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Wittgenstein, linguistic games-playing, and analogies

The later Ludwig Wittgenstein is known for his philosophy of linguistics, summed up in the “Philosophical Investigations.” A common metaphor for what he did was that he worked to treat language, or at least sub-uses of it, like a game. More here on Wittgenstein, language games, and rules.

That leads to analogies galore, and regular readers of my philosophical posts should know that I love analogies.

These analogies fork into two large classes, as I see them.

The first?

Often, we talk past each other. That’s basically a lack of realization that we’re not quite Playing the same game.

To use common board and card games, we can be far apart, or pretty close.

I may think we’re playing chess, and you think we’re playing Monopoly. A bit closer, but not too much, would be chess vs. checkers.

Or maybe you think we’re playing pinochle and I think we’re playing euchre. Or, closer yet, I think we’re playing contract bridge and you think we’re playing auction bridge.

Or, closer yet. We’re playing Monopoly, at your linguistic house, as you initiated the conversation. I think we’re playing Monopoly straight-up as written in the rule book, and you’re playing with added house rules. (Technically, this is not a private language, especially if you make clear that you have some added house rules, but, even if you initially don't, if I deduce that and you admit it.)

The early examples are usually no problem. The differences are recognized and hashed out. But, when most differences are eliminated, especially if the conversation is serious, the differences may get heated.

There’s four ways of responding.

One is to double down on talking past each other while continuing to play — or trying to — the same language game. The second is to double down on negotiating the differences as part of playing. The third is to stop playing, while starting a sidebar conversation to negotiate the differences. The fourth is to recognize an impasse and simply stop playing.

The fifth is something that one really can’t do in most actual board or card games. And, that is to pull a Husserl-like move and “bracket” the areas of the language game which are in disagreement.

As I mentioned, there are two main analogy forks.

The second?

Rather than talking past each other, it’s to quickly recognize that you’re saying the current game is, and needs to be, Monopoly, while I say it is, and needs to be, chess. We both double down on our starting positions, and soon accept that we’re not going to be playing together.

That often is a better move than to try to keep playing a game, or going through the motions. To take the first set of analogies, let’s say we’re pretty close on our language game — it’s straight Monopoly vs house-rules Monopoly. But, I refuse to play by your house rules from the start. Maybe it’s a matter of metanarratives, or something a bit like that; I’m generally predisposed against “house rules” versions of languages. Maybe you’ve earned distrust from me in the past for a linguistic version of an Overton Window with previous house games.

The neo-Cynic part of me says that a false agreement, or even a false partial agreement with bracketing, has unspoken signification for the future, too.

That said, when the differences are bigger, the simple answer is to state up front that I believe you’re either mistaken about your game, or, if it’s come to that, that I know you know you’re wanting to play the wrong game, and there’s reasons behind that.


Beyond that, I disagree with part of Wittgenstein's take. I don't believe that linguistic rules are purely abstract. He, of course, wrote before Chomsky and many others. However, I think some hard-core Wittgensteinians will still defend his version of linguistic games. 

I don't. Even with some of Chomsky's claims overstated, as those of some early follow-ups on him, he is wrong, and on philosophical grounds, not just science of mind ones. His abstract, idealized rules and family resemblances bear more than the smallest of whiffs of Platonism about them. And, in that sense, the Wittgenstein of the Investigations is the same as the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus, at least in mindset.

And hence I don't think he would have written differently had he lived 30 years later, and seen Chomsky's work, or even had Chomsky written first. The style of the two books is, of course, different indeed. The psyche behind the Tractatus and the Investigations seems quite continuous, though, or even almost unchanged in many respects.

I also think the idea that the rules of a linguistic game, or the rules (Platonic capitalization intended) of Language as Game, with their abstraction beyond individual games, conflict with the idea of meaning as use.

I agree with the idea that the use of language is in general gamelike, and with different games in different situations. Most of the rest of Wittgenstein's thought, the older I get, the more I distance myself from it in particulars.


I've not yet talked much about Wittgenstein's theory of meaning as use, also expressed in the PI. It was, as readers of that book know, expressed in seeming opposition to Augustine's definition of meaning.

But, that's not quite right. I see Wittgenstein as attempt to reconstruct a better version of some of Augustine's ideas, rather than deconstructing them, and this reconstruction as being driven in part by Platonic thought.

Why do I say this?

I think an unspoken idea behind meaning as use parallels that of games. Sometimes we disagree. And, with the use of words, and the meaning behind them, I think Wittgenstein is hinting at Platonic ideals as the ultimate dictionary. Because grammar, sociological conventions and other such things aren't covered by Platonic theory, Wittgenstein, in talking about rules as abstract, or abstracts perhaps even more, can't hat-tip to Plato in the same way.

I think Wittgenstein related to Augustine more broadly as one tortured soul to another, including, per Wiki, via the influence of Otto Weininger. Certainly, the fact he thought Weininger wrong in an "interesting way" reflects issues with sexuality and more.

This post first appeared on The Philosophy Of The Socratic Gadfly, please read the originial post: here

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Wittgenstein, linguistic games-playing, and analogies


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