Wittgenstein and The Language Game View in Response to the Empirical Challenge

In response to the empirical challenge, Wittgenstein had grown dissatisfied with his earlier book (Tractatus Logico-Philosophus) and in the second half of his life, he developed a different approach to language. In this later period, he stressed how varied language was, rather than attempting to develop an ideal language.

What are Wittgenstein’s Language Games?

The later Wittgenstein was concerned with, and more interested in, plotting boundaries between distinctive uses of languages – Language Games. Language games are embedded in what he calls ‘forms of life’. Philosophers still argue about the precise meaning of such terms, but a form of life could be an identifiable set of practices and social conventions, which give the people who follow them a sense of ‘form’ to their lives.

Related blog: What’s the difference between univocal and equivocal language?

Religious Belief as a Form of Life

Religion has been thought to be such a form of life. A language belongs to such forms of life and it includes within itself what it makes sense to say and not to say in that particular setting. This is what Wittgenstein calls ‘grammar’.

A word used in one language game could have quite a different meaning in another, although, superficially, they looked identical. This is why Wittgenstein distinguished between the ‘surface’ and ‘depth’ grammar in the use of language.

A Linguistic Example

Let’s take, for example, the statement: ‘Hitler had a black moustache.’ Compare this to the statement: ‘Hitler had a black soul.’ On the surface, they seem to be the same kind of statement, but their ‘depth’ grammar is very different.

Wittgenstein and the World Picture

Wittgenstein discusses his notions of language game and form of life in a book published after his death – Philosophical Investigations.

Another book, On Certainty, contains another key term – ‘world picture’. A ‘world picture’ is an all embracing framework within which a person thinks and lives out their life. It provides the framework for their reasons. We cannot give reasons for the world picture itself. It is simply there.

The world picture may, of course, change over time. We may speak to people with different world pictures. Wittgenstein calls such communication ‘reminders’. It is tempting to think that there is a ‘super world picture’, by which we would judge all world pictures.  However, how would we judge the ‘super’ world picture? We would need another world picture to judge this one by, and so on and so forth!

If religious belief is a form of life, a world picture with it’s very own language game, then this way of speaking about it would have broad ranging implications for our understanding of religion. To start with, it gives religion a certain autonomy in the sense that it makes no sense to justify it or otherwise externally. It’s meaning is sui generis i.e. it says what it says and only can be truly understood in it’s own terms.

Religious Language Games

If religious statements imported the grammar of a different language game then there is distortion. For example, if religious believers – or anyone else for that matter – thought that religious statements were used like the statements of science, then this would be a case of two different language games being confused. In other words, you can’t play football using the rules of cricket!

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Lectures and Conversations about Religious Belief

In his book, Lectures and Conversations on Religious Belief, Wittgenstein face the following example…

Two men hear a sound and one of them says, ‘It’s a German aeroplane.’ The other says, ‘I’m not so sure, possibly.’  Wittgenstein comments that the two men are very close about their opinions; they differ about the facts.

There is a fairly straightforward way of settling the matter. But, if one of them says, ‘There will be a last Judgement,’ and the other says ‘I’m not sure, possibly’ it would show that the two men were worlds apart. They have different world pictures and are not simply disagreeing about a future matter of fact.

The disagreement about the aeroplane was within a language game. However, the disagreement about the last judgement is between two different language games. There is no common ground on which to settle it. They can pass on reminders to each other, as religious and non-religious people often do, but the one does not (strictly speaking), disbelieve what the other person believes.

In my next blog, I will be exploring D. Z. Phillips and his interpretation of Wittgenstein’s language games.

You might also like to read about the Via Negativa.

2 thoughts on “Wittgenstein and The Language Game View in Response to the Empirical Challenge”

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