Deranging the Investigations: Cavell on the Figure of the Child

Michael Peters

University of Auckland

© 1998


The Italian philosopher, Giovanna Borradori (1994) spins a narrative about the trajectory of American postwar philosophy that casts Stanley Cavell in a leading role. He pictures Cavell as a neo-romantic or neo-transcendentalist who self-consciously attempts to heal the rupture of American public intellectualism and culture that was caused by a diasporic Viennese strain of analytic philosophy. The way Borradori tells the story emphasizes that the American intellectual tradition established by such figures as Emerson, James, Pierce and Dewey, was fractured at the point that a group of mitteleuropean (and mostly Jewish) thinkers, who were a part of the Vienna Circle, migrated to the United States to escape persecution by the Third Reich. Such leading philosophers as Rudolf Carnap, Herbert Feigl, Carl Hempel, Hans Reichenbach and Otto Neurath migrated to the United States to join and set up philosophy departments with a neo-positivist research direction. Quine himself, as a key figure in the second wave of analyticity and the father of American postwar philosophy, spent some time in Vienna in the early 1930s.

Borradori’s analysis is that postwar American philosophy, based upon the main articles of faith of the analytic creed, isolated the discipline from the other disciplines (especially from history and literature) and from the rest of culture by encouraging the narrow pursuit of ‘technical’ questions in a professionalization of its own status and self-image within the academy. Such a separation was reinforced by the analytic creed that in its desire to eliminate metaphysics tended to deny its own history and to carry on a war of attrition against so-called Continental philosophy which was pictured as hopelessly metaphysical. Borradori (1994: 7) writes:

In America, the definition of analytic philosophy has always been posed in opposition to European thought. In fact, the opposition between ‘analytic’ and ‘Continental’ philosophy is one of the most important historical consequences of the flight of logical positivism to the United States. Repudiating the previous transcendentalist and pragmatist trajectory that engaged it deeply on the public and interdisciplinary front, American philosophy changed face after the Second World War. As for the anti-metaphysical will that had pushed the Vienna Circle to define themselves as ‘scientists’ rather than as humanists, philosophical thought in America closed itself to Europe, and above all to the many currents of existential and hermeneutic derivation, which are often branded even today as obscurantist and nihilist.

Stanley Cavell, at least in Borradori’s eyes, is one of the preeminent American philosophers, who along with Richard Rorty (though in very different ways), has deliberately attempted to heal the epistemological rupture not only by returning to the origins of American philosophy -- Emerson’s transcendentalism and Thoreau’s Walden -- but also by openly engaging with other disciplines and with the leading figures of contemporary Continental philosophy. It is almost as though Borradori’s script on the history of contemporary American philosophy was written especially for Cavell, for he can be seen as writing in ways which fulfil the implied promise of Borradori’s narrative for the future of American philosophy. The reasons why he ought to be read in this way, I believe, lie, at least in part, with his own appraisal of Wittgenstein’s work, particularly the Investigations, but also, I would surmise, on Cavell’s interpretation of both Wittgenstein’s historical place within the so-called analytic tradition and his relationship to the Vienna Circle. Cavell attempts to rescue an "aesthetic-ethical" Wittgenstein, contextualised in a European intellectual milieu, located at the intersection of romanticism and skepticism and in relation to the question of modernism in the arts. Above all, he emphasizes, Wittgenstein as a man who lived his philosophy; as someone whose philosophy is impossible to understand without understanding the man, and; whose style is aesthetically speaking central to the meaning of the Investigations.

Cavell’s uniqueness as a philosopher is evidenced by his capacity to write across a range of topics and mediums. I am thinking particularly of his Shakespeare criticism and his work on film. Yet of all his achievements it is, I believe, his interpretation of Wittgenstein that distinguishes him as a contemporary philosopher, as somehow knows how to practice or ‘do’ philosophy in an age of uncertainty, in an age when logic and science, perhaps, have eclipsed philosophy as the unifying disciplines or metanarratives.

Cavell is a philosopher, one of the few within the analytic tradition (if we still regard both Austin and Wittgenstein as somehow part of that tradition), who embodies Rorty’s (1991) notion of "philosophy as a kind of writing". Certainly, like perhaps, Derrida in respect to philosophy itself, Cavell regards theInvestigations as a text rather than a set of problems to be worked through. This is not to deny that there are also problems surrounding, as Wittgenstein says in the Investigations, "the concepts of meaning, of understanding, of a proposition, of logic, the foundations of mathematics, states of consciousness, and other things" (1972: Preface, p. vii). Yet these "subjects" are not approached in traditional philosophical ways: Wittgenstein does not employ standard or recognizable forms of argumentation nor does he propose theories about them.

One striking example of his craft is Cavell’s (1995b) "Notes and Afterthoughts on the Opening of Wittgenstein’s Investigations" (referred hereafter to as Notes) which I would like to comment upon in this paper. I investigate the way in which Cavell makes central to his reading the figure of the child and make some observations on this figure. Cavell’s reading provides a basis for a Wittgensteinian pedagogics: not only does it hold up the figure of the child as central to the Investigations but it does so in a philosophical style that, though distinctively Cavell’s own, comes closest to the spirit of philosophizing in Wittgenstein’s sense. The text of the Investigations is, itself, an exemplary pedagogic text showing us how to do philsophy in a new way. Cavell’s Notes provides us with the rare opportunity, as Michael Payne (1995: 5) argues, "of witnessing Cavell in the act of teaching a philosophical text". Cavell (1995: 126), himself, directly addresses this issue when he indicates that part of the reason for publishing the Notes, was that some who had attended his lectures suggested that they would be of pedagogical help; yet he also says "There is still, I believe, no canonical way of teaching the Investigations".

Payne (1995: 2) encapsulates a set of interrelated features that characterize Cavell’s reading, focusing his attention on the notion of the human voice -- its fiction and dissumulations -- as a means for engaging an audience, creating a community and developing a process of reasoning.

Cavell advises that Philosophical Investigations should be considered as a text rather than a set of problems; that its quality may be inferred from the quality of other texts it arouses or stimulates others to write; that is is essentially a written text. however much Wittgenstein’s human voice may be heard in it; that it is not simply a text which can be ‘approached’ as though it stood forever at some distance from the reader; that its language not only invokes ordinary notions and experience but also discrepancies from the ordinary; that Wittgenstein’s immediate audience -- grounded in the empiricist tradition of philosophy -- includes precisely those who will be most intimately offended by his text; that he appeals to his readers to form a community around his text, the search for such a community being also the search for reason.

Cavell’s Notes formed the basis of a course he gave on the Investigations at Berkeley in 1960. These notes were later amplified and developed at Harvard where he gave lectures based upon them some half a dozen times during the 1960s and 1970s. Cavell (1996: 369) writes of that period:

That first time around, I presented it [the Investigations] as what I called a modernist work, meaning to say that its incessant and explicit self-reflection struck me as unlike the self-consciousness of any other undoubted work of philosophy I knew. I did not then take the cue to ask whether, or how, or to what extent, philosophy on the whole can escape issues of modernity.

He gave the last set of lectures based onNotes, which had undergone further development, especially in light of his Claim to Reason, in 1984. In 1991 he had occasion to make a presentation that included both the Notes and his afterthoughts concerning them but it was not until the Spring of 1993 that he began to recall his earliest thoughts on the Investigations. The final version appears in Philosophical Passages (1995) and in Hans Sluga’s (1996) Cambridge Companion to Wittgenstein.

The Notes themselves appear in italics in the text and Cavell’s afterthoughts appear in a standard upright font. What we are presented with is a lengthy essay of some fifty-nine pages that comprises Cavell’s reflections over at least thirty years and a text that resembles Wittgenstein’s own manuscripts in the complexity of its composition: a set of remarks worked and reworked, interspersed in a variety of type faces not only with the original Notes and afterthoughts but also with extensive quotations from his earlier works, from a number of other authors (including, Augustine, Hume, and Foucault) and, in addition, references to both traditions the so-called Anglo-American tradition (e.g., Emerson, Austin, Kripke) and the Continental (e.g., Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida).

The result is a rich textual layering that presents the reader with an elaborate, labythrine, structure echoing the process of Cavell’s thinking -- a kind of spatialized conceptual mapping or architecture -- which at one and the same time utilizes some of thegestures of Wittgensteinian philosophizing: the incessant questioning, the rhetorical flourishes, the thought experiments, the same tentativeness in suggestion and yet boldness in concept, the poetizing interpretations. This has led some critics to comment negatively upon his "self-indulgent style", while others, perhaps more atuned to Cavell’s project, talk of "the philosopher as novelist" or suggest that Cavell is developing " a new kind of storytelling". Cavell (1996: 370) suggests that, motivated by his reading of Nietzsche, Heidegger and Derrida, it was only in his most recent rethinking did he begin "to move more systematically toward an articulation of Wittgenstein’s manner, the sheer sense of deliberateness and beauty of his writing, as internal to the sense of his philosophical aims".

The ‘Voice’ of the Child in the Investigations

Cavell’s work as a whole is concerned with the finding or recovery of the human voice, and of finding one’s own voice. In "The Melodrama of the Unknown Woman: A Reading of Gaslight" he talks of "reinserting or replacing the human voice in philosophical thinking, that voice that philosophy finds itself to need to deny" and in "The Philosopher in American Life" he suggests that logical analysis "has depended upon the suppression of the human voice", the voice that ordinary language philosophy aims at recovering (cited by Fischer, 1989: ). Payne (1995: 3) suggests that Cavell elaborates on Wittgenstein’s philosophical style in two ways. The first involves the imitation of the human voice and the way his writing involves a continuity with his spoken voice, suggesting a ‘naturalness’ or ‘ordinariness’ and recalling the ancient form of the Platonic dialogue, a fictionalized spoken voice. Cavell (1996: 381) says:

Part of my sense of the Investigations as a modernist work is that its portrait of the human is recognizable as one of the modern self, or, as we are given to say, the modern subject. Since we are considering a work of philosophy, this protrait will not be unrelated to a classical protrait of the subject of philosophy, say that to be found in Plato’s Republic, where a human soul finds itself chained in illusion, so estranged from itself and lost to reality that it attacks the one who comes to turn it around and free it by a way of speaking to it, thus inciting it to seek the pleasures of the clear light of day.

At this first level of style, Payne suggests that Cavell adopts Emersonian oracular conventions, especially that of "Man Thinking", representing both the privilege and responsibility of the intellect. On the second level, Payne (1995: 4) argues that Cavell’s style "makes precise demands and sets exact terms for his reader’s participation" in establishing a community that shares both pleasure and agon.

Cavell approaches the ‘figure of the child’ as a recent turn in his thinking and indicates that this turn was one of the original reasons to publish the Notes. He writes that the publication will:

help me place a recent turn in my thinking about the state of the child ‘learning’ language, as presented in Augustine’s portrait of (that is, his literary-philosophical remembering of himself as) such a child, which Wittgenstein uses to open his own book (his ‘album’, he calls it) of literary-philosophical reminders (Cavell, 1995: 127).

Reading the Notes one gets a clear impression that the figure of the child develops and flowers into something both more considered and philosophical as Cavell proceeds to elaborate its substance in the afterthoughts. I shall trace and mark out some of the more important passages concerning the figure of the child in the original notes, and move through to section II of the Notes, comprised entirely of his afterthoughts, where Cavell approaches the figure of the child in a fruitful and instructive way.

Cavell is interested in how the Investigations begins (and how philosophy itself begins and ends). It begins, as he relates, by someone talking of his childhood. There is an homology here (not noted by Cavell), between how philosophy begins and how the subject/self begins: a question of growth and of genealogy. We are all familiar with a child’s questions about beginnings or origins. There is always another question once an answer is provided: an original but naive and innocent skepticism. The "why?-game" is the language game in which children learn the philosophical power of the question. Perhaps, Wittgenstein had this in mind when at #204 in On Certainty , he says "Giving grounds ... comes to an end ... its is our acting, which lies at the bottom of our language-game." The child’s question is the philosopher’s question.

In a Wittgensteinian-type comment in the original Notes and in relation to the passage from Augustine, Cavell says, in parentheses: "We don’t, I believe, say that we learn our first language, our mother tongue. We say of a child who cannot talk yet that he or she cannot talk yet, not that he hasn’t learned his native language." And he adds, as an afterthought, "If not (quite) as a feat of learning, how do we conceive of our coming into language, or ‘acquiring’ it?" (p. 144). Later he records that fact that Wittgenstein (at section 5), speaking of the ‘builder’s’ language he has invented, remarks that

A child uses such primitive forms of language when it learns to talk.’ And it does seem easy to imagine a child with only four words ... And is there a question of whether the child ‘understands’ the words? ... The child has a future with language, the builders have, without luck, or the genius of invention, none -- only their repetitions (p. 146).

He says in the last paragraph of the original notes, having analyzed the builder’s language: "the training of children is a process of stupefying them into a state in which we encounter the grown-up builders." But, he explains, this may not mean adopting brutal means; indeed, if children are "recalcitrant", that is, they do not participate in the language game, or do so slowly or wrong-headedly, then it may be simply that

the elders will not speak to them, or pay them full attention, or else that they perpetually express disappointment in the children, and tell them they are bad. As our kind mostly does (p. 165)

In his afterthoughts, beginning section II of the essay, Cavell reflects on the way in which these early observations about the figure of the child became more critical for him. As he says: "It is not a figure one expects to find in philosophical texts" and he speculates that upon the causes for its absence within the Continental tradition as opposed to the analytic". Its absence from the latter, Cavell maintains, has prevented analytic philosophy "from recognizing psychoanalysis as one of its others" (a remark one could not easily direct at Wittgenstein given his treatment of Freud and his view of philosophy as a kind of therapy). He claims that his interest in ordinary language philosophy was from the beginning interwoven with the figure of the child and he proceeds to provide some examples of this preoccupation: the discussion of knowing how to continue a series at the end of Part One of The Claim to Reason; and what he calls Wittgenstein’s "scene of instruction" in Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome.

In the first excerpt that Cavell (1995b: 168) highlights he writes:

Children’s intellectual reactions are easy to find ways to dismiss; anxiety over their ‘errors’ can be covered by the natural charms of childhood and by our accepting as the right answer the answer the child learns we want to hear ... By the time the charm fades their education takes place out of sight.

He talks of the stream of incessant questions that flow from the child -- a kind of natural skepticism -- and in relation to which we feel that we run out of reasons "without being willing to say ‘This is what I do’ ... and honour that" (p. 168). In the second exerpt, Cavell comes closest to a definite statement on the figure of the child:

Haunting the entire Investigations, the opening scene and its figure of the child signals the question ‘Where did you learn -- what is the home of -- a concept?’ may at any time arise (and not only in the couple of dozen sections in which the child explicitly appears), that the inheritance of culture -- the process of cultivation (or what is the point of spading?) -- comes not to a natural end, or rather to its own end, but to one ended, by poor resources, or by power; that when explanations in particular circumstances run out, teaching becomes heightened while control over what it is that is taught, say shown, is lessened (pp. 169-70).

Reflecting on the child’s isolation, or how isolated the child appears in Augustine’s description, Cavell is led to notice something permanent about the child’s isolation, a sense of "the absoluteness in its inital incapacity to make itself known", that, as he says, "leads me to understand the child as mad, not exactly deranged, but in the condition of derangement (my emphasis, p, 170). Cavell has identified another voice apart from the child’s, a ‘double’ voice -- one that is at the same time, child-like, skeptical and mad.

Cavell argues that the "interlocutor’s voice can sometimes be heard as the voice of madness, and sometimes as the voice of childhood" (p. 171). And when he equates the voice of childhood with that of madness, he is drawing upon a rich vein of psychoanalytic and philosophic work: Melanie Klein’s account of pre-verbal development in terms of paranoia and depression; Laplanche’s description of way in which the infant’s instincts are "perverted" into drives as it makes the transition from animal to human; and, above all, Kant’s account of the traumanic advent of the human in terms of reason doing violence to the voice of nature. Wittgenstein himself is not unaware of the psychic forces at work in the transition between nature and reason, as they play themselves out in the child: he writes in Culture and Value: "Anyone who listens to a child’s crying and understands what he hears will know that it habours dormant psychic forces, terrible forces different from anything commonly assumed. Profound rage, pain and lust for destruction" (p. 2e).

Cavell’s analysis on the figure of the child, I think, at this point lapses into a series of associations, in particular, with Derrida on Artaud and Foucault on Laplanche’s study of Hölderlin. From these sources Cavell gets some further soundings for the idea of the child and its relation to that of madness: in learning language the problem of other minds and the idea that one’s thought is not one’s own and Foucault’s possibility of the mad philosopher, as supporting the notion of the child as the opening figure subject to philosophical madness. This set of speculations allows Cavell to make his last substantial point in relation to the figure of the child: the opening passage of the Investigations is also a passage about the teaching of a language, which in Wittgenstein’s philosophical dialect, means that "the concept of teaching language is grammatically related to the concept of language" (p. 176).

From that point Cavell’s essay, to my mind is in danger of sinking under its own philo-literary weight, as, already well above the plimsol line, it wanders (in marvellously speculative and suggestive ways) over the ground of the autobiography/confession, the rift between Anglo-American and Continental philosophy, Heidegger’s critique of Western metaphysics, the culture of philosophy, and, in a kind of symmetry, the ending of philosophy. For my part in the remainder of this essay I want to stay with the figure of the child and to make some concluding comments about its centrality to the Investigations, in light of Cavell’s essay.

Cavell has opened up a textual problematic for the Investigations -- its beginning and its vocal surface structures -- and for philosophy itself. He has not only commented (progressively and more clearly with each advancement) upon the centrality of the figure of the child to the Investigations, but also has commented upon its vocal complexity, its ‘psychoanalytic’ otherness, its harmonization or discordancy with other ‘voices, its conceptual relatedness to the learning and teaching of language (and, thereby, to the major themes of Part I of the Investigations), and its virtual absence in (analytic) philosophy. These are, in my opinion, extraordinary gains, especially for a philosophy which is concerned with passages: from ‘baby’ to ‘child’, ‘child’ to ‘teenager’ or ‘adolescent’, ‘teenager’ to ‘adult’ (in a pattern of ever finer graduations and transitions from one designated state to another). In modernity, these passages have been characterized as episodes in the passage from unreason (madness?) to reason. The Kantian metaphor of enlightenment as the attainment of adulthood in the public use of reason is a dominant philosophical metaphor that borrows from the figure of the child.

Cavell helpfully remarks that the Investigations has been written under three specific pressures or forces: "first, the voice of temptation; second, the voice of correctness; and third, the attainment of silence" (p. 178). Yet he does not suggest how these ‘voices’ constitute the figure of the child. By contrast but not in disagreement, I want to suggest three voices and a non-voice: the voice of the child -- it is naive, truthful, innocent, transparent, native, incessantly questioning (often without serious cause); the voice of madness, that occurs at the limits of language and thought, that epitomizes the philosopher’s craft and questions, especially when listened to from the viewpoint of ordinary, everday, language; the voice of the cultural or tribal other, the adult learner of a new or different language, the figure that prevails to highlights the cultural familiarity and strangeness of our own form of life; and, the non-voice of animals (#25, pp. 174, 203-5), who cannot speak: the dog (#250, 357, 650, pp. 174, 229), and the famous lion ("If a lion could talk, we could not understand him", p. 223).

We might say with Wittgenstein and Cavell that the figure of the child is subject to the voice of temptation and correctness, morally and pedagogically; that, at an early age, somehow s(he) miraculously emerges out of the mystical state of silence to makes sounds and, later, to learn a language. Yet the figure is not static nor staged: in Wittgenstein, the child becomes ‘children’ playing ring-a-ring-a-roses (#7), the ‘schoolboy’ (p. 175), ‘the learner’ or ‘the pupil’ (e.g., #7). The voice of madness is instructive: we learn philosophically through nonsense -- through words without meaning (as in Lewis Caroll’s poems, #13) or through nourishing ourselves on the right kind of examples (#593) at the limits of language ("The results of language are the uncovering of one or another piece of plain nonsense and of bumps that the understanding has got by running its head up against the limits of language", #119). But it also a voice that springs out of having to deal with illusions, grammatical and otherwise (#96, 110, p. 215), and as such requires therapy (#133) or treatment (#254): "The philosopher’s treatment of a question is like the treatment of an illness" (#255).

The voice of the cultural or tribal other is, perhaps, less pronounced, more schematic and interspersed, but, nevertheless, important for the light it shines on linguistic practices as cultural practices belonging to and having life only in a form of life, that has ways of acting as its foundation. It surfaces in Wittgenstein’s reference to ‘customs’ (#198), that help us to determine meanings: as he says at #199 "To obey a rule, to make a report, to give an order, to play a game of chess, are customs (uses, institutions)". It surfaces in Wittgenstein’s thought experiments: "Suppose you came as an explorer into an unknown country with a language quite strange to you" (#205), in his discussions of intention ("An intention is embedded in its situation, in human customs and institutions" #337) and convention (#355). And it also surfaces in his emphasis on primitive forms of language and primitive language-games (where the figures of the child and the cultural other intermingle) and in explicit references such as: "We could imagine that the language of #2 [the ‘slab’ or builder’s language mentioned at section 2] was the whole language of A and B; even the whole language of a tribe" (#6) and "To imagine a language means to imagine a form of life" (#19). Wittgenstein talks of "our language" and asks us to think of a "foreigner" who "did not understand our language" in an extended example at section #20. He experiments with Russian locutions (#20) and tells us the story of how someone "coming into a strange country" learns the native language through guessing at meanings offered by ostensive definition and he writes:

Augustine describes the learning of human language as if the child came into a strange country and did not understand the language of that country; that is, as if it already had a language, only not this one. Or again: as if the child could already think, only not yet speak. And ‘think’ would mean here something like ‘talk to itself’ (#32).

I have said enough, I believe, to establish the figure of the cultural other and its significance for Wittgenstein: in the above example it is clear that it is not only the ‘voice over’ technique or the complexity of ‘double voices’ -- the voice of the child and cultural other -- it is also their disentanglement or contrast that offers philosophical insight. Yet Cavell makes a convincing case for the dominance of the figure of the child in Part I of the Investigations and by doing so he has produced adifferent reading of Wittgenstein: one that is biographically consistent with his own life experiences as a teacher and, no doubt, draws upon them; one that deviates from the analytic attempt to extract a theory; and one that opens up new possibilities for philosophy as a whole.



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