The difficulty in understanding Wittgenstein is threefold. First, the easiest way to understand him these days is to start at end of his thought and work backwards. Second, W himself had very little to say on metaphysics and theories of meaning, which has led to totally contrary consequences by other thinkers building on his ideas. And third, which is the point people usually start at, is that he started with a very different conception, then changed his mind half way through his life and recast his earlier thought in a new light. This topic attempts to resolve these difficulties and introduces a new approach to his later theory of language based on the common 'shared key authentication' method for establishing secure network connections.

This algorithm creates a shared 'key' without Alice or Bob knowing each other's secret data, which can help understand how Wittgenstein's idea of language games works.
This algorithm creates a shared 'key' without Alice or Bob knowing each other's secret data, which can help understand how Wittgenstein's idea of language games works.

Color and Mysticism

One of the last things Wittgenstein wrote about was color. Realists just think of color as a sense experience, which is physically described in terms of certain electromagnetic wavelengths, and any dispute is resolved by refining the boundary conditions on allowable mixes of wavebands. On the other hand, the significance of color is social too. For example, in the USA red frequently has the connotation of danger or 'stop.' In China, red is the color of a party or parade, and therefore cheerful instead. But Wittgenstein instead took a middle position on it, and instead concentrated on how two people reach an agreement on what the color red might be. With regards to whether objects in the world are red or not, he concluded, from the nature of how agreements are reached, the true nature of reality can only be known 'mystically.' MANY people have a problem with that, so the next step is to consider how Wittgenstein reached that conclusion.

During Wittgenstein's life, the most dominant view of language was that it is 'descriptive.' An 'apple,' for example, is known to us by a description of a real-world object that exists in our minds. So when we want to know if it is true that there is an apple is red, we 'look up' the descriptions of 'apple' and 'red' in our minds, then we look at the real world to find the apple and see if its color corresponds with our mental description of red. This approach, popularized by Russell and Whitehead, was immensely successful in creating new approaches to representing language symbolically, and so this 'theory of descriptions' became rather accepted as the way language correlates with reality.

Wittgenstein really did not like the theory of descriptions at all, because to him, the resulting symbolic language of propositional logic creates an artificial and unreal perspective on the nature of 'natural language.' Wittgenstein instead viewed language as a 'game' or 'tool' whereby people can communicate their intents, and cause changes in the world, in ways that can be totally unrelated to dictionary-style descriptions of words.

Language Games and Shared Secrets

Wittgenstein's alternative was very difficult for me to understand until I learned, of all things, a security protocol used in computer software called the 'Diffie–Hellman key exchange' for inter-user authentication. By this method, two people can have 'private color codes' to encode data for exchange, and yet they each can understand each other without knowing the other person's private color code. To do so, they both mix their private colors with a public color; and the tones of the private and public colors are chosen so that, when they each receive a colored message from the other, they can each add (or subtract) their private color from the message color, extracting the same color that the other sent. The result is a 'shared secret communication' where both have the same color, but don't know the secret color of the other; and that remains the initialization of all secure connections on the Internet today (for the full mathematical explanation, see this link on the wwikipedia)

A description of creating a shared color between Alice and Bob in terms of private and public colors
A description of creating a shared color between Alice and Bob in terms of private and public colors

Alice, Bob, and the Meaning of Rain

The above idea of 'shared secrets' helped me understand Wittgenstein as follows. In this example, Alice and Bob both have a secret intent that the other does not know, but they can still communicate effectively:

Hide LIne Numbers
  1. // [secret] Alice is hungry,
  2.    => Alice says 
  3.        "Bob please bring in groceries from car."
  4. // [secret] Bob hears 'Alice wants me to get dressed to go outside.' 
  5.    =>Bob says 
  6.        "It is raining."
  7. // [secret] Alice hears 'Bob is not hungry.'
  8.    =>Alice says 
  9.        "it is not raining."
  10. // [secret] Bob hears 'Alice insists I get dressed to go outside.'
  11.    => Bob says 
  12.        "if you think it's not raining, 
  13.           you bring in the groceries, 
  14.           and in exchange I'll start cooking dinner."

Through Wittgenstein's method the outcome is happy. Yet had Bob instead been a realist, a long argument would have ensued as to the nature of the meaning of 'rain,' with disputes about the difference between misty condensation, rainfall, and sleet. So the realist, following Russell's descriptivist theory, believes the solution to the contradiction is to converge on a common definition that "rain is defined as water drops, of size greater than XX mm3, falling from the sky at a rate of YY drops per square meter per second, above the temperature 0 Celsius." Such debate might have kept Bob from getting dressed, but meanwhile, Alice would have been increasingly hungry, which is one explanation why realists can experience troubled marriages.

Wittgenstein's point is now clear:

  • It is totally irrelevant to the conclusion whether the proposition 'it is raining' is true or not.
  • It is certainly irrelevant what the correct description of rain might be.
  • Bob is not told Alice is hungry.
  • Alice is not told Bob doesn't want to get dressed.

And yet even so, Bob's 'positivist' conclusion is logically coherent, the result is happy, and there has been effective communication.

It's impossible to explain this in terms of the 'descriptive theories of reality' that materialists frequently attempt to apply to all aspects of the amazing world in which we live. Yet strangely, some theorists have tried to warp Wittgenstein's idea of 'positivism' into a disproof of the existence of meaning or a dualist mind/body reality. In fact, Wittgenstein has, as I started by saying, no intent to state 'any theory of meaning' or 'metaphysical grounds' at all, because, as he tries to point out, that denies the ability to understand the real nature of the conversation between Alice and Bob.

That is to say, Wittgenstein holds that a theory of meaning and metaphysics is NOT NECESSARY for effective communication. Just because they are not necessary does not imply that other forms of communication could be based on theories of meaning. Rather, Wittgenstein has instead expanded the scope of that which can be understood in language beyond that which theories of logical meaning and metaphysics can explain. For this reason, Wittgenstein states:

What I give is the morphology of the use of an expression. I show that it has kinds of uses of which you had not dreamed. In philosophy one feels forced to look at a concept in a certain way. What I do is suggest, or even invent, other ways of looking at it. I suggest possibilities of which you had not previously thought. You thought that there was one possibility, or only two at most. But I made you think of others. Furthermore, I made you see that it was absurd to expect the concept to conform to those narrow possibilities. Thus your mental cramp is relieved, and you are free to look around the field of use of the expression and to describe the different kinds of uses of it.
- Ludwig Wittgenstein : A Memoir, Norman Malcolm (1958): Lectures of 1946 - 1947.

The Beetle in the Box

Therefore, Wittgenstein concludes, if one attempts to make a single, general, total statement about ALL communication, the most one can do is say that language exists, and the totality of 'the world' as far we know it for sure, is only the facts we state in language. The actual nature of intent, emotions, and causality is private and unknowable. In his earliest writing, Wittgenstein even asserts that attempting to describe that which is private and unknowable only results in 'logical nonsense,' but later he softens from such rigid confines, instead suggesting that we all have a 'beetle in a box,' as described in this video below (some still partly agree with his earlier thought and think of the beetle more as Schrodinger's cat, but that is another topic):


About all other things about which we do not speak, we cannot really say what is true or not. In his earlier narrower theory of logical positivism, he held that statements about 'intrinsic states' (such as emotions) fall outside the boundaries of that which we can speak and know to be true; but his later thought, by adding ideas of language games and linguistic tools; increased the domain of knowledge beyond that empirically verifiable in some largely undefinable way.

The Mystery of Knowledge

There, then, is a return to the beginning of Wittgensteinian thought, and where I would really end. Except, in conversation with others, I find I need to clarify a few ramifications on the mystery of knowledge.

Recognizing Unstated Meaning

In the Alice/Bob example, maybe Bob actually knew Alice was hungry. And maybe Alice knew Bob didn't really want to get dressed. A realist might attempt to say that this can be resolved by each recognizing 'unstated meaning' by the other. However, with regards to verifiable truth, this still runs into a few problems:

  • Alice could deny she is hungry, instead saying she just wants to get things done so she could relax, or some other equally valid explanation. Similarly Bob could deny he is feeling lazy, instead claiming he is too busy on something else.
  • The realist could continue the argument by observing how deductions could be made from prior occasions, thus enabling extrapolation of intent to the current circumstance. But this doesn't work either. People can say the same thing for different reasons at different times, and there is no clear method to determine the separate intent in each case. In fact, according to best of game theory, the intent for the same utterance, or the utterance for the same intent, could well have been altered by the speaker since the last occurrence, in order to 'win the game.'

For this reason, Wittgenstein stated the connection between the nature of reality and natural language is 'mystical.' We can only hope Alice and Bob have some 'mystical' connection that enables them to understand each other regardless of the physical communications. Ultimately, the nature of that understanding is unknowable; Alice and Bob could have different beliefs about each others' motives that result in the same outcome, so even if they do communicate successfully, there is no proof that they actually know the intent of the other.

Santa Claus and the Nature of Love

Nonetheless, the purpose of positivism is not to deny the existence of understanding, but rather to consider constructively how effective communication can be possible--which is partly why it is called 'positivism,' and not instead considered some form of cynicism about an ultimately unknowable reality. For in a world where private experience exists, those seeking evil as an explanation can always find an evil explanation; but those seeking a more favorable explanation can in fact build on the nature of private experience to create a more positive life for all, however much it is not based on knowable truth.

Realists want to remove the uncertainty by resolving statements down to verifiable propositions. As a result, realists seek to discard Wittgenstien's idea of communication as a hindrance to determining the truth value of propositions, and demand, instead, some type of commitment to honest. But empirically, the evidence is that humanity not only prefers the uncertainty of shared secrets, but that the world is actually better for it:

  • Parents tell children that Santa Claus exists from an early age. Realists hold that teaching children to believe in a lie sets a dangerous precedence. Yet however true that could be, the tradition has been so successful that Santa Claus, whether he exists or not, now controls 15~20% of the world economy.
  • Cynics could still indicate that such delusion of children is destructive to understanding of the nature of truth. They could claim this leads to acceptance of other dubious propositions being true, such as young girls saying they don't care about looks or age when they are married to old rich men. Yet the point of positivism is actually to bypass such cynicism about love, and instead simply to consider how communication can be successful in more situations. Positivism points towards acceptance of secrets, in the interests of positive results. So the child accepts the parent's explanation of leaving the window open to let Santa Claus in; and the parent may know the child's doubts, but it remains unspoken, with all the love in the world. The rich older husband wisely ignores his wife darting a look at some handsome hunk, and instead directs her attention to the importance of intent over appearance.

In ideal circumstances, the truth remains a shared secret to create a positive outcome. The end result is that all language becomes a means to an end, for which reason we still need to exercise caution and rigor in our choice of beliefs. For it is undeniable that some minority will always exploit uncertainties to their own advantage. Yet even so, if we let the minority control our beliefs in all situations, the end result would be a total breakdown of all trust, and therefore, disable the possibility of any communication at all. We can at least find assurance that properly-based trust does result in superior society, otherwise, Santa Claus would not control 15~20% of the world economy; and the idea of falling in love as the basis of marriage would not be continuing to expand into new cultures around the world, however much more sensible a marriage arranged by parents may appear.

Wittgenstein's Poker

On this Wittgenstein himself was not successful on convincing his colleagues of the time. The famous specific example is from 25th October 1946, when Wittgenstein met a philosopher also advocating realism against Wittgenstein's perspective, called Sir Karl Popper. Popper held that substantial problems in philosophy could not be resolved due to limits in induction, leading people to make unjustifiable assumptions, which can only be countered by a new approach to rationality (see The Myth of the Framework, 1994). Wittgenstein claimed Popper was inventing an unnecessarily complex linguistic puzzle that produced no greater understanding of logic, gesturing with a fireplace poker to emphasize his points. When asked to state an example of a moral rule, Popper later claimed to have replied "Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers", upon which (according to Popper) Wittgenstein threw down the poker and stormed out.

While it was true Wittgenstein was known for abrupt departures in the midst of debates, Wittgenstein denied he was 'threatening' Popper with the poker, but simply waving it like a lecturer's pointer. This was then vastly popularized in 2001, when two journalists recounted the debate in historical form, even publishing it as an entire book, Wittgenstein's Poker (2001). Since then, a number of pundits have wittily observed how philosophy is doomed to failure in explaining the true nature of reality, if two of the greatest experts in the field could not agree on how a fireplace poker was waved, threateningly or not.

The irony of this reportage is that Wittgenstein himself would agree with the book's theme. His point of view is that his gestures with the poker actually have no definitive meaning, and Popper raising that as an ethical objection made it impossible to continue the debate. Thus the pundits' criticisms actually prove him right. What I add to this, in this article, is that the poker example is a clear case of failure in Wittgenstein to establish any 'common color' through which their 'private colors' could work in establishing effective communication. Perhaps the correct conclusion is that Wittgenstein himself was limited in his ability to present his theory such that others could accept them. Debate about Wittgenstein's intent, in waving the poker, therefore collapses into an argument about realism which has no actual bearing on linguistic-game theory. So this book may have raised popularity of Wittgenstein as an eccentric character, but did some disservice to his actual theories.


So now in brief conclusion, I return to the earlier example in this article, where Alice and Bob could have had an argument about whether it was raining for the wrong reasons. In accordance with ideas about shared secrets, maybe Bob did know that Alice was actually hungry; and maybe Alice did know that Bob was actually being lazy. If so, that remains their shared secret. As Wittgenstein said in conclusion to his earlier work, Tractatus Logico Philophicus, they were correct to pass over that in silence. And moreover, as Wittgenstein indicated in his later work, our purpose is not always to know some absolute truth, for that is frequently unobtainable, if possible at all. Rather, our purpose should be to pursue the positive view, with the best wisdom we can procure.


- Ernest Meyer



  1. Edmonds, David and John Eidinow. Wittgenstein's Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers. Harper Collins, 2001.
  2. Malcolm, Norman. Ludwig Wittgenstein : A Memoir. Oxford University Press, 1958.
  3. Merkle, Ralph. "Secure Communications Over Insecure Channels". Communications of the ACM. 21 (4): 294–299. doi:10.1145/359460.359473. Received August, 1975; revised September 1977
  4. Palmgren, Keith . Diffie-Hellman Key Exchange – A Non-Mathematician’s Explanation,, 7/2000
  5. Popper, Karl. The Myth of the Framework: In Defence of Science and Rationality. Ed. M.A. Notturno. routledge, 1994.
  6. Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. New York, 1922.
  7. Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. trans. Ancsombe. Pearson, 1922.
  8. Wittgenstein, Ludwig. The Red and Brown Notebooks. 1958.
  9. Wittgenstein, Ludwig. "Remarks on Colour," in Bemerkungen über die Farben,. trans. Ancsombe, 1991.