Language Games


  • Ludwig Wittgenstein suggested that the meaning of words is determined by the Language Games of which the words are part
    – A words meaning comes from the circumstance in which it is said
  • Wittgenstein used the example of a game of chess
    – when playing chess, rules state how the pieces are moved. And yet speaking of moving “pawns” & “queens” outside of the game to someone who has no idea how chess is played the language seems to be nonsense; language only works within the context it is spoken
  • For Wittgenstein, language can only be meaningful if it’s used in the appropriate way in the particular language game in question
  • Language games are the reality of our understanding of the world
  • Language games are not personal, they’re shared & learnt – for example the son of a rugby player grows up to learn the language game associated with that sport

Language Games & Religious Language

– Wittgenstein’s theory can be applied to religious language
– Religious statements & language are their own language game, statements such as “God is perfection” make sense & have a particular meaning to people who are part of that language game
– This means that it’s understandable that non-theists such as A J Ayer would have a problem understanding the importance of religious language; they are not part of the language game & so such statements make about as much sense as saying “I’m taking your queen” to a person who has never played chess
– This is helpful for religious believers, as it allows them to express religious statements & claim they are of significance, & also explains why an atheist will not find the same significance in such language

Challenges to Language Games 

  1. Are there right or wrong language games? 
    – Wittgenstein’s ideas leave the potential for one to justify anything as a language game which could have dangerous consequences. For example if a paedophile ring could claim their actions & feelings are justifiable, they just simply cannot be understood by those outside of the language game
  2. Is language games too anti-real? 
    – Suggesting the “true for you” formula has problems for Christianity. Certain religious claims & statements can’t just hold subjective value, but have to be objectively true, such as “Jesus was the son of God” which the Christian faith relies upon

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