Wittgenstein’s Language Games

Poor Bertand Russell. He wanted to create the logically perfect language. But he was abandoned in this quest by his teacher and co-author, Alfred North Whitehead, and by his student Ludwig Wittgenstein. Both had originally agreed with Russell that a logically perfect language was possible, but realized, as Russell himself eventually had to accept, that that’s not how language works.

Against the Tractatus

Ludwig Wittgenstein, after studying under Russell, wrote the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in 1921 in support of the theory of a logically perfect language. He later refuted his own book, and for a few years abandoned philosophy and academia, because he realized that his work under Russell was incorrect. He spoke of the Tractaus no more, so neither will I.

In 1929, Wittgenstein returned to become a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Cambridge. He published nothing in his 12 years there, but his lectures began to show a bold new style of philosophy. His students reported that his lectures were highly unconventional. He did not have a set topic but instead talked about whatever was on his mind, with long pauses as he thought deeply about a philosophical problem. What was usually on his mind were the philosophical problems of language. He had come to realize that he had not solved all the philosophical problems of language in the Tractatus. In two academic years, several of his students took lecture notes and made copies of them with a mimeograph machine, bound them in cloth, and shared them with other students and faculty. The lecture notes are known by the color of their cloth covers: the 1933–1934 lectures were in the blue book and the 1934–1935 lectures were in the brown book.

In these books were the roots of a new philosophy. Wittgenstein had abandoned logical atomism and had developed a different view of language’s relation with the world. He now realized that we didn’t learn language through strict rules, and we don’t use language according to strict rules. Yes, most of us were taught the rules of grammar, but how we use language are ways that we learned through a plethora of life experiences. We learn how to use language by using language. We learn by doing, applying ways of doing things with language to our activities.

Wittgenstein’s insightful analogy is to call what we do with language a “language-game” (Sprachspiel in German). In any game — from checkers to baseball — we learn the basic rules, but it is only through practice that we really learn how to play. We learn by doing. Language is the same. There are rules, but the rules are not all-encompassing, and we can know the rules but still not know how to speak the language. It is by playing the language-game that we learn the language. That’s because words do not have the logical one-to-one correspondence with objects that Wittgenstein had learned from Russell and had written in the Tractatus. Words are inexact. An example he gives of how this works is learning the word “pencil.” One could try to teach the word by pointing at a pencil and saying “pencil.” But the listener could associate the word with a number of things: the pencil as a whole, the wood it is made of, the shape of it, and so on. Only through context and use of the object do we come to understand the words for it. Then, when we use language, we are playing a language-game. In this middle period, he was still working out the implications of this new theory of language.

The Philosophical Investigations

Wittgenstein continued to develop his new philosophy through the 1930s. He largely stopped during World War II, volunteering instead for the British war effort for several years. By 1946, he had written a new book, part one of what would be a two-part book. It was accepted for publication, but Wittgenstein, being a perfectionist, withdrew it before publication, worried that it wasn’t finished. Only after his death did several of his former students gather his first part and, along with some of his other notes that would have been components of the second part, they publishes the book as Philosophical Investigations in 1953.

Philosophical Investigations expands on the themes of his lectures in the 1930s. It’s less bizarre than the Tractatus but similarly is a collection of thoughts rather than a systematic narrative. What becomes obvious from the contents is that Wittgenstein is doing philosophy as an activity of open imagination and thinking. Often, he is telling stories of real-life situations that demonstrate how language works. His style is like using Whitehead’s method of imagination taking flight to go from one region of certainty to a new one.

Wittgenstein’s stories demonstrate his new theory of language and what it means for philosophy. He begins by, at length, indirectly criticizing his theory of language in the Tractatus. Words do not get their meaning from a logical one-to-one correspondence with objects but from their use. That shift in definition leads to a further shift from the Tractatus. Instead of seeing philosophical problems as problems of logic, he now sees them as the lack of a clear view of the use of our words. To get a clear view of the meaning of words, we need to examine their use in the language. Three of Wittgenstein’s important concepts are revealed when we start to examine words in this way: that word meanings rely on family resemblances, that words make sense only in the context of language-games, and that language-games make sense only in the context of forms of life — particular sets of interlaced practices and understandings of our culture.

Words With Friends (and Strangers)

To discuss the first two concepts, he uses the example of the word “game.” What is a game? How would we define it? We can’t, as he says, just point to various games and define the word by examples. A short clarification: Wittgenstein wrote in German, and the German word he uses for “game” is “Spiel.” The German word has a broader sense than the English word “game.” Spiel extends in its use to the act of “play” and “playing,” so this German sense of the word is more suggestive of an action or activity, which helps us understand Wittgenstein’s meaning in his discussion of games.

Wittgenstein discusses several possible meanings for “game” — competition, enjoyment, having a set of rules, and so on — but shows how each is inadequate to describe games. What we see when we think about the meaning of the word “game” is that all of the many objects and activities that we call “games” share family resemblance. When you look at a biological family, they don’t all look exactly the same, but they share enough common features of appearance that you recognize them as members of the same family. They may all have “the same nose,” but they don’t need to all share one particular feature to resemble each other. They have enough similar features that we see the family resemblance. The same is true for the word “game,” Wittgenstein says. Solitaire, checkers, water polo, slot machines, and mind games all share enough similar features that we can see the family resemblance that they are all games. What he takes from this exercise is that an exact definition is neither possible nor required for the word to have meaning. If someone says, “Let’s play a game,” we understand what is meant despite the lack of specificity.

Words get their meaning from their use, and Wittgenstein talks about their use in terms of language-games. Similar to the pragmatists, Wittgenstein said that we use words as tools to do things in the world. Language is part of our activities in the world, and our uses of language are as varied as our activities are. Wittgenstein describes the many activities in which we use words as various language-games. He mentions giving orders, describing an object’s appearance, speculating about what may happen, making a joke, translating from one language to another, requesting something, thanking someone, cursing, praying. Each activity is a language-game. Within each type of activity, the various ways of expressing ideas and actions have internal family resemblances that show they are related and can be called “language-games,” despite how much they vary.

Our many ways of speaking do not all conform to a single model, but their commonalities include that they are all activities, all have purposes and goals, and they all are used by people who have a shared understanding about the rules of the language-game. This last resemblance is crucial. Words and sentences do not have meanings in themselves; they have the meanings that we give them, and those meanings are how we use the words. If I say “table,” I have not communicated anything to you unless we are both playing the same language-game. If you are asking me where to set something, you’d know I mean to put it on the table. If I’m teaching you English, you know to point to the table. If I am quizzing you on German, you could respond with “Tisch.” As Wittgenstein says, we don’t simply speak; we do things by speaking.

Language-games, then, are human activities in which words help us accomplish our goals. Words are tools, and just like we would use a hammer to pound nails, but not to cut a board in two — we’d use a saw for that — we use different words for different purposes in different situations. Plus, we often will use the same word in multiple different situations or different language-games. Take the word “lose.” We can lose our keys, lose sleep, lose a game, lose our train of thought, lose confidence in someone. If we are playing the language-game of talking about going for a drive, if you say you lost your keys, I can help you find them. But “can I help you find it” is without sense if we are talking about how you are very worried about something and losing sleep over it.

Wittgenstein illustrates his concept by imagining a language-game of two people building a stone wall. Because language helps us accomplish our goals, the workers could accomplish their task with a language of very few words. Builder A could communicate to his helper B by calling out “brick,” “cube,” and “slab” to request a stone of a certain size to build the wall. Builder B would understand and respond to the request. Within the context of that language-game, “brick” is all A needs to say to ask B to bring a brick. But outside that particular language-game, if A says “brick,” no one would know for sure what A means. All words have meaning within a particular context of actions.

The point to all of this, according to Wittgenstein, is that the demand of the logical positivists that we have one set of logical language rules to which all language must conform is wrong. There are as many sets of rules as there are language-games; though again, the sets of rules have family resemblances. Wittgenstein now realized that the mistake he made in the Tractatus was to try to force language to conform to the crystalline purity of logic. But language isn’t calculus. Language is living.

Rescuing Philosophy from Itself

Wittgenstein now saw that philosophical problems arise when “language goes on holiday.” That’s a Britishism there — “holiday” in the British language-game is like the American “vacation.” So, in this language-game, when the proper use of language has gone away and is no longer “on the job,” philosophical problems arise. The logical positivists were mixing language-games by trying to force the rules of logic onto other language-games. Speculative philosophy, such as Leibniz’s, can make the same mistake by trying to impose the language-game of talking about worldly things onto higher, deeper ideas. This is one area where Wittgenstein still agreed with his Tractatus — there is indeed the inexpressible, the mystical that is beyond words.

The role of philosophy is not to try to impose structure on language or life but to learn from them. He states that when philosophers use a word like “knowledge,” and try to grasp the essence of it, they need to ask how the word is used in the language-game that is its original home. The philosopher needs to bring the word back to its everyday use. Wittgenstein uses “everyday” similar to the way Heidegger does: how we act in normal life without introspection. Wittgenstein seems to suggest that philosophy needs to stop trying to find perfect forms and perfect knowledge and step aside to let everyday normal life show us what is the case. He says at various points in the Philosophical Investigations what he sees as the proper role of philosophy. Philosophy simply puts things before us open to view and need not explain things. Philosophy should not question or interfere with how language is used but can only describe it.

As said previously, people use language within language-games, and language-games are played within an activity. Wittgenstein further describes our activities as occurring within a “form of life.” Our actions, and thus our language, are interlaced with our practices, interests, goals, and understandings, which are shaped by our culture and our place within it. On a social level, the interlaced practices and understandings of a culture are its form of life.

The point is that it is the cultural forms of life that provide people with the meanings of words, and it is this social backdrop of meanings that renders language intelligible. Human culture is organic — it grew and continues to evolve on its own; it did not and does not ask philosophers to justify what it does. For that reason, forms of life are the justification for definitions of words and the rules of language. No further justification is needed, and there is no further logic to it. Language simply works. It enables us to communicate and do things. It lives and grows with us. We are not language, but language is us.

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