Tag Archives: games

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!


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.