Saturday, July 19, 2014

Are there any language-games?

I've been thinking about this post at The Limits of Language, and this concluding thought in particular:
“Language game” is not a name. It is a picture made to counter the charm of certain other pictures.
I think this is right, but there seems to be more than one picture of a language-game. In PI 7 Wittgenstein introduces the term 'language-games' to refer to the "speech-like processes" that constitute exercises one goes through in teaching and learning a language (repeating words after the teacher, pointing to appropriate objects when the teacher says certain words, and so on). He gives a list of examples here, but they all seem to me to be examples of the same thing: games and exercises by means of which one learns a language. Nursery rhymes, for instance (which Baker and Hacker say that Wittgenstein preferred to "games like ring-a-ring-a-roses" as the English translation of Reigenspielen). Then right at the end he adds (my translation):
I shall also call the whole, the language and the activities with which it is interwoven, the "language-game".
It isn't clear what he means by "the language" etc. He has already said that he will call a primitive language a language-game, and it isn't really clear what counts as a primitive language. Is "the language" the primitive language, or some other language? The only thing to do is to look and see how he uses the term. In 300, for instance, when he talks about "the language-game with the words "he is in pain"," he seems to mean neither a learning exercise or game nor a whole language in any obvious sense of "whole language." We have to attend, it seems, not to what he says but to what he does. And presumably that's deliberate.

What he certainly does not do is present himself as having unearthed some phenomenon that had previously been overlooked, namely language-games. Instead he has invented a concept as a tool, and what matters is what he does with it. His use of the term develops in the course of the book. So the introduction of the term in PI 7 no more gives us everything we need to grasp its meaning than does the ostensive teaching of a word.

25 comments:

  1. that's my sense that these are intuition pumps; no games, no ways/forms-of-life, no family/arche-types, no rules of rules, etc.
    -dmf

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    1. ps
      http://faculty.washington.edu/afine/Fictionalism.pdf

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    2. At the beginning of that linked piece I thought: Heinrich Hertz. Now I'm at the end. Heinrich Hertz. Also, the Copenhagen interpretation. But interesting nonetheless. Many thanks.

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    3. these are intuition pumps

      Yes, at least the ones at the beginning of the PI seem to be. Thanks for the link, too. Looks very interesting.

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  2. I always wonder if terms like language game and family resemblance and forms of life etc. are like magnifying glasses or lamps. That is, I wonder if we are meant to look at things with them, or to look at them. That is, I wonder if we miss what Wittgenstein has to give us, by concentrating on the tools that are meant to make the phenomena surveyable to us rather than on the phenomena themselves. Would it be imaginable for Wittgenstein to have said: ‘…and if those ideas don’t help you to see more clearly, find other tools that do help.’?

    Perhaps, like checking a microphone, the only way to see what the notion “language game” does, and if it’s working properly, we have to apply it in actual cases? Would that be different from what you suggest when you say: “The only thing to do is to look and see how he uses the term”? Or is this what you meant?

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    1. I think our applying the notion is different from attending to how Wittgenstein uses it, although the latter might help with the former. Applying the notion "language game" in actual cases sounds like a good idea though. Easier said than done of course.

      I agree that we are meant to concentrate on the phenomena rather than the tools, and I think the answer is yes, Wittgenstein might have said that if the tools he offers don't help us see more clearly then we should find others that do.

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    2. see more clearly or make connections that only come into being when certain aspects are assembled as such and for this present purpose?
      not sure we know (or can somehow nail-down) which way Witt would go but I'm more interested in the 2nd possibility as a kind of Dewey-esque instrumentalism, think of what we now know about acts of re-membering that we are not pulling up some recorded file but piecing together a gestalt to try and get a handle on some present state of affairs.
      -dmf

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    3. See more clearly for this present purpose, I would think. The goal is not clear seeing just as such (it's not clear what that would mean) but seeing clearly where we currently don't. I'm not sure how Dewey-esque Wittgenstein really was, but he did see himself as dealing with problems. (Or pseudo-problems, but being bothered by a pseudo-problem is itself a problem.)

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    4. maybe, not sure if we are trying (or should be trying) to re-construct some past event or fashion/negotiate some better/preferable future acts of co-operation.
      -dmf

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    5. understandable but reconstructions that aren't made for present purposes/interests may be beyond our grasp in these sorts of matters apart from say developmental psychology or the like:
      http://www.psy.herts.ac.uk/pub/sjcowley/docs/cradle.pdf
      -dmf

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    6. Thanks. Yes, it's hard to know for sure what Wittgenstein would have said, but trying to figure this out as well as can be done seems interesting to me and potentially useful, in ways that are hard to predict in advance. If it's only interesting then I suppose it's a bit self-indulgent, but I think there are things to be learned from trying to work out what he meant.

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  3. Re "the language", I don't know if this makes sense, but I've always read it as "language as a whole" (überhaupt) where the qualifier "as a whole" functions in the same way as one might say "life as a whole" (with all it trappings) or "the world as a whole" or "as such". So, to paraphrase "language as a whole" (not any particular language) is "the language game".

    As I understand it, the move from the TLP to the PI goes from "language" (all props with sense and their negations/a calculus view) to "language game" (game view). That is the pictorial shift, if I may call it that. Where logic chracterizes the former and is universal, grammar chraracterizes the latter and is local and akin to ... (overlapping, hence, family resemblances). Grammar is the logic of words in a language game. E.g. the grammar of "object" is internal to the game in which it is used (the game being played) and cannot be transferred/transplanted wholesale. What "object" means in one game (say, logic) it does not mean in another (say, mathematics or physics). There are similarities, but more importantly, note the differences). (Context principle writ large.)

    NB: The above does not constitute a theory of language, but a way of looking at it.

    "[Language] fills the world; the limits of the world are also its limits." Still no outside view. Perspicuity can only be local.—Attend to your language as you would attend to your self/soul.

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    1. Yes, it sounds as though he means language as a whole. But the only way to tell what he means is to see how he uses the term "language-game." I can't think of any examples that clear it up, but there probably are some. Or perhaps, if there aren't any, it really doesn't matter.

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  4. Duncan, I'm reading Cavell's defence of OLP (wretched term) and it struck me. In re your last comment and the question of "the language" ... what is "ordinary language" anyway? as is understood in OLP (it is not even one thing is it?).

    I do not mean this as a criticism, only to point out/question the elasticity of seemingly rock hard concepts, e.g. when an OL-philosopher refers to OL as the grounds for his talk/claims, or methods/solutions.

    What does it mean "to bring words back to their everyday use"? It is such pronouncements that make OLP questionable in some eyes. Are they wrong?

    Why can't words be used in new non-ordinary ways when we in actual fact do it all the time? (I don't see that W was against this either. "Language-game is a case in point.) And if we do it all the time, how is that not ordinary?

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    1. I think the everyday use to which we bring words back is just: not a metaphysical use. And if a use is not confused then it is not metaphysical in the relevant sense.

      Insisting on only standard, conventional uses is not what I think Wittgenstein is doing at all. Any OLP that does this is surely on the wrong track. But I don't think most supporters of OLP would characterize it as being conservative in that way.

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    2. Arrrgh. I can't seem to get what I want to say right, but what Philip says below seems to fit well with your take in the opening post, no?

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  5. I don't read §7 as restricting language games to training or educational activities. W says the language in (2) is a language game and then says it's a bit like the simple games children use when learning language. So the builders' practice constitutes a language game and the teaching of their language involves other language games. (This point is perhaps a bit clearer in the Blue Book - see p17.)

    But W definitely alters his use of the term as the PI progresses. Throughout the Blue and Brown books it only refers to discrete examples he makes up as objects of comparison. The PI starts that way too, but quickly moves to using the term in relation to aspects of our full-blown language. Used this way, what counts as a language game depends on what you are investigating. So you might talk about the language game of mathematics, the language game we play with the word "true", etc, etc.

    So to answer your question, if you mean "language game" in its initial sense then yes: the specific ones he introduces. But in the later sense, no - or, at least, not in the sense that there are board games or computer games; they only exist relevant to a specific grammatical investigation.

    Or at least that's how I see it.

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    1. Thanks. I think I see it much the same way, really, but I'll elaborate a bit.

      Here's 7 (in Anscombe's translation):

      In the practice of the use of language (2) one party calls out the words, the other acts on them. In instruction in the language the following process will occur: the learner names the objects; that is, he utters the word when the teacher points to the stone.---And there will be this still simpler exercise: the pupil repeats the words after the teacher-----both of these being processes resembling language.
      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 processes of naming the stones and of repeating words after someone might also be called language-games. Think of much of the use words in games like ring-a-ring-a-roses.
      I shall also call the whole, consisting of language and the actions into which it is woven, the "language-game".


      So the things that he says he will call language-games are these:

      1. those games by means of which children learn their native language
      2. a primitive language
      3. the processes of naming the stones and of repeating words after someone (these processes are described as being part of the learning of a language, so they are very similar to the activities mentioned in 1, but these exercises need not be games in the normal sense)
      4. the whole, consisting of language and the actions into which it is woven

      This does not include the language in (2) unless we regard it as one of those games by means of which children learn their native language or as a primitive language. Wittgenstein tells us in section 2 to conceive of the builders' language as a complete primitive language, but he doesn't say this it is one. (And it certainly is not presented there as a game for teaching children.) This might seem like quibbling over small details, but it matters because Rhees doubts that it can be conceived this way and because Mulhall has pointed out various reasons to be very careful when reading the PI.

      I agree with you, though, that he alters his use of the term as the PI progresses. And this might be more important than potentially endless attempts to figure out exactly what is going on in the early parts of the PI. (Although I'm still interested in figuring that out, and think it's potentially fruitful. Mulhall's work is a good reason to think it can be.)

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  6. OK, to get back to my secondary considerations re ordinary/metaphysical use, can one say that Wittgenstein's use of "language game", "form of life" are standard, ordinary uses of language? If not, is it not metaphysical? And why not? It is, surely, out of the ordinary? If it is neither ordinary nor metaphysical then what is it? Philosophical? And is that—philosophy—ordinary language use? I wouldn't say so, not even when it comes to OLP.

    This goes with/against the intuition pump view too, I think, for my money anyway. When I said that "language game is a picture" I was thinking Bild or model. The purpose of which is to get one to "Look at language in this way, as a game" as opposed to "Look at language in this way, as a calculus" etc. It is not exahustive nor complete nor accurate to a T. It is not, more importantly, what language is.‚Can we even say what language is?

    That is why it makes sense to say, for me, that there are no language games. It would make just as much sense to say that language is not a game (not thereby negating identity, though). The picture is meant to untie knots. Once done, the picture is dropped. (Like a ladder, yes.) It would be terrible, in my view, if e.g. someone began developing an empirical theory of language games. But it sadly doesn't seem that far fetched. It would be the Wittgensteinian equivalent of cultural meme-theory and equally bogus.

    Now I'm not sure if that means I agree with, say, someone like Philip above or not. I think not.

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    1. "It would be terrible, in my view, if e.g. someone began developing an empirical theory of language games."

      Hasn't Brandom already attempted that although, admittedly, not strictly speaking an "empirical" theory?

      His view is complex and abstruse, definitely moving away from attention to ordinary usages per se and toward the idea of theorizing about how ordinary uses of language fit together (the different parts of speech, as it were, or the different "vocabularies" as he tends to put it) as well as with the idea that analytic style philosophy is best understood as the generation and study of meta languages which "target" different linguistic practices as well as each other.

      Given the remarkable complexity of his account, perhaps you're right and trying to turn the notion of examining ordinary uses in order to shatter philosophical puzzlement into a grand theory is, indeed, "terrrible." But before dismissing a project like his entirely, I want to give it a fair shot first, to see where it takes us, how effectively it seems to account for things like language, semantics and knowing and so forth, and how much it adds to our ability to untie philosophical knots when we run up against them.

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    2. Sorry if I missed your point before, J. Z. Let me try to answer your questions here as a way to think through the issue.

      can one say that Wittgenstein's use of "language game", "form of life" are standard, ordinary uses of language?

      No. Or, more carefully, one probably can say it, but I wouldn't, and doing so would invite questions about what one meant.

      If not, is it not metaphysical? And why not? It is, surely, out of the ordinary? If it is neither ordinary nor metaphysical then what is it? Philosophical? And is that—philosophy—ordinary language use?

      It depends, of course, what we mean by 'ordinary' etc. I would say it is neither ordinary nor metaphysical, nor really philosophical, but technical. Wittgenstein is introducing terms for a particular purpose. That is an ordinary enough thing to do, in philosophy and at other times, but he is using these words in specific, non-standard ways. Philosophy is ordinary in the sense that it comes up quite naturally in the course of things human beings do, but it is non-ordinary in the sense that it occurs as a kind of disruption, something that requires a timeout. Or we could equally well talk about aporia or language going on holiday or people not knowing their way about.

      When I said that "language game is a picture" I was thinking Bild or model. The purpose of which is to get one to "Look at language in this way, as a game" as opposed to "Look at language in this way, as a calculus" etc. It is not exahustive nor complete nor accurate to a T. It is not, more importantly, what language is.‚Can we even say what language is?

      I agree with this, and I think the answer to the question you end with here, at least roughly, is No. Lars Hertzberg has good and interesting things to say about this.

      It would be terrible, in my view, if e.g. someone began developing an empirical theory of language games. But it sadly doesn't seem that far fetched. It would be the Wittgensteinian equivalent of cultural meme-theory and equally bogus.

      I agree. Although perhaps it wouldn't be terrible. It wouldn't be Wittgenstein, certainly.

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    3. I should have read Stuart's comment before replying to J.Z.! I think what I would say is implied in my last point above.

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    4. Ah, but the question is need it "be Wittgenstein"? One of the things that has long interested me is the difference between philosophers who acknowledge and seek to deal with Wittgenstein's contributions (like Kripke, Brandom and even Searle who at least acknowledges being somewhat influenced by him) and those who trim their sails to a decidedly Wittgensteinian gib. I'm not sure which is a better way, or that one can only "get" Wittgenstein by following precisely in his footsteps. Moreover the direction of those footsteps are hard to discern at times since even self-avowed Wittgensteinians differ among themselves on that.

      Putting aside those who are explicitly hostile to Wittgenstein (and there are many, their vehemence, in a great many cases, always striking me as strange), there are certainly different schools of post-Wittgenstein Wittgensteinians. I don't know, myself, which is the "right" way to interpret his work or if there can be a "right" way (though, clearly, there can be many wrong ways) and I am not, myself, inclined to the therapeutic approach. But it seems to me that there is something to be said for taking up many of his insights and running with them, even if doing that leads off in different directions a la Brandom.

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    5. Right. If someone does something good based on a misunderstanding of Wittgenstein then it's still good. I don't know how likely that is to happen, but I'm not going to say in advance that it can't happen.

      Which is the better way depends on what the ways are (of course). Understanding what Wittgenstein meant is still, for me, a work in progress. But there's plenty of worthwhile work out there done by people inspired to varying degrees and in various ways by Wittgenstein. You can still see value in, for instance, Rorty even if you think he gets Wittgenstein wrong.

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