Language-games: Lessons from the later Wittgenstein

A previous blog considered the lessons that communications professionals can take from the early work of eccentric Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, corresponding with the only work published in his lifetime, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

In it, he presents a unifying theory of language that posits that all meaningful speech and writing can be broken down into simple propositions that essentially picture the way that things are in the world.  As a result, attempts to say anything about things that are not in the world, such as matters of ethics, value and religion, result in confusion and misunderstandings. Instead, he insists that these things must be shown, and the business of philosophy is setting the boundaries of what can be intelligibly said, as well as analysing our language to see where we have breached these limits.

After finalising the Tractatus, and believing it to be the last word on philosophy, he promptly gave up the subject and returned to Austria and became a schoolteacher in 1920. However, he would later come to the view that his first foray into philosophy (for which he was regarded as a genius) was not the complete picture of language that he once thought it to be. It would be a repudiation of his earlier ideas that would form the basis of his later work, to which we now turn.

Intervening years

Wittgenstein’s unorthodox teaching style put him at odds with pupils’ parents and he was forced to quit following a series of brief tenures at schools in the countryside outside of Vienna.

Dismayed, he took up work as a gardener at a monastery and, not for the first time, considered becoming a monk. He later developed an interest in architecture, designing and overseeing the building of a house for one of his sisters in the city.

It was during this time that he met with members of the Vienna Circle, a group of philosophers and scientists at the University of Vienna whose ideas about language and logic were ostensibly similar to those expressed in the Tractatus. Through these interactions Wittgenstein was persuaded that his views about language were incorrect in important ways.

Return to Cambridge

After realising that he had not, in fact, said everything that he had to say about philosophy, he returned to Cambridge to take up a fellowship in 1929. In his writings from the following years, as well as lectures transcribed by students, there is evidence of a significant evolution in his thinking.

Primarily occupied with questions about meaning and understanding, they show tentative steps towards exploring the psychology of language, in particular how we attach meaning to words.

We first encounter the thought that understanding the meaning of words is more of ability than a mental process (something that goes on in the mind). The idea of meaning as use is also introduced. In notes dictated by Wittgenstein to his students which were circulated in typescript form known as The Blue Book, he says that, instead of asking, “what is the meaning of a word?”, we should enquire, “What is it to explain the meaning of a word?”. In answer to the problem what is it that ‘gives life’ to written and spoken words he says: “if we had to name anything as the life of the sign, we should have to say that it was its use.”

Philosophical Investigations

These transitional works would form the basis of the main body of his later philosophy, associated with the Philosophical Investigations, which he finalised in the last years of his life but which was published posthumously.

Wittgenstein’s aim, consistent with that of the Tractatus, is to show how philosophical problems and confusions arise from misconceptions about how our language works, as well as how these problems will resolve themselves through a proper analysis of ‘the logic of our language’.

In the Investigations, Wittgenstein rejects the notion that there is one essence of language and accordingly abandons a rigorously systematic approach to explaining language in one theory, instead presenting a series of interconnected ideas. He insists that language is not something that exists in isolation, but it is inseparable from human activities and behaviour and therefore cannot be investigated or understood without an appreciation of context.

Starting point

As noted in part one of this series, and acknowledged by Wittgenstein’s later work but denied by the Tractatus, we seemingly use language to do many more things besides describe how objects relate to each other in the world; we also use it to make promises, express emotions, give warnings, praise and many things besides. It follows, according to Wittgenstein, that there is not one single underlying logic of language, but countless logics, each corresponding with a particular practice. He calls these multitudinous activities ‘language-games’.

The metaphor of a game is intended to highlight that the speaking of language is part of an activity, but also to show that, like games, there isn’t one thing that all linguistic practices have in common, rather they are part of a matrix of activities that are related to others by shared similarities and relationships. He likens these connections to the way that family members might draw from a shared set of characteristics but not have one feature in common and calls them ‘family resemblances’ for this reason.

Moreover, Wittgenstein says that one of the assumptions on which the Tractatus is based, which is that names stand in for (or denote) objects, is flawed. If this were the case, he says, in order to understand that an object was being named, the first-time language-learner would need to be in command of some part of a language to recognise that an object that someone was pointing at was being named: the language-game of naming objects. Or else how would he or she know that you are not describing its colour or directing someone to pick it up? Naming is therefore not the basis of meaning, and the Tractatus cannot be the full picture of how all of language works – words must derive their meaning in other ways.

Meaning and understanding

Instead, Wittgenstein asserts, the meaning of a word or phrase is its use within a multiplicity of practices (or language-games) that make up language and understanding a language is knowing how to use words and expressions or ‘mastery of a technique’.

He is keen to dispel the notion that understanding is an inner mental state, something that is hidden from us, a process involving having an image of something in one’s mind as the Picture Theory of language suggests. His reasons for this are various, including that it is not an experience like feeling pain or recognising someone; we do not understand something for a long time, in our toes or intensely. This does not mean that there might not be experiences accompanying understanding, such as a word evoking an image.

Together with the conception of meaning deriving from use across a variety of language-games, the idea that understanding a language is knowing how to do something or having an ability, rather than a hidden inner process, suggests an activity that we partake in with other people and regulated by outward criteria. Language is not something private, but public, open to view and given significance by our use of it in our practical affairs.

Rule-following and forms of life

Significantly for Wittgenstein, language-understanding as mastering a technique means observing the rules for the use of words and expressions in different language-games.

The rules are not something external and objective, determined by the nature of things that words stand for and independent of us, as implied by the Tractatus. Rather they are established by agreement within a community, customs and practices. As such they are liable to change over time. Wittgenstein says that rules are like signposts, which do not encourage us to go a certain way because of some inherent feature, but because we are trained in their use.

Since the only thing that determines if one is following a rule is if one conforms to the community’s practice in that case, rules are their own justification. However, while there are no objective restraints placed on the use-rules of language by the way the world is, Wittgenstein says that agreement among members of a community about how language is used is a product of a ‘form of life’. He means by this the assumptions, values and motivations that show themselves in our shared language, activities and behaviour.

Private Language Argument

On the basis that language is essentially rule-governed and public in character, Wittgenstein builds his ‘Private Language Argument’, which says that there cannot be a language that is invented and understood by a single individual only – for how would he or she know that they were observing a rule. Such a person may think that they were, but there would be no means of checking.

This creates a problem when it comes to language expressions referring to our own inner experiences, such as pains, moods and feelings. Since they are private to us, how can we be sure that we are using terms to describe them consistently? Wittgenstein thinks that such labels enter into our vocabulary as learned substitutes for instinctive behaviours or primitive expressions, such as wincing or groaning. Like all words, they get their meaning from use, so they cannot describe private sensations.

Wittgenstein is inverting a philosophical paradigm that goes back to Descartes which holds that the starting point of all knowledge is our experience of thinking, expressed as “cogito, ergo sum” or “I think, therefore I am”, and from there we find expressions to talk about our experiences. In Wittgenstein’s idea, we must first be in possession of a language before we can begin to think about the world in any depth. From there language opens up new psychological possibilities.


According to Wittgenstein, we get confused when we look at words separately from language-games or think of them as having one discoverable essence, particularly when looking for the meaning of philosophical concepts, such as ‘good’, ‘truth’ and ‘beauty’. He provides examples of how misunderstandings arise when we think the wrong language-game is being played or use terms from one language-game as if they belonged to another, particularly when we talk about private sensations in the same ways that we do about objects.

The standard view is that Wittgenstein’s early and later work are contradictory and incompatible. Just as there are difficulties with the Tractatus’s view of language, there are arguments against meaning deriving from use. We might therefore profit more by seeing how they are consistent and complementary. There are still difficulties talking about abstract concepts and private sensations, feelings and opinions. Just as the Tractatus does, Wittgenstein’s later work leads us to the conclusion that communications professionals, like everyone else, can benefit from thinking very carefully about how we use language to avoid being misunderstood.

When we are trying to communicate clearly and avoid ambiguity, we should look at the wide-ranging functions of words and expressions that we use, in context, and how these change over time. As the rules for use are established by communities and are a representation of a ‘form of life’, we may consider how our form of life differs from that of the people we are communicating with. This could involve exposing ourselves to new experiences and cultures, including simply consuming the media of our target audience. We might also become more effective communicators, as well as better able to understand ourselves, by increasing the diversity of language to which we are exposed.

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