Power Context

Another crucial factor in the structure of language games is what I call the “power context.” As stated in earlier posts, language games are more than mere linguistic constructs: they involve people, and take as ‘givens’ many facts and values. The ‘play’ TrafficStopincludes activities and things in the real world. Every example of a language game I have presented also includes a power context: an unstated but inescapable configuration of relative powers of the participants. Sometimes the players are equal, but often not. To ignore the power context of a language game would be as absurd as doing astrophysics without considering gravitational fields.

Revisiting some of my earlier examples with this in mind:

  • In the operating room, the surgeon is giving commands, the assistant is responding to the commands, and the patient lies helpless on the table.
  • The police officer, with the full backing of the government, has power over the citizen in the traffic stop. The citizen has certain rights but would do well not to try to turn the tables by, say, reaching for a weapon.
  • At a wedding, the minister has been vested by the state with the power to perform the ceremony. The couple to be married stand as equals while the guests, except for one opportunity to voice an objection, are expected to tacitly lend their support.
  • In a chess tournament the individual players are considered equal and must comply with the instructions of the tournament director. The tournament itself may be conducted under the auspices of a chess federation. Participation is voluntary.
  • In a university chemistry research lab there is likely a hierarchy (professor and grad students, say). The game is played under the umbrella of not only the university, but also the chemistry profession and the greater scientific community. From another angle, the whole enterprise might be seen as an attempt to acquire the power over nature that scientific knowledge might impart.
  • In the farmers’ market the buyer and seller have different powers: the seller knows the “real story” of the produce, but the buyer has the money and free choice to walk away. A balance is presumably reached at the moment a deal is agreed to.
  • At the bank the internal auditor has great power over the manager being audited, although it could be the case that a rookie auditor is going up against a veteran senior manager. Presumably both are under the authority of a board of directors, while the banking industry is under the regulation of the government.
  • In a job interview the power context could vary: perhaps the job seeker is in dire financial straits and feels marginally qualified amongst a large number of applicants. In that case the power is with the interviewing manager. On the other hand, the position might be crucial to the operation of the company, may require a specialized skill set, and this candidate uniquely qualified. Depending on the length of the vacancy and the urgency of making the hire, the power may lie squarely with the candidate.
  • At the gym with a personal trainer, the client may feel subservient to the trainer — especially if the client is a beginner and out of shape while the trainer is super fit and experienced. On the other hand, the client is the one with the money and the trainer may be in the early stages of building their business, so it could be the opposite. Take a moment to consider a variety of factors and possibilities. Also, the power balance can certainly change over time.
  • Even in the example of the chapter in the chess book there are implicit power factors: the authority and reputation of the writer (grandmaster? coach? theoretician?), whether they utilized computer chess engines to analyze the variations, the strength of the examples from master practice, the willingness of the public to buy the book, the efforts of the publisher to sell it, the prospect of increased chess strength for the reader, etc.

Many language games exist for the explicit purpose of addressing and resolving power struggles, for example: court cases, business negotiations, philosophical arguments, politics, and, of course, chess matches and sporting events. But apart from the power struggles harnessed within language games (the internal combustion engines of society!), without the structuring of the games themselves by contextual power gradients outside of them they would have no sense or function at all.

The Language Game

Much can be said — and has been said — about the so-called “linguistic turn” in philosophy. For me it just signifies an overt recognition that all philosophic inquiry is constrained by the limits of language. The Buddha made the distinction between the moon we can each see, and a finger pointing at the moon. Language is the “finger” which essentially says “hey, look at the moon.” Once you see the moon, I can lower my hand, as it is no longer necessary. Philosophical discourse has as its aim the goal of seeing the moon together. The body of literature known as “Philosophy” is just an audit trail of the effort to come to see “what is” in a way that is satisfactory to both of us, at which point we can leave off until another day.

Did you notice what I did in the previous paragraph? I used language to talk about philosophy in general terms. I painted a word-picture of the process of doing philosophy and invited you to see it with me. If you bought into it, great. It was a linguistic exercise which required the imagination of both the writer and the reader to flesh out the intended meaning. It was “meta-philosophy” — philosophizing about philosophy itself. It was a “language game.”

Ludwig_WittgensteinThe idea of philosophy as a language game comes from Ludwig Wittgenstein. Language games, for Wittgenstein, are more than just linguistic constructs: they also include players, moves, rituals, physical reality, etc. The scientific method carried out in a chemistry lab, for example, is a language game. The scientists, apparati, chemicals, procedures, data — even the scientific theories — are all part of the game. The “scientific method” structures the playing of the game, which has as its goal the pursuit of scientific knowledge. Even the notion of “scientific knowledge” is a linguistic construct that helps structure the game. The overall process of what goes on in a chemistry lab is a perfect example of a language game. Many parts of the game are not linguistic in nature (people, chemicals, beakers), but they are every bit as essential to the “game” as the linguistic elements.

To say that Philosophy is comprised of language games (and nothing more) is to “make the linguistic turn.” At the end of the day there are people, chess boards, moons, and beakers — these things exist. But when it comes to answering the question “what is Philosophy,” we are left with what we can say about what we can say about such things.


I read something a long time ago by the 20th century evangelist E. Stanley Jones that so impressed me that not only did it stick, it has guided my thinking ever since. We are all born completely dependent on others for our survival. As adolescents we naturally must exert our independence — physically, mentally, socially. But as adults, when we are fully mature in our understanding, we come to see that we are interdependent. Individual humans are weaker than other species, but together we dominate the planet. The greatest achievements of humankind are not individual acts of heroism, but the creation of civilizations that are vast and complex webs of specialization and interconnection.

It seems natural that one’s political orientation might evolve along with these stages of development. Early in life we might wish to be taken care of. Later, when our strength is greatest, we seek to sharpen our blades against brave challenges. But sooner or later we encounter failure, bad luck, or simply our own limitations. We gain the perspective that there is really no such thing as a “self-made man.” We come to see that we all have different capacities at different times in our lives, and virtually none of us could survive long in the absence of the contributions of others. A mature political outlook sees society as a vital shared resource. Yes, it imposes burdens and obligations, but without the public goods it offers, very little economic activity could occur. Nurturing and protecting the common good becomes a priority. On the other hand, a political view that clings to adolescent notions of liberty and independence — especially decrying the burdens of regulation and taxation — is not just immature, it is literally anti-social.