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What can be shown, cannot be said: Wittgenstein's Conception of Philosophy in the Tractatus and the Investigations

Phillips, Dawn M



My thesis is that the say-show distinction is the basis of Ludwig Wittgenstein's conception of philosophy in both the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) and the Philosophical Investigations (1953). Wittgenstein said that the Investigations should be read in conjunction with the Tractatus. To understand the Tractatus we must understand the say-show distinction: the principle that "what can be shown, cannot be said". A correct interpretation of Wittgenstein's philosophy will explain the significance of the say-show distinction for the Investigations. I evaluate three available readings of the say-show distinction which fail to meet this challenge. I argue that Wittgenstein's main purpose throughout his career was to replace traditional philosophy with an alternative conception of philosophy, which can only be understood through the say-show distinction. The Tractatus and the Investigations are different attempts to present the same conception of philosophy. I describe how, in both cases, they present a distinctive account of the nature of philosophical problems, the appropriate methods of philosophy, the end result of a philosophical task and the overall aim of philosophy. I argue that my interpretation provides a correct view of the significant continuities and discontinuities between the Tractatus and the Investigations. The failure of the Tractatus was not a flaw in the conception of philosophy presented in it, nor a flaw in the say-show distinction. In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein failed properly to implement his proposed conception of philosophy, as he remained in the grip of traditional philosophical presuppositions. The Investigations presents the same conception of philosophy, but freed from the presuppositions of the Tractatus. The say-show distinction remains the basis of Wittgenstein's conception of philosophy in the Investigations.


Phillips, D. M. (2002). What can be shown, cannot be said: Wittgenstein's Conception of Philosophy in the Tractatus and the Investigations. (Thesis). University of Durham. Retrieved from

Thesis Type Thesis
Deposit Date Aug 15, 2022
Keywords Wittgenstein; Tractatus; Investigations; Philosophy; Metaphilosophy; Method; Say-Show Distinction; Language; Logic; Clarity
Public URL
Publisher URL
Additional Information Department of Philosophy, Durham University
Award Date Aug 11, 2002