Big Thinking: Wittgenstein, Language Games and Presidential Debates

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s most famous words were published in Philosophical Investigations two years after his death in 1951. The Austrian/Jewish/British philosopher talks of “language games”, and then to explain the term “language game” he subjects the word “games” itself to linguistic analysis. This humble section of two numbered aphorisms turns out to be the best thing he ever wrote. Just as the one thing everybody knows about Marcel Proust is that he wrote about a madeleine, the one thing everybody knows about Ludwig Wittgenstein is that he wrote about the word “games”.

Here are the two numbered items, odd punctuation intact:

66. Consider for example the proceedings that we call “games”. I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? — Don’t say: “There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games’ ” — but look and see whether there is anything common to all. — For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don’t think, but look! —

Look for example at board-games, with their multifarious relationships.

Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear.

When we pass next to ball-games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost. — Are they all ‘amusing’? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In ball games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared. Look at the parts played by skill and luck; and at the difference between skill in chess and skill in tennis.

Think now of games like ring-a-ring-a-roses; here is the element of amusement, but how many other characteristic features have disappeared! sometimes similarities of detail.

And we can go through the many, many other groups of games in the same way; can see how similarities crop up and disappear.

And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and cries-crossing: sometimes overall similarities.

67. I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances”; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and cries-cross in the same way.-And I shall say: ‘games’ form a family.

And for instance the kinds of number form a family in the same way. Why do we call something a “number”? Well, perhaps because it has a-direct-relationship with several things that have hitherto been called number; and this can be said to give it an indirect relationship to other things we call the same name. And we extend our concept of number as in spinning a thread we twist fibre on fibre. And the strength of the thread does not reside in the fact that some one fibre runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibres.

But if someone wished to say: “There is something common to all these constructions — namely the disjunction of all their common properties” — I should reply: Now you are only playing with words. One might as well say: “Something runs through the whole thread — namely the continuous overlapping of those fibres”.

So, says Wittgenstein, it’s a mistake to think that every word we use must have a clear or universal meaning. A word can be useful, and can be widely understood, even if its meaning can never be pinned down. This idea of meaning as a “family resemblance” presents something like a philosophical equivalent to Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. We believe our thoughts are grounded in a firm foundation of meaning, but in fact the meanings of our most basic concepts turn out to be as ephemeral as quantum particles.

Once you begin to think of words and concepts as existing without definite meanings, you notice how often arguments revolve around these words. For instance, in the most recent John McCain/Barack Obama Presidential debate, we heard this question:

“Is Russia under Putin an evil empire?”

America loves a firm chin and a decisive answer to questions like this, and both candidates tried to deliver just that. A Wittgenstenian, however, cannot help but pause at the utter elasticity of the word “evil”. This happens again when John McCain puts forth this statement:

“America is the greatest force for good in the history of the world.”

At moments like this, we see how words can calcify and imprison us. John McCain, who was once an eager participant in the brutal air bombing of thousands of innocent Vietnamese civilians, must have repeated these words to himself for so many decades that he’s ceased to think about what they mean.

But of course politicians on both sides use words in sticky ways. Much of last week’s raucous Joe Biden/Sarah Palin Vice-Presidential debate revolved around the question of which party or which candidate “supported” raising “taxes”. A lot of time was wasted on this problem, and afterwards I watched a cable news report that attempted to figure out whether Biden or Palin lied more (it turned out they both lied a whole lot). What was the reason for this mess? Simple: nobody knows exactly what “taxes” means” and nobody knows exactly what “support” means. If Wittgenstein had been moderating this debate, we could have avoided wasting a lot of time.

At the most recent John McCain/Barack Obama debate, Tom Brokaw asked if health care was “a right, a responsibility or a privilege” for Americans. What followed was a surprisingly good discussion, because it was clear here that the focus was on the words, the language. When we think hard about the words we use, we can often manage to communicate and agree with each other.

But it’s those big concepts, those words like “evil” and “good” (and “taxes”), that we get stuck on. These are words that come with a lot of wiggle room, and yet we treat them with dead seriousness. If everybody in America would just read a few paragraphs of analytic philosophy every once in a while, maybe we would start having smarter debates and electing more honest politicians.

I think we could all use a little more Wittgenstenian clarity when we talk about politics, and government, about the economy, about war. What do you think — do our words help or harm our public dialogue?

14 Responses

  1. “electing more honest
    “electing more honest politicians”


    What exactly do you mean by honest? Because, by my definitions, there are none!

  2. Redefining, rethinking the
    Redefining, rethinking the definitions of all words and phrases would take quite some time. I guess that that is what visionary or a prophet would be: someone who took the time to really think about what each word really meant. This is what poetry sometimes does. This is what poetry sometimes attempts to do.

    On a side note, the whole issue of the American election is something of a farce. Last night on Newsnight here in the UK they were talking about the various ways in which voters were being kept from voting. There was the way that some were not put on the register, then the way that in poorer neighbourhoods people had to queue around the block to vote because of poor quality voting machinery (technology), and then finally there was the whole thing Karl Rove spearheaded about making people have to have government sanctioned identification in order to vote. All of these things effected mainly black voters. One in five black voters does not hold such identification, and most black people live in poorer neighbourhoods, and the poorer neighbourhoods, like I said, are where the poor voting technology causes queues, which causes people to give up and not vote, not wanting to queue for up to four hours. In richer neighbourhoods, said the piece on Newsnight, the waiting time was around fifteen minutes.

    So, yeah, talk about redefining phrases, understanding the meaning of words, but talk about also the actual machinery of voting, and of course that leads on to the meaning of a phrases such as “free and fair”, which is a pile of shit. If Obama gets in he will have to have really done really well. I think the Democrats were involved in one or two things also, but in the main the “bad” guys are the Republicans. I think it is a scandal.

  3. Yes, clarity would be good.
    Yes, clarity would be good. Watching the debate, I found myself wishing that Obama would answer some of McCain’s accusations more directly. Example: McCain said Obama introduced bills that would cause more spending. Well, anytime a Democrat OR Republican introduces a bill, money is needed to implement it. That’s no big secret. Better schools? Need money. Gear for the troops? Need money. Take care of senior citizens? Money. Improve the infrastructure? Rebuild the World Trade Center? It all takes money. So, to simply state that one’s opponent has asked for spending is meaningless.

    Levi, if I get no chores done this afternoon, it will be your fault for sending me on a tangent, reading and taking notes on various comparisons and contrasts between Wittgenstein and Derrida. Cool stuff! William Burroughs and Richard Dawkins are involved, too.

  4. It’s a nice theory, but as
    It’s a nice theory, but as someone who went to community college and bore witness to the general reason of the public, their ability to understand argument and words with any sense of self-awareness.

    I’ve never heard of Wittgenstenian before reading this, but I get the general idea, the relativity of words and how we stretch them. Unfortunately those most likely to make judgments based on this idea that words are concrete are also those who are fastest to tell you that trying to interpret what is meant by a word is at best intellectual hogwash and at worst high-brow political double speak.

    Mass media politics is such a bass-ackwards process. We prefer that our ideas entertain us first, and actually solving anything or generating any meaning from it we’ll work on later.

  5. Wittgenstein’s idea for
    Wittgenstein’s idea for language came from the dummies and cars and city model that were set up to demonstrate what had happened in a motor-vehicle accident for courtroom testimony, viz., the language correlated with the dummies and cars and city model.

    I think of the Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus which I read for school when I think of Wittgenstein. The Oxford concise series says it best: “He’s [Wittgenstein] a short trip.” Frege, who mopped the floor with Wittgenstein, said every term has its own sense, ie, meaning. Foucault described power as discourse or was it vice versa?

    I do wish to re-read Wittgenstein’s Poker which describes that latter Wittgenstein well and is a good introduction to Karl Popper [whose clain to fame is that a proposition is true until it is proven false.]

    Here in Virginia, many only focus on the abortion issue–talk about a word!–and don’t approve of Obama’s stance and thus don’t approve of Obama which is an excellent example for the following: The elections siphon off too much political energy that would be better put to use getting schools on track and sick people well and keeping up bridges and the rest of the infrastructure.

  6. “Calcify”.. great word. And
    “Calcify”.. great word. And “elect more honest politicians”? This presupposes that they exist?

    Yeah, staking out the big concepts is fraught with pitfalls and potentially unstable circular logic. Like trying to put God in a Bible box. Religion is much like politics– over time it becomes more top-heavy and scripturally sloganized and begins to exist mainly to serve itself. Yeah, religion and politics, the things you’re not supposed to talk about at family reunions.

    Yes. Game theory. How appropriate, given the true function and purpose of DC politics, which is a continuous, eleborate game to acquire and maintain power. While we’re probing the elastic irony of big-concept language, consider “public service”. DC politics is has little to do with “public service”. DC politics is a power-hungry Frankenstein’s monster.

    How’s that for a nice cheery outlook? They call me Mr. Sunshine.

  7. Warren, it’s a good point
    Warren, it’s a good point that our current battle over legalized abortion in USA has Wittgenstenian aspects. Those who wish to see Roe vs. Wade overturned are trumpeting “constitutional originalism”, the idea that any Supreme Court decisions not based directly in the text of the Constitution are beyond the proper scope of the Supreme Court. The argument against “judicial activism” brings us directly into the realm of language meaning and analysis.

    In real world terms, I know that there has been a great deal of intellectual thought behind the movement to overturn Roe vs. Wade, and I am not sure that most of America is aware that Roe vs. Wade *will* be overturned if John McCain and Sarah Palin are in a position to appoint a replacement for one of the five judges who would not overturn Roe vs. Wade. Samuel Alito and John Roberts are raring to go. I was very disappointed, during the Roberts and Alito nomination hearings that some Senator didn’t pull out a Wittgenstein book and put “constitutional originalism” in its place. Talk about language games …!

  8. One of the best things
    One of the best things Wittgenstein ever said (from the limited amount I have read of him–which is mainly secondary texts) was “I am trying to show the fly the way out of the ointment bottle.” Or something like that. He was showing us that language was a game and that there were certain mistakes we were all making. I don’t know if he ever pointed out, as per Chomsky, that the powers that be stand to lose a lot if we ever do make our way out of the ointment bottle, that more and more people would begin to think for themselves (as is happening, I think), would learn to understand the hollowness of, in particular, political and hegemonic language, of certain terms, such as “free and fair elections”, which is, as I mentioned in the post above–as reported on the BBC–simply not a phrase that is true. Your American elections certainly are not “free and fair”; they are rife with corruption and attempts at corruption, both subtle and obvious. Or even such stock phrases, that have to be said whenever talking about the war, particularly by presidential candidates, as “our brave boys over there in Iraq”, who I do not happen to think are all “brave”; rather, in the main, they are paid killers, unable to think for themselves, murdering civilians for oil and money and power, for their chief, causing chaos everywhere they go. Which is not to say one ought not to be sad when one of them dies, as they are, I guess, stuck in the Wittgensteinian ointment bottle.

  9. The word “calcify” brings to
    The word “calcify” brings to mind the peculiar arthritic posture of an ancient puppet trying to appear vital.

  10. Many people in the war
    Many people in the war machine aren’t there because they opted out of the Ivy League or turned down jobs as investment bankers. One could argue that they are nothing less than victims of capitalism. The military prefers the unschooled because they are less likely to question.
    After the US declared victory in Kuwait in 1991, the recruiters started using war scenarios in their recruiting ads.
    How does the John Donne line go, “No man is an island and any death diminishes us all”.
    When I see the guys killed in Iraq at the end of the PBS News Hour, I am so sad and even sadder when I think of those families.

  11. Sometime in the 1960s I read
    Sometime in the 1960s I read a book by J. Edgar Hoover called “Masters of Deceit”. It was about communism and communists. But “Masters of Deceit” is a more appropriate description of the Republican Party, and especially its right wing.

    The Republicans are masters of using “code words” – things that sound innocuous but carry the right wing agenda buried within, for example “pro-life”. If you take it on face value, who isn’t pro-life? What’s the matter with you – are you anti-life?

    One of the classic Republican uses or misuses of words is “weapons of mass destruction”. Iraq didn’t just have chemical and biological weapons, and possibly nuclear weapons; they had “weapons of mass destruction”. It is a clever choice, because it is vague – whatever weapons we find there will be of the mass destruction type – and it is emotionally laden. Because of the use of the words mass and destruction, the word combination conjures up an image of a berserk Saddam Hussein ready to unleash horrible death on an unsuspecting world. Too bad it was a lie. But it is a good example of how the Republicans use richly descriptive words to instil fear in the American public.

    Another good one is “terrorist”. The Republicans didn’t invent this word, but they picked it up, brushed it off, and gave it an emotional spin that made it all their own. Up until the fall of the Berlin wall in the 80s, if you weren’t with us you were a “communist”. Now, if you are not on the program, you are a “terrorist”. The IRA were terrorists, but they weren’t “terrorists”, i.e. Islamic extremists looking to overthrow the West and end civilization as we know it.

    So, the Republicans will continue to use words to encode their agenda, or put a spin on something to make it sound better or worse than it is. I’m not sure why the Democrats aren’t as good at this. But certainly the political debate would be vastly improved if both parties would just say what they mean, in plain English. I think that Obama is much better at this than McCain, who is a good example of Republican doublespeak in action.

  12. In ‘The Republic Plato
    In ‘The Republic Plato asserts that we wont get better politics until we have better politicians. Who or where are the ‘Philosopher Kings’of today?

    The same document is highly critical of Democracy, and he has a point. Hitler and Mussolini were elected politicians, as indeed are most of the political leaders who sanctioned the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
    A redefining of democracy may be necessary. there should be more to democracy than just voting for a government every four or five years. And, since its going to have such an immense consequence for the world shouldn’t the rest of the world have a say in the outcome. The politics of the 21st century may have to be more universal than the democracy of the century just passed, the bloodiest century in history.

  13. as a young Tupac in Juice
    as a young Tupac in Juice would say, “you ain’t saying nothin’ but a WORD!”

  14. i would like to join this. I
    i would like to join this. I’m doing my paper on the Language Games of Wittgenstein.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

What We're Up To ...

Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!