Life as a language game
"So difficult it is to show the various meanings and imperfections of words when we have nothing else but words to do it with."
—John Locke (1632-1704)
"Words are the model, words are the tools, words are the boards, words are the nails."
—Richard Rhodes (1937- )
After a 16-year absence, in 1929, Ludwig Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge University to teach, and to develop a new philosophy. But it was not until after his death, in 1953, that Philosophical Investigations, the culmination of his final years at Cambridge, was published. It is considered one of the most important philosophical works of the 20th century.
The youthful Wittgenstein (Wittgenstein 1) had been convinced that he’d had the final word on philosophy, but as Wittgenstein the elder (Wittgenstein 2) discovered, there was a whole lot more to be said. Talk about a comeback.
There are many differences between his first book, the TractatusLogico-Philosophicus, and Philosophical Investigations. One is in the structure of the works themselves. Whilst the Tractatus was a neat and concisely layered work articulating a series of short propositions in 21,623 words over 73 pages, Investigations is far longer, at 106,652 words and 129 pages.
Philosophical Investigations is uniquely structured, engaging in a dialogue with the reader, who is treated as an active participant. Wittgenstein can be seen working through various illustrative hypotheticals, rather than simply arguing his case to its logical conclusion. As we shall see, this highly idiosyncratic structure reflects his changing philosophy.
Investigations, like Tractatus, attempts to resolve issues of language and meaning. But Investigations rallies against the ideas presented in Tractatus. Instead of language being primarily about representation, it is now seen as a game-playing tool, with meaning constructed via a “language-game.”
Before I let myself loose on that, let’s play a little language-game ourselves. Here are two side by side word clouds of recurring language in the two masterworks (I produced these at http://tagxedo.com), by way of comparison.
We can see at-a-glance the core ideas in each book. Proposition, sign, logical, truth, sense, fact, objects and picture are recurring in the Tractatus; and word, language, game, expression, imagine, sign, look, and point stand out in Investigations. A key difference is this: Wittgenstein 1 was concerned with the way language does or does not picture reality. Wittgenstein 2 is preoccupied with how people use language in the world.
Philosophical Investigations begins with a well-known quote. It’s from Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions. North African St Augustine (late Roman Empire philosopher and theologian: 13 November 354 – 28 August 430) wrote Confessions in the style of an autobiography. It comprised 13 books, written between 397 and 400. Alongside his other masterpieces The City of God (published 426) and On Christian Doctrine (published 397 and with a fourth book in 426), the corpus of his work was influential for centuries, especially amongst Christian philosophers. The excerpt Wittgenstein was taken by was this. It was Augustine talking about how as a child he acquired language.
When they (my elders) named some object, and accordingly moved towards something, I saw this and I grasped that the thing was called by the sound they uttered when they meant to point it out. Their intention was shewn by their bodily movements, as it were the natural language of all peoples: the expression of the face, the play of the eyes, the movement of other parts of the body, and the tone of voice which expresses our state of mind in seeking, having, rejecting, or avoiding something. Thus, as I heard words repeatedly used in their proper places in various sentences, I gradually learnt to understand what objects they signified; and after I had trained my mouth to form these signs, I used them to express my own desires [Augustine, Confessions, 1.8].
This passage describes the process of language acquisition in terms of learning the names of objects, which is how language has traditionally been treated in philosophy. Many philosophers hold that children learn language by mimicking their parents or elders, who point to things like a chair or table, name them “chair” and “table” and thereby transmit attributive meaning.
Wittgenstein argues that this theory is false. He first presents a hypothetical situation to show that Augustine’s description cannot satisfactorily explain how language is learnt:
[T]hink of the following use of language: I send someone shopping. I give him a slip marked 'five red apples'. He takes the slip to the shopkeeper, who opens the drawer marked 'apples', then he looks up the word 'red' in a table and finds a colour sample opposite it; then he says the series of cardinal numbers—I assume that he knows them by heart—up to the word 'five' and for each number he takes an apple of the same colour as the sample out of the drawer.—It is in this and similar ways that one operates with words—"But how does he know where and how he is to look up the word 'red' and what he is to do with the word 'five'?" Well, I assume that he acts as I have described. Explanations come to an end somewhere.—But what is the meaning of the word 'five'? No such thing was in question here, only how the word 'five' is used.
If follows that understanding learnt language as words corresponding with objects only works in very limited circumstances.
3 Augustine, we might say, does describe a system of communication; only not everything that we call language is this system. And one has to say this in many cases where the question arises ‘Is this an appropriate description or not?’ The answer is: ‘Yes, it is appropriate, but only for this narrowly circumscribed region, not for the whole of what you were claiming to describe.’
Here Wittgenstein is asking: When the grocer is asked for five red apples, how does he know what “five” is? How does he know what “red” is? Much of our language is abstract, and works without there being a clearly corresponding object for every word. If I am teaching a child and I point to a ball and say “this”, the child might well think that the correct name for a ball is “this.” So, how does a child learn what the word “this” stands for?
Now what do the words of this language signify?—What is supposed to show what they signify, if not the kind of use they have? And we have already described that. So we are asking for the expression "This word signifies this" to be made a part of the description. In other words the description ought to take the form: "The word … signifies …."
Despite all this intricacy and potential confusion, somehow, children do learn language without formal instruction. Words have meaning even when we cannot point to something specific in order to show what it is. Words don’t have to represent things, then, as long as we understand their use.
This is the crux of the argument in Investigations. Language is too complex to be reduced to mere representation. Instead, in a famous, oft-repeated statement:
43 [T]he meaning of a word is its use in the language.
We must therefore look at the context in which words are applied. Talking about word meaning misleads us into thinking that words and phrases have a fixed meaning. Yes, there are dictionaries and thesauri which explain what words mean, but our actual use of language goes beyond definitions:
Think of the tools in a tool-box: there is a hammer, pliers, a saw, a screw-driver, a ruler, a glue-pot, glue, nails and screw.—The functions of words are as diverse as the functions of these objects. (And in both cases there are similarities).
In order to understand the multiplicity of ways that language is used, Wittgenstein introduces a central concept, that of the ‘language-game’.
23 [T]he term ‘language-game’ is meant to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or a form of life.
Language thus is an activity with no precise meanings. If I say something – “the sun”, “those boys”, “that delicious green apple”, “my career’s going nowhere”, “terrorism has no place in a civilized society”, “that’s not ethical”, or “poor people should have a greater share of GDP”, for instance, and you hear my utterances, the uttering of the words and the hearing of them will not correspond exactly. There will be differences, nuanced understandings, even major distinctions, between what I meant and how you or others interpreted what I said. Words and phrases are tools with differing purposes—and to appreciate what is being said, you have to know the context, the activity, the language game, or as Wittgenstein said the “form of life”.
To embellish that theme: to understand language, we must first understand which language-game we are playing. Therefore we cannot talk about language without context. And what we say only makes sense if it is within a language-game with established rules.
Philosophically speaking, this means that asking what a word means, or what it represents, is pointless:
38 Naming appears as a queer connexion of a word with an object.—And you really get such a queer connexion when the philosopher tries to bring out the relation between name and thing by staring at an object in front of him and repeating a name or even the word "this" innumerable times. For philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday.
The final sentence provides a pithy summing up of Wittgenstein’s thesis. To try and understand language, when words are taken out of context, can be an exercise in futility. For example, we all know how to use the word “morality” in a sentence. But if we consider what “morality” is outside of any context, it is as if the word has taken a metaphorical holiday. Without examples to wrap around it, to prop it up, we can only look at the word rather than its use, and it therefore loses meaning.
Philosophy, traditionally, tries to explain phenomena: how the world works at a fundamental level, like Plato’s theory of forms. The Wittgenstein of Philosophical Investigations, sees this desire for explanation as part of an assumption that ordinary language is inadequate.
109 We must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place … Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language.
The task of philosophers, then, is to make sure that words are understood not in terms of their dictionary definition, but in the context of their everyday use.
112 Like everything metaphysical the harmony between thought and reality is to be found in the grammar of the language.
116 What we do is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.
This work of Wittgenstein partly inspired a new philosophy—or a new way of looking at common philosophical problems—called ordinary language philosophy. His ordinary language philosophy argues that philosophical problems derive from a distortion of the meaning of words from their everyday use. Therefore, the proper way for a philosopher to work is through linguistic analysis:
124 Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it.
Although I have treated them separately, there is no consensus that the Wittgenstein who wrote Philosophical Investigations should be considered as separate to the Wittgenstein who wrote Tractatus. For some, Investigations is an evolution of Tractatus. In Tractatus, Wittgenstein was interested in the central problems of philosophy, ultimately arguing that he had managed to solve them.
By contrast, the Wittgenstein of Investigations was concerned with showing that there are no central problems, and that all philosophical problems are understandable—reducible even—to problems of language use. Investigations represents a type of denunciation on the older Wittgenstein’s part, of exactly the type of absolutist philosophical thought in which his younger self had indulged.
Wittgenstein died from prostate cancer in 1951. While he loved philosophy (In a letter to his friend Norman Malcolm he writes that philosophy has been “the only work that’s given me real satisfaction”) he often felt that his ideas were misinterpreted.
Georg Henrik von Wright, his colleague and friend, said, “He was of the opinion ... that his ideas were generally misunderstood and distorted even by those who professed to be his disciples. He doubted he would be better understood in the future. He once said he felt as though he was writing for people who would think in a different way, breathe a different air of life, from that of present-day men (sic).”
He considered even his mentor, the most celebrated of 20th Century philosophers, Bertrand Russell, to have misunderstood him. He even thought Russell’s interpretation in his forward to the Tractatus to be incorrect.
Regardless of misinterpretations, Wittgenstein’s work has influenced every aspect of philosophy ever since. Bertrand Russell described Wittgenstein as “the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived; passionate, profound, intense, and dominating.”
Wittgenstein’s legacy extends beyond philosophy into almost every discipline. The influence of his work can be seen in the social sciences, in architecture, in linguistics, in literary and cultural studies, as well as the arts. Many people now think of words and language not in terms of strict definitions but look to the way the words and language are used in the real world.
Despite his sometimes difficult, pessimistic, argumentative existence, in his last days Wittgenstein is alleged to have said, on hearing that his friends were coming to see him, just before he passed into unconsciousness before death, “tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.” Resounding last words—and an attitude for the rest of us to emulate—whatever the context.
Biletzki, Anat, Matar, Anat (2014). ‘Ludwig Wittgenstein’. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N Zalta (ed). March 3. http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2014/entries/wittgenstein/
Clack, Brian R (1999). An Introduction to Wittgenstein's Philosophy of Religion. Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press.
Malcolm, Norman (2001). Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
McGuinness, Brian (1988). Wittgenstein: A Life: Young Ludwig 1889–1921. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.
Monk, Ray (1990). Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. New York, NY: Macmillan.