Tag Archives: L

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!

L is for Language

Language is, in some ways, central to everything I do. Writing a blog uses language, for starters (especially as, unlike some bloggers whose work I see regularly, I don’t usually post photographs or videos). Writing articles, giving conference papers, and running workshops all uses language. Even my hobbies – poetry, sci-fi and fantasy, watching TV – tend to use language. Some parts which apparently don’t – the images in a film or TV show – often do use levels of symbolism which can be analysed using the tools of textual analysis.

When people hear the word ‘language’, I think they usually imagine words first, perhaps body language second, and other forms of language, such as signs and diagrams, later on. That doesn’t change the fact that you have to be able to ‘speak’ ‘diagram’ in order to make sense of the ‘intuitive’, but profoundly non-naturalistic, London Underground map, let alone a circuit diagram. In a broad understanding of language, I think these skills should be included.

This has important implications for my consideration of religious language. ‘Religious language’ as a category can include many things:

  • Any language which people use in religious contexts – all of a sermon, the whole of a hymn, even (perhaps) the things we say over tea and biscuits after a service or during a church-related house group. This might include the jargon of the religion – the abbreviations referring to parts of the organisation’s structure, for example.
  • Language about specifically religious topics: about any Deity or Divinity, for example, or about heaven, hell, salvation, enlightenment, cosmology, and other topics regarded as the sole, or main, preserve of religion.
  • Religion as a language – as in ‘learning to speak Christian’ or ‘speaking fluent Quaker’. This is a quite different view, and one which opens up non-verbal parts of the religion to be seen as part of the ‘religious language’: the movements used during prayer, the visual imagery, the narratives which are enacted as well as told.

At one time, I tried to use ‘religious language’ as a synonym for ‘language about God/Spirit/the Divine’ because I was trying to avoid settling on any single term in that list, or offering a list myself. It didn’t really work, because people tended to default to broader interpretations – they expected me to talk about the language of liturgy and prayer, of Meetings for Worship for Business and discussions about current issues. All of those things are fascinating, and some of my work has attended to them, but ‘talking or not talking about God or whatever you call it‘ is actually a much more specific activity. It might even be its own language-game, depending how tightly you want to use that phrase. (Needless to say, Wittgenstein had a couple of different uses and later scholars have developed more, usually tending to broaden it.) Among Quakers, ‘writing about God’ is certainly a language-game in the sense that it has identifiable, if usually unspoken, rules which are followed in all but exceptional circumstances.

L is for… Learning

Meeting for Worship for Learning is a very powerful tool. As Quakers – in fact, I suspect, as liberal inhabitants of the modern West – we value our freedom of thought; and as a community, so many of us have been damaged one way or another by the teachings of other denominations or religions that we can be quite suspicious of Teaching. We like our questions and don’t want to be told what answers we should accept.

That’s all fair enough, but it would be a shame if our sometimes justified suspicion of Teachers led us to ignore what answers we have – both from those other members of our community who have something worth hearing and what we ourselves might have to share.

One way to facilitate this kind of sharing is Meeting for Worship for Learning, which can take many forms. Recently, I completed a cycle of a programme called Hearts and Minds Prepared – a group of about eight from my local meet met for twelve sessions, to consider a whole range of Quaker topics, including our history, our testimonies, our methods, and our spiritual journeys. I’d been wanting to do Hearts and Minds Prepared since it came out, and kept missing opportunities, so this was a long-awaited treat; and although sometimes difficult and sometimes moving, it was just as good as I’d hoped.

To me, the key aspects of this kind of work are listening to one another, facilitation rather than lecturing (that is to say, one might as the organiser of the session have certain material to put in or specific activities to suggest, but you are flexible, listening to the group as you ask the group to listen to one another), and not too much structure. Like a semi-programmed Meeting for Worship, it needs to have enough space and silence to develop along whatever path opens up. Sometimes I try and put these principles into practice with non-Quaker groups; the Brownies take to it relatively well, but undergraduates are sometimes nonplussed!

I was considering writing about Woodbrooke here, but I see that Stephanie got there first!

You may have picked up by now that I’m a pretty studious person, someone who enjoys learning, and so it’s no surprise that many of my outstanding Quaker moments involve Meetings for Worship for Learning of one kind or another: Quaker Quest, private study and discussion groups, Hearts and Minds Prepared, all sorts of things at Woodbrooke, weekends away with the Monthly/Area Meeting or my local meeting, Bible Study… the list goes on, and I plan to keep it growing.

L is for… Light

“…the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life” (A&Q 1).

Quakers talk a lot about Light. We are asked to “wait in the Light, that the Word of the Lord may dwell plentifully in you” (William Dewsbury), and reminded that “It is by an attention full of love that we enable the Inner Light to blaze and illuminate our dwelling and to make of our whole being a source from which this Light may shine out” (Pierre Lacout). Klaus Huber found that when he asked Buddhist-Quakers which terms they preferred in place of ‘God’, ‘Light’ was very popular (along with ‘love’, ‘Spirit’ and ‘Gaia’ among others – see Quaker Studies 6, no. 1 (2001): p.95 for details).

It is in some senses very Biblical language. We find a lot of talk about the light in John’s Gospel, traditionally a Quaker favourite. Consider chapter 1 verse 9 as John introduces the coming of Jesus: “the true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world”, and compare it with the claim made about the Inward Light or the light of Christ in chapter 19 of Quaker Faith and Practice: “it is a universal Light, which can be known by anyone, of either sex, of any age, of whatever religion”.

Personally, I find Light imagery very helpful. Not only does it have this universalist connotation – problematic but emotionally appealing, wait for my PhD for the full discussion! – but it is concrete (visual, vivid) and not gendered or out of date. I know some Friends find it patronising or difficult in times of darkness, and perhaps Friends with sight problems relate to it differently, but for me its associations are all positive. Put the lights on. Light a candle, light the fire, light the way. Be open to new light.

a figure dressed in blue, back to the viewer, sits on red stony ground and contemplates a yellow sky

The Hermit, Patrick Caulfield

L is for… LGBT

I am very lucky to belong to three religious communitites who are, mostly, at least laid back about and often supportive of my sexuality. Don’t get me wrong, there are Buddhists who blanch at homosexuality and Quakers who would rather we didn’t discuss polyamory in public and Pagans who cannot accept the lived experience of people who are trans* or genderqueer, but overall my experience has been more positive in my religious communities than in the rest of my life. (With an honourable exception for the Queer Theory class.)

Quakers in Britain are campaigning to have the same-sex marriages we perform recognised in law. I know at least two Buddhist groups who perform wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples (a bit different for them, as their opposite-sex wedding ceremonies aren’t recognised in law either; the Quakers are in an odd middle ground). I know a Wiccan who was initiated by one gay man and is now training another. I know a Pagan triad who had a three-way handfasting. People in my Pagan communities are working on queer theologies, recognising queer deities, and honouring Divinity through their daily lives, queer or not.

My thanks to Goddess, Godde, and God for this love and acceptance. May it grow and flourish.

L is for… Leaves

I remember that when I was a Brownie, one of our games was Leaf Identification. It was just a set of cards, really, with names and pictures; a bit old-fashioned by the time I got there, not popular, not often played. I was fascinated, though. My father had already given me a good eye for the kinds of details you need to look for in plant identification (he’s a zoologist, but it’s easier to teach children on plants, which don’t run or fly away). The cards and their presence at Brownies suggested, though, that memorising such things was a worthwhile pastime.

Knowledge and observation are for me foundations of nature-centred spirituality. (Not just for me: read Lupa’s description of meeting Black Morel Fungus Totem, “After triple-checking their identity…”) I do not always have the knowledge I would like, but I do have Google and I know how to use it. I don’t always have time to make the observations I would like, but I try and know my local area – plants, animals, and landscape – as well as I can.

In the meantime, here are some leaves. For identification resources, try Nature Detectives or The Trees and Shrubs Website.