Language Games on the Playground

All of us probably mastered the creation and development of language games by the time we were ten years old thanks to our vast experiences on the playground at recess, or passing time in the back seat of the car on family vacations. When children engage in creative group play, role-playing “cops and robbers” or “playing house”, they are not only trying on adult behaviors to imagine how they would feel, they are learning how to negotiate evolving rule sets as an imaginary consensus “reality” is being collaboratively constructed.

It is easy to forget that the same process is continuing throughout our lives, and much of what we take for “reality” today didn’t even have words to describe it a century ago. A century from now, if there are people, their reality will be described in words that haven’t been invented yet, because the concepts don’t yet exist. This is not just because of technological developments (“If someone were to hand Leonardo da Vinci a garage door opener how would he make sense of it?”) but also many social ones. Decades ago gender roles were a “presupposed value” that can no longer be assumed in current discussions. “Privacy” is certainly different today than even thirty years ago, with different assumptions necessary. Do you even read the “updated privacy policy” notices you receive via email? I read one all the way through the other day and found that the policies, while reasonable, included many possibilities and issues that might never have occurred to me.

If you are old like me (I’m fifty-six) you might be taking for granted certain aspects of the “social contracts” in our society which have been evolving into a new reality right under your feet. Your relationship with your employer. Your rights over your property (including intellectual). Did you know you can be arrested for carrying too much cash?

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.

Presupposed Values

In previous posts I emphasized that language games are necessarily finite, so they must make unquestioned use of certain background facts — among which are ‘values’, the inherent worth of certain things — in order to focus on the issues in play. Not to do so would lead to an endless cascade of preliminary meta-discussions interrogating every presupposition, running the risk of never getting to the topic at hand. (Plato’s dialogues offer many examples of language games falling backwards ad infinitum.) Here I offer a few more examples of language games and the presupposed values that are implicit in them.

  • A buyer and seller haggling over price at a farmer’s market.
    Presupposed values: the worth of money, the saleability of the produce, voluntary transactions, property rights, free market.
    In play: the factors affecting the value of produce, pros and cons of this particular produce, other opportunities available to both buyer and seller.
  • An internal auditor presenting findings and discussing recommended resolutions in a bank audit.
    Presupposed values: the rule of law, shareholder value, public reputation, performance evaluations (and the desirability of continued employment), effectiveness of internal controls.
    In play: the validity of specific findings, the effectiveness of particular remedies, the relative importance of various findings, the cost and practicality of specific remedies, fault-finding and blame.
  • Chapter in a chess manual about the Ruy Lopez opening.
    Presupposed values: playing chess itself worthwhile, being good at playing the opening in chess, durability into the middle- and end-game of opening advantages, validity of examples from games of masters.
    In play: soundness of specific lines, validity of this particular analysis, current assessments of key positions (opinions of top players), practical playability of specific lines.
  • Job interview.
    Presupposed values: good to have a job, looking good to the other party, compensated work, learning about each other, freedom to say “no,” looking for good fit.
    In play: honesty of both parties, appropriateness of fit, relevance and quality of specific items on resume, anticipated job duties of this position, personal qualifications and character.
  • Working out at the gym with a personal trainer.
    Presupposed values: fitness and health, avoiding injury, benefits of exercise, looking good, voluntary participation, professionalism, collaboration.
    In play: appropriateness of specific exercise for this client at this time, effort level, strategic goals and plan, etc.

The reader could have easily come up with these, and can no doubt come up with countless additional examples on their own. However, I hope these examples make it clear what I mean by “presupposed values”: they are not under discussion in the particular language game being played at the moment. To discuss them means stepping into a “meta” language game outside and prior to the current one.

I don’t believe it is possible to play a language game without the existence of presupposed values. For example, imagine the following statement in the blog of a person committed to “science and reason”: “Since this is a discussion based on science and reason, every effort will be made to keep statements ‘values-neutral’ and objective.” The irony is that the writer has just stated a value: specifically the value of “‘values-neutral’ and objective statements in a discussion committed to science and reason.” Nothing at all wrong here, except to point out that there is no “values-free.”

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…

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.

External Analysis

The analytical frame of mind seeks to break a thing apart to look at elements, mechanisms, or internal structures to understand how it functions. But I often find that an “external analysis” of boundary conditions, contexts, inputs and outputs — really just treating the thing as a “black box” — can answer questions without having to delve into the inner workings.

Of course, I don’t necessarily mean physical things. It could be anything from a job description you are writing to an economic theory. An example of an external analysis might be the design of fire-retardant chemicals. Since the purpose is to make something that won’t burn, if you succeed, it won’t oxidize easily or perhaps not even break down at all. From that simple external assessment, it is pretty clear that such a chemical will likely be a potential environmental contaminant, since it would hang around for a long time. Its toxicity would depend on other features, of course. Polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), for example, is very stable because the active sites on the hydrocarbon frame (two benzene rings) are occupied by chlorine atoms. (This is internal analysis now.) The molecules are chemically inert, but the chlorine atoms are very electronegative. These two facts — that the molecules are inert, and that they have electronegative sites — explain the carcinogenic properties. The PCB molecules hang around in the body long enough to find their way into the cell nuclei where they can disrupt DNA replication. So the internal analysis explains the particular mechanism of one particular chemical (PCB), but the external analysis (characteristics of a fire retardant) are enough to warn you that it may be dangerous.

I had to dig deep into my thirty-five-year-old memories of organic chemistry class to come up with that example, but here is another one that is of more general interest: supply-side versus demand-side economics. Part of the fun of external analysis is that it can be quite simple-minded and still be useful. A fundamental “law” of economics is that of supply and demand, which is actually a theory about how prices are determined in an open, competitive market. (In a controlled market, prices are either set by a government or a monopoly/oligopoly.) The idea is that when demand equals supply, prices will be at an equilibrium. Viewed externally, it is easy to imagine that in a demand-driven economy supply is lagging demand, so there is upward pressure on prices. In a supply-driven economy, supply is ahead of demand, so prices are softening. (External analysis saves us from having to do any math here.)

It makes sense that when Ronald Reagan was elected he was wanting to implement supply-side policies: inflation was in double digits and investment was weak. Now, after decades of supply-side policies, we see the specter of deflation all over the developed world while capital exceeds legitimate investment opportunities — flat growth, flat markets! So perhaps we need policies that stimulate demand. “Austerity” has the opposite effect: it is deflationary. Time for some long-overdue fiscal stimulus a la Keynes.