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.
(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.
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
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
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.”
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
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
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.