Explain Wittgenstein's concept of 'language games' and/or 'language as tool'.

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In his later work Wittgenstein developed the idea that the job of philosophy was to clear up the conceptual confusions that arose through our unexamined use of language. Dissatisfied with the traditional expressionist and reflective approaches to language he sought a new model which would allow greater flexibility. Central to this was the concept of rule governed activity or 'language game'. Wittgenstein introduces the concept of 'language games' because of the analogy between using language and playing a game according to certain rules. It was his contention that our whole use of language was similar to game playing:

We can easily imagine people amusing themselves in a field by playing with a ball so as to start various existing games, but playing many without finishing them and in between throwing the ball aimlessly into the air, chasing one another with the ball and bombarding one another for a joke and so on. And now someone says: The whole time they are playing a ball-game and following definite rules at every throw.[f1 Philosophical Investigations, remark 83. ]

At every step we are following the rules, but not the same rules at every step. In the same way our use of language is always governed by rules but not always by the same rules, we partake in a large number of 'language games' and confusion usually arises when a statement in one 'language game' is interpreted according to the rules of another. The concept of 'language games' illuminates the whole issue of meaning in language.

'Language games' are first described in remark 7 of the Philosophical Investigations and initially seem unproblematic,"We can also think of the whole process of using words in (2) as one of those games by means of which children learn their native language."[f2 ibid., remark 7. ] The playing of 'language games' are a necessary step in the learning of language, we learn to use a language through a variety of games, not least of which is the 'pointing and naming' game described by Augustine. But this simple conception explodes under further analysis. It seems that nothing could be simpler than pointing at an object and then naming it, in fact, it is supposed to be simple enough for young children to understand, but why do we expect the listener to immediately grasp our meaning? If we point at a table and say the word,'table,' we are referring to the whole class of objects known as tables of which this one is only an example, but it could be taken to mean that this particular object is called 'table' and no other. We begin to see that some foreknowledge is necessary for understanding, we need to know the role that 'table' will play in our language game. Wittgenstein highlights this by introducing proper names and numbers to his example language game, he asks how can we point at the number two? When two objects are pointed at how can anyone be sure that the word used for the number two is not the proper name for this particular pair of objects? It seems we must already have some prior idea of what role numbers play in the language, but what is this prior idea? Wittgenstein discusses this by analogy with the game of chess, telling the chess player,'This is the king,' will only tell him anything if,'he already knows the rules of the game up to this last point.'[f3 ibid., remark 31. ] He goes on to ask how we might teach someone the game if they did not already understand what a playing piece was. The rules of the game and the meaning of,'This is the king,' have to co-exist, we cannot have one without the other. The rules do not precede the meaning and the meaning does not precede the rules. The meaning and the rules are so deeply intertwined as to be inseparable. We now see why the 'pointing and naming' cannot be the sole basis for learning language:

Augustine describes the learning of human language as if the child came into a strange country and did not understand the language of the country; that is, as if it already had a language, only not this one. Or again: as if the child could already think, only not yet speak. And 'think' would here mean something like 'talk to itself'.[f4 ibid., remark 32. ]

The concept of 'language game' has already grown far beyond the initial conception of a children's game. One of the problems with Wittgenstein's naming of the concept is that it seems to imply the simplicity or frivolity of children playing, this is a mistake. 'Rule governed activity' covers pretty much all of human behaviour and particularly interaction between people. It can be seen that all language is a form of 'language game' when we try to locate the meaning of words.

There are two traditional approaches to assigning meaning in language, the reflective theory and the expressionist theory. The reflective theory claims that each word has meaning because it represents some object in the world. Meaning in a sentence is built up from the component meanings of the individual words, the sentence reflecting some arrangement of objects in the world. This assumes that for each word there is some object we can point to, fixing the meaning, but problems arise when we consider statements such as 'There is no dog in the basket'. How is this arrangement different from there being no cat in the basket? The reflective theory ultimately leads to large areas of human endeavour, such as aesthetics and ethics, being categorised as, at best, meaningless. Wittgenstein developed his own reflective theory of language in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus but was not satisfied with the limits it imposed. The expressionist position is that meaning is derived because language is a reflection of our innermost thoughts, ie. we have thoughts and translate them into language. Wittgenstein doubted that it was possible to have thoughts without language: "When I think in language, there aren't 'meanings' going through my mind in addition to the verbal expressions: the language is itself the vehicle of thought."[f5 ibid., remark 329. ] He discounted the possibility of a private language of thought from which our language can then derive meaning because language, by its very nature, is a shared thing ("[A] wheel that can be turned though nothing else moves with it, is not part of the mechanism."[f6 ibid., remark 271. ]). A language that exists for only one person is a contradiction.

Wittgenstein claimed that words derive meaning from their use in 'language games', words by themselves have no intrinsic meaning - 'the meaning of a word is its use in the language.'[f7 ibid., remark 43. ] Each word has meaning in as much as it has a use in a particular language game, outside of the language game there is no meaning. It would be a mistake to search for meaning outside language because to go outside language is to go outside meaning. We can analyse a sentence in an attempt to find some essential meaning in it but all we do is translate into another 'language game', we do not derive some essence of meaning -because there is no essence of meaning. The lack of any absolute meaning may seem, at first, an unsettling prospect, we feel that words should refer to something concrete. We may examine our 'language games' looking for some essential or universal feature, some hard point on which to build, but, Wittgenstein says, this will be a futile search:

Instead of producing something common to all that we call language, I am saying that these phenomena have no one thing in common which makes us use the same word for all, - but that they are related to one another in many different ways. And it is because of this relationship, or these relationships, that we call them all 'language'.[f8 ibid., remark 65. ]

What we call language is a collection of 'language games' which are related, but not in a fixed way. Wittgenstein called these relationships 'family resemblances' because the similarities between 'language games' can be likened to the similarities between members of a family.

It is the inherent flexibility of language that makes it such a powerful tool, we are not limited to one view of the world. In fact, there are no limits and can be none:

For how is the concept of game bounded? Can you give the boundary? No ... You can 'But then the use of the word is unregulated, the 'game' we play with it is unregulated.' -It is not everywhere circumscribed by rules; but no more are there any rules for how high one throws the ball in tennis, or how hard; yet tennis is a game for all that and has rules too.[f9 ibid., remark 68. ]

Wittgenstein's concept of 'language game' has allowed us to move away from the passive expressionist and reflective approaches to language and embrace a more inclusive position. Language is not a passive thing to be picked up and cast aside as necessary, it is something that is a part of us - we shape the use of language as language shapes us.

Notes not done yet

© Robert Crowther