Fixed Domains

The notion of “language games” troubles some people because the emphasis on the fluidity of language tends to undermine belief in objective reality. But Wittgenstein’s own examples (see his Philosophical Investigations) take the existence of a background reality as given. Because of human finitude, all language games are played within the framework of some fixed domain. While language games spring into and out of existence such that even language itself can become malleable, without a fixed domain of real facts to ground a language game it lacks all meaning. This will become crystal clear with a few examples.

Take once again the example of laboratory chemistry. While working in a research lab (playing the language game of the scientific method) the existence and validity of the periodic table of elements is not questioned. The rules of the “scientific method” are considered valid. The notion that there are knowable physical laws that can be discovered and illuminated through scientific inquiry will be completely taken for granted. The only thing in question will be that which is specifically being studied, such as the position of a double bond in a newly discovered organic molecule. In this context there will arise many and various language games pertaining to specific aspects of the work: describing the procedure, statistical analysis of measurement error, interpretation of instrument readings, comparing results to other research in the literature, preparing to publish a paper, and the research paper itself. Each of these language games has a vocabulary and related concepts, norms for evaluating the correctness of reasoning, and ways of making arguments to convince others (or oneself) of the validity of the process and its results. Each game has a fixed domain of “givens” which, like the game board pieces and rules of a parlor game, define and structure the playing of the game.

Speaking of literal games, there are countless language games that are played against the fixed domain of the game of chess:

  • The rituals involved in playing a formal game of chess in a tournament, including shaking hands, starting the clocks, writing down the moves, saying “check”, etc. (The language here is mostly performative, as opposed to being an inquiry or dialogue.)
  • The process of resolving a dispute during a tournament game: “her flag fell,” “he left his king in check,” and the responses of the tournament director.
  • Two players sitting and analyzing a game together after it is finished, sharing their thoughts, observations, intentions, and questions as they show each other variations they considered during the game.
  • Writing up the analysis of a game for publication (including many stock phrases such as “the pawn structure favors white,” or “perhaps more counterplay would have resulted from the double-edged move Bg5”).
  • Theoretical discussions about the soundness of a gambit, or the comparative worth of a knight against two passed pawns.

All of these language games take as given the rules of chess, including the ultimate goal (value) of checkmate. If disputes should occur about the rules during a tournament, the director will have a 300+ page book of official rules to which to make reference.

And yet a whole new “meta” language game arises the moment the discussion turns to what the rules of chess ought to be…