactly; the veil over my eyes is a different colour.


He is sitting on the teal fake leather dressed chair in the whitewashed waiting room of the student dentist, cross legged, toe tapping rapidly, he stares blankly at the cover of the pop psychology magazine that promises everyone a better life. Ten years ago, the previous appointment, “If everyone had teeth like yours I’d be a poor man”, the dentist version of poor perhaps. No holes, no pain, a piece of metal behind the front teeth left by an orthodontist an age ago occasionally catches his tongue. Seventeen euro a month and he gets sixty five euros off a dentist appointment he didn’t need. Months ago, he told a friend how long it had been and heard disgust in the response.

Returning home he emails the friend:

“I went to the dentist today and thought of you
so a quick dental hygiene update,
ten years of no dentist and intermittent brushing has resulted in zero cavities and overall reasonable mouth health. they did tell me to floss though.
Haha, go teeth!”

The weeks following, brushing frequency decreases, and he speaks with furrowed brow about “normalised medical care”. How would Foucault have written if you had not? Perhaps our protagonist would have made another appointment.


An apple hanging on the branch of a tree, the seeds nestled within the apple.


Look closely. Be careful. But we have seen that we don’t know what it is to look closely, nor to be careful. Cutting away the ground underneath us. Philosophy as a calculated fall. Grasping the rungs of the ladder as it slides into the abyss, and leaves us floating in the meaningless nothing. Until we leap, the only real choice.

Dig deep enough, with any shovel, and you will end up here, with a handful of dust. (¶118)





Hacking, I. (2001). Rewriting the Soul : Multiple Personality and the Sciences of Memory. Princeton: Princeton University Press. http://public.eblib.com/choice/publicfullrecord.aspx?p=617285

Wittgenstein, L., & Anscombe, G. E. M. (2009). Philosophical investigations : The German text, with a revised English translation (4th ed.). Oxford: Blackwell.

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