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?

The Wisdom Prayer

Before I continue describing the power dynamics at play in the formation and evolution of language games, let’s take a break and just play one. Without any meta-analysis of the language game I am playing here (“sharing experiences of recovery”) I will just “make a move.”

My father joined Alcoholics Anonymous in 1963, when I was two years old. We frequently recited the famous “Serenity Prayer” at the dinner table as I was growing up. Later, when I was twenty-three, I had the “honor” of following his footsteps on a path to recovery of my own. While supplicatory prayer to a deity is no longer part of my daily spiritual routine, I must have said the Serenity Prayer countless times in the first decades of my sobriety. Its most common (short) form is as follows:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

This prayer was originally written by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. For understanding the nuances it helps to see a slightly longer version (also by Niebuhr) which reads:

God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

I have decided that calling it “The Serenity Prayer” is a big mistake: it gives the impression that “serenity” is the main thing being asked for when in fact the crucial element is wisdom. When I know for a fact that something cannot be changed, it is easy to accept it. Likewise, when I am certain that my effort to change something will be rewarded with success, I jump right in without even considering the need for “courage.” But real agony sets in when I just don’t know whether I must accept something or I should work to change it.

And some of the worst suffering in my life has been when I was absolutely certain I couldn’t change something so I prayed and prayed for the serenity to accept it, to no avail. Meditation, formal rituals of surrender, “moving on” to other concerns: nothing worked. I always found myself back in the familiar anguished state of bewilderment, frustration, and despair. When one day it dawned on me that I might be wrong, I found the biggest obstacle to changing my view was the amount of energy I had invested in explaining to myself why I had no choice in the matter. For example, I had dropped out of college in 1983, about two thirds of the way through a B.S. in chemistry. I had long since moved on and made a decent career as an I.T. guy. I was working way more than forty hours per week; I had kids and a mortgage. Surely it was too late for the self-indulgence of going back to college? But the negative effects on my self-esteem took a toll over the years. Even I got tired of hearing my excuses and negative storytelling about how I had missed my chance. Knowing the difference between something that can be changed and something that can’t is wisdom, and it is what I needed.

The same thing applies to situations where I fought for years to change something, unwilling to accept that it was simply never going to happen. Serenity is great. Courage is great. But only wisdom can make the difference that ends suffering.

Internal Combustion versus Conflagration

I ended my previous post by calling language games “the internal combustion engines of society.” Nature abounds with naked power struggles: tectonic plates bumping and jostling, atmospheric forces colliding to create weather, species competing for an ecological niche, predator/prey relationships. The ability to control and make use of fire was a key turning point in human evolution. Fire is dangerous when out of control, but when contained in a wood stove or an internal combustion engine it provides useful energy to power our economic activities. Similarly for language games: power imbalances are harnessed to move society forward.

When uncontrolled, the power imbalances among people can be quite brutal. Feudalism, slavery, predatory capitalism, organized crime, despotic regimes, and wars are examples where the only check on power is the existence of a rival power. The modern liberal state exists in part for the purpose of checking the abuses of power through the collective action of “the people” through constitutions, legislatures, laws, regulations, courts, and law enforcement institutions. Within each of these are language games that allow for constrained power struggles between agents: court cases, free-market competition, sports, and, of course, political competition in elections. The societal forces that enclose and structure these games prevent the conflagration that would result from a lawless, Hobbesian war of all against all, while the power struggles fought within the confines of the “rules of the game” lead to progress: new laws, new products, new ideas, new knowledge, and the carrying out of justice.

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.”

Examples of Language Games

It is important to understand that “language games” are not just linguistic constructs: they involve human players interacting in a real world. The meanings of words and sentences are inextricably tied to intentions, actions, and formal rituals. Some simple examples.

  • In an operating room the surgeon holds out his hand and says “clamp.” An assistant places a clamp into his hand.
  • In a traffic stop I roll down my window when the officer indicates for me to do so. She asks, “Do you know why I stopped you today?”
  • Two people stand before an ordained minister in a room full of people. The minister begins, “We are gathered here today to witness the coming together of these two people…”
  • A new client comes to my office and fills out an intake form. I ask if they need anything (implying restroom, water) before we go back to the treatment room. We sit and discuss the information they provided on the form and discuss treatment options before starting the massage session. (Much more on this in later posts.)
  • A chess player moves Qh8+ and says, “Draw?” The other player nods in agreement, and they shake hands.

These are snippets of larger language games. General-use words from our language will take on very specific meanings within the game being played. In the examples above we see the words ‘clamp’, ‘stop’, ‘witness’, ‘form’, and ‘draw’, all of which might indicate something else entirely in another situation. There is no confusion in the context, because everyone knows which language game is being played at the moment.

But when participants in a language game happen to disagree on which language game is operative at a given moment the results can range from merely comical to utterly tragic.

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.


In chess the goal of checkmate is absolute while all other values are subordinate to it. In philosophy, unlike the game of chess, values are not encoded into the rules of the game itself. In fact, one of the goals of philosophy is to find out what our values should be! Yet we can’t even begin the process of philosophizing without accepting that we come to it with preformed ideas. When Descartes began his explorations of a “first philosophy” by invoking the procedure of “radical doubt” he was presupposing the value of certain knowledge as the ultimate yardstick. He did not start by demonstrating that it is actually possible to know anything with certainty, nor did he take the time to argue that knowing things with certainty was a good and useful goal. He just assumed that his reader would already agree with him on these points. So even a “first philosophy” does not begin in a vacuum, but rather occurs in the context of a fully-formed culture. I cannot begin to overemphasize the importance of this point.

Before launching into the development of a philosophical position (strategy and tactics are both required to form sound arguments), one must have a fully developed sense of what is important in life (i.e., wisdom) even if the goal is to expand and refine those values. It is a cyclical process that feeds back into itself. What is often missed is how radically different the resulting philosophies are which started from different cultural contexts. And it explains a lot. That is why there can be a philosophy of chess, a philosophy of science, a philosophy of law, a philosophy of gender, etc., each with different emphases and ethical implications. Being able to construct a well-formed argument to support a solid philosophical position is what makes you a good philosopher. Knowing which presupposed values should undergird your philosophy is what makes you wise.

A Little Meta-Philosophy

Given that breaking down the word “philosophy” into its Greek roots implies “love of wisdom,” it makes sense to emphasize wisdom over mere cleverness, as did Plato in his famous dialogues. At the risk of sounding clever myself, the recursiveness of the formula “it would be wise to value wisdom over cleverness” lends emphasis to its self-apparent truth. Unfortunately, recursive formulas contain very little definitional content due to their circularity. To shed light on the distinction between wisdom and cleverness I could just refer you to Plato, but perhaps I can take a little stab at it here.

The literature of the game of Chess relies heavily on a similar distinction between “strategy” and “tactics.” Strategy generally refers to long-term goals, whereas tactics are the means of achieving them. So a strategy might be expressed verbally like so:

“Given that Black’s pieces are currently gathered on the Queen side and are thus not able to quickly come to the defense of the Black King, and given the weakness already existing in the pawn structure of the Black King’s castled position, White should adopt the strategy of attacking on the King side after making appropriate preparations such as stabilizing the center, opening lines, and concentrating attackers near the King. If this strategy succeeds it will become possible to break through the King’s defenses and achieve checkmate.”

Notice that in the description of the strategy there are few specifics: only some generalities about the state of the Black position. “Stabilizing the center” is a sub-strategy, based on established general principles, which should make the success of the large-scale strategy of the King side attack more likely. The specific method of stabilizing the center, perhaps pushing a pawn from e4 to e5, or trading pawns on d5 before planting a knight on e5, falls into the realm of tactics. But judging which of the two methods is better is still a strategic question. Opening the ‘h’ file by advancing the pawn to h5, with the White Rook behind it, then exchanging on g6, maneuvering the White Queen to h3 after the Rook has been moved to h6, etc: these are tactical maneuvers serving a strategic goal. The final combination to break through the Black defenses, perhaps involving sparkling sacrifices of material to finally trap the Black King in a mating net, these are the culmination of strategy by tactical means.

We can summarize the distinction between strategy and tactics as follows: strategy is “general” or abstract, tactics are “specific” and mechanical. The soundness of a tactical “trick” is not just in the achievement of its mechanical purpose, but even more importantly, whether the achievement of that tactical effect succeeds in bringing about the strategic goal. All the brilliantly clever tactics in the world are worthless if the strategy they serve is based on the wrong values. In philosophy, we must be clear on what the purpose of philosophy itself is — in human and social terms — before launching into the fancy footwork of clever arguments, or our entire mission will fail.