[C] [Wittrs] Re: Philosophers, dodgeball and the "drawing game"

  • From: kirby urner <kirby.urner@xxxxxxxxx>
  • To: wittrsamr@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Sat, 31 Oct 2009 14:08:33 -0700

CJ writes:

> How can it be anything less than conspicuous that Wittgenstein is here
> showing us how the philosopher does not understand the nature of the "game",
> in particular "that sort of game in which language plays a part".  It seems
> that as I get back to my Wittgenstein reading it is startling how the notion
> of "language game" is misunderstood, and how there is a meaning given to it
> quite apart from that which seems natural to me and which I believe was
> Wittgenstein's intent.

Yes.  I lot of readers stumble on the word game, some even taking
offense that it seems to trivialize a vital human activity.

They couple this with Wittgenstein's reputation for "reducing
philosophical problems to language" and fixate on this word "game" as
more proof that we're dealing with some kind of nihilism that drains
away all meaning from philosophy especially.

They get hung up on the connotations they bring to the reading, apply
a bias or prejudice, and don't allow the text itself to teach what is
meant by the "language game" concept.

It's as if they already know, and are anxious to get on to the juicy
part, i.e. their vociferous defense of life being meaningful or
philosophy being deep or whatever aesthetic gossip.

> The notion of "language game" seems to be taken as some kind of "play with
> language', "playing with words" , "language as a game", and that "language
> (whatever that may be) IS in the end a game, with rules and grammar and so
> on.  However , to me "language game" more properly means in a "game in which
> language plays an essential role"

We discover with only a few moments of thought that our concept of
"game" is tightly coupled with our concept of "rule".  He has chosen
his terms wisely, for their already inherent relationships, which is
partly what makes his later philosophy seem as if it's written in
ordinary language, minus the austere and cryptic logicism in the

His meanings are "with the grain" of ordinary language, i.e. he wants
to talk about rules, and games tend to have rules.

He also wants to talk about "understanding" and how it relates to
"continuing a series" or "continuing a game".  At what point do we say
someone understands?  When they start playing by the rules.  These
sound like tautologies and, in a real sense, that's precisely what
they are.  To investigate a grammar is to trace through its truisms,
its certainties (less matters of fact, than facts about language

> One might say that, in using the term "language game"  Wittgenstein is
> 'pointing" to THE GAME and not pointing us to the language, and that the
> word "language" as part of "language game " is only being used adjectivally.
>  So why not look were he points?

It's the fact that language is *woven in* with activities, and that
these activities are constitutive of the rule-following, that helps us
get away from the notion that language is "just words".  The act of
playing of chess is not just an analogy for operating in language
(although we might use it that way, and Wittgenstein encourages this)
but it is also one more activity within our language i.e. to play
chess is to engage in "languaging" as Sean calls it.  It's not
"language happening over here" and "playing chess over there".

> When W speaks of the game of fetching the slabs and stones in ¶2, the game
> is the entire activity which entails and is dependent upon the use of
> language as an integral aspect of it   It is not the word use or the
> speaking or the uttering or the understanding or the definitions of the
> terms. It is the entire productive activity described in ¶2.

I would say the slabs themselves have semantic value in the language
game, are as much a part of the language as any other aspect of the
activity, including the vocal utterances, gestures, and whatever
printed signs or glyphs.

> In ¶7, Wittgensteins says,  "I shall also call the whole, consisting of
> language and the actions into which it is woven, the "language-game".

That's the key idea:  "the whole" is the language-game, not just some
"language part" as distinct from some "not-language part".

> In ¶19, -And to imagine a language means to imagine a form of life.
> In ¶23 "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

In another passage he says this idea of language or thought as
something unique proves to be a superstition, not a mistake.  I think
what he means by this is:  we're perfectly within our rights to draw
this arbitrary line between languaging and not-languaging, so it's in
no way a mistake to make such a line, but then to fervently believe in
its reality, its designating something "in nature" is superstitious.

> As someone who has spent much time on evolutionary theory and ethology as
> well as on psychology, to me the key here is "game", and it seems to me that
> humans (more or less or perhaps for now, as best as we can define it) are
> the only creatures capable of engaging in "language games", i.e. "games in
> which language plays a part", while other species can still indeed play
> 'games", as puppies do when mock fighting with each other, as as birds and
> innumerable species illustrate in various mating rituals, or as even bees do
> when they engage in constructr ive social activity which is somehow
> organizing and somehow organized by means of their actions and interactions.
>  Only in these species the "games" do not, as many human games do, involve
> "language"...and so they are not, in my way of thinking, properly designated
> as 'language games".

I think you're within your rights as a human language user, to exclude
the dances bees engage in, as semantic or linguistic.

It's a truism in some grammars (forms of life) that only humans use
language, and so the fact of gorillas or chimps using American Sign
Language to sign to one another and their human counterparts is
described in other terms, to preserve this truism, keep it consistent.

To me, these maneuvers come across as dogmatic, i.e. I'm not of the
school that humans are set apart from the other animals by some hard
and fast criterion in the language use department, but I am accepting
of fellow humans who feel it's important to make up these criteria.

My friends in San Jose (since moved to New Mexico) had a parrot named
"Red Devil" by a gorilla who knew a subset of ASL.  That's how she
consistently referred to this bird.  It's appropriate that we're
talking about a parrot, as some who work with those animals will
assure you that they sometimes say things with meaning, aren't just
copying phrases...  these become epistemological arguments pretty

> If the "game being played" is changed by some sort of tacit agreement among
> the participants, then we have a "different game" and the "role played by
> language in that game" is different, and must be recognized as such (except
> by the occasional deluded philosopher, of course), even though the word or
> the "utterance" in and of itself is the same.

In some games, especially financial ones, the rules are indeed always
changing, and whereas some people have the job of making these rule
changes explicit (legislators, regulators), others are forever seeking
loopholes, finding ways to change the rules by following them
according to some creative interpretation, if that makes any sense.

> The analogy that Wittgenstein is drawing here is not between language, per
> se and the game of chess.  But between the type and nature of the "game"
> which we must come to terms with each time we wish to discuss "language' and
> naming and the grasping at the "meaning" or 'definition" of individual
> words. The game of chess is not meant to be the analog of "language" but of
> the "language game", that is, the game of which the piece called the King is
> an integral part".

It's also important to his invented concept of language game that we
might invent them.  Why?  In the course of doing philosophy, the
actual warp and woof (the tapestry) may simply be too complicated and
nuanced to see into with perspicuity.  We're fighting our own
bewitchment and unless we manage to distill something complex to
something easier to wrap our minds around, then we may never gain any

Language-games help us investigate language "in the rough".  We may
take a "found activity" (like a "found object" in art) and call it a
language-game, or we may synthetically generate such a game, and an
imagined tribe to go with it, for the purpose of doing philosophy.
This game with the slabs is an excellent example, whereas chess is
more in the "found object" category.

> In ¶31, Wittgenstein concludes, " We may say: only someone who already knows
> how to do something with it can significantly ask a name.

In other words, this whole idea of "referring to referents" is a
vastly ramified social activity that takes some years to master (we
learn it in childhood).  By the time we're adults, "referring to
something" seems like a blindingly simple maneuver, and so we tend to
take it as a primitive, something to use as a baseline or foundation
for what we mean by "meaning".  "To mean is to refer to something"
would be emblematic of the older way of thinking that Wittgenstein is
seeking to challenge with his "to mean is to operate with a tool"
dictum (paraphrasing).

> And, indeed, Wittgenstein does make room for a variant of the language game,
> a subspecies of the game of chess, which might be called the game of taking
> pieces off the board and pointing to them and asking what their 'name" is.
>  This would be very much what he brings up in ¶21 above, when instead of
> moving the piece on the board, we pick it up and point to it and name....a
> subspecies or new variety (as Darwin would call it) within the older
> 'language game".

You can endless analyze language-games into sub-games, or compare them
to closely similar language-games (family resemblance concept).  That
grid of 64 squares, alternating dark and light colored, is a motif we
find elsewhere in language.  We call it a "checked" pattern, have the
game of "checkers".

This relates to our notion of property, real estate, dividing up a
terrain into squares.  The whole idea of a grid (as in "grid of
streets") comes into play, and relates to our notion of "rules" and
"rulers", both in the sense of marked off measuring rods ("rulers"),
and in the sense of potentates dividing up the land, parceling it out
to nobles, allied military commanders.  Back to chess, with its king
(and more activist queen).


> What seems to happen with philosophy, according to Wittgenstein, as I
> believe you rightly assert, is that the new "variety" of game which springs
> up in the middle of species of the original "language game"....is then taken
> out of context and given a life of its own, much like the children's
> "drawing game" which you cite up above.  And the child in that example does
> not understand that the drawing and naming is only extract from a broader
> game and that the mere 'drawing", much as the "mere naming" does not lead to
> anything.  The items drawn by the adult arise from his knowledge of that
> game, much as the knowledge of chess allows us to point to and speak of the
> naming of the piece as "King". but just as the child does not understand the
> mere naming and pointing out of context without a basis in the underlying
> "language game" (the game of which that language and language use is an
> integral part) leads nowhere, so, too, does the typical philosopher not
> understand that his preoccupation with the isolated words can only lead to
> an equivalent 'nowhere", i.e., "non-sense'

Language idling, language going on vacation.  The thing about forms of
life is they evolve over time in response to pressures.  Solo
philosophers, clever and with good "languaging" abilities, are able to
throw together usage patterns of varying longevity and utility.  Some
have a longer "half life" than others.

This is especially true in mathematics, a kind of logical space that's
both stringent and lenient.  Stringent in the sense that the rules
need to be clear enough to allow multiple people to follow them to the
same results,  Lenient in the sense that the activities need not be
"about" anything in particular i.e. there's no pesky notion of
"reality checks" that in some other walks of life would force a game
to revamp or die, because of inconsistencies with "facts on the
ground" so to speak.

> As a last note, the use of "form of life" by Wittgenstein to describe the
> grounding of language has always suggested (to me) an apt analogy between
> the biological notion of "speciation" as species emerge from the matrix of
> life as "new forms".
> All that Wittgenstein had to say about "language games' can be taken and the
> notion of "language game" replaced by "variety' which has a technical
> meaning within "the Origins" and then we can understand the "meaning is use"
> issue much better.  Because the games discussed are "language games", i.e.,
> those kinds of games which are dependent on their exercise, their
> implementation, and indeed their "survival" over iterations, generations,
> different times and different players, the question of the "use" of the
> language term in the game is not the 'personalized" simply located "buzz" it
> gives an individual player making a particular 'move" in the particular
> playing of the "game" on that particular occasion, but is more than the
> manner in which the "use' of the term enables the productive playing of the
> game in that instance.   More importantly, the "use" is the manner   term"
> plays a role in contributing to the 'survival" of the game itself ...to be
> played on another day by either the same players or new generations of
> players.  That to me is the broader significance of the "meaning is use"
> statement.

Yes, I'm on the whole in sympathy with what you're saying in that "the
meaning" (in terms of use) is not some local "buzz" attendant upon the
individual user, some private "only meaningful to me" experience.

When we investigate meanings, we trace a grammar of truisms, or
interconnecting moving parts, a machinery.  This machinery is "dipped
in blood" in the sense that significance has a musical or visceral
aspect.  People suffer and die as a consequence of not following some
rules (such as running a red light).

It's not that flesh and bone experience is irrelevant to meaning.  But
it's still a matter of weaving everything together in patterns, not a
simple matter of language over here (on the one side) pointing to
not-language over there (on the other side), as if one were the map,
the other the territory.

Maps are part of the territory, the scenery.  You have your maps *in*
the world, just as subway maps are posted inside of subway trains.
Language is not a way of getting outside the world.  It's more just an
aspect of the world worlding (languaging < worlding).

> And, yes, by the way, naturally, "if a lion could speak we wouldn't
> understand him"
> CJ

We don't have those truisms worked out yet.  With gorillas though, we
already understand them sometimes.  Many humans are less
understandable (are more like lions in that sense).

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