Survey and Surveyability

Remarks on two central notions in Wittgenstein’s later philosophy

Stefan Majetschak 1
  • 1 Kassel


The concepts ‚Übersicht‘ (survey), ‚Übersichtlichkeit‘ (surveyability) and ‚Übersichtliche Darstellung‘ (surveyable representation) play a central role in Wittgenstein’s later philosophy. As Peter Hacker already noticed in 1972, an adequate English translation of these terms has “given Wittgenstein’s translators much trouble. They have chosen to translate it non-systematically in conformity with the demands of English style, thereby partially obscuring the significance and pervasiveness of the concept in Wittgenstein’s work, e. g. ‘command a clear view’ (Übersehen PI, § 122); ‘perspicious representation’ (Übersichtliche Darstellung PI, § 122); ‘synoptic account’ (Übersichtliche Darstellung Z, § 273); ‘Survey’ (Übersicht Z, § 273); ‘synoptic view’ (Übersichtlichkeit Z, § 464); ‘perspicuity’ (Übersichtlichkeit RFM, p. 45);² ‘capable of being taken in’ (Übersehbar RFM, p. 81)3.” (Hacker 1972: 113 f. fn. 3) Since then other translations have been added to Hacker’s list, i.e. ‘surview’ for ‘Übersicht’ (Hacker’s own choice) and ‘overview’ for ‘übersehen’ (cf. PI 2009: 122). In his discussion of the notion ‚Übersichtliche Darstellung’ Alois Pichler suggests that “synopsis” and “synoptic view” might be the best translations for what Wittgenstein had in mind using the terms ‚Übersicht’ and ‚Übersichtliche Darstellung’ (cf. Pichler 2004: 181). Recently the problem of how to adequately translate the German words in question into English is also discussed by Mathieu Marion (cf. Marion 2011: 138 f. fn. 4).

In what follows I shall argue - like Marion, but probably for different reasons - that the terms ‘survey’ (Übersicht), ‘surveyability’ (Übersichtlichkeit) and ‘surveyable representation’ (übersichtliche Darstellung) most adequately represent what Wittgenstein had in mind. As might become clear only this consistency in wording allows to grasp the connections in meaning Wittgenstein implicitly hints at, wherever he uses the terms ‘Übersicht’ and ‘Übersichtlichkeit’ in different parts of his ‘Nachlass’ and different periods of his philosophical development.

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The yearbook is designed as an annual forum for Wittgenstein research. Wittgenstein-Studien [Wittgenstein Studies] publishes articles and materials on Ludwig Wittgenstein’s life, work and philosophy and on his philosophical and cultural environment.