A Wittgensteinian critique of conceptual confusion in psychology

by epistemicepistles

Dear Reader,

whether you are a Wittgensteinian fanboy or fangirl, or staunch critic of conceptual confusions in psychology, this epistle is for you and your critical appraisal!


Much of Wittgenstein’s writing concerns language and our understandings and misunderstanding of how it is and is not ‘connected’ to our thoughts, perceptions and sensations, all topics falling within the purview of psychology. This critique relies on the so named ‘later Wittgenstein’s’ conception of the role of language, his rejection of essences, his theory of meaning as ‘use’ and his anti-reductionist, non-systematic approach to philosophy.

Applying this approach to the sciences of the mind, particularly psychological research, reveals conceptual confusions stemming from embedded underlying essentialist, referentialist and reductionist assumptions. These lead to misconceived notions of causality, explanation and systematization, leaving experimentation with unsound conceptual underpinnings. As psychologists are concerned not only with collecting data but also interpreting it and providing insights into the human psyche, they must confront psychology’s conceptual and philosophical underpinnings. In what follows the relevance of Wittgenstein’s work on these topics to our understanding of psychological phenomena is made clear.



Wittgenstein questions whether the core foundations of science: causality and systematization are applicable to psychology.[1] In psychology there is a common presumption that our thoughts and actions are lawfully connected, that certain ‘kinds’ of physical acts are causally connected to certain ‘kinds’ of mental acts. Psychologists speak of causes and seek correspondences, generalisations and parallels between things we say and do for explanatory purposes. This insistence on causal explanation also implies a systematic correspondence between ‘things’, suggesting that such causal connections are universal and omnipresent.

In contrast, Wittgenstein argued we need not presume there are neural processes correlated with associating or with thinking; such that it is possible to read off thought processes from brain processes. Even if assuming a system of impulses going out from the brain is correlated with thoughts, this does not provide reason to think these thoughts would proceed systematically. It is plausible that certain psychological phenomena cannot be investigated physiologically, as physiologically nothing corresponds to them: as Wittgenstein states this assumption begs the question; “why should there not be a psychological regularity to which no physiological regularity corresponds?”[2]

The attempt to relate mental events to neural and cortical processes is informed by a view of the mental on which through ‘introspection’ a person is able to report on a mental event or process, which a psychologist can then correlate with neural processes. James,[3] a leading figure in early experimental psychology, endorses such a picture of introspection; as looking into one’s own mind and reporting what we there discover. However this is the conception of mind Wittgenstein argues adheres to insufficiently grounded assumptions:[4] primarily the assumption that neural states or processes can be inductively correlated with mental attributes on the basis of an individual’s introspective reports. Wittgenstein questions introspections’ status, arguing it is not a form of perceptual observation, but rather a type of reflection on motives and on their explanation. It can as often lead to self deception as self-knowledge. As such it is wrong to suppose that the ‘states’ and ‘events’ than an individual introspectively attempts to report can actually be correlated with neural events, states and processes.  Psychologists cannot study mental phenomena directly without their interpretation being distorted by both the subjects and their own bias. As such misplaced notions of causal connections skew the interpretation of research data. The following section considers how similarly reductivist notions of systematisation mislead research methods.


Reductivism and Systematisation:

In what follows I consider compelling Wittgensteinian arguments for the rejection of notions of explanation and systematisation informed by ‘reductivism’. Reductivism, conceived here as the method of reducing the explanation of phenomena to the smallest possible number of primitive natural laws.  For Wittgenstein complexity, rather than reduction to ‘essences’ is the route to conceptual clarification.[5] Reduction to a simplified model yields only the illusion of clarification, while in effect it incarcerates our concepts: “a picture holds us captive”.[6] Reductive explanation is superficially attractive, in that it appears to promise a compact account of the monumental complexity of understanding a human being. However it can reasonably be argued that any such reduction to a few physical elements would hardly capture the complete nature of a person.

Further this reductivism leads to a misleading assumption of systematisation in psychology, That if we take, for instance, physics as the model for our thinking about psychology, we will arrive at an idea that the discipline would progress through the gradual accumulation of psychological laws; a ‘mechanics of the soul.’[7] However why should we suppose that psychology will reach maturity by replacing qualitative psychological descriptions with quantitative neurological ones? On a Wittgensteinian critique, psychology’s maturing will involve not emulating the methods of harder sciences but rather ridding the discipline of conceptual confusion:  “Psychology is not comparable with physics in its beginnings, for in psychology there are experimental methods and conceptual confusion.”[8] Wittgenstein’s point here seems to be not that empirical research does not work, but rather that psychological methods are impeded by a myriad of misconceptions as to the nature of mental processes and psychological concepts, which distort interpretations of data.

The posing of meaningful questions which can be experimentally researched, and interpreted accurately, requires clarification of psychological concepts. The following sections consider how psychological concepts under study are constituted by the linguistic distinctions used to understand them, and how misplaced essentialist and referentialist tendencies distort these distinctions.


Referentialist views of language treat words as standing for, or referring to, objects. While Wittgenstein’s Tractatus[9] espoused such a view, he later came to think one of the Tractatus crucial failings was that it ignored the difference between alternate kinds of words and uses of language.[10]  Consider the words ‘table’, ‘blue’ and ‘hot’, these do not all signify objects, and understanding the words does not in each case involve knowing what objects they stand for. Rather, according to Wittgenstein, it involves knowing how the words are used.[11] Consequently treating reference as central to meaning gives a one sided and inaccurate view of language.

However in psychology this referentialist doctrine seems alive: In the misplaced reification of concepts as ‘concrete’ tangible things. As Gould[12] argues, there is a strong tendency to believe that whatever received a name must be an entity or being, having an independent existence of its own.  However on a Wittgensteinian take, we can reasonably be sure that no such ‘concept-entities’ can be found among the neurons in a person’s skull, they are concepts not concrete things. Confusing the two is equivalent to confusing a “map with a territory.” [13] Essentially it involves taking a pattern of behaviour, naming it, then taking this named thing to be a physical entity, then viewing someone’s behaviour as caused by having this entity inside them. Confusing psychological concepts with inner entities, like so, leads to postulating metaphysical explanations which actuality explain nothing. It is equivalent to saying a volcano erupts because it has ‘eruptability’ inside, or to say someone’s nervous behaviour is caused by an inner ‘neuroses’. This is merely to repeat the observation that they tend to behave in a nervous manner. The explanation merely repeats the description of the initial behaviour, yet the vacuousness of the explanation is concealed by pointing to a mystified inner entity; ‘neurosis’. This form of referentialism survives in psychology and leads to much conceptual confusion, distorting our notion of causality and providing only vacuous explanations[J1] .[14]


Similarly to referentialism, in contrast to the essentialism of the Tractatus[15] Wittgenstein came to later reject the idea that there is any essence of a proposition or of language.  In the place of ‘essences’, Wittgenstein held there are many different kinds of ‘affinities[16] between phenomena. The affinities between various ‘games’ illustrates the point well; that in considering a variety of ‘games’ instead of finding something common to them all we instead discover whole series of similarities and affinities between them; i.e. some are skills based, others entertaining, some competitive etc. These similarities he coined ‘family resemblances’ where characteristics overlap but no single feature is necessarily possessed by all.[17] What we call ‘propositions’ and ‘language’ do not have the formal unity essentialists imagine, but rather a ‘family of structures akin to one another’.[18]

Nonetheless conceptual essentialism is observable in mainstream psychologist’s persistent belief that they are investigating single, underlying and essential psychological process. There is reason to question such essentialism. We have no ‘single’ manifestation of pain, thought, memory or most other psychological concepts.  Terms are used with different meanings; i.e. the term ‘learning’ has been used with so many different kinds of meanings that some have proposed giving it up completely.[19] Further words like intelligence, are used in a technical sense at one moment, then an everyday sense the next. Essentialist assumptions encourage and harbour conceptual confusion in creating misleading pictures of psychological concepts like ‘consciousness’ or ‘memory’ which become entrenched and taken for granted in defining the phenomena of study, and consequently lie beyond critique or review themselves.[20]

Such essentialism additionally informs the very concepts which are presupposed by scientific investigations, and consequently cannot themselves be scientifically investigated. Accordingly Wittgenstein makes the point that the scientific method is inappropriate for dealing with such conceptual questions.   In psychology this is observed in the recourse psychologists make to everyday concepts like thinking, believing, knowing, remembering etcetera. Necessarily these attributes cannot be measured experimentally without prior agreement as to what constitutes these objects of investigation.  Even constraining words by ‘operational definitions’ suffers the same problem, as such definitions will be necessarily “parasitic” [21]  on everyday notions. As such this underlying essentialism goes unchecked and is beyond review.

While the preceding sections have dealt with Wittgenstein’s deconstructive critique of research, the following final section will turn to Wittgenstein’s ‘positive project’ and its consequent influence.

Wittgenstein’s positive contribution:

Wittgenstein’s critique of psychology is not entirely destructive; he holds that we may still understand human psychology; however, to do so we must dispel misleading conceptual tendencies entrenched in psychologists practice.  Wittgenstein has been incredibly influential on current trends in critical psychology, and central to the development of ‘social therapy’ a method, endeavouring to move away from causal connections between mental and physical acts and to help  people get free from some of the constraints of language and the conceptual confusions that permeate everyday life.[22] Wittgenstein’s conception of meaning as ‘use’ informs such a view, and provides an avenue for dispelling that very conceptual confusion. All the preceding critiques fit Wittgenstein’s overarching approach to meaning as ‘use’ and endeavour to achieve clarity about the meaning of ordinary propositions by attaining a surveyable representation of our use of words. Hence the avenue for replacing essentialism and referentialism involves considering the diversity of kinds of words and there uses. We have seen how these themes inform his critique of psychology.


I have attempted to trace certain forms of conceptual confusion that infect psychology: how essentialism and referentialism result in misleading interpretations and vacuous explanations, and how reductivist attempts at systematisation and assumptions of causality add further conceptual distortion.  I have in turn argued this critique is in keeping with themes that run through Wittgenstein’s broadly anti-systematic/reductionist and non-essentialist/referentialist approach to philosophy. Wittgenstein’s ascribed task for philosophy is to dissolve misleading metaphysical pictures and given the preceding discussion, the positive impacts of such an anti-doctrinal ‘doctrine’ for experimental psychology should be clear.  Wittgenstein essentially provides a methodological demand to the sciences of the mind: not to rush to experimentation and interpretation amidst significant conceptual confusion. A demand to never forget their philosophical underpinnings and the constraints of language.



  • Bredo, E., Conceptual confusion and educational psychology, university of Virginia
  • Geach, 1988, Wittgenstein’s Lectures on Philosophical Psychology 1946- 47, 1988,  London: Harvester.
  • Hacker, P. M. S. 2007, ‘The relevance of Wittgenstein’s philosophy of psychology to the psychological sciences’, in Proceedings of the Leipzig Conference on Wittgenstein and Science.
  • Holzman, L, 2009., Critical Psychology, Philosophy and Social Therapy,
  • Hutto, Daniel., Letters from Wittgenstein: Elucidating Folk Psychology, School of Humanities, University of Hertfordshire, de Havilland Campus, Hatfield, Hertfordshire AL10 9AB, UK
  •  Hutto, D, H., 2008, Psychology’s Inescapable Need for Conceptual Clarification
  • Newman, F. and Holzman, L., 1996, Unscientific psychology: A cultural-performatory approach to understanding human life. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger.
  • Van der Merwe, W.L. and Voestermans, P.P. (1995). Wittgenstein’s legacy and the challenge to psychology.Theory & Psychology, 5(1).
  • Wittgenstein, L.

–       1953., Philosophical investigations. Oxford: Blackwell.

–        1965,The blue and brown books. New York: Harper Torchbooks.

–       1922, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, C.K. Ogden (trans.), London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.






[1] Hacker, P. M. S. 2007, ‘The relevance of Wittgenstein’s philosophy of psychology to the psychological sciences.’

[2] Wittgenstein, 2007, Cf Zettel p609.

[3][3] Holzman, L, 2009., Critical Psychology, Philosophy and Social Therapy.

[4] Wright, Crispin, 1989, “Wittgenstein’s later philosophy of mind: Sensation, privacy, and intention”,

[5] Hacker, P. M. S. 2007, ‘The relevance of Wittgenstein’s philosophy of psychology to the psychological sciences.

[6] Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical investigations. Oxford: Blackwell.

[7] Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical investigations. Oxford: Blackwell.

[8] Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Sec.II, p.232e.

[9] Wittgenstein, 1922, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

[10] Wittgenstein, L., 1953. Philosophical investigations. Oxford: Blackwell.

[11] Wittgenstein., 1965,The blue and brown books.

[12] Gould., 1994 – in Newman, F. and Holzman, L., 1996, Unscientific psychology: A cultural-performatory approach to understanding human life

[13] Gould., 1994 – in Newman, F. and Holzman, L., 1996, Unscientific psychology: A cultural-performatory approach to understanding human life

[14] This is not to say that there are NO genuine explanations in psychology, only that misguided conceptual notions can lead to distorted explanations, consideration of the type of explanations available to psychologists can be seen modern critical psychological theory, much of it influenced by Wittgenstein and social therapeutics.

[15] TLP: 5.471, Wittgenstein, 1922, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

[16] Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical investigations. Oxford: Blackwell.  Section 65

[17]  Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical investigations. Oxford: Blackwell; section 69.

[18] Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical investigations. Oxford: Blackwell. Section 108

[19] Newman, F. and Holzman, L., 1996, Unscientific psychology: A cultural-performatory approach to understanding human life.

[20] Works considering examples of these misleading models include (Hutto, 2005, 2006a,2006c and 2008).

[21] Racine and Muller, 2008, p.112).

[22] Newman and Holzman, 2006/1996, p. 171