Philosophy and Green Finance: Ludwig Wittgenstein

By Richard Howard

12th January 2020, Richard Howard, @RDHoward

In the toolbox at our disposal to help solve the climate crisis philosophy is not always the first instrument we reach for. Many philosophers, however, dedicated their life’s work to providing a suite of ideas and hypotheses that can be used by everybody, whether in daily life or to further academic thought.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951) was one such philosopher. Born into a wealthy Austrian family, he initially studied aeronautical engineering before focusing on philosophy, specifically looking at the nature of language and communication. Relative to other philosophers he published very little and his two major works, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922) and the posthumously published Philosophical Investigations (1953) are both devoted to the topic of language and communication. The ideas in these works were intended to be used by the reader to help them better comprehend others, communicate more clearly and to explain why misunderstandings occur. Can his ideas therefore be extrapolated and applied to issues presented today? Could an understanding of Wittgenstein’s philosophy enable us to better communicate green and sustainable finance, for example? Below we will explore two of Wittgenstein’s ideas in more detail and apply them to the world of climate change, renewable energy, and sustainable finance.

Language Games

A simple view of language is that it is hierarchical, consisting of words, sentences, and paragraphs. By knowing the meaning of the words you can construct sentences, and by knowing the meaning of sentences you can construct paragraphs and so on and so forth. All you need is a dictionary and a book on grammar and you are set.

Wittgenstein asserts, however, that this view of language ignores the context in which it is taking place. For example, the same sentence can be uttered in different social or cultural situations, locations or environments whilst having different meanings. But Wittgenstein goes even further stating that action, meaning, and language are all interwoven. Without being associated to action a sentence is meaningless. A sentence cannot exist in isolation. 

Wittgenstein believed meaning is instead defined from context and he uses the example of the word ‘game’ to illustrate his point. Board games, football games, war games, Olympic games, mind games, video games, blame games are all examples of games, which have overlapping similarities and attributes, which Wittgenstein refers to as “family resemblances”:

  • Competition – Board, Football, Olympic, Video
  • Assertion of Power – Mind, Blame, War
  • Rules – Board, Football Olympic, Video
  • Simulation – War, Video
  • Physical exercise – Football, Olympic
  • Problem solving – Board, Video

But there is no one attribute that covers all types of games.

These definitions of ‘game/games’ also exist within different contexts and scenarios. ‘Board game’, for example, can be further refined via context. When one person brings to mind a board game they might think about childhood classics (e.g. snakes/chutes and ladders), in another scenario they might think about more complex strategy games (closer to war games, e.g. Risk or Battleships).

Similarly a miscommunication could easily occur when misreading a scenario, e.g. shall we play a game? There are many possible interpretations of this question: board game or video game, inside or outside, mental or physical and so on. Further refinement of the language will help but if the two parties are approaching the question from two viewpoints (one may want to play outside, the other inside) an understanding of the context will avoid any misunderstandings.

Wittgenstein described these differing scenarios as ‘Language Games’ because each context has different rules which govern the communication and language in that scenario. These rules are difficult to pin down and go beyond nature of the words or the intonation of the speech.

Context is hugely important in green finance and green industry, since ultimately the key aim of these industries is to improve the natural environment using sustainable business practices. Therefore, debates which occur without a suitable appreciation of this context do not carry the same meaning. Furthermore, if two conversing parties are coming from two different perspectives then there is a risk that the communication is less effective or even damaging.

Misunderstandings occur when people don’t know what the rules of the game are. That is, people think the rules are different or they are coming at an issue from different perspectives. Therefore, the meaning of the words and phrases being used are different depending on people’s personal viewpoint.

Private language argument

Wittgenstein also hypothesised that each person has their own internal language, which he states is impossible to communicate with others. A private language completely internal to ourselves, as opposed to a public language which we use to communicate and is able to be learnt. There is an analogy here with in-jokes or jargon, whereby a group of individuals have their own definitions, sayings or jokes, which are different to another groups’ set of definitions, sayings or jokes. But Wittgenstein believes that this extends to the individual as well, especially when it comes to subjective topics, such as sensations and feelings.

To describe this concept Wittgenstein created a thought experiment now known as Wittgenstein’s beetle-in-a-box. It goes something like this: Imagine everyone owned a matchbox, inside of which is an object which society describes as a ‘beetle’. Every time someone talks about a ‘beetle’ you are able to look inside your matchbox and check what a ‘beetle’ is. However, you are unable to look inside other people’s matchboxes to check their definition. Therefore, the definition of a ‘beetle’ is personal to you and no one else, but because it is impossible to show someone the contents of the box we have to rely on careful use of public language. Wittgenstein’s beetle is not usually considered a physical object, he preferred it to be thought of more like a subjective definition or sensation, such as pain.

In green finance and the wider green sector the idea of a private language is an important concept to be aware of. Everyone will have their own definition of ethical, environmental, green, and sustainable; and although there will be significant overlap between people’s definitions they will not be exact. People’s unique influences and past experiences will add up, meaning over time they will have a different exposure to the meaning of these words. Everyone has different viewpoints, opinions and priorities in life therefore a one-size-fits-all approach is unlikely to satisfy everyone’s own definitions.

Allowing everyone to see the raw data for themselves and apply their own unique definitions on to that data will be much more powerful than providing definitions, which may or may not fit the individual.


Wittgenstein believes the aim of philosophy is to show “the fly the way out of the fly bottle”, with language being ‘the fly’. An over focus on language leads to attempts to contort language in ways that do more harm than good, extended debates about the meaning of the words as well as attempts to strive for easy to understand definitions. This risks missing the wider debate around context.

Context is especially important for sustainable and green finance since the wider debate and context is around the health of the planet and the environment. Therefore, getting stuck arguing over definitions risks missing the bigger picture. At Green Finance Guide we believe the secret is to present a clear understanding of the facts and how they fit into the wider debate, as well as trusting individuals with the raw data that will allow them to apply their own definitions, opinions and viewpoints.


L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations – The German Text with a Revised English Translation, 2001, Translation by  G.E.M. Anscombe, 3rd Edition, Blackwell Publishing

S. West, Episode 97 – Wittgenstein pt. 1, 2017,, [accessed 10/01/2020]

School of Life, PHILOSOPHY – Ludwig Wittgenstein, 2015,, [accessed 07/01/2020]

N. Warburton, Philosophy: The Classics, 2006, 3rd Edition, Routledge

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