It's only fair to share...


Coming back home one night, someone at reception asked me how I was, and I expressed my anxiety over certain matters. His response struck me: ‘You have to be careful, words are most powerful; through what you say you have the biggest influence on yourself. What you say today will be tomorrow.’


I would like to start off my analysis of Wittgenstein’s theory of ‘language game’ with a question that bothered me for a long time in my childhood, and only when I had a look at Wittgenstein I found ‘peace of mind’. ‘Where does the universe end?’, I used to ask. This sentence is put together with words that in this very combination do not make sense. It is therefore not even a question, although it is grammatically, if we take it that a question is a proposition that can be answered. The world is made of facts, and the limits of the language that I use to express them (and sometimes ‘create’ them, as we will see) are the limits of my world, the world I can experience therefore those propositions that I can understand, experience and express, using those language forms I was taught when learning.
Language makes us feel omnipotent, but we are not.

This the first aspect of Wittgenstein’s philosophy: the difference between sense and non-sense. “Like Kant, he believed that philosophers often unwittingly stay beyond the limits into the kind of specious non-sense that seems to express genuine thoughts but in fact does not do so.”

Contrarily to Aristotle’s ontology, that sees the world as necessity that in turns shapes language, Wittgenstein sees the world as casualty, with no causal relations. Now, language is still partly shaped by reality, and words signify ‘facts’ and objects, but their interrelation and the world-language relation is not necessary, which means that language can take an infinite number of forms to express that relation. This multiplicity of language forms cannot be grasped in its essence, in that new form are constantly born, other die, new ‘language games’ take shape. “We want to say that there can’t be any vagueness in logic. The idea now absorbs us, that the ideal ‘must’ be found in reality. Meanwhile we do not see how it occurs there, nor do we understand the nature of this ‘must’. We think it must be in reality; for we think we already see it there.” (101)
To make a parallel, in order to understand this concept and the following ones, we should think of the influence that quantum physics discoveries had on contemporary ‘culture’. With them, we realise that we can never ever tell with absolute precision where things are, what position they occupy in the space around us, because the space itself, things and we, are all moving. No necessity or essence, therefore, but uncertainty.

In this regard, language is highly figurative: “What is the relation between name and thing named? […] This relation may also consist, among many other things, in the fact that hearing the name calls before our mind the picture of what is named; and it also consists, among other things, in the name’s being written on the thing named or being pronounced when that thing is pointed at.” (37)
Thus Wittgenstein argues that “our language determines our view of reality, because we see things through it. So he no longer believed it possible to deduce the pre-existing structure of reality from the premises that all languages have a certain common structure.” “A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.” (115) If we understand this, we will be able to break free (at least partially) of some of the many ‘myths’ created by language.

A valid example to clarify what said so far and to go into detail on the concept of language games is the one of the Excalibur sword (39). Excalibur is the name of an object, and to its name corresponds a picture clear in our head. Now, if that object broke, would we still call it Excalibur? Probably yes, in that Excalibur is fore mostly the name of a concept, an idea, a picture of an object in a certain state in our figurative language. If even Excalibur did not exist, it would in our language, and therefore, in practice, we would give it life. Another example would be the one of the World Trade Centre, that is not materially there anymore but still ‘alive’ in our language and imagination. The Bible, I would suggest, is one of the biggest and most declarant examples of language creating reality!
“And to say ‘If it did not exist it could have no name’ is to say as much and as little as: if this thing did not exist, we could not use it in our language game. – What looks as if it had to exist, is part of the language. It is a paradigm in our language-game.” (50)

Wittgenstein uses the concept of ‘language game’ to express this very notion that language trains us to react in a certain way to words. The very beginning of the Investigations is exemplifying of this: when we grow up, we learn things ‘interactively’ (as S. Agostino says) by learning the meaning of words while people point at them. “We can also think of the whole process of using words in (2) as one of those games by means of which children learn their native language. I will call these games ‘language games’ and will sometimes speak of primitive language as a language game.” (7)
Wittgenstein gives numerous examples of language games, some of which are: Giving orders and obeying them – Reporting an event – Constructing an object from a description – Singing catches – etc. (23)
Other ‘enlightening’ examples of a different kind of language games are: Water! Help! Away! where the exclamation mark gives a totally different meaning to the utterance; this is a language game based on language conventions… “Are you still inclined to call these words ‘names of objects’?” (23)
Mathematics is again another example of language game, for a number of reasons now clear.

H) Wittgenstein argues that it is not possible to find a common principle, an essence that all language games share. In a comparison with what we commonly call games: “What is common to them all? – Don’t say: ‘there must be something in common, or they would not be called ‘games’’ – but look and see whether there is anything common to all. For if you look at them you will not see something in common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don’t think, but look!” (66)
If we look then, we will only find similarities amongst language games, like the ones that we find in the description of the idea of ‘family’: “for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colours of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way. And I shall say: ‘games’ form a family.” (67) Thus, summing up, as Pears says, in the Philosophical Investigations (and in this we see it as the next step and change with regard to the Tractatus) Wittgenstein comes to the conclusion that “language has no common essence, or at least, if it has one, it is a minimal one, which does not explain the connections between its various forms.”

I) So, if Wittgenstein’s philosophy is philosophy of language, that means philosophy “may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it.” (124) Philosophy is an activity, not a doctrine, and “we can avoid ineptness or emptiness in our assertions only by presenting the model as what it is, as an object of comparison – as, so to speak, a measuring rod, not as a preconceived idea to which reality must correspond. (The dogmatism into which we fall so easily in doing philosophy.” (131)
“In philosophy we do not draw conclusions. ‘But it must be like this!’ is not a philosophical proposition. Philosophy only states what everyone admits.” (599) The point of philosophy should therefore be to avoid misunderstandings “concerning the use of words, caused, among other things, by certain analogies between the forms of expression in different regions of language.” (90) This is also because in language there are so many words we use whose meanings we would not be able to explain; those are words or concepts we apprehend while growing up as part of a language game. Wittgenstein gives the example of St. Augustine who in the Confessions says: “what is ‘time’ then? If no one asks me I do know what it is; if I wanted top explain it to someone asking me, I would not know.” (my translation) And this is something we need to remind ourselves of constantly.

J) One of Wittgenstein’s biggest contributions to the theory of logic (that branch of philosophy that studies those methods and principles that allow us to distinguish in their formal structures the right from the wrong ways of reasoning) is the identification of tautologies. An example could be adapted from Schroder’s cat experiment… the cat is dead or alive. This proposition is true no matter what, but at the same time it does not say much about what is actually going on, by representing all possible conditions.

What I will try to do now is to link some relevant passages from Tom Stoppard’s Professional Foul, a political play about moral, ethics and human rights (but also about language) to the points made about Wittgenstein’s theory of language games. At the beginning of each paragraph I will indicate the page number for the passage from the play, and next to it the letter corresponding to the paragraph related in my treatment of Wittgenstein’s theories.

p. 63-(H) STONE: “… And here I think the idea of a logical language which can only be unambiguous, breaks down.” As Wittgenstein demonstrates, there is no common principle valid for all language games, and ambiguity is very likely.

p. 63-(G) ANDERSON: “Ah… I would like to offer Professor Stone the observation that language is not the only level of human communication, and perhaps not the most important level. Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we are by no means silent.” This piece, which in the end recalls an aphorism by Wittgenstein himself, shows the relevance of ‘body’ movements in the process of communication, according to the context and background. This is linked to the beginning of the Investigations, where S. Agostino tells oh how he learned because people were pointing things out, and this is how we all associate meanings to words. An even clearer example we find on p. 72: “MAN 6: Still, he is very unhappy. You told him you would be five minutes you were delivering something- ANDERSON: How could I have told him that? I don’t speak Czech. MAN 6: You showed him five on your watch, and you did all the things people do when they talk to each other without a language. He was quite certain you were delivering something in your briefcase.” It seems like this play has been written by Wittgenstein!!

p. 56-(F) “ANDERSON: … I cannot in all conscience start smuggling… It’s just not ethical. HOLLAR: But if you didn’t know you were smuggling it – ANDERSON: Smuggling entails knowledge.” Hollar is here trying to convince Anderson to smuggle his paper to England. If we did not have a word for smuggling, we probably would not feel guilty about doing it; and what if we were smuggling, but without knowing it, therefore without calling it smuggling, would the smuggling actually be happening or not?

p.51&61-(G) Interesting the use of the adverb ‘well’ in a number of different situations. “ANDERSON: Well, well. Well, well, well, well. How are you?” (p. 51) “STONE: Again, there is no problem here as long as these variations are what I propose to call reliable. ‘You eat well’ says Mary to John, ‘You cook well’, says John to Mary. We know that when Mary says ‘You eat well’ she does not mean that John eats skilfully. Just as we know that when John says ‘You cook well’ he does not mean that Mary cooks abundantly.” (p. 61) We see here how the word ‘well’ has no real essence if isolated from a context, and it changes meaning (the same word) according to the context in which it is used, and in the structure of the language game we can grasp that meaning. Just like Water! or Help!

p. 44-(F) “ANDERSON: Young therefore old, old therefore young. Only odd at first glance. […] The second glance is known as linguistic analysis. A lot of chaps pointing out that we don’t always mean what we say, even when we manage to say what we mean.” What is implied in the meaning of the word ‘Anderson’ changes along with the changing of the ‘thing’ Anderson. That is why a picture of Anderson when he was younger arises doubts on the person in the picture itself. Is it still Anderson even though the image we have of him since that young age is changed? Or was he Anderson then? What is represented with the word ‘Anderson’ still has its meaning but in a different form. Also, we should note the ambiguity of language in the passage.

p. 61&62-(F) Still on this concept of ambiguity, Stone shows the different meanings the verb ‘to run’ takes in different language games: a politician ran for office – the show ran for a long time – the horse ran fast. “STONE: The confusion which often arises from the ambiguity of language raises special problems for a logical language.”

p. 54-(G) Talking about collective right and its meaning, Hollar says: “I reply, it comes from the individual. One man’s dealing with another man” … language game! Once more, it is the interactive process through which we learn our language.
The concept is basically repeated in the following:
p. 90 “ANDERSON: Now a philosopher exploring the difficult terrain of right and wrong should not be over impressed by the argument ‘a child would know the difference’. […] It is well to be reminded that you can persuade a man to believe almost anything provided he is clever enough, but it is much more difficult to persuade someone less clever. There is a sense of right and wrong which precedes utterance. It is individually experienced and it concerns one person’s dealings with another person.” A number of factors make a certain language game take a different meaning, in the infinite number of their combinations.

In the last few lines of the play, Anderson says: “I’m afraid I reversed a principle.” (p. 93) He has reversed the principle of ethics; Wittgenstein has reversed the principle underlying at the basis of the world-language relationship. And now, who was it to smuggle the paper… Anderson, who knew about it but did not carry it himself, or Mckendrick, who did not know he had the paper with him… we are lost! What was the smuggling then?? Language games, and limitations of language.

I have started off with the ‘treatment’ of a question, and I would like to finish with a consideration. Descartes says ‘Cogito ergo sum’ (‘I think therefore I am’) … Now, could we think, and therefore be, without language? Shall we then rather say: ‘I speak, therefore I am’? Language is what puts us in our reality. Phycology tells us that the front part of our brain develops with the learning of language, in that ‘game’ where things are pointed out and a word is associated to them (G). In that part of the brain it is suggested that our emotions and ‘personality’ reside. Therefore, it really seems, it is language that makes us be what we are.


Pears, D. (1971) Wittgenstein. London, Fontana Press;
Stoppard, T. (1978) Every Good Boy Deserves Favour and Professional Foul. London, Faber & Faber;
Wittgenstein, L. (1953) Philosophical Investigations. Oxford, Blackwells.

1 comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *