How does the concept of language games really function in Wittgenstein’s philosophy?


My experience reading Wittgenstein’s various descriptions of the significance of “language games” with respect to meaning can be summed up as…well….confused.

On one level, the connection between a game and meaning can be made painlessly.  We don’t know what a game is in the sense that we don’t know what exactly makes something a game.  Our definition can’t do the work we’d like us to.  What is a game?  Obviously, we can try to give sense to it.  The following are quick examples of “attempts to make sense of the meaning of ‘to game’ or ‘to be a game'” (no dictionaries to be used for our purposes here):

“Well, it’s something–a sort of an activity, conditioned by explicit rules, and those rules have implications that may or may not effectively resolve possible discrepancies between what occurs in the game and what the rules make possible”

  • “A game is a set of rules that determine how the activity that instantiates the game is expressed in a particular context.”

Could I be any more vague–yes, but for your sake (and mine), I won’t.

  • “A game is anything that involves input and output from users that understand the rules of its play.”

Here are two of my favorites…senseless in a way that the above definitions are, but so seductively simple!

  • “A game is anything that we identify as a game.”
  • “A game is anything that counts as an example of a game–that we would call an example of a game, or just “a game”, for short.

For Wittgenstein’s later philosophy, the notion of a game, and in particular our difficulty in making sense out “what does it mean for something to be a game”, are metaphors, signs, expressions, of the kind of difficult one gets into when one tries to define or condition language.

Like the question “what does it mean for something to be a game” the question “what does it mean for something to be a language (or Language)” creates in us a a philosophical cramp.  The question appears to ask us for a definition, but our definitions are only as good as the uses they are put to, and in the case of games and languages, we can’t separate the use from the definition (that is to say, I’m already using language anytime I ask a question about the definition of something-including language, games, hats, or meaning).

Language is not any one thing, it is a plurality of games we play to use and reuse (find new uses) for anything that can be said to have a use or a function for a community.  When we talk about language, we have in mind a language game– (rule defined but essentially under-determined, intensional, and not definable in the usual way we think of ‘to define’)–at the same time, and quite confusingly, we are always within language as the only means we have of conveying, pointing to, referring, and making sense of, just about anything we can and cannot speak or think of.  Language is not the spoken word, the written word, or merely “what allows communication”.  Language is the language games that make it possible for us to have a use for  “communication” or “the written word”.

Now, I’m ok this point.  What I don’t understand, or cannot wrap my head around, is the function of the notion of language games in Wittgenstein’s later philosophical thrust–how should one describe its role?  Is it more appropriate to describe the notion of “language games” as  a metaphor (thus, the notion of language game is just the kinship and/or likeness between questions regarding the meaning of the to be a game with the meaning of to be a language) or would it be more appropriate to call the relationship one of analogy?

I’m not really sure, but I think the enterprise of language as language games runs deeper than the level of metaphor or analogy.  An analogy is the relationship between two sets of pairs (or more): it is the relationship between two sets (or more) sets of related things.  A metaphor is a likeness between things.  Somehow, I don’t think either of these does enough work for Wittgenstein.

There is  a story I read while researching Wittgenstein for my senior thesis.  The whole thing was about how excited Wittgenstein was he realized that “we play games with language”.  For several weeks, all he could think about (apparently) was how “language is always an activity, a game, providing feedback and directing players to implicit and explicit rules” but we need not think of it as merely a naming game (i.e. we don’t learn lanuage, we don’t go about feeling at home in language) in the Augustian way of learning the names of objects and building up fancier cases from there.

I realize at this point I’m rambling.  Nevertheless, I’m still struggling with what role, if any role can be described, does the idea of language games play in his overall attitudes regarding language and meaning?  The notion of language games certainly isn’t more essential than the notion of “meaning as use” and “the meaning of a word is how you explain its meaning”–to ask what the meaning of a word is is to ask how it is that the word is used.

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