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Wittgenstein's Language Games


Explanations > Behaviours > Games >  Wittgenstein's Language Games

The game | Three games | So what?


Ludwig Wittgenstein is one of the foremost philosophers of the 20th century. Like many others, he discovered that language is surprisingly deep...

The game

Wittgenstein, in his early positivist work, saw sentences as pictures of the world. He later came to the view that language is, in fact, a series of games that are played out, each with its own rules.

He saw philosophical problems as coming not from the real world, but from language itself. Our concepts define our experience which we understand only through words.

Lyotard took it further, noting that it even goes down into detail, and each type of utterance can be defined in terms of its rules.

The rules do not carry their own legitimisation with them. They are objects of a contract between the players (which may or may not be explicit).

One way in which Wittgenstein's language games are played in when scientists seek to gain notoriety and fame through adoption of the theories that they either support or have derived themselves.

Games thus ebb and flow across scientific communities, where rules state that you should not only be able to support your own ideas but also show how competing ideas are false.

The effect of this is the rather alarming prospect that science is not so much scientific as linguistic and social. Science also tries to be the only game in town, declaring false anything that does not follow its rules.

Three games

Lyotard identified several games that are played, including:

The denotative game

Where the focus is on what is true or false. This is a simple scientific game, where facts are all that count.

Note that denotative meaning is simple and with a single meaning, whilst connotative meaning is complex, deep and individualised.

The prescriptive game

Where the focus is on good and bad, just and unjust. This implies the use of values, which are more social than the denotative facts.

The technical game

Where the focus is on what is efficient or inefficient. This is more factual, although values may be included.

So what?

Look into everyday language that people are speaking. See the games within the language itself that the speakers do not even realize that they are playing.

If you are arguing with a scientist, play the denotative game. Talk about facts, truth and falsehood (and avoid emotional arguments and considerations of good and bad).

See also

Use of Language


Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical Investigations, Oxford: Blackwell

Lyotard, J-F. (1984). The Postmodern Condition: A report on knowledge, Harmondsworth: Penguin


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