Tag Archives: G

G is for Games

Games, especially the idea that the ways we speak can be regarded as language games, are key to many of the ideas in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.

How would we explain to someone what a game is? I think that we’d describe games to him, and we might add to the description: “This and similar things are called ‘games’.” And do we know any more ourselves? Is it just that we can’t tell others exactly what a game is? – But this is not ignorance. We don’t know the boundaries because none have been drawn. (Philosophical Investigations, trans. Anscombe, Hacker and Schulte, 4th Ed, 2009, S69 – n.b., Wittgenstein wrote in sections so references are to these rather than to pages.)

Do we know what a game is? We can use the word correctly; we know one when we see it; we can describe some general features shared by most, but not all, games. For example, it’s important to our understanding of language games that they are guided by rules, although not everything we would call a game has rules (Mornington Crescent!). A lot of people are led by the term ‘language game’ to assume that our language games are somehow trivial, for fun or for children – but plenty of games involve real work and large amounts of real money (all professional sports, for example, and all games of chance where there’s a house that can, and will, win). Similarly, not all games are entertaining, not all games have winners and losers, and so forth. (Wittgenstein discusses this in S66.) In fact, using the word ‘game’ is itself a language game – to convey the meaning of it, “one gives examples and intends them to be taken in a particular way”, which is “not an indirect way of explaining, in default of a better one” because “any general explanation may be misunderstood too”. Rather, giving examples to demonstrate what we mean by a word “is how we play the game. (I mean the language-game with the word “game”.)” (S71)

So what is a language game? It’s a game we play with words. In S23, Wittgenstein gives a list of examples. They’re all quite small (sometimes it’s tempting to call, for example, a whole religion ‘a language game’, but that’s clearly not Wittgenstein’s use). They are very varied. Here are the first few.

Giving orders, and acting on them –
Describing an object by its appearance, or by its measurements –
Constructing an object from a description (a drawing) –
Reporting an event –
Speculating about the event –
Forming and testing a hypothesis –

Several of these involve things which we might not usually think of as being part of language. Measurements, for example, are sometimes taken to be numbers rather than words and hence external to language, although I think it’s clear on reflection that scales of measurement are agreed within communities in the same way that the uses of other words are agreed (agreed, that is, and debated – should we use inches or centimetres? should we reclaim the term ‘queer’?). Drawings and diagrams might also be thought of as non-verbal and hence outside language. I think that even drawings follow a set of rules for interpretation – they don’t use words, but they do function in the community in the ways that language does. (Compare the mysterious geometric shapes found in some cave paintings with a circuit diagram. You need the community rules around the use of images in order to understand them.)

In general, language games can involve only a few people, and they are quite specific. They can be creative, entertaining, or serious, or mundane. Wittgenstein’s list finishes with:

Guessing riddles –
Cracking a joke; telling one –
Solving a problem in applied arithmetic –
Translating from one language into another –
Requesting, thanking, cursing, greeting, praying.

(Obviously that last one is especially of interest to those who want to know how language games might figure in our understanding of religion.) Overall, Wittgenstein’s point is to emphasise the diversity of things for which language is used, however. This is a broad view of language, and it challenges much of what had been said about language by previous philosophers, including Wittgenstein himself. He goes on to say:

It is interesting to compare the diversity of the tools of language and of the ways they are used… with what logicians have said about the structure of language.

This is a caution to Wittgenstein himself – part of his motivation for revisiting issues in philosophy of language from a very different perspective – but also a worthwhile reminder to all of us. If we have a theory about language, does it take into account all this diversity? If we think we know what ‘a language game’ is, have we considered all the possibilities? Just like the category ‘games’, which turned out to include all sorts of mostly unconnected activities, ‘language games’ are diverse and it is easy to underestimate their complexity.

G is for… George Fox

George Fox (1624-1691) was an Englishman who had a vision from God and founded a new religious movement – the Quakers. A good number of our well-loved phrases began life as quotations from Fox, and he remains the author most quoted in Quaker Faith and Practice (with William Penn and John Woolman coming second and third). His biography is fairly well represented online, with a full wikipedia page and an edition of his journal. That being so, I want to use this blog post not for history but for anecdote: how is Fox used, quoted, thought of in Meetings today?

In my experience, he is more quoted than read, for one thing. The extracts in Faith and Practice are easy enough, but it’s a rare (and generally an academically confident) Quaker who turns to the whole Journal itself – various new editions and updated-language versions notwithstanding. Sometimes Fox is used as the ‘ultimate Quaker authority’ – I have been told in discussion that, for example, Fox would not recognise my form of Quakerism, especially Quaker-Paganism, or Quakerism-with-an-interest-in-Goddesses (and that therefore it is illegitimate). Now, it’s true that Fox wouldn’t recognise many things in my life – blogging, soy milk, Quagans, and so forth. Does that mean that the Spirit does not or cannot move through them? I don’t think so (you’ve have to have a very weak notion of Spirit to say that it did, I think). And if the core of Quakerism, the movement started by Fox with others, is responsiveness to the Holy Spirit in the world today, then all sorts of things Fox never heard of can be true to the essence of the movement.

Does that mean that Fox is unimportant? I don’t think so. History is always useful, and to keep a tradition you need to know and engage with the past and present of that tradition – how else can you learn to recognise it when you see it? We’ve changed a lot in three hundred and fifty odd years (who hasn’t?), but if I can recognise Fox and see the continuities as well as the changes, I like to think that a time-travelling Friend from 1650 – Fox, Fell, Naylor, or any of the others – could come to see that as well. Once they’d got over the shock.

(As an aside, while my argument that Fox was a Druid is wholly flippant, I do think that people who are accustomed to having religious experiences on hills  and worshipping in the open air would probably recognise some aspects of neo-paganism, even while they find other parts difficult and blasphemous.)

G is for… Geography

In this blog, I mostly write about British Quakers – which seems fair enough, since that’s what I am. However, I think it’s important to see things in context, and one of the contexts in which you can consider British Quakerism is its physical place in the world. What is the geography of Quakerism?

an ariel view of a green hill

Pendle Hill, Lancashire, UK

Some is the geography of origins – above is the Google maps image of Pendle Hill, where George Fox had a vision of “a great people to be gathered”. (His friend Richard Farnsworth opted to walk round instead.) Other British places with strong Quaker links include Swarthmore Hall, Jordans, and in more recent history, Bournville and Woodbrooke in Birmingham.

A world map with territory size adjusted to show the proportion of the world’s Quakers in that area.

The map above (from worldmapper) puts British Quakers into a different light, though – although we are the majority of European Quakers, European Quakers are only 7% of the world’s Quakers, with 52% of Quakers in Africa and 35% in the Americas. (2012’s figures can be obtained from the Friends World Committee for Consultation, who would like your email address in exchange.)

What this map doesn’t show – perhaps can’t show, because I cannot quickly find figures for this – is the different types of Quakerism to be found around the world. In Europe, most Quaker meetings are of the unprogrammed type, practising silent worship. In Africa, most Quaker meetings are of the programmed type – more like what you’d expect from a Protestant church service here, with singing and Bible readings. In North America, you can find both, often in overlapping geographical areas (for more on the complex American situation, read this introduction). Even in the UK, we have one or two programmed meetings – one meets monthly in London, for example.

G is for… Groves

I haven’t yet been able to plant a real sacred grove, so for the time being mine are public parks and spaces, and those which exist in my imagination. Please don’t think that the latter is any less important for being insubstantial.

Usually I visualise the sacred grove – full size around me, not in my ‘mind’s eye’ wherever that is – as completely enclosing me. Often there are holly bushes forming a protective hedge, and oak trees rising tall to the sky. Sometimes I can see that the oaks have been struck by lightening, but I’ve never seen the storm.

Sometimes the grove is a small open area. At the centre there is often a campfire pit and a fire (and sometimes Merlin is waiting beside it for a chat), but at other times there is a pool there, something like a small version of one of the baths from Aquae Sulis. I have also found a standing stone there – a long, leaning one like the stone at the centre of Boscanwen-Un.

I visit the grove both at night and during the day – the sun in the grove does not relate to the sun in the outer world, and neither does the weather. I don’t think it relates to my emotions either, or not directly. Rather, it seems to reflect the purpose of my visit: if I am there to see Merlin, or to conduct a Bardic Grove Ritual, I usually find the campfire alight and the stars shining above, but if I am there to connect with water and Aphrodite, I expect to find the pool, sparkling in the sunshine.

Although, as I have said, it is usually a small open area thickly ringed by trees and shrubs, sometimes I am at the top of a long slope, the treeline curving around behind me and sweeping away down the hillside. From this vantage point, I can look out over a landscape of rolling chalk hills – they are usually clearly if not specifically somewhere in the Chilterns – and see a wide stretch of sky without losing the sense of being surrounded by trees. This is a sunrise/sunset landscape in which the power of Sky is prominent.

I sometimes notice that animals are present – squirrels, butterflies, ants, for example, and once even a wolf – depending where I focus my attention and why I am there.

As I practice with the Sacred Grove, I find new places and ways to use it, and it takes new forms.

G is for… Goddesses and Gods

Sometimes I don’t believe in any.

Sometimes I believe that all names are aspects of one. Or two.

In everyday life, though, I find myself using and enjoying a wide range of names for Goddesses and Gods, and treating them as individuals. I like to read about them, collect images of them, and write prayers, poems, and song words for them. I take a pretty broad definition. I try to be respectful to their places and cultures of origin, but I am aware that I might fail. If you think I’ve done so, please let me know. This post is a public sharing of a small portion of my private practice, and does not constitute a recommendation for anyone else’s public or private practice.

Some Altar Prayers

a green cross, woven out of straws, on a white background


Hail, hail, and well met,
Brigid, Lady of the Flame:
forge your words with healer’s hands.

a rough and old carving shows a man's face with horns, each of which carries a large hoop or ring


Hail, hail and well met,
Cernunnos, Lord of all that lives:
tame the year with healer’s hands.

a dark and strange painting, showing a woman hunched down on the right - she holds a book and is flanked by two other women. a face flies in the sky above, while on the left is a bush in which an owl perches and snake hides. a donkey grazes nearby.


Hail, hail and well met,
Hecate of the many ways:
guide me as I walk your paths.

a white marble statue of a man with one hand lifted


Hail, hail and well met,
Hermes-Thoth the thrice-great god:
Guide me through my transformation.


Hail, hail and well met,
Laughter-loving Aphrodite:
Hear Sappho’s prayer and mine as well.


Hail, hail and well met,
Beautiful Hermaphroditus:
May acceptance enter all our lives.


Hail, hail and well met,
Bast-Sekhmet who purrs and roars:
Lend your strength to all your cubs.


Hail, hail and well met,
Athena weaving words and thoughts:
Lend your strength to my debates.


Hail, hail and well met,
Epona on the great white mare:
May your bring my prayers to fruit.


Hail, hail and well met,
Triple Goddess, Triple God:
Bless your daughters three times three.

So mote it be.