Wittgenstein's language games

Lois Shawver (rathbone@crl.com)
Sun, 2 Jun 1996 07:41:10 -0700 (PDT)

On Sun, 2 Jun 1996 RKRIBS@mscc.cc.tn.us wrote:

> Lois
> I for one, would be most interested is reading your handout.
> Please post it, or e-mail it to me. Thanks

Here it is, a handout I wrote explaining Wittgenstein's concept of
"language games".


Wittgenstein begins the Philosophical Investigations with a
description of a certain model of learning language that was contained in
the writing of St. Augustine. According to this model, a person learns
language by 'ostensive definition' of the terms. A term is 'ostensively
defined' if you name it and point to what it is your naming. So, you say
to a child, "cup" as you point to a cup, and the child learns to use the
word cup.

This is a picture of language acquisition has some validity, of course.
We do this with children, but it actually hides the fact that all the
functional language we learn is learned in 'language games.' That is
words are used to make things happen. The child says "cookie" not to
name the cookie, but to get a cookie.

Wittgenstein has a simple example of a language game. It takes place in
an imaginary primitive society and it goes sort of like this. A work
supervisor stands on a building site with a worker. There are stacks of
building objects, beams, rods, etc. The supervisor says the word 'beam'
and the worker knows to go and get the beam and put it in a certain
pile. The word 'beam' does not just label the object. It makes
something happen. It has a function in this language game.

A little later there is another example of a language game. It is the
game of counting apples. You go to the grocer and ask for 6 apples. He
then says the number one, two...six by heart as he reaches for an apple
with each count and puts them in a sack. This is a language game. A
person might learn to do this without learning the broader language just
as we can imagine a person learning to ask for beams and rods in the
example above without learning all of English, or even anything more of
English than this one game.

These serve as examples of how we learn our basic language, not by
labeling objects, but by doing things with language. Often we do not
understand the meaning fo the words initially. We simply learn to use
the words in these contexts, like the child who learns to recite the
'pledge of allegiance' without knowing what 'pledge' means or
'allegiance' means It is simply a language game, something one does when
a teacher says, "Now, we'll all stand and say the pledge of allegiance."

Wittgenstein uses the word 'game' because of its connection with 'board
games' or, particularly, chess. There are implicit and explicit rules as
to how to 'play the game' but within those rules there is a lot of
freedom. 'Games' does not imply playfulness, and the connotation of
playfulness is very confusing for many people.

Wittgenstein does not have a well developed theory of language
development. It is more of a set of insights and observations that, when
read together, suggest a theory of language development. I think it is
easiest to explain him in terms of a theory of language development,
however. So if you'll permit me to expand on him a little to present it
that way, please keep in mind that this is partly my extention of him.
You can ask me, if you like, what part is me and what part is him.
The terms I am using are his, but I am organizing it developmentally in a
way that he only more or less implies.

Our childhood basic language games are learned without familiarity with
words and so we cannot learn language through definition. The child
learns to say "Cookie!" as a request for a cookie. Then the child is able
to move into a more advanced form of understanding.

Take that last sentence:

Then the child is able to move into a more advanced form of

It contains two metaphors that I can see "move" and "form". These
terms were learned in more rudimentarry language games and transferred
(parasitically) to do a different kind of work. We learn to play the
language game of 'move' perhaps by someone saying to us, "Move that
toy." We learn to do something with the toy at that childish stage.
Then, somehow, we transfer the meaning in that childish language game to
a parasitic language expression such as in the sentence above. Something
similar could be said about the word 'form.'

Now, take the whole last paragraph and note the dead metaphors (which I
did not purposely type in): contains, transferred, parasitically, work,
play, game, are the words that stand out as I look at them. The idea is
that we greatly expand what we can talk about by learning how to engage
in a parasitic language practice of using these words in abstract ways.
We train to use these words in physicalistic settings and then somehow
manage to tranfer them into a whole meraphorical level of speech wehere
they do another kind of work. How we manage this is interesting for
psychologist, but Wittgenstein was merely noting that this shift takes

There are certain implications of this shift for philosophy. When we do
philosophy, we are working in high level parasitic language games.
But the fact that we learned the actual terms for these parasitic games
in more rudimentary games, leaves us vulnerable to particular kinds of
confusions. Most of Wittgenstein's philosophy is concerned with
unraveling (to use a parasitic word) the confusions that result from our
mixing up language games, and trying to understand the meaning of the
terms in one language game by applying the meaning the term has in
another language game.

For example, if someone were to read Wittgenstein and assume that
'language games' was another term for 'playing with language' this would
be a typical kind of philosophical confusion that undermines our

..Lois Shawver