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.

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