This morning, I was in that half-conscious, pre-volitional dawn that accompanies slow waking, when a snatch of conversation from many years ago pressed itself on me:
I had been unguardedly talking to a student about my excited, initial work on Philosophical Investigations, and I must have used the term, ‘language-game’. A colleague of mine, passing through the hallway at that moment, trigger-fingered a drive-by objection: “Wittgenstein was a fool; language is not a game.”
My memory of the conversation ends there, although I suspect that twenty-four year old me shrugged and went on talking to the student. Anyway…
Wittgenstein, so far as I can recall, never calls language a game. To think that his use of the term ‘language-game’ shows that he did is to manifest a tin ear.
Sidestep: It still amazes me, naif that I am, that a tin ear is not recognized as a liability in philosophy, as it should be, but is often required for membership in the discipline. So much of philosophy really does takes the form of either missing someone else’s pun or refusing to see that you are committed to one (Schopenhauer on the will, anyone? Anyone? Bueller?).
Anyway, right, language is not a game. But Wittgenstein never said it was.
He also never added a new item to the metaphysical inventory–language-game.
He offered us a comparison.
Julius Kovesi long ago put this right: a language-game is not a game played with words, but an activity of which words are part.
Wittgenstein was attempting to get us to a vantage point from which we could see that activity. And keep seeing it. Why? Because he knew we tend to forget it, overlook it.
Merleau-Ponty wrote in The Prose of the World that “we all secretly venerate the ideal of a language that would deliver us from language….”
He goes on to complete the line: “…by delivering us to things.” I’m not so much focused on what we might be delivered to as I am to what we want delivery from.
We hanker for a language that delivers us from language. Wittgenstein knew that, knew that we wanted to be able to use words unused, untouched by us, fresh from some celestial autoclave, sterile and wonderful, fit for full expression.
But–expression of what? Of something we don’t say, can’t say, because we don’t have a clue what we would be talking about. Because we wouldn’t be talking about anything. Words do what they do because we are doing things with them.
All the damn time.
We make it happen.
Or nothing happens.
Language is not a game. But it is only game to the extent we are.