Wednesday, 7 September 2011


One of the most striking features of the Philosophical Investigations is how little technical jargon it contains. If, like me, you suspect that the amount of rubbish talked usually rises in direct proportion to the amount of jargon used, this is a very encouraging sign. The book is not entirely jargon-free, however, and the first technical (or quasi-technical) term it introduces is the phrase “language-game”. This turns out to be a hugely important term, and it's useful to look at how and why Wittgenstein uses it. It is first introduced at §7:

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 a primitive language as a language-game.

And the process of naming the stones and of repeating words after someone might also be called language-games. Think of certain uses that are made of words in games like ring-a-ring-a-roses.

I shall also call the whole, consisting of language and the activities into which it is woven, a “language-game”.
This is less a definition than a broad hint as to how Wittgenstein will use the term, but it’s worth noting that (a) even the simple builder’s language at §2 involves more than one language-game (teaching and use) and (b) the whole of language itself can be thought of as a language-game, made up of a series of inter-woven and cross-cutting sub-games.

From this, we get two broad uses of the term:
  1. Language-game as a thought experiment, involving invented situations or uses of language; and
  2. “Game” as an analogy for language as we actually use it in our lives.

The language-game thought experiment

Language-game thought experiments serve two (complementary) functions. First, they shed light on language by allowing us to focus on the basics: “It disperses the fog if we study the phenomena of language in primitive kinds of use in which one can clearly survey the purpose and functioning of the words” (§5).

The building game at §2 is a typical example. By virtue of its very primitiveness it helps clarify concepts such as meaning and understanding. For example, the builder’s call of “slab!” clearly means “bring me a slab” despite the fact that he has no such form of words in his language (his entire vocabulary is merely “slab”, “block”, “pillar” and “beam”). But in what sense can “slab” mean “bring me a slab” to someone who cannot say the latter phrase? Well, in the sense that he wants a slab to be brought to him. In other words: meaning is use. Here we see the first small step in Wittgenstein’s dismantling of the idea that words such as “meaning”, “understanding” and “intending” refer to mental states. There will be much more on this later.

The thought experiment’s second function is to reveal the inadequacy of certain conceptions of language (usually conceptions formerly asserted by Wittgenstein himself). Again, the building game is an example: by demonstrating what Augustine’s picture of language would look like in practice it highlights the narrowness of his account, revealing how little it captures of what we actually do with words. (We shouldn’t think, therefore, that such primitive games reveal the essence of language. Each one is just a single example of the various ways language is used - they are basic, but not privileged.)

This destructive function is perhaps even more evident in another type of thought experiment used by Wittgenstein: the “what-if” experiment. Rather than presenting simplified versions of our linguistic behaviour, these ask us to imagine situations radically different from our own. At §257, for example, he asks: “What would it be like if human beings did not manifest their pains (did not groan, grimace, etc.)? Then it would be impossible to teach a child the use of the word ‘toothache’.”

Here, the thought experiment seeks to free us of the idea that our concepts are somehow necessary. By imagining how things might have been different, we see that our language is not designed for any possible creature in any possible world; it is a language for us, living in our world. It reflects all the vagaries of our nature and the environment in which we operate. This remark might seem obvious, but (Wittgenstein claims) the misguided tendency towards essence and necessity is remarkably insidious and lurks unquestioned behind many of the philosophical problems which baffle us. One way or another, his thought experiments seek to drag this tendency out into the light.

The game analogy

So how does our language operate, then? It is in attempting to answer this question that Wittgenstein draws upon games as an analogy for language. In fact, this analogy is central to his whole approach and is used to highlight several crucial (and often overlooked) points:

i. Language (like a game) is an activity. It is embedded in, and gets its purpose from, the sorts of things that human beings do. As Wittgenstein explains at §23: “The word ‘language-game’ is used here to emphasize the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life.” All too often, philosophers present language as essentially something passive. It is (for example) a way of getting an idea from my mind into yours. Why we might want to do this is felt to be neither here nor there (or something that will take care of itself). Wittgenstein considered this an important error.

ii. Language, like a game, is out there in the world. It is a shared activity (though, to be sure, there are some language-games we play by ourselves). It is not a matter of private phenomena (thoughts, sensations, etc) that others can only guess at using behavioural clues.

iii. Language, like a game, is normative. It is rule-bound, but not exhaustively so. There are just enough rules as are needed for the (language) game to work. So, for example, there are no rules in tennis about how high one is supposed to throw the ball when serving (§68). Likewise, there are rules for determining the correct use of words but they are only as rigid as the situation requires. Thus, language can function without being like a logical calculus where everything must be precisely defined and each possible step determined by strict laws.

iv. Language is diverse. We have as many games as we find amusing or interesting, and in the same way there are as many uses of language as we find beneficial or significant. Note, though, that our language-games are inter-connected. The game of teaching words, for example, presupposes the game of using of words in practice. Without the other, neither has a function. The same cannot be said of actual games – we could have snooker without poker. Indeed, we could have stud poker without draw poker. It should also be noted that what counts as a language-game will depend on the aspect of language under consideration. There are as many language-games as there are ways of classifying our linguistic concepts.

v. The concept “Language”, like the concept “game”, is a family-resemblance concept (NB: this is another of Wittgenstein’s technical terms; I hope to say something about it in another post). There is no clear distinction between linguistic and non-linguistic activity and no single definition of what language is – and hence no essence either.

vi. Language, like a game, is “free-floating”. Its rules are up to us – they do not get ultimate validation from the world. We are free to construct whatever games we wish and, in the same way, we are free to construct whatever linguistic concepts we wish. This point is very easy to misunderstand; it does not mean (for example) that language has no connection with reality. In what way is it connected? Well, in what way is the game of football connected with reality? We don’t play football with cannonballs or soap bubbles. Why not?

Both through thought experiments and by analogy, Wittgenstein uses the idea of language-games to reveal language as something public, active, diverse and constituted by rules which are up to us rather than determined by any supposed necessary structure of the world. Fruitful as it is, however, the analogy should be treated with a degree of caution. It is just an analogy. Language is not a game. Wittgenstein is not saying that what we do is trivial, or that his philosophy merely plays with words. Our linguistic capabilities have a huge role in defining what we are as human beings, so to get a clearer view of our language is to get a clearer view of ourselves. As he puts it at §19: “to imagine a language means to imagine a form of life”.


  1. great post. Very clear and insightful.

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