Wittgenstein, Culture, and Value: Language-games and Forms of Life

According to Wittgenstein, examples of language are meaningful only in the context that they are uttered in — that is, according to the “rule” of the “game” being played. As a very simple example, the utterance “Fire!” could be an order, an answer to a question, an instant reaction, or some other forms of communication. In a sense, language-games help us describe the use of an expression. So, the concept of language-game brings to the fore the idea that speaking of a language is a part of an activity, a form of life. When one is describing a language-game one is also describing how a word is embedded in human behaviour — in our actions and reactions. As an example, Norman Malcom, one of the closes friends of Wittgenstein, writes:

“If, for example, a man firmly announces that he intends to quit his job, his wife and friends may try to dissuade him, his employer may start looking for a replacement, his wife may cancel an order for new furniture. The simple words ‘I intend to quit my job’ may generate many reactions, and even bitter acrimony. The possible consequences of this announcement will depend on various circumstances — on whether other persons depend on this man for support, whether other employment is readily available and so on.

On the other hand, the announcement may not produce even a ripple of reaction if, for example, it is well known that this man frequently does not carry out his announced intentions. This point displays an import feature of the grammar of the word ‘intention’. When a person declares his intention to do so-and-so, this normally creates the presumption that he will do it. Other person have the right to expect him to do it, and to make their own plans accordingly. If he doesn’t do it, they have a right to demand an explanation. This is not a moral but a logical right. It belongs to the grammar of the words ‘I intend to do X’, that others are entitled to expect the speaker to do X. If a person never, or hardly ever, carried out his announced intention, then his words would no longer be taken seriously. His ‘I intend’ might be treated the same as ‘I would like’. An implicit promise of doing is part of the meaning of ‘I intend’.

The fact that the announcement ‘I intend to …’ has its place in a network of action and reaction is an illustration of Wittgenstein’s remark that speaking a language is part of a ‘form of life’. It is also an illustration of these striking remarks: ‘Words have meaning only in the flow of thought and life’. ‘Our talk gets its sense from the rest of our actions’. The word ‘intention’ is embedded in a particular pattern of human activity. The person who declares his intention normally acts on it: he carries it out. Or if he does not, he is normally ready to provide an explanation — something unforeseen prevented him, or he had a reason for changing his mind. These are explanations within the language-game with the word ‘intention’” (1993, 75-76).

Thus, a sentence has meaning only within a particular language-game and language-games are internally connected with human activities, forms of life. So, the observation and the study of language-games, is actually a study of human life.

Another point to be made is that Wittgenstein “regarded the language-games, and their associated forms of life, as beyond explanation. […] An explanation is internal to a particular language-game. There is no explanation that rises above our language-games, and explains them. This would be a super-concept of explanation — which means that it is an ill-conceived fantasy” (1993, 77-78). Thus, a language-game can only be observed and described, but rests on no grounds that explain or justify it — hence Wittgenstein’s remark “Don’t think, but look!”, urging philosophers to not seek for explanations but to describe. Malcom touches further upon this:

“There could be a society in which no one gave orders to anyone. There could be a community in which the writing and reading of poetry did not occur; nor composing and listening to music; nor telling jokes. One could not explain why those people do not have those forms of life — nor why we do have them. Neither philosophy or science can explain this. What philosophy can do is to correct our inclination to assume, because of superficial similarities, that different language-games and forms of life are really the same. (For example, that when you tell a dream that is ‘just like’ reporting a scene you witnessed on the street)” (1993, 82). Thus, explanation comes to end and reaches its limit when we speak of the existence of language-games and forms of life. And in philosophy, according to Wittgenstein, we can only notice the language-games, describe them, and sometimes wonder at them. (A statement that is closely linked to the first writing in this series).

Malcolm, Norman, and Peter. Winch. Wittgenstein : A Religious Point of View? London: Routledge, 1993.

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