Language Games


Language Games in The Blue and Brown Books

Wittgenstein's conception of the philosophy of language changed with The Blue and Brown Books. His philosophical method is a method of investigation, but he is more speculative and certainly more friendly in this book than he was in his Tractatus. He leaves most questions open to more questions. His use of language games throughout is his way of dealing with the impossible task required in the Tractatus of creating a new logical language. In The Blue and Brown Books anything can be said, whether or not it is logical, but everything that is said is subject to tireless clarification.

Language games were also used to show that language is learned through training, as in teaching a child the language, or teaching anyone a new language. Once trained, it is much easier to understand what people mean without having to explain the meaning of their words. Training eliminates the problem of meaning and explaining, which are probably not equal concepts anyway. In other words, just because a person explains the meaning of what was said does not mean that she is actually saying what is meant, or even what was learned. This is because the meaning of words entails more than what can be spoken, such as gestures and expressions, movement and experience.

Wittgenstein's idea with The Blue and Brown Books was to examine primitive languages, which are not cluttered by complicated thinking, in order to study the problems of truth and falsehood, and the agreement of language with reality. In some ways this method adds the same complications encountered in the Tractatus, that of discarding what we already use in order to build a system which everybody can understand without question. These problems are eventually solved, however, when he admits that grammatical functions in one language may not have counterparts in another one at all, and that the agreement of language with reality may be different in different languages and at different stages of development with language. Language, in fact, turns out to be a myriad set of experiences which is not always conveyed with words. In many cases, what is not said (spoken) is part of the language and may have just as much meaning as what is spoken. Most words are accompanied by expressions and gestures and experiences which are part of the meaning of the words. This gives language a liberty it never could have had in the Tractatus.

The Blue Book is different from the Brown Book in that it is a logical analysis of the nature of language and correct grammar, whereas the Brown Book is an encyclopedia of the possible variations of how language can be used (the language games), and what these uses might mean. All of this boils down to the big question: what is language? The answer to this question may be, simply, that language is a philosophical problem—an important one at that, the uses for which are no where more important than they are in the courtroom (an example I will use throughout for the purpose of comparison). Wittgenstein seems to suggest in the Brown Book that language lacks the kind of structure he originally proposed in the Tractatus, a suggestion I find most disappointing but conventionally true. He proposes that language may lack logic altogether, that in fact it is impossible to determine what belongs to it and what does not, or even what is a proposition and what is not. This realization occurs to him in the Brown Book. In the Blue Book he still clings to the idea that language is logical, and that people approach it logically. I think that most people do not approach language logically or even suppose that it is logical. This may be more of a blessing in some situations than even a scholar would like to admit. For example, the Bork nomination to the Supreme Court was defeated on precisely these grounds, that Bork left out any room for interpretation of the language for what Wittgenstein included in the Brown Book: feelings, expressions, gestures, and experiences that go along with what is said. Most scholars were appalled at the defeat on the grounds that Bork was right about the literal meaning of the language of the Constitution. A similar problem arises whenever the Bible is interpreted, and over the interpretations of the many life-or-death situations we care about. Yet in these crucial language game arguments it is probably essential that the leaders make room for these "other things" that go along with language in their interpretations. When cases (legal cases) are argued too narrowly, many human rights are violated. But when cases are argued too broadly, then it is possible to take certain rights away later or to take too many liberties, respectively as in the Supreme Court abortion ruling and prison furlough. Whether or not Wittgenstein believes that language should  lack the kind of logical unity he had hoped for it in the Tractatus, or even in the Blue Book, is a good question. He doesn't give an answer, and I suspect that his answer would be a circle and lead us back to reconstructing a logical language in which all propositions are tautologies.

I think that in leaving language open to all the baggage (feelings, experiences, etc.), as it were, we bring an existential structure to the philosophical problem of what is language. If we argue "what is language" and leave out the baggage, then we put human rights in danger, in perhaps, the majority of cases. For example, arguing a legal case without feeling interpretation would have landed Hedda Nussbaum in jail along with Joel Steinberg. There is no constitutional right to murderous negligence. But apparently, Hedda Nussbaum was given the right on the grounds that murderous negligence was surrounded by the baggage of "abuse manipulation," and this was the added interpretation to the basic logic of the language. Unfortunately, adding feeling interpretation to the language can have disastrous consequences as well, as in the Florida case in which a jury acquitted a rapist on the grounds that the victim asked for it because of her attire. These two senses of the meaning of language, 1. that it is like mathematics, and 2. that it lacks such unity, sound very much to me like the difference between literal (narrow), and loose (broad) interpretations, as shown in the above legal cases. This may be an oversimplification of Wittgenstein's intent, but he arrived at the idea by using primitive language games to show how much is added to language as it gets more complicated. And most of what is added has to do with human experiences expressed simultaneously with spoken words.

Wittgenstein does not clarify why he thinks that people believe that language does have the kind of logic and intelligibility which he first proposed in the Tractatus. It is certain that many scholars believe that it does, especially in law and philosophy, politics and discourse. I think that people are in constant conflict over the meaning of their language, between the literal and the loose, the living and the fixed, the logical and the illogical interpretations. In the justice system, where it is crucial that language be interpreted fairly, juries and judges may use all manner of interpretation. They either bring their own experiences to the meaning of language, or they approach it logically and literally. In either case, consumers suffer or they don't suffer at the hands of judges. Wittgenstein writes that the man who is philosophically puzzled sees a law in the way a word is used, and, trying to apply this law consistently, comes up against paradoxical results. When some juries tried consistently to apply the language of the laws governing rape in the late 1980s, laws which disallowed making the victim responsible for the crime against her, they came up against paradoxical results. These results usually had to do with their own experiences (prejudices?), and the experiences of the language of the defendant and the victim. For example, the defendant is aroused by the victim's lace miniskirt. His experience certainly doesn't justify the crime, but the jury allows his experience in their interpretation of the language of rape laws. The victim is a prostitute—she is actively looking for male customers. Her occupation does not justify the crime against her according the literal rape laws, yet the jury takes her experience into consideration.

Wittgenstein does not explain why anyone thinks of words logically. He does give examples which help explain why one would want a logical language such as the following: a person is told that the train arrives at 3:30. She has no reason to believe that it arrives at any other time, yet the person who told her that the train arrives at 3:30 may have slammed her fist on the counter when she said so, or she may have laughed. Such expressions simultaneous with words may lead a person to think that there is more to the words than what is spoken. Perhaps the logic of language depends upon taking in all of the meaning of the words at the same time. This, then, circles right around to his objection in the Tractatus—generalization. In that book, there could be no generalizations of the language. Only the particular case (one rock) applied to the general idea (many rocks) was logically acceptable. Yet Wittgenstein clearly doesn't believe in generalization: he talks about a general picture of a leaf, as opposed to pictures of particular leaves. When we think of leaf, we think of particular leaves (oak, maple, etc.), but we agree that the image of the leaf we see has something in common with all leaves. What really happens is that we look at words as though they were all proper names, and we then, he writes, confuse the bearer of the name with the meaning of the name. Again, this happens in criminal cases all the time! As an aside, Wittgenstein does allow for generalization in terms of a "family" of things. He writes that all the different processes of expecting someone to tea have many features overlapping, yet there is no single feature in common to them all.

Words have the meaning we give them, according to Wittgenstein. In a radical departure from the Tractatus he believes that it is a mistake to try to investigate their real meanings. Understanding their meaning depends upon knowing all the possibilities of their meanings, and that means knowing everything that can be said. Juries usually hear cases based upon meanings which they give the words spoken to them. He says that "ordinary language" is alright. In other words, the language we use every day needs no structure. Ideal language, as opposed to ordinary language, is something Wittgenstein has given up the fight for in the Brown Book. Not all philosophers have given up the investigation into ideal language. Again, I think it is crucial that there be an ideal language in such disciplines as law, and that the language we use to prosecute be meticulously investigated, first broadly, then narrowly. This is a job for philosophers. Perhaps Wittgenstein was on the right track with his language games in the Brown Book. If we reduce language to primitive commands and associations, perhaps the lawyers can build up from the narrow propositions to the broadest propositions concerning a case. What they end up with will be a narrow interpretation of all possible interpretations. For example, the Supreme Court gave power back to the states for determining the legality of abortions, in deference to overturning federally legalized abortion. It is, in theory, possible to overturn the ruling, Roe versus Wade, which legalized abortion, because it was argued too narrowly. The ruling is based on a right which Constitutionally doesn't exist: the right to privacy. The argument is not illogical, it simply doesn't take into account all possible arguments for or against it. Nor does it investigate all the possible meanings associated with abortion, conception, the beginning of life, murder, etc. Each possible argument for or against abortion has a too many possible meanings. Each of these must be defined, by language experts, in order to arrive at a narrow definition for a Constitutional right to abortion. Then it cannot be overturned. Law should be approached, as Wittgenstein suggests, as though understanding were something outside the signs (gestures); and as though to be a language it needs to be something that does not appear in the system of the signs themselves, as when laughter or anger are expressed along with, "the train arrives at 3:30." Language depends upon relationships with other people, often expressed without the signs. Wittgenstein doesn't say it directly, but I think that the perception of meaning can often fall outside the use of language, that understanding may sometimes have nothing to do with signs. What, then, is intuition, for example? How do we explain it?

Wittgenstein alludes to intuition when he says that certain definite mental processes are bound up with the working of language, the processes of understanding and meaning. The function of the signs is to induce such functions. Like a computer's operating system. He speaks of the locality where mental events take place as the paper whereon we write, the canvas whereon we paint, the mouth with which we speak. The thinking mind is only a metaphor for the locality of mental events. This works until the mind thinks without performing a task. We are not always so actively engaged. We now know that thinking takes place in the head because technology has shown us that. Nerve receptors in the brain make certain activities possible. Wittgenstein didn't know that.

What happens when language is misunderstood? Why is it crucial that language experts be the juries and judges of, among other disciplines, our judicial system? Wittgenstein's example of Bright's disease is a good lesson. If we compare the grammar of the phrase "Brights disease" with Bright's disease we see that the first word is a name and the second word refers to an experience with a specific set of sensations. Yet doctors will use the names of diseases without ever deciding which phenomena are to be taken as criteria and which as symptoms. This is a confusion of the grammar, and of the definition of words. But as Wittgenstein says, this need not be a deplorable lack of clarity because we don't use language according to strict rules. Then he says that we, in our discussions, constantly compare language with a calculus precision according to exact rules. I assume that the we Wittgenstein means is the philosophers. It seems a very rare case indeed that laypeople, in their discussions, compare language with a calculus precision. Nowhere is there a more pedestrian group of judges than in the jury box. Later on Wittgenstein concedes that our ordinary use of language conforms to this standard of exactness only in rare cases. He wants to know why philosophers of language insist on comparing the use of words with exact rules. The answer, he says, is that the puzzle which we try to remove always springs from just this attitude toward the language.

When we ask a question such as "What is time," he says that what we want is a definition, as if a definition will satisfy what we want to know. There is no single definition according to Wittgenstein's new thinking. The word means whatever it means in the context of the discussion. A word has the meaning someone gives to it, there is no power of meaning outside a person's power to give meaning to words. Now he believes that philosophy is a fight against the fascination which forms of expression exert upon us. Ordinary language is alright, he says, and it is wrong to think that philosophers can improve upon it. I think this attitude toward understanding language is fine, as long as professionals exist to enumerate the exact usage of words in particular contexts, such as in the courtroom. Perhaps it is not an ideal language which we need to agree on, but the actual usage of words in context. We need to avoid the trap of thinking the grammar of Bright's disease is the same as "Brights disease." This is no small pitfall in the English language.

In order to agree on the actual usage of words, we need to interpret the words (which is as much as anyone can do) and each interpretation adds a new symbol to the sign. The meaning, however, is not capable of interpretation; it is, according to Wittgenstein, the last interpretation. In order for this to be true when we say something we have to mean what we say. If we do, the process is like the words of a song accompanied by the melody—the expression or feeling with which the words are spoken (the meaning) is the melody and the words are the signs. What happens when we say something and don't mean what we say? This is capable of interpretation, too, however, we might arrive at the wrong interpretation, we might be mislead. In this case in the process of speaking the sentence, the signs are accompanied by the wrong expression? Or not the expression we expected? The fact is that anything we say can be accompanied by any expression we choose to give it. It's not so much the words we say which need interpretation as it is the expression behind the words. How can we get inside other people's heads to study the real meaning of language if it is not in the words. How can anyone ever be fair in a court of law? It is a very disappointing idea to think that philosophy might not be the savior of the judicial system—an idea dear to my heart.

Consider Wittgenstein's idea "how can we expect something that is not the case?" In other words, how can we expect to prevent a crime which hasn't yet happened? The public is always pressuring politicians to enact laws for crimes which haven't been committed. For example, pro-lifers want to reverse the decision which made abortion a right; their grounds is that it is murder. (Abortionists are the ones who argue the viability of right to privacy, conceding that the right never should have been argued on these grounds.) Among those who are for abortion (women by a majority) there is a shadowy notion that a woman must have a right to abort a fetus because surely she has a right to the privacy of her own body. If the right to privacy doesn't exist, then it should, in other words. This sort of an argument won't work unless we add that clause to the Constitution. If we look at Wittgenstein's theory of how sense corresponds to words there might be a way around the argument that pro-lifers use, i.e., abortion is murder. What is the sense of "Abortion is murder?" We make of it a shadowy being, says Wittgenstein, one of the many which we create when we wish to give meaning to substantives to which no material objects correspond. Hence, the politicians say, "Women must be stopped from committing murder. Abortion should be illegal on the grounds that it is murder. In the meantime, we will enact laws, state-by-state, which force women to obtain permission to commit murder from their impregnators." I want to say that the logic of such language is absurd, thinking back to the Tractatus, it doesn't work at all. Using Wittgenstein's theory that anyone can mean anything because words have the sense we give them, then such an argument does work, but that doesn't make it acceptable. Many of these same politicians use the murder argument for abortion yet they sanction capital punishment. Either murder is all in the timing or the arguments they use are illogical. Even if we take degrees of murder into consideration, pro-life-and-pro-death penalty still do not logically work. I think, on the other hand, that the murder argument works against the death penalty and for abortion.

Wittgenstein says, in explaining the idea of how we can expect a fact which does not exist (make laws for crimes which haven't been committed yet), that a source of the idea of the shadow is the fact that in some cases saying, hearing, or reading a sentence brings images before our mind's eye which more or less directly correspond to the sentence, and which are therefore, translations of this sentence into a pictorial language (at least in the mind). Crucial to this theory is his statement that he doesn't mean it is a picture similar to what it is intended to represent, but that it is a picture which is correct only when it is similar to what it represents. He would have called it a copy by proxy in the Tractatus. The sentence, then, is a picture of the shadow in the mind (the sense of the sign), instead of a picture of reality. Pro-lifers see just such a picture when they argue abortion on the grounds of murder. They see a picture of what they would intend if they had an abortion. (Since the majority are men the picture they see is further distorted since their expressions about abortion can't correspond to any actual experience.) The majority of women who have abortions do not have a corresponding sense of the decision with a picture of murder. Nor do the majority intend to commit, will commit, or ever have committed, murder. The murder argument is a solipsistic fantasy of pro-lifers.

Furthermore, to substantiate the argument on the grounds that it is murder if it isn't just solipsism, one would have to examine the language of when murder of human life may actually be considered murder, based on the rules governing our understanding of murder. Some politicians want to make the word "murder" apply to only those cases in which the human is murdered unwittingly, by reason of innocence. If this is the ordinary use of the word "murder", then murder doesn't apply to capital punishment. Many of us, especially juries, use that word to refer to the taking of a human life. Whether or not the person was innocent is only taken into consideration in cases of self-defense. Even then, the person murdered might still have been innocent. Could abortion possibly be considered self-defense? When something seems queer about the grammar of our words, Wittgenstein says, it is because we are alternately tempted to use a word in several different ways. This is unacceptable in a court of law, just as it is in the operating room. People are sued on the basis of language used in just such a way!

If words have whatever meaning we choose to give them, then Wittgenstein has not solved the problem of the philosophy of language other than to say it can't be solved. His conclusion seems to be that all we can do is to examine the grammatical difference between statements as they are actually used in our language. He does this through language games in the Brown Book. It doesn't lead anywhere except to show that words are used as expressions of feelings (which are solipsistic at best) and that speaking and thinking are the same thing. Hence, language is synonymous with thinking. In addition, expressions which we give to language are equal to the signs, as thinking is, and when we communicate a feeling, we can never know how it is received. All that we can receive is another expression. Wittgenstein has, in effect, given his theory on the philosophy of language by stating that the people who want a theory are wrong. But among the people who want a "calculus" theory are those who want it for ethical reasons—and for this, we depend upon the philosophers.

Copyright 2012, Kathryn Kurtz, ©. This work is protected under the U.S. copyright laws. It may not be

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