University of Hertfordshire

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Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)131-153
Number of pages23
JournalNordic Wittgenstein Review
IssueSpecial Issue
Publication statusPublished - 6 Oct 2015


This essay introduces a tension between the public Wittgenstein’s
optimism about knowledge of other minds and the private
Wittgenstein’s pessimism about understanding others. There are three
related reasons which render the tension unproblematic. First, the
barriers he sought to destroy were metaphysical ones, whereas those
he struggled to overcome were psychological. Second, Wittgenstein’s
official view is chiefly about knowledge while the unofficial one is about
understanding. Last, Wittgenstein’s official remarks on understanding
themselves fall into two distinct categories that don’t match the focus
of his unofficial ones. One is comprised of those remarks in the
Investigations that challenge the thought that understanding is an inner
mental process. The other consists primarily of those passages in PPF
and On Certainty concerned with the difficulty of understanding others
without immersing oneself into their form of life. In its unofficial
counterpart, Wittgenstein focuses on individuals, rather than collectives.
The official and the unofficial sets of remarks are united in assuming a
distinction between understanding a person and understanding the
meaning of their words. If to understand a language is to understand a
form of life, then to understand a person is to understand a whole life.


This manuscript version is made available under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (, which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. The version of record, © 2015, de Gruyer, Sandis, Constantine; ‘If some people looked like Elephants and Others Like Cats’, Wittgenstein on Understanding Others and Forms of Life, Nordic Wittgenstein Review, Special Issue, pp. 131-153, October 2015, ISSN 2242-248X. Available online at:

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