L is for Language-Games

‘Language-games’ is Wittgenstein’s much used, much abused, much debated term which tries to capture something about his view of how language works: as something rule-guided, something inherently social, and something particular to specific contexts and communities.

How big is a language-game?

Wittgenstein’s own list of examples, in section 23 of the Philosophical Investigations, tends towards the ‘small’ – each is, in itself, quite a minor use of language. For example, he suggests “Reporting an event”, “guessing riddles”, and “solving a problem in applied arithmetic” as examples of language-games in this list, which is designed to stress the variety of language-games. Notably, and relevant to my previous post on language, some of them are clearly ‘linguistic’ (“translating from one language into another”, for example) but others use mathematics or images, such as “presenting the results of an experiment in tables and diagrams”.

Later writers have tended to think of larger language-games. In the field of religion, for example, there’s been a move from Wittgenstein’s list, which includes “praying” to regarding whole religions as language-games, speaking of the ‘Christian language-game’ or some such. I think this unhelpfully blurs the issue, and prefer to keep the term ‘language-game’ for smaller activities – praying, giving a sermon, writing a Quaker minute, and so forth – and use Lindbeck’s religion-as-language analogy to speak of whole religious traditions as languages. The natural language English encompasses, obviously, many thousands of possible language-games; the ‘language’ Christianity also includes a whole range of possible language-games. This helps to clarify that not every speaker of the language needs to play every language-game within it.

Are ‘games’ a good analogy for language uses?

In the introduction to this post, I listed some of the reasons why we might compare the use of language with the playing of a game. Language uses, like games, have rules. Language uses, like games, have unacceptable and impermissible moves. Language uses, like games, need players, people to engage in them. Games are passed on in particular cultures and societies, and can be taught to others; games don’t have to make sense to people who aren’t playing them (or even, sometimes, the people who are).

The chief objection to the term language-games, apart from those who think that language doesn’t have one of the properties listed above, is that ‘games’ is a trivialising term. In particular, when a religion is called a language-game, people often read this as trivialising: “oh, it’s just a game.” “Don’t say that, religion is serious.”

Firstly, this is more likely to happen when the ‘language-game’ concept has been applied to something larger than in the original use of it. Secondly, anyone who knows a committed sports fan or player, or a keen video-gamer, can tell that games are not automatically trivial or unserious: a whole life can be very seriously bound up in the playing of a specific game. Thirdly, although I am happy to use other terms as well, ‘language uses’, ‘language practices’, ‘language patterns’ and so forth do not capture the full range of implications of the term ‘game’.

Which games are language-games most like?

Depends which language-game! Wittgenstein used the examples of simple board games and chess, among others; some scholars seem to default to team sports, such as football and cricket; because of the emphasis in some parts of the Philosophical Investigations on the role of language-games in learning a language, it might be natural to think of children’s games like Ring-a-Roses and Tag, or maybe role-playing games like Cops and Robbers or Doctors and Nurses, as a most obvious comparisons. I tend to use different examples depending which aspect of a language-game I want to bring out. When the rules seem complex, chess or Monopoly seem like fair comparisons. When the focus is on needing a community with whom to play, group games like Stuck-in-the-mud or bowling might be good analogies. Sometimes I wonder if there aren’t language-games which are actually more like Mornington Crescent, in which the actual rules and the rules as discussed within the game are completely different!


One response to “L is for Language-Games

  1. Pingback: W is for Wittgenstein | Brigid, Fox, and Buddha

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