Wittgenstein: Language Games

Wittgenstein: Language Games

June 27, 2021 Off By Felso

A language game is an activity involving words expressed in written or spoken language. Words have a place in this activity and thus point to the things they refer to. To see how language games function, Wittgenstein recommends that we look at simpler, more primitive language games rather than complex ones:

Let language serve the purpose of aiding communication between a constructor, A, and a helper, B. A is building (something) with building blocks: There are blocks, posts, slabs and beams. B should pass the building blocks and do it in the order A needs it. For this purpose, they use a language consisting of the words “block”, “pillar”, “plate”, “beam”. A remembers them; – B brings the building block he learned to bring in a call. – Recognize it as a fully primitive language (Philosophical Investigations, 2).

Each of the words in this language game can be regarded as a name corresponding to an object. A language game handled in this way seems to be compatible with the understanding of language in the Tractatus. But not all language games are like this.

Let’s take another language game example:

I’m sending someone shopping. I give him a compass with “five red apples” written on it. He gives this compass to the shopkeeper and opens the drawer with the words “apples” on it; then he looks at the word “red” in a painting and finds the color swatch opposite it; Then he says a series of numerical numbers, which I assume he knows by heart, up to five, and for each number he takes an apple of the same color as the swatch from the drawer. It is in these and similar ways that we operate with words (Philosophical Investigations, 1).

In this example, the word “apple” appears as a name for an object, similar to the previous example. This is not so easy to say when it comes to “red”. What about for the “five”? If these last two are nouns, what objects are they names of?

But what does the word “five” mean? Such a question is not a matter of discussion here, it is just how we use the word “five” (Philosophical Investigations, 1).

As can be seen, here Wittgenstein warns us to take the word “five” as a noun and map it to an object as in the word “apple”. We encounter nothing problematic when using the word and counting the apples. But problems begin to arise when we begin to think of the number as an object. What kind of object is this object? Where is it? How do I know it? This warning of Wittgenstein is in harmony with what he just said about philosophy.

What Wittgenstein does is “to bring words back from their metaphysical use to their everyday use”. No explanation is given during this process. Only the current situation is depicted. Wittgenstein merely organizes what we already know.

Although, as in this example, a voice inside of us was like, “I wonder what a number is really?” he asks, but according to Wittgenstein, we have nothing to gain by listening to this provocative voice. The pursuit of a general theory of meaning comes from not understanding the function of words. Wittgenstein compares words to different tools in a toolbox or different levers in a locomotive (Philosophical Investigations 10-13). Just as tools have different functions despite their similarities, so do words. It is these functions. Turning to general explanations and general theories of meaning leads us to illusions. Thinking that language has a homogeneous structure and that an explanation that will encompass the whole of language will be given are two prominent examples of such illusions. Wittgenstein himself experienced these illusions in the Tractatus; however, it now warns us against these illusions.

Language is a living, developing, changing thing. There are an uncountable number of different sentence forms, and users are creatively adding to them. To imagine a language with a homogeneous structure and to try to develop a theory that encompasses all of it misses the dynamism of the language. It is to prioritize not how language is, but how it should be, which cannot take us anywhere but a dead end.

Prepared by: Sociologist Ömer YILDIRIM
Source: Omer YILDIRIM’s Personal Lecture Notes. Atatürk University Sociology Department 1st Year “Introduction to Philosophy” and 2nd, 3rd, 4th Grade “History of Philosophy” Lecture Notes (Ömer YILDIRIM); Open Education Philosophy Textbook