Words, Wittgenstein, and the Language of Religion (ii)

In his second thoughts, Wittgenstein, instead of a ‘picture’ theory, suggested a use or tool theory of meaning. A ‘picture’ can only represent a single state of affairs, but a ‘tool’ can be put to a wide variety of ‘uses’. To understand language, we need to look at how it functions in life, at how people ‘use’ it. The meaning of a word, rather than a single definition, is the sum total of all of its uses in language. And rather than the earlier view that it’s the structure of reality that determines the structure of language, it’s now more the structure of our language that determines how we think of reality, since we couldn’t talk, or even think, about the world unless we possessed a conceptual apparatus that allowed us to do so, and that apparatus is language. It permeates every aspect of our lives.

Whereas in his earlier thinking, fact-stating alone was meaningful, it’s now acknowledged that that’s only one of the meaningful ways in which people use language. Wittgenstein suggested that we all engage in many ‘language games‘, in each of which, the same word can have significantly different meanings. For him, language now has no single essence, such as ‘fact-stating’. Just as the vast majority of words have no single essence but a wide variety of uses and meanings, such is also the case with language as a whole. We ought all to remind ourselves of this, before we engage in arguments about ‘the real meaning’ of such words as truth, freedom, beauty, goodness etc., not to mention God.

We mustn’t be misled by the term ‘language games’. It has nothing to do with superficiality or frivolity. It’s not about ‘playing’ with words for playing’s sake. The idea is, to take the word ‘game’ itself, that there’s no one thing that all games have in common, by virtue of which they are games. On the contrary, they have a variety of features that overlap with one another. All games will have one or more of these, but not all games will have that particular one. Wittgenstein uses the analogy of ‘family resemblances’. Rather than one feature that all family members will have in common, each will possess one or more of a number of features belonging to that family in general.

The importance of this is that we use language differently for different purposes. The same word can have different meanings depending on whether it’s being used in a philosophical, scientific, religious, political, or literary, language game. Looking up a dictionary could be a useful starting point, but only if it’s a quality dictionary listing a wide variety of instances of use. In addition, we need to make sure that we’re all playing the same game, or singing from the same hymn sheet, otherwise the door is wide open to misunderstanding, cross-purposes and barren argumentation rather than fruitful discussion. 

Wittgenstein also suggests that no language games have single, unique foundations or transcendental justifications. All of them, equally and simply, are human activities, each not fundamentally different from the rest. Using words is part of our ongoing, day-to-day, social, rule-governed (though flexible rather than rigid) behaviour. He also suggests that there’s no point of view from ‘outside’ of a language game that enables us to stand back and assess how accurately it represents reality. We’re always working ‘inside’ language, even as we try to assess the workings of language. All our conceptions of the world, of science, religion, politics, the arts etc., have been built up in us, and by us, in linguistic terms that we can never get ‘outside’ of. As before, language permeates us through and through.

Staying, then, with the suggestion that each language game can be understood only from the inside, let’s recall the logical positivist claim that religious utterances, being experimentally unverifiable, are meaningless. Wittgenstein would say that religious language has been spoken throughout time in every known society, and must be understood and assessed by the ways in which it has functioned in them.

Different games have different rules, and so religious utterances can’t be assessed in the same way as scientific utterances. Each of these two plays different roles in human life, and that is where we must find their meanings. For Wittgenstein, one of the mistakes we often still make is to treat all linguistic utterances as if they were claiming to be scientific, and then to dismiss them as experimentally unverifiable pseudo-science. A claim made in the name of religion is not the same as a claim made in the name of physics, and cannot be judged on the same basis.

Religion and Science equally involve ‘language games’, and Wittgenstein would say that it’s not the task of his philosophy to assess the success or failure of either of these games, but only how they’re played. Science isn’t the top game, with the answers for everything. As I write this, there’s news of the possible discovery of a new physical force which would entail a re-write of physics’ current ‘standard model’. Religion isn’t the top game either, having never had a universally accepted ‘standard model’. They talk in different language games, and have to be understood to do so. But if they talk instead of argue, and collaborate instead of compete, and compare, clarify and agree meanings, then they can find areas for mutually enriching cross-fertilisation. As Einstein said, “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” A bit more humility and mutual respect all round, and a bit less name calling and sniping from both sides, would be advantageous, enriching, and hopeful for us all, and for our fragile world in this 21st century.

[ These being brief posts, this is a very limited, and non-professional, account of Wittgenstein’s philosophy. I’ve made particular use of a first-class, and highly recommendable introduction, in “The Great Philosophers”, edited by the philosopher, author and broadcaster, Bryan Magee, in conversation with John Searle, Professor of Philosophy at the University of California in Berkeley. ]

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