How playing Wittgensteinian language-games can set us free

We live out our lives amid a world of language, in which we use words to do things. Ordinarily we don’t notice this; we just get on with it. But the way we use language affects how we live and who we can be. We are as if bewitched by the practices of saying that constitute our ways of going on in the world. If we want to change how things are, then we need to change the way we use words. But can language-games set us free?

It was the maverick philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein who coined the term ‘language-game’. He contended that words acquire meaning by their use, and wanted to see how their use was tied up with the social practices of which they are a part. So he used ‘language-game’ to draw attention not only to language itself, but to the actions into which it is woven. Consider the exclamations ‘Help!’ ‘Fire!’ ‘No!’ These do something with words: soliciting, warning, forbidding. But Wittgenstein wanted to expose how ‘words are deeds’, that we do something every time we use a word. Moreover, what we do, we do in a world with others.

This was not facile word-nerdery. Wittgenstein was intent on bringing out how ‘the “speaking” of language is part of an activity, or form of life’. In Philosophical Investigations (1953), he used the example of two builders. A brickie calls ‘Slab!’ and his helper brings it. What’s going on here? The helper who responds is not like a dog reacting to an order. We are humans, the ones who live together in language in the particular way that we do, a way that involves distinctive social practices.

With this spotlight on language-games, Wittgenstein asks readers to try to see what they are doing. But if we are entranced by our linguistic practices, can we even see what we’re doing? Wittgenstein’s attempts to see met with the charge that he was stopping us from seeing anything else, from perceiving new possibilities: his linguistic obsessions were a distraction from real politics. The chief accuser was Herbert Marcuse, who in his blockbuster One-Dimensional Man (1964) declared that Wittgenstein’s work was reductive and limiting. It could not be liberatory, for the close focus on how we use words misses what’s really going on.

These objections are serious. But do they succeed?

Marcuse claims that Wittgenstein is reductive, seeing only language, and poorly at that. Wittgenstein strives to bring language-games to light: Marcuse says this is stupid. Well, is it? Yes and no. In Culture and Value (1977), Wittgenstein admits: ‘How hard I find it to see what is right in front of my eyes.’ All too often, he says, we miss the obvious. That which is close is the most difficult to see for what it is. When we use words, we partake of everyday understandings and carryings-on. Wittgenstein looks to these everyday usages, and remarks upon them.

One remark that Marcuse ridicules is Wittgenstein’s example, ‘My broom is in the corner…’ Marcuse is super-snarky about this, and denounces ‘the almost masochistic reduction of speech to the humble and common’. But, amid the bluster, Marcuse misses the point. The mundane example is apt given the everyday practices at issue. Moreover, if you look closely, even a statement so banal is not quite what it seems. There are numerous other examples of Wittgenstein’s that Marcuse ignores, for example on reading or the aroma of coffee.

This all-too-human stupidity is deep-seated. Wittgenstein is calling attention to the ways in which, by our everyday language-games, we entrap ourselves. So he looks closely at what he is doing and saying. He sees work in philosophy as therapeutic, in the sense of ‘a work on oneself’. And there is an intense self-scrutiny in Philosophical Investigations. It is quite remarkable, questioning the ways we use language to do mundane things such as telling the time, doing sums, or hoping that someone will come. This is not something to which we are accustomed. We can be resistant, not wanting to see things for what they are. Is this ‘masochistic’? It is a subjection of oneself to self-scrutiny, but surely only painful or humiliating for those who stand to lose from finding that they are not so clever after all. So, if we are to change, we must first face up to an imperative to ‘be stupid’, and to know ourselves to be. Marcuse could have welcomed this, for he gets that it is in everyday practices that we are unwittingly subjected: ‘magic, witchcraft, and ecstatic surrender are practised in the daily routine of the home, the shop, and the office’. In short, the lady doth protest too much.

Does Marcuse’s second objection fare any better? This is the claim that Wittgenstein is confining, ensnaring us only further within language. Marcuse says that Wittgenstein’s take on language is one-dimensional. But this is not borne out by a reading of Wittgenstein’s book, where we find a view of language as irreducibly multi-dimensional. Wittgenstein painstakingly shows how the basis for what we use as language is provided by shifting patterns of communal activity. Language is contingent and provisional, so language-games can’t but be open to change, in numerous ways. One arises from recognising that we can choose to see something as this, or as that. One of Wittgenstein’s most famous passages involves this picture-puzzle:

Look at the picture, and you can see it as a duck. Look again, and you can see it as a rabbit. Because language-games are played by humans, we can notice what is going on when we see things as this, or as that. A contemporary example is the controversy over all-male speaker events. You can look at the line-up and say ‘a panel of experts’, or you can say ‘manel’. But is it only a manel if you choose to see it that way? These examples invite us to question what we take to be given in everyday uses of language. But Marcuse doesn’t mention the duck-rabbit, or discuss its implications.

So language usage admits contestation and change, in virtue of what it is. Marcuse, on the other hand, denies this, and even says that societal processes close the universe of discourse. We don’t get from him anything like Wittgenstein’s suggestion that there is in language usage itself something recalcitrant to fixity.

Indeed, Wittgenstein’s position is rather more radical than Marcuse cares to notice. He says ‘something new (spontaneous, “specific”) is always a language-game’. This cryptic remark might suggest that we need to play language-games differently if we are to change anything. What of this prospect? Notably, on Wittgenstein’s account, we don’t play language-games solo. They arise through communal uses of language. One game is polari, the secret language used among gay men in Wittgenstein’s time. Language-games, with their beguiling snares, raise a collective action problem. We can’t extricate ourselves from them if acting alone. But this raises a further question, given how profoundly we are ensnared. It is one that Wittgenstein anticipates:

[T]his language grew up as it did because human beings had – and have – the tendency to think in this way. So you can only succeed in extricating people who live in an instinctive rebellion against language; you cannot help those whose entire instinct is to live in the herd which has created this language as its own proper mode of expression.

The rebels live in a state of dissatisfaction with language. They feel their alienation, cut off from others and themselves within language. But the contented are untroubled, and humans are inclined to think that way. Reading Wittgenstein brings us to such questions.

So Marcuse’s objections are unfounded. He fails to show that Wittgenstein’s astonishing scrutiny of language-games is either pointlessly stupid or enslaving. In fact, his efforts only heighten regard for Wittgenstein’s relevance in the darkness of these times.

Using language is an integral part of the human condition. We live within language, yet our way of life is something we find hard to see. Wittgenstein is not peddling ready answers to this predicament. Indeed as long as there is language it will bewitch us, we will face the temptation to misunderstand. And there is no vantage point outside it. There is no escape from language-games then, but we can forge a kind of freedom from within them. We might first need to ‘be stupid’ if we are to see this.Aeon counter – do not remove

Sandy Grant

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.


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