Ludwig Wittgenstein: Language Games

‘Passionate, profound, intense and dominating’, was how Bertrand Russell described the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. If you had found yourself at one of the seminars Ludwig held in Cambridge in 1940 you might well agree. Wittgenstein was a very unusual man and most people who met him thought he was a genius. His books sometimes read more like poetry than philosophy and raised important questions about the nature of ethics and religion. Wittgenstein believed that the answers to some of our biggest questions hide beyond the limits of our understanding and if we can’t talk meaningfully about them, we should stay silent.

Yale University Press’ Little Histories collection is a family of books that takes a closer look at some of the most significant events, ideas, discoveries and people throughout history. As part of our ongoing coverage of the collection, here’s an excerpt from Nigel Warburton’s A Little History of Philosophy, a book that presents the grand sweep of humanity’s search for philosophical understanding from Socrates to Peter Singer. Today, our focus is on Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the most prominent figures in 20th-century philosophy.

Source: Christiaan Tonnis

Source: Christiaan Tonnis

If you’ve been keeping up with our Little Histories Twitter, you’ll have realised that today, for some reason, is the shared birthday of a good number of geniuses (David Hume, Thomas Reid, Ludwig Wittgenstein). We’ve picked one philosopher from this list to share with you today: the radical and original Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein wasn’t your typical philosopher: as Nigel Warburton writes in A Little History of Philosophy, ‘[he] didn’t lecture from prepared notes, but thought through the issues in front of his audience, using a series of examples to tease out what was at stake’. Not a fan of thick textbooks? You’d probably like what Wittgenstein has to say on the matter: ‘He told his students not to waste their time reading philosophy books; if they took such books seriously, he said, they should throw them across the room and get on with thinking hard about the puzzles they raised’.

One such puzzle that Wittgenstein set out to solve was that of language: in his eyes, a great deal of philosophical confusion came from ill-considered assumptions about language. For instance, he took issue with ‘the assumption that all language works in the same way – the idea that words simply name things. He wanted to demonstrate to his readers that there are many ‘language games’, different activities that we perform using words. There is no ‘essence’ of language, no single common feature that explains the whole range of its uses’.

So instead of thinking about ‘essences’, Wittgenstein suggested, we should focus on ‘family resemblances’. Warburton explains this theory: ‘you may look a bit like your mother in some ways—perhaps you both have the same hair and eye colour—and a bit like your grandfather in that you are both tall and slim. You might also have the same hair colour and eye shape as your sister, but she might have different-coloured eyes from you and your mother. There is not one single feature that every member of the family shares that makes it straightforward to see that you are all part of the same genetically related family. Instead, there is a pattern of overlapping resemblances […]

Think about the word ‘game’. There are lots of different things that we call games: board games like chess, card games like bridge and patience, sports like football, and so on. There are also other things that we call games, such as games of hide-and-seek or games of make-believe. Most people just assume that because we use the same word—’game’—to cover all these, there must be a single feature that they all have in common, the ‘essence’ of the concept ‘game’. But rather than just assuming that there is such a common denominator, Wittgenstein urges his readers to ‘Look and see’. You might think that games all have a winner and a loser, but what about solitaire, or the activity of throwing a ball at a wall and catching it? Both of these are games, but obviously there isn’t a loser. Or what about the idea that what they have in common is a set of rules? But some games of make-believe don’t have rules […] Instead of assuming that all games have a single thing in common, he thinks we should see words like ‘game’ as ‘family resemblance terms’.

A Little History of Philosophy by Nigel WarburtonBuy A Little History of Philosophy | More Remarkable People

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