Wittgenstein - Language Games

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Subject classification: this is an Philosophy resource.

Language Games[edit | edit source]

Wittgenstein believed that every word we speak is all part of a language game. For Wittgenstein language games were similar to an inside joke. You would only get the joke if you were in on the joke. This is similar to language, you will only understand the language being used if you are familiar with the language. That is why Wittgenstein believes that Religious language is meaningful, but only to the religious believers. They are all part of a group that regularly use that language, which has a deep meaning to them. Non-believers would not think that religious language is meaningful, because we are not involved in that 'game'. Wittgenstein refers to words as 'tools' because we use them to build our houses and as 'toys' because we play games with them. Language games are games open to coefficial language (not by standards of deprivation of soul food).

Ludwig Wittgenstein[edit | edit source]

Born 1889, died 1951. An Austrian born Cambridge scholar, Wittgenstein was involved in his early years with the Logical Positivists of the Vienna Circle. Wittgenstein left Philosophy for a while but was persuaded to return in the 1920s. Wittgenstein's return prompted a different way of looking at religious language, he no longer sought to prove "whether" language refers, but looked at the way in which language refers to things.

He decided that the best way to determine a word's meaning was to look at how it is used, and not to come up with a theoretical definition. Wittgenstein said this was about: "Getting back to the rough ground".

Context[edit | edit source]

"The individual words in a language name objects - sentences are a combination of such names. Every word has a meaning, it stands for something." Augustine

Wittgenstein had accepted Augustine's way but later realized that context is needed to truly understand a word. Wittgenstein said that we restrict words if we try to define them out of their context. He said: "philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday". Essentially, Wittgenstein is saying that taking language out of context renders it often useless and at the very least, hard to understand fully. He recognized that words have many different uses in different contexts.

Language Games[edit | edit source]

Words have meaning only in the context of a game. Whilst watching a football (soccer) match, this philosophical idea occurred to Wittgenstein. If a person with no prior knowledge of football is watching a game, to him it will seem very random and meaningless. For it to take meaning, he must first understand the rules of the game: there are two opposing sides, each has eleven players, each is trying to score against the other by putting the ball in the opposite net etc. Once he understands the overall context of the game then the men running around chasing a ball no longer seem mad but have meaning in the game.

So too, concluded Wittgenstein, is it with language. If one does not understand the context of the language and the rules that are imposed upon the specific discourse, then essentially, one cannot understand the words in their truest form. He acknowledged that people who understand the rules of one game (i.e. football) can find similarities in other games (i.e. Rugby) but essentially, these games are inherently different and thus to understand fully, one must understand the specific rules of that game and its differences from other games.

What Wittgenstein was saying was that language only has meaning in its specific context. When taken out of that context and put into a different one, it may not mean the same thing. Wittgenstein was warning us against prescriptivism and being too stuck in one way of thinking. Wittgenstein thought that one could not stand outside a game and legislate about it or attempt to impose the rules of another game - you cannot play basketball as if it's football! So too, he said that a player of one game could not criticize the player of another, without first learning the rules and entering into the game (i.e. people cannot criticize others' use of language without first understanding their full context and intended meaning).

Anti Realist[edit | edit source]

For Wittgenstein, language could be used correctly or incorrectly within the rules of the game, but primarily it is non - cognitive and its primary purpose is not to make factual statements. All forms of life have their own language and are therefore separate to each other. For Wittgenstein, language was an anti - realist truth (one that is a truth held by a particular group and thus is meaningful to them without requiring verification or falsification)

Further Reading[edit | edit source]

The First 100 numbered sections of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations are available online with commentary by Lois Shawver. Articles in this series will refer to the numbered remarks of Part I and the page numbers for Part II of the English text, Philosophical Investigations: 50th Anniversary Commemorative Edition by Ludwig Wittgenstein, G. E. M. Anscombe (Translator) and Elizabeth Anscombe (Translator). Publisher: Blackwell Publishers ISBN 0631231277. Wittgenstein's book Philosophical Investigations was originally published in German as Philosophische Untersuchungen.

Exercises[edit | edit source]

1) Explain what is meant by the statement: "philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday".

2) What was Wittgenstein warning people about in devising the language games idea?

3) What did Wittgenstein write about the distinction between cognitive and non-cognitive processes?

  • Maybe we could say that Wittgenstein did not explicitly use the terms "cognitive" and "non-cognitive", but the idea of a non-cognitive foundation for language is implicit in his work.

See also[edit | edit source]