What does a word mean? How are we able to understand language? Why does so much confusion and argumentation result from apparently such gentle variation in the way individuals employ their words? To explore these issues, we can turn to the philosophical notion of language games.
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) was one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century, contributing significantly to numerous areas but perhaps most importantly to the philosophy of language. Wittgenstein was the source of the idea that “the meaning of a word is how it is used” or “meaning is use”. But to fully understand what is meant by this phrase, it is helpful to explore his concept of a language game.
Wittgenstein’s magnum opus, Philosophical Investigations, commences in a manner which can be a source of great surprise to the unprepared. It begins with concise descriptions of situations involving the usage of words. The first involves the purchase of five red apples; the second describes two people using language at a construction site:
We shall imagine a language… Let this language serve the purpose of communication between a builder A and his assistant B. A is constructing a building out of building stones: blocks, columns, slabs, and beams. B is to bring the building stones, in the order A needs them. For that purpose they use a language consisting of the words “block”, “column”, “slab”, “beam”. A calls out the words and B brings the stone he has learned to bring at this call… Think of this as a complete, primitive language.
Wittgenstein calls “a complete primitive language” a language game (sprachspiel in his native German). The concept is introduced and developed in a set of notes which he circulated privately between his students and others in the 1930s commonly known as The Blue Book and The Brown Book – which in many ways are a lot like reading Wittgenstein’s blog (although of course no such concept existed at the time). The Brown Book in particular is intimately connected with the notion of a language game, and consists of a series of numbered descriptions of particular language games, accompanied by rambling commentaries in which it is hard to determine if Wittgenstein is attempting to explain his reasoning to a reader, or to elucidate his meaning for his own benefit.
Key to the way this is presented is that each language game is described in terms of how it is taught, and that we are invited to consider for each language game that it might exist in isolation – imagine a hypothetical tribe whose only means of communication is the “primitive language” of any given game, like the builder’s game above. As it says in The Brown Book:
Let us imagine a society in which this is the only system of language. The child learns this language from the grown-ups by being trained to its use… Part of this training is that we point to a building stone, direct the attention of the child towards it, and pronounce a word. In the actual use of this language, one man calls out the words as orders, the other acts according to them.”
Why introduce this peculiar concept of a language game? Part of the purpose is to stress how language is learned in the first place; the focus is on how children learn to speak for the first time. This, after all, is how language is acquired. Additionally, the training situations which are possible depend upon inborn capabilities. In the builder’s game, the capacity to carry rocks (which would not, for instance, be possible for a snake or a fish since they have no capacity to lift) is essential to the existence of the game and hence of the words involved. The emphasis in the use of language games is always towards the practical: “The term ‘language game’ is meant to emphasise that the speaking of a language is part of an activity or a form of life.”
It is easy to see, therefore, how by examining the use of language in these terms leads to a different understanding of the process of language in toto:
The whole, the language and the activities with which it is interwoven: this I will also call the “language game.”
Wittgenstein believed that the purpose of philosophy was clarity; he speaks often of muddles and befuddlement, and of philosophy aiming to remove these confusions. In formulating the concept of language games, he was able to explore how many philosophical problems originate in misunderstandings as to the meaning of words.
Following the concept of a language game, the purpose of a word is the use that it serves within its language game. He cogently examines a number of different philosophical problems in terms of the words used, and frequently demonstrates that often the problem is that a word is used in two separate language games, but appears to the individual to be the same word because the word (as a symbol; it’s letters or phonemes) is unchanged. But the word only has meaning in the context of its language game, and so if the word is used in a different context, its meaning need not be the same. (Sadly, examples to this effect are difficult to précis efficiently. The interested reader should turn to Wittgenstein’s work to explore this).
Taking this idea further, he demonstrates how we can use words in contexts that extend far beyond their original usages. For example, the terms ‘darker’ and ‘lighter’ belong in a language game of comparison of shade, associated with instructions such as “paint me a patch of colour darker than the one I am showing you.” But we could say: “Listen to the five vowels a, e, i, o and u and arrange them in order of darkness.” Many people will look puzzled and be unable to reply, but some will respond by arranging the vowels in a certain order (amazingly, this order tends to be i, e, a, o, u – which was, incidentally, my wife’s immediate response when I asked her this paradoxical question). This is a curious development! But it shows our tremendous capacity to apply words taught in a specific context to other settings which may have little or no logical connection with the original game. Given that we can have such an apparently nonsensical question answered at all, it is hopefully evident that any notion that words have objective Platonic meanings is at least problematic, and at worst beyond fallacious.
The more different language games are combined in any given culture (as language and culture are inextricably intertwined), the greater the potential for confusion. The word ‘God’ has meaning principally in a religious or spiritual language game, the word ‘True’ has meaning only in a logical language game, and the word ‘Theory’ has meaning chiefly in a scientific language game. But in everyday life, we use all of these words together in one grand system combining all the language games we have ever learned. Small wonder that careless use of words leads to bewilderment and conflict.
There is a further source of potential perplexity in the way words are employed. The fixed nature of a written word gives it the illusion of stability and invites us to consider all words as being equivalent in function. But words do not have such an equivalence; they serve very different functions. Wittgenstein suggests: “Think of the tools in a tool chest. There is a hammer, pliers, a saw, a screwdriver, a ruler, a glue jar, glue, nails, and screws…. The function of words is as varied as the functions of these objects. (And in both cases there are similarities).”
This leads to the idea of words being defined not in terms of idealised eternal concepts, but rather acting in a manner akin to family resemblance:
Consider, for example, the proceedings we call “games”. I mean board games, card games, ball games, athletic games, etc. What is common to all of these? – Don’t say: “They have to have something in common or they would not be called games” – but rather look and see if there is something common to all of them… you will see similarities and relationships – a whole series of them… We see a complicated network of similarities intersecting and overlapping one another – similarities large and small. I can give no better characterization of these similarities than “family resemblances”; for it is in just this way that the various resemblances to be found among members of a family overlap and intersect: build, facial features, eye colour, gait, temperament, etc., etc. – And I will say: ‘games’ form a family.
Language games are similarly related to one another by family resemblance, and as with other games, rules are of some significance in the formulation of many (but not all) language games. Consider how the builder’s game is predicated upon the rules which define the names of the stones: blocks, columns, slabs, and beams. The naming of things, Wittgenstein suggests, “is no move in the language game”. When one sets up the pieces on the board for a game of chess, this is not a move in the game but rather the preparation for the playing of the game. Similarly, the naming of things is not a move in a language game, but rather part of the preparation for the play of that language game.
Only by understanding what was meant by a language game are we ready to understand Wittgenstein’s most famous dictum:
For a large class of cases of the use of the word “meaning” – even if not for all cases – the word can be explained thus: The meaning of a word is its use in language.
Words are tools for communication, and these symbols have purpose only in the context in which they are employed. In discussing our choices of words and their definitions, we are serving to delineate the language games in which these signs are employed, and thus avoiding any future misunderstanding in their application. Perhaps this too is a language game of a particular sort, as it is an activity with a purpose, and our words adapt to this process as they would to any other.
The temptation to interpret words as having “true meanings” is untenable in this context. Truth is a concept from the language games of logic, and difficult or even impossible to apply to our everyday existence. A word means solely what it implies to those who use it, and what it means to them is encapsulated in how it is used. By understanding words as the pieces of a language game, we escape all manner of confusing problems which have haunted us since antiquity, and move forward into a world where our discourses can attain greater clarity. For this, we have Wittgenstein to thank.