How Do We Talk to Others?: Wittgenstein and Language-Games

What does it mean “to speak to another human being”? That is, what does it mean to convey something using sounds-words to another? Is it even possible to convey anything for that matter? Moreover, if one were to assume that X were being conveyed from Person A to Person B, how would Person A go about verifying that X, in fact, were accurately conveyed? If you have ever wondered about human language and communication, rest assured, you have company: Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein, too, thought about such things. In this paper, I will consider Wittgenstein’s contributions to the philosophy of language, or, as some would have it, his work on “ordinary language.” While it is beyond the scope of this paper to thoroughly deal with Wittgenstein’s continually developing ideas, paradoxes, etc., it is the hope of this writer to help make Wittgenstein’s ideas palatable to the general public. I hope the teenager reading this learns something about the apparent subjectivity of much human language; I hope the college student reading this walks away with a better appreciation of Wittgenstein and a better understanding of his relevance for practical living. After all, we all use language on a daily basis. We all attempt to convey things with it—be they emotions, commands, facts, etc.—without taking the necessary time to think about what it is that goes on when two human beings (a) share a common language; (b) share a common human body with common sensory apparatuses; and (c) attempt to convey something to the Other using sounds and words (i.e., language). In a nutshell, this paper is just a modest attempt at understanding human language and communication.

Wittgenstein’s famous collection of notes taken by his students at Cambridge during the years 1933-34—the so-called “Blue Book”—begins by asking, “What is the meaning of a word?”[1] Even before one begins addressing this question, Wittgenstein went even further: What does it even mean to produce a “meaning of the word”? That is, Wittgenstein is asking what a definition of a word would even look like. What makes a definition acceptable to the general public? Who or what determines that such-and-such a definition is providing us with meaning regarding a particular, singular word? For example, one could theorize that there are, at least, two ways of providing a meaningful definition of a word: the verbal and the ostensive definitions. The verbal definition merely uses other words to describe the particular word we are trying to define (e.g., one defines the word “to hate” by appealing to the dictionary and saying that it means “to dislike some person intensely”).[2] The ostensive definition, on the other hand, is pointing us to something objective (e.g., in ostensively defining the color “red,” a teacher may show her students a red apple and, pointing to it, say, “This is what I mean when I say ‘red.’”). The point Wittgenstein is making here is relatively straightforward: if we are using an ostensive definition we have a word, such as “red,” and we have something objective it refers to—for example, the word refers to a red-patch that reflects a particular light wave-length that stimulates certain photoreceptors in our retina producing a subjective psychical state in our cerebrums that, it is assumed, is shared by most (all?) human beings who are able to perceive color.

But there is a problem even with this ostensive defining of a word. How do we learn that our subjective experience of the color red is actually what our teacher means when she says, “This is ‘red’”? Here Wittgenstein gets into the problem of learning and understanding a language.

Wittgenstein lucidly reveals the problem of communicating using a human language when he discusses learning a language by “ostensive defining.” For example, if I wanted to teach someone that a pencil was called a “pencil,” and I pointed to a pencil and said, “pencil,” how does the listener know that what I am trying to convey is that the thing in front of me (e.g., the entire pencil) is called a “pencil”? Isn’t it possible that the listener would associate “pencil” with “wood”? Maybe the listener would associate the word “pencil” with “round” instead (as pencils are, usually, in fact, round!). Wittgenstein writes regarding several possible interpretations that may arise after such a lesson. The student may interpret your pointing at a pencil and saying “pencil” to mean the following: (1) This is a pencil; (2) This is round; (3) This is wood; (4) This is one; (5) This is hard, etc., etc.[3]

We haven’t even begun defining a word ostensively and we’ve already run into the problem of learning a language. If, in fact, ostensive definitions are the way to go when trying to make sense of human communication and language, how is it that even when we are learning the language, it seems that rules are already in play here too? That is, it seems that the class of students learning the word “pencil” already have some idea of what it means to learn the meaning of a word! Where does such meaning come from? Or, to ask the same question differently, where do the students get this notion of learning a language in such a way? Why is it not the case that more students would hear “pencil” and interpret it to mean “the thing in front of me that appears round shall from henceforth be known to me as ‘pencil’”? Why is it that a large portion of the class already inherently seems to know what it means to learn a language and, hence, what the process looks like when learning the word “pencil”?

“If we are taught the meaning of the word ‘yellow’ by being given some sort of ostensive definition [in this case, ostensive means something like “denoting a way of defining by direct demonstration, e.g., by pointing”] (a rule of the usage of the word) this teaching can be looked at in two different ways: (A). The teaching is a drill. This drill causes us to associate a yellow image, yellow things, with the word ‘yellow.’ Thus when I gave the order ‘Choose a yellow ball from this bag’ the word ‘yellow’ might have brought up a yellow image, or a feeling of recognition when the person’s eye fell on the yellow ball. The drill of teaching could in this case be said to have built up a psychical mechanism. This, however, would only be a hypothesis or else a metaphor. We could compare teaching with installing an electric connection between a switch and a bulb. The parallel to the connection going wrong or breaking down would then be what we call forgetting the explanation, or the meaning, of the word…[I]t is the hypothesis that the process of teaching should be needed in order to bring about these effects. It is conceivable, in this sense, that all the processes of understanding, obeying, etc., should have happened without the person ever having been taught the language; (B). The teaching may have supplied us with a rule which is itself involved in the processes of understanding, obeying, etc.: ‘involved,’ however, meaning that the expression of this rule forms part of these processes…”[4]

Two options are offered us by Wittgenstein when it comes to learning a language: (1) the process of learning a language comes about by a process of “drilling” (as in example A above); or (2) it comes about via a process of learning “rules” (as in example B above). But drilling seems to have its own issues (such as learning the word “pencil”). Moreover, learning rules also has its problems. If learning a language means learning the rules of that particular language, then what do its rules look like? Wittgenstein examines rules also.

Wittgenstein understood language as being comparable to a game. In order to play in a game, one must know which words refer to which objects (for example, in chess, you may need to know that the piece which looks like a horse is known by the word “knight”) [here one can recall the “ostensive definition”]. But that’s not all: in order to play the game, one must also know the rules of the game. And, moreover, one must recognize that one is playing a game. For Wittgenstein, much like the game of chess, languages took on a form of life—they were very complex and were deeply interwoven into the community using it. In several of his aphorisms found in Philosophical Investigations (1953), Wittgenstein shed some light on this particular issue of language-games and, moreover, what he even meant by “game.”


Here we come up against the great question that lies behind all these considerations—For someone might object against me: “You take the easy way out! You talk about all sorts of language-games, but have nowhere said what the essence of a language-game, and hence of language, is: what is common to all these activities, and what makes them into language or parts of language. So you let yourself off the very part of the investigation that once gave you yourself most headache, the part about the general form of propositions and of language. And this is true—Instead of producing something common to all that we call language, I am saying that these phenomena have no one thing in common which makes us use the same word for all, but that they are related to one another in many different ways. And it is because of this relationship, or these relationships, that we call them all ‘language.’ I will try to explain this.

Consider for example the proceedings that we call ‘games.’ I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all?—Don’t say: “There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games’”—but look and see whether there is anything common to all.—For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don’t think, but look!— Look for example at board-games, with their multifarious relationships. Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear…I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances”… (§ 65-7).

Wittgenstein is saying that language-games are not necessarily bound to strict, calculus-like rigid rules; instead, language-games have a very complex, living sort of life to them. The ways we use words are akin to the ways we play games. There are certain rules that have definite boundaries, but these rules, themselves, seem to have something almost indefinable about them. For example, we cannot really reduce the word “game” to any one thing. As Wittgenstein showed us, the word “game” seems to relate to us that there are certain things we call “games” which share certain characteristics, but do not share all of them. Much like a son who looks like his father (sharing a “family resemblance”) but not being reduced to his father.

Wittgenstein suggests that to learn a language, to know a language, is really to practice the language in a life-setting. That is, in order to be fluent in a given language, one has to understand the multifarious relationships that are going on between single words, their referents, possible nuances, etc. Maybe the word “water” coming from the lips of my lover means, “Please bring me some water.” But, in another context, maybe her shouting “Water!” means, “The water in your cup, which you are about to consume, is poisoned!” (That is, “Please don’t drink the water!”) The word “water” itself is not merely reduced to a single concept (for example, H2O). The word cannot be understood apart from an intricate web of relationships which Wittgenstein calls a language’s “form of life.” This is why Wittgenstein would go so far as to say, “You learned the concept of ‘pain’ in learning a language.”[5] What he means is that even though pain is subjective, the entire relationship created between the word “pain” and your subjective experience is mediated by culture. You were taught what it means to be in pain. You were taught what to do when in pain. Another example. Let’s look at the concept of “love.” While many could persuasively argue that love is a subjective state of mind (or a subjective “feeling”), Wittgenstein would quickly point out how insufficient this view of love really would be. For example, is it not true that in order for you to communicate love to, let’s say, Juliet, you would need to communicate it within a context created and sustained by a community which shares your language? If the community says that love is expressed by the sending of red roses to the object of your affections, isn’t that more than just a subjective state? Doesn’t love, then, transcend the prison of your own subjectivity?

While it is true that you cannot empirically verify that another person is, in fact, experiencing exactly what you are experiencing when you say, “I am in pain,” nonetheless, because of all the associations we make with being in pain (such as a grimace, a screech, a high pulse rate, etc.) [notice that such associations are objective and can be verified], it is reasonable for us to assume that when someone else says that they are in pain—and they appear to be—that they are, in fact, in pain. Why? Because even the concept of pain was taught to us by the community! That is, even while we were young, we were told that when we feel “pain” we should make a frown, call in sick, and act “down.” In other words, our expression of pain—the way it is lived out within a community—is itself already defined by the community (hence not being completely “subjective”).

“It is for this reason that our mental words must be, as they are, connected with features of our situation which anyone can in principle observe. Every inner process must have its outward criteria…Statements about pain in the first person, Wittgenstein says, are in fact extensions of natural pain-behavior, conventionalized alternatives to crying out which we are trained to adopt. They are not so much descriptions of pain but manifestations of it.”[6]

So how do we know when someone is really in pain? Are there rigid rules for this? Is there a list of “requirements” that must be met? Or, to speak of something more existential, is there a list of requirements that would help us distinguish “those who are really in love” from “those who are not [really in love]”? “[I]n general we don’t use language according to strict rules—it hasn’t been taught us by means of strict rules, either.”[7] Wittgenstein is well aware that humans don’t normally use extremely rigid rules when learning a language, participating in a language, etc. So where does this leave us? If language can’t be rigidly reduced to a formula—something one can do in math—what happens to exactness and certainty in language? Well, it seems that certainty cannot be found even in language. We simply lack the tools, the environment, the brainpower to convey things, understand things, accurately every time and always.

In the end, one is left engaging with a language within its own boundaries. The point may be simply to be conscious of these facts, to be conscious of language-games. Being conscious of the plethora of ways in which we deploy words may help us attempt to speak in a lucid and clear manner. Maybe, at times, we may even throw in a definition of a word in the hopes that the definition may betray the language-game from which we are speaking…

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev



[1] Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Blue and Brown Books: Preliminary Studies for the “Philosophical Investigations,” trans. Rush Rhees (New York: Harper & Row, 1958), 1.

[2] But such “verbal definitions” may get caught up in a circular argument. For example, one is then forced to define what it means to “dislike” someone “intensely.” After looking those words up, and discovering other words (such as, “aversion,” “loathing,” “hatred”) one, immediately, finds that “to dislike” someone is defined by “hating” someone; and “hating” someone is defined as “disliking” someone! In the end, the verbal definition takes us nowhere: we go from vacuously arguing about words by appealing to other words, which are then re-appealing back to the initial word we set out to define! To bring to the fore the logical positivist arguments of the 1930s’ Vienna Circle, the only words that are “meaningful” are words that could be ostensively defined by having an objectively existing referent.

[3] Ibid., 2. Note: This paragraph was taken virtually wholesale from the Wikipedia page Blue and Brown Books; however, I wrote the section in Wikipedia anyhow.

[4] Ibid., 12-13.

[5] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 4th ed., trans. G. E. M. Anscombe, P. M. S Hacker, and Joachim Schulte (Hoboken: Wiley Blackwell, 2009), 125.

[6] A. M. Quinton, “Excerpt from ‘Contemporary British Philosophy,’” in Wittgenstein, The Philosophical Investigations: A Collection of Critical Essays, Modern Studies in Philosophy, ed. George Pitcher (London: University of Notre Dame, 1968), 20.

[7] Wittgenstein, The Blue and Brown Books, 25.

7 thoughts on “How Do We Talk to Others?: Wittgenstein and Language-Games

  1. In his “Guide for the Perplexed,” Schumacher identifies a four-stage process, including two translations, which are necessary for one person to convey, with at least a decent degree of accuracy, his or her thought to another. I mention this stuff because, although somewhat peripheral to the thrust of question being posed in this blog entry and Wittgenstein’s perceptive responses, it is kind of interesting in its own right.

    The first stage, according to Schumacher, is that communicator form with some precision the thought he or she desires to convey. The second stage is the first translation, which means that the communicator is able to find audible and visual symbols–words, intonation, gestures, etc.–sufficient to substantially externalize the thought.

    The third stage is the second translation, which means that the recipient of the communication accurately hears what is said and also picks up on the nonverbal symbols. The communication process then culminates in the fourth stage, in which the recipient integrates the various symbols conveyed into his or her own thought process.

    Schumacher goes on to indicate that while things can go wrong at any of these stages, causing the proverbial “failure to communicate,” there can be meetings of minds that intuitively transcend this linear process, where, for example, one person tells another that he or she understands what the other is trying to say but doesn’t like the way he or she is putting it.

    Maybe someone can amuse us by using Wittgenstein’s concepts–or even Schumacher’s more mundane ones–to analyze the last Republican debate….

    • Politics could certainly use a dose of reality and a dose of philosophy of language, especially the Republicans! There’s no doubt in my mind that the majority of the presidential candidates have IQs lower than the people reading my blog. (Which says a lot about them!) “Those who can, work; those who can’t become politicians,” to play with Woody Allen’s remark. I think I’ve encountered Schumacher. God, it seems like it’s been years since I’ve read anything by him. I might need to read him a bit more. From what it looks like, his approach is a little more basic than Wittgenstein’s (I think Ludwig is going “deeper” here).

      Regarding politics, I have an analogy that I always use. Here it goes.
      Republicans often times try to convince their audience that they are attempting to save people from paying taxes and losing money (and such). Okay. That sounds fair and good. So the Republicans hate social programs like food stamps and social security. They point out how people on food-stamps are ruining our economy. In addition to this, the Republicans usually support the HUGE war budget. So, in other words, they are telling you that in order for us to save money, we must cut the food stamp program (which is 4% of the federal budget) and expand the war budget (which is at least 54% of the federal budget). In other words, I’ll save you money if (a ) you stop buying $3 latte’s once a month and, instead, buy yourself a Lamborghini and make car payments of $10,000 a month! (That’s pretty much a fair conversion into common/practical language as to what they are telling their fellow listeners.)

      Another analogy is the following:
      You’re on a sinking ship and there are certain problems. For example, there’s a hole in the hull. A Republican is busy pointing out that the silverware is corroded–which may be true but is not a priority at the moment–while the Democrats are trying to deal with the hole in the ship’s hull. (Of course, not all democrats, but people like Sanders certainly are trying to address real issues in this country; while Ted Cruz and Co. want another war.)

  2. Neuroscience could help. If we could explore the correlations of activity within the mind in response to various words, we can reconstruct the relationships between words. We could then compare the engrams to see if particular words reliably lead to similar brain states in different minds.

    • I used to speculate along similar lines. I no longer do. From my readings of the literature, a couple of things stand out: not all brains are made equally, and there’s the issue of neuroplasticity. So, first, not all brains are the same. People’s brains are not like people’s hearts: in the same location (generally), with the same functions. For example, if you cut the aorta, virtually all would bleed to death. It’s a specific spot and damage to it results in a very particular response. With the brain things are not so. Some people have language centers in the occipital lobe, for example. Usually, we find language reception and expression found in Wernicke’s region and Broca’s region, respectively. (Broca’s is left frontal lobe; Wernicke’s is superior temporal lobe.) That being said, not everyone presents with language centers so easily identifiable and genetically (or whatever you want to call it) demarcated. Left-handed people, something like 25% of them, have speech centers on the opposite side–the right side of the brain.
      Next, we come to the issue of neuroplasticity. After a TBI or a stroke, a person’s brain will attempt to “adopt” to the “new brain.” If the frontal lobe was damaged, other parts of the brain will begin to take on the functions of the frontal lobe. I think the future will reveal that, like the finger print, all of us have a “brain print,” that is, no two brains are alike. The implications being that we will never have a consensus when it comes to finding a universal engram of “the color red” or “a car.” Or “love.” Or “hate.”

      • Right, the physical location of brain content varies vastly between brains. There are some general patterns – brain “modules” responsible for behavior. Motor control remains relatively constant between people. So, how do we go about figuring out if something has the same meaning for different people if the physical manifestations are different?

        In computer science there is a project called “word2vec”. Given some text input, the program will determine how words are related to each other in the vector space of words. This approach can be used to reconstruct the meaning of words within a brain. The vector spaces can then be compared and predictions could be made about how a given brain would respond to a new word not previously measured. I haven’t seen this particular experiment done, but there is something similar: “Decoding mental states from brain activity in humans”

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