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What Wittgenstein means by ‘language games’, especially in sections 60 to 157 Essay Sample

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What Wittgenstein means by ‘language games’, especially in sections 60 to 157 Essay Sample

Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein became a central figure in the movement, ‘Analytical and Linguistic Philosophy’, with his work, Tractus Logico-Philosophicus (1912). The world, he argued, is ultimately composed of simple facts and to be meaningful, statements about the world must be reducible to linguistic utterances that have a structure similar to the simple facts pictured.

However, “critics of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy (Philosophical Investigations) have argued that he must, in the private language arguments, rely on a principle of verification, that he is a ‘crypto-behaviourist’, that he is committed to form of linguistic idealism or anti-realism, that his philosophy of mathematics involves a ‘full-blooded’ or ‘existentialist’ form of conventionalism, or that he is propounding a use-theory of meaning.”[1]

Language Games

Language is part of an activity, of a form of life. It is a rule-governed practice, like a game. Language-games are activities associated with some particular linguistic contexts, or, as Wittgenstein put it, ‘families of linguistic expressions. They are linguistic functions that describe and show the use of words in a form of life, in a context of human behaviours. There are many language-games, i.e. the religious LG, the naming LG, the sexual LG, and the eating LG etc.)

Wittgenstein’s approach

Wittgenstein thought that many traditional philosophical problems were ‘houses of cards’, ‘plain nonsense’, bumps that the understanding got by running its head up against the limits of language.'[2] He argued, that traditional philosophy does not take into account the diversity of language-games, it merely generalises.

“The problems arise through a misinterpretation of our forms of language.”[3]

His own analysis was designed to dispel the problems: “We are clearing the ground of language on which we stand.”[4]

“Our (philosophical) investigation is therefore a grammatical one. Such an investigation sheds light on our problem by clearing misunderstanding away. Misunderstandings concerning the use of words caused by certain analogies between the forms of expression in different regions of language.”[5]

His philosophy is: “(…) a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language.”[6]

Languages and forms of life

Wittgenstein states that we wrongly assume that words and sentences have a one-to-one straightforward relation to reality, the words or ‘propositions’ on one side and reality on the other. Instead, “(…) the meaning is the use we make of the word.”[7] Words and sentences have their meaning in the context of human activities.

Wittgenstein calls the context and activities ‘forms of life’. All human activities, small or complex, are forms of life, part of human culture. Speaking a language is part of a form of life. A particular form of life and the associated language is called a ‘language game’.

“The term language game is meant to bring into prominence the fact that speaking a language is part of an activity, or a form of life.”[8]

The language game consists of: “(…) Language and the actions into which it is woven.”[9]

Examples of language games

Some contrasting language games can be used to demonstrate what Wittgenstein means:

* ‘Ordering’ language game: a teacher sends a naughty child out of the classroom saying ‘Out!’

* ‘Playing’ language game: a linesman calls ‘Out!’ at a tennis match. The word is the same but the meaning is understood differently if you understand the conventions of each activity. You could not explain the difference outside the contexts.

* ‘Warning’ language game: the word would mean something slightly different again if someone shouted ‘Out!’ when a house was on fire.

However, Wittgenstein’s analysis of language games goes further. The meaning of the word (‘out’ in my example) is not different in each language game, nor is it the same. There is a resemblance. Thus we know it is the same word in both cases because we are familiar with the language games (forms of life) involved. There is “no one thing in common that makes us use the same word in different contexts (…)” The relationship is one of “family resemblance”[10]

Therefore, there is no essential meaning to a word that will give us some truth about the essence of the reality it refers to.

To explain how a word gets meaning from its use, Wittgenstein says: “What is a word really? The question is analogous to what is a piece of chess?[11]If you are told that a certain chess piece is a rook, you would not necessarily know what the word means unless you knew how the rook is used in the game.

Another type of language analysed by Wittgenstein to explain the relation of words to things is the use of proper names. Buddha would be a good example. I could say: ‘Buddha was a holy man who lived in Tibet.’ Someone else could ask ‘Did he really exist?’ and we could discuss this. However, we might each have completely different images and knowledge of Buddha, but we both know what we mean when we refer to him by name because of some vague cultural knowledge we have. (The ‘form of life’, which enables us to talk about Buddha.) Indeed, even if Buddha did not exist, this does not make the word ‘Buddha’ meaningless.

This example shows that language games are not games with strict rules and boundaries. One of Wittgenstein’s examples to demonstrate the same complexity is the word ‘reading’. He shows how we tolerate a word referring to a range of activities, still understood as the same word: “The word to read is applied differently to the beginner and the practised reader.”[12]

Wittgenstein’s central point – philosophical confusion arises from not being aware of language games.

Philosophical confusion arises when we use words without realising that we are transferring them wrongly from one language game to another where they do not fit. Religious language-games should not be confused with science language-games. (I.e. the bible is true and the statement that the earth goes round the sun is true – truth is used differently)

“Misunderstanding concerning the use of words caused by certain analogies between the forms of expression in different regions of language (…)”[13]

A good example of this would be the assertion that ‘God’ exists and the declaration that ‘God’ does not exist. Wittgenstein would say that the word ‘exists’ has different if related meanings in two different language games. In the culture of science (a ‘form of life’) existence can be proved by facts (see it, hear it, measure it etc.) Whereas, in spiritual science, existence can be sensed in other ways, by intuition and mental experiences that are not open to being proved by facts. To search for proof of God’s existence is therefore a false problem, caused by confusion of language games.

Wittgenstein thinks that the false problems arise from our culture and habits of thought. Language is not something separate from our thinking:

“The problems (…) have depth (….) they are deep disquietitudes; their roots are as deep within us as the forms of language and their significance as great as the importance of our language.”[14]

Therefore, Wittgenstein argues that philosophy cannot provide foundations for knowledge in general, as much as a word cannot be described in general. There is no point in saying that ‘freedom is the absence of constraint’ as much as there is no point in saying that a ‘door is the entrance to a building, room, car, etc.’ In both cases, we should not bother looking at the ‘general’, ‘universal’, ‘absolutely true’ and ‘exact’ definition of it, because there is no such definition.

Furthermore, because in philosophy defining concepts with which we approach the world (and not defining their different uses in language) has always been the topic of enquiry, what Wittgenstein is doing here is destroying a whole philosophical tradition. Or, to put it more specifically, he is putting philosophy on different tracks; we must look at fine distinctions and shades of meaning!

“For the clarity that we are aiming at is indeed complete clarity. But this simply means that the philosophical problems should completely disappear.”[15]

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