- We live out our lives amid a world of language, in which we use words to do things. Ordinarily we don’t notice this; we just get on with it. But the way we use language affects how we live and who we can be. We are as if bewitched by the practices of saying that constitute our ways of going on in the world. If we want to change how things are, then we need to change the way we use words. But can language-games set us free?
- It was the maverick philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein who coined the term ‘language-game’. He contended that words acquire meaning by their use, and wanted to see how their use was tied up with the social practices of which they are a part. So he used ‘language-game’ to draw attention not only to language itself, but to the actions into which it is woven. Consider the exclamations ‘Help!’ ‘Fire!’ ‘No!’ These do something with words: soliciting, warning, forbidding. But Wittgenstein1 wanted to expose how ‘words are deeds’, that we do something every time we use a word. Moreover, what we do, we do in a world with others.
- With this spotlight on language-games, Wittgenstein2 asks readers to try to see what they are doing. But if we are entranced by our linguistic practices, can we even see what we’re doing? Wittgenstein3’s attempts to see met with the charge that he was stopping us from seeing anything else, from perceiving new possibilities: his linguistic obsessions were a distraction from real politics. The chief accuser was Herbert Marcuse, who in his blockbuster One-Dimensional Man (1964) declared that Wittgenstein4’s work was reductive and limiting. It could not be liberatory, for the close focus on how we use words misses what’s really going on.
- These objections are serious. But do they succeed?
- Marcuse’s objections are unfounded. He fails to show that Wittgenstein5’s astonishing scrutiny of language-games is either pointlessly stupid or enslaving. In fact, his efforts only heighten regard for Wittgenstein6’s relevance in the darkness of these times.
- Using language is an integral part of the human condition. We live within language, yet our way of life is something we find hard to see. Wittgenstein7 is not peddling ready answers to this predicament. Indeed as long as there is language it will bewitch us, we will face the temptation to misunderstand. And there is no vantage point outside it. There is no escape from language-games then, but we can forge a kind of freedom from within them. We might first need to ‘be stupid’ if we are to see this.
See Aeon: Grant - How playing Wittgensteinian language-games can set us free.
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