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?