Language Games; Rejection of Logical Atomism

Jiroft_scorpionPhilosophical Investigations:
23. But how many kinds of sentences are there? Say assertion, question, and command?–There are countless kinds countless different kinds of use of what we call “symbols,” “words,” “sentences.” And this multiplicity is not something fixed, given once for all; but new types of language, new language-games, as we may say, come into existence, and others become obsolete and get forgotten. (We can get a rough picture of this from the changes in mathematics.)
Here the term “language-game” is meant to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life.
Review the multiplicity of language-games in the following examples, and in others:
Giving orders, and obeying them–
Describing the appearance of an object, or giving its measurements–
Constructing an object from a description (a drawing)–
Reporting an event–
Speculating about an event–
Forming and testing a hypothesis–
Presenting the results of an experiment in tables and diagrams–
Making up a story; and reading it–
Play-acting–
Guessing riddles–
Making a joke; telling it–
Solving a problem in practical arithmetic–
Translating from one language into another–
Asking, thinking, cursing, greeting, praying.

Imagine a picture representing a boxer in a particular stance. Now, this picture can be used to tell someone how he should stand, should hold himself; or how he should not hold himself; or how a particular man did stand in such-and-such a place; and so on. One might (using the language of chemistry) call this picture a propsition-radical. This will be how Frege thought of the “assumption.” [Note added by Wittgenstein]
–It is interesting to compare the multiplicity of the tools in language and of the ways they are used, the multiplicity of kinds of word and sentence, with what logicians have said about the structure of language. (Including the author of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.)

* * * *

65. Here we come up against the great question that lies behind all these considerations.–For someone might object against me: “You take the easy way out! You talk about all sorts of language-games, but have nowhere said what the essence of a language-game, and hence of language, is: what is common to all these activities, and what makes them into language or parts of language. So you let yourself off the very part of the investigations that once gave you yourself most headache, the part about the general form of propositions and of language.”
And this is true–Instead of producing something common to all that we call language, I am saying that these phenomena have no one thing in common which makes us use the same word for all,–but that they are relatedto one another in many different ways. And it is because of this relationship, or these relationships, that we call them all “language.” I will try to explain this.

66. Consider for example the proceedings that we call “games.” I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all?–Don’t say: “There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games'”–but look and see whether there is anything common on all.–For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don’t think, but look!–Look for example at board-games, with their multifarious relationships. Now pass to card-games; here your find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear. When we pass next to ball-games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost.–Are they all ‘amusing’? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In ball-games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared. Look at the parts played by skill and luck; and at the difference between skill in chess and skill in tennis. Think now of games like ring-a-ring-a-roses; here is the element of amusement, but how many other characteristic features have disappeared! And we can go through the many, many other groups of games in the same way; can see how similarities crop up and disappear.
And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and crisscrossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail.

67. I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances”; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, color of eyes, gait, temperament, etc., etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way.–And I shall say: “games” form a family.
And for instance the kinds of number form a family in the same way. Why do we call something a “number”? Well, perhaps because it has a–direct–relationship with several things that have hitherto been called number; and this can be said to give it an indirect relationship to other things we call the same name. And we extend our concept of number as in spinning a thread we twist fiber on fiber. And the strength of the thread does not reside in the fact that some one fiber runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibers.
But if someone wished to say: “There is something common to all these constructions–namely the disjunction of all their common properties”–I should reply: Now you are only playing with words. One might as well say: “Something runs through the whole thread–namely the continuous overlapping of those fibers.”

69. How should we explain to someone what a game is? I imagine that we should describe games to him, and we might add: “This and similar things are called ‘games'”. And do we know any more about it ourselves? Is it only other people whom we cannot tell exactly what a game is? – But this is not ignorance. We do not know the boundaries because none have been drawn. To repeat, we can draw a boundary – for a special purpose. Does it take that to make the concept usable? Not at all! (Except for that special purpose.) No more than it took the definition: 1 pace = 75 cm. to make the measure of length ‘one pace’ usable. And if you want to say “But still, before that it wasn’t an exact measure”, then I reply: very well, it was an inexact one. – Though you still owe me a definition of exactness.

Other Wittgenstein texts on this website:

Leave a Reply

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