Gamey Language: Desultory Morning Thoughts

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.








The Two Desk Problem

Wittgenstein’s parables, like Jesus’, have a peculiar power to capsize thought, to overturn it even as it sails its trade routes.

His BlBk parable about the floor exemplifies the power (p. 45).  The target of the parable is the idea that physics teaches us that the floor, or a desk, is mostly empty space.  This teaching seems to render the floor beneath us or the desk before us shaky, almost visibly trembly, certainly not certainly up to the task of holding me up or holding up my copy of Bradley’s Appearance and Reality (a heavy-ish tome).

But what physics teaches constitutes its explanation of the solidity (not, in this case, the insolidity) of the desk.  Physics explains why the desk shoulders Bradley.  That explanation cannot render the desk unhelpful. And that explanation cannot spawn a second desk–call it ‘the desk of the philosophers’–that now must somehow be reconciled with a first desk–call it ‘the desk of Moore, Austin and Wittgenstein’.  But there is no second desk.  There is just the one, solid, quietly helpful, patient to endure investigation even by physicists.

Explanations cannot swallow their own heads.

Blue Book Family Likenesses–Craving Generality?

There it is.  In every photo in which I am pictured standing empty-handed.  (I am nearly always empty-handed.)  I stand as my dad stands–or stood when he was younger.  I don’t mind that, even if I find it eerie, even if it provokes me to distances–from my picture and from my body at the moment of viewing the picture….


I mention this because I have been teaching the Blue Book and talking with my students about family likeness (BlBk) or family resemblances (PI).  It is remarkable, given the clarity (at least here) of Wittgenstein’s rhetorical construction, that so many come away from the section thinking that Wittgenstein’s revolution consists in replacing a quixotic quest for commonalities with a promising quest for family resemblances.  –As if the attack on the question “What is the meaning of a word?” really reduced to a shift in quest.

Not that there’s anything wrong with family resemblances.  Or with commonalities for that matter.  Except deciding that one or the other is the philosophical desideratum, the fated form of philosophical finality.

The family resemblances bit is a way of reminding us that ‘unity’ is said in many (at least two) ways.  It is not the replacement of one unity-prey with a different unity-prey.  Be wary of going a-hunting for commonalities.  Be wary likewise of going a-hunting for family likenesses.  Throttle back that craving for generality:  don’t just change gears.

O. K. Bouwsma Does the Forms

Imagine, for this purpose, a museum–a museum, deep in calm, fixed in breathlessness, done in silence, clothed in invisibility, awful, laid away in heaven.  And the walls thereof are purest essence, some quint-essence, some tri-essence, but none semi-essence.  If senescence is no wall, for neither is olderness nor youngerness any ness at all, all is evermore and never the less.  And of what essence and what essences are those walls?  Of all heavenlinessences are they and of brightlinessence the beaminest.  Essences participating in essence, like May-girls around May-pole enribboned, and enribboning one another, they ring-round this conjugation of hyper-supers…This is the museum of quiddities, of whatnesses in their highest nest, tucked away, ensconced, waiting for refiners defining, so fine they are.  The museum of none-such such-and-suches.

Let us enter…

John Locke Lectures, “The Flux”,

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