Transforming the world by inventing language games Essay

Transforming the world by inventing language games



The Limits of the World

Wittgenstein writes in the Tractatus that "the limits of my language mean the limits of my world”. Don't just think about those cases where you make a simple mistake in describing some aspects of a past experience, but rather think about those cases where the sense you had made of something is radically different from the sense you are now able to make of it. It is not the case that you could not make any sense, but that sense is now seen as dubious and perhaps hopelessly inadequate. In hindsight, it might seem that no matter how rich and robust your language, it somehow failed in your making sense of your experiences. I can think of two cases where language limits the world. First is the case of a child who has been sexually abused. With a very young child, she may have neither the language nor the mental and emotional capacities to make sense of her experiences. In this instance, it is not the case that she has all the words in her head but simply cannot express them. Rather, she has no language beyond the most primitive (crying, for example) with which to express herself. While this case is extremely important, I want to focus on the case of an older child, aged nine or so, who does have a good deal of language to use. She does have a language with which to make sense of herself, and the sense she is able to make is that she is a bad, dirty person. Her grasp of language use is new and somewhat tenuous and her repertoire of concepts is limited. But where she can apply these concepts, she applies them without exception. She is silent for many reasons fear of discovery by other people, fear of the judgments of others, and fear of the perpetrator. Her world is largely defined by these experiences and she thinks that she is the only one who could ever do the things she has done. No one else would ever do such things. She lives in a world of one, and a world that is limited by her inability to give other meanings to her experiences.

The second case is that of a young teenager who feels quite different from everyone, but she cannot locate the source of this difference nor can she express it. The one thing she often does know is that she doesn't want for this difference to be known. Her world becomes claustrophobic and the fear of discovery (of what, even she isn't sure) is all too real. She spends a great deal of energy hiding and misdirecting. In many ways, her world is reduced to a world of one, because she is sure, after all, that she is the only person around her who feels this way. The sense she may be able to make of herself is as some sort of freak or pervert.

Unpacking the Essentialisms

Sensing that you are somehow different without knowing the nature of that difference lends itself to essentialist interpretations. While some might find biological accounts of homosexuality comforting, such accounts are not without their price. When the trait or behavior in question is considered undesirable by that part of society whose norms are dominant, then those people who manifest this trait or behavior can take the tack that they did not choose to be this way and therefore they should not be blamed. This position does little to challenge the presumption that one sexuality should be normative and leaves those with the -deviant" sexuality apologizing for it. Furthermore, genetics is accorded huge explanatory power and the chain of explanation is quite direct. Genetic makeup explains one's sexuality, which in turn explains every- thing else about a person.' This essentialist account presupposes much of what Wittgenstein rejects, in particular, the claim that we individuals have privileged access to our sensations and that this privileged access guarantees that we are naming such sensations correctly. How does he know what his sensation is only from his own experience? He is like the person who has a box with something in it, which we call a "beetle." No one can look into another's box and he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle. "The thing in the box has no place in the language-game, not even as a something because the box might be empty.

The strength of the essentialist hold is a consequence of a variety of factors. One is a desire to be an unimpeachable authority on something, in this case, the working of one's internal mechanisms. Another factor is the desire to have control over something, again in this case, your thoughts, feelings, desires, and so on. No matter what sort of external constraints are placed on a person, one is still free to think and feel however one chooses, according to this account.

The first case, of the abused child, involves an essentialism of a different kind and reveals a perverse relationship between blame and responsibility. The person who has been abused often thinks that she is a horrible, awful, bad person. Her nature is essentially had and this explains all that has happened to her. She is somehow responsible for everything that has happened to her; she has brought it all on herself. Her character is ac-corded huge explanatory power and anything that she does or that happens to her is further confirmation of her true nature.

In both these cases, essentialism and secretiveness are linked through the need to control access to oneself. The essentialisms in both these cases are about privileged access to what are taken as the facts of the matter. In the case of the young woman sensing her difference from all her friends, she takes it as fact that she just is a freak or pervert. This fact or "true self" must somehow remain hidden from view, so she needs to have complete control over access to her thoughts. Being secretive is a way to control access. With the child who has been abused, the secrecy may have to do with hiding so that no one can see her shameful true nature and all the bad things she has done. Again, being secretive is away to control access and the need for such control may be heightened when so much access to her has been beyond her control.

Acquiring Worldviews and Following Rules

A Wittgenstein’s account has no essential "I" to which my beliefs, values, judgments and concepts attach. In a significant portion of On Certainty, Wittgenstein examines the acquisition of worldviews by individuals. Self-identity involves a dynamic interactive process whereby identity is created, reinforced, and modified by participation in a wide variety of language games. Self-identity is a function of our social interaction and participation with other persons, broader communities, social institutions, and the world. These interactions are done with or through language. Playing multiple language games is what constitutes the scaffolding of individuals' thoughts. A person's genealogy or self-identity is assembled through such activities. Self-identities are assembled piece-meal from worldviews, and should not be thought of as monolithic entities. It is language that allows a person, to a very large degree, to interact in meaningful ways. We learn particular languages and we come to learn about ourselves as members of particular families and later as members of larger social groups. We learn to become members of this family, this group, and speakers of this language. We learn to play a variety of language games, and this diversity of language games means that we do not learn to be abstract, atomistic, and generic people.

Rather, we learn that we are particular people who stand in a multitude of relationships and have memberships in a variety of communities.

The goal of linguistic training is the initiation of a person into a community that is bound by an allegiance to the rules of the symbolic system. This goal of initiation is realized through individuals' acquisition and inheritance of judgments, concepts, and beliefs that are held by the com-munity at large. These beliefs, concepts, and judgments constitute a worldview. A shared worldview is a shared background that is necessary for the formulating and the following of rules. By our saying and doing similar things under similar circumstances, the basis for agreement and disagreement is maintained. The shared worldview and judgments are something that we as socially constituted individuals inherit or acquire. We acquire totalities of judgments, systems of verification, and hosts of beliefs. Ac-cording to Wittgenstein, when we first come to believe anything, what we believe is a whole system of propositions and not single propositions. And these systems or totalities of judgments are acquired by means of observation and instruction. Wittgenstein intentionally does not say that one "learns" these systems. But while one does not learn whole systems, one does learn to do particular things. For example, we learn to make judgments and recognize that this is judging while that is describing. Even our practice of making empirical judgments, for example, relies on our having been taught judgments and their connection with other judgments. A totality of judgments is made plausible to us. One skill children learn early is how to judge others. And some children become quite skilled in judging themselves against standards that they cannot possibly understand. The child sees these standards and judgments holding for all people at all times. The standards and judgments are often transmitted and then taken as absolutes, allowing for no exceptions, mitigating factors, or alternative interpretations. A child is not yet in a position to see gray areas or the importance of mitigating factors; she does not yet possess the ability to make discriminations. The standards and judgments she acquires are transmitted by certain authorities. Wittgenstein asks, "So is this it: I must recognize certain authorities in order to make judgments at all?" Certain per-sons, in virtue of their position as parents and teachers, are accorded intellectual authority. Structured institutions such as universities are also taken as possessing intellectual authority. In general children are taught to obey their elders. Children do not regard all adults as authorities, and some children are brought up to believe they are superior to and have authority over adults of different sexes, races, ethnicities, religions. But even in light of that, even those children so raised will treat some adults as authorities. In many cases of sexual abuse, the child knows the abuser and knows him or her in a context where that person already is seen as some sort of authority figure. The abuser comes to have a greater authority over the child throughout and after the abuse. Ile or she is the one who would be believed, were accusations ever to he made; he or she is the one who determines whether the child is good or had, what kind of "love" or "punishment" is deserved, what count as "natural" and "special" ways to love. The abuser is the one who tells the child what kind of person she really is. The child learns by believing the adult and further, Wittgenstein says "I learned an enormous amount and accepted it on human authority, and then I found some things confirmed or disconfirmed by my own experience". Understanding what counts as confirmation and knowing how to go about it in particular instances depends on my already having accepted a whole range of beliefs. The abused child's sense of herself as dirty and bad is confirmed with every abusive act. Further, nothing or very little will count as evidence against what she believes to be true. These worldviews or systems acquired by us and others allow our correct following of a rule to be acknowledged. And further, according to Wittgenstein, "I did not get my picture of the world by satisfying myself of its correctness; nor do I have it because I am satisfied of its correctness. No: it is the inherited background against which I distinguish between true and false". Questions of correctness, truth or falsity, and justification can only meaningfully asked by someone within a system. The system provides the ground and makes possible the very conditions for asking and answering such questions. Our vast network of beliefs and—judgments that we take on in virtue of being members of particular constitute the background against which other propositions are believe, knowledge claims are made, and claims to knowledge are grounded and justified. The vast networks of beliefs individual have acquired are constructive of self-identity. I do not think it is inaccurate to say that a significant percentage of adults in the late twentieth-century United States have world views that are homophobic. There are degrees 01 homophobias, and it can be characterized in a variety of ways depending on the specific issues in question. The fiercely contested battles over the ordination of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals; gay marriage; adoption; the inclusion (or exclusion) of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals from civil rights protection; and the inclusion of gay, lesbian, and bisexual themes in school curricula are all evidence for homophobic worldviews. Adults are the ones fighting over these issues, but children are neither immune to nor unaware of these battles. In the course of the battles, children come to acquire many beliefs and judgments. I do not mean to imply that all children receive identical judgments. That would be patently false. But while there may he differences in particulars, certain general themes emerge. A partial list includes

1. Homosexuality is unnatural and its unnaturalness makes it sinful;

2. Gays and lesbians seduce and recruit individuals—pedophilia is the extreme form;

3. Gays, lesbians, and bisexuals think about sex all the time--they are promiscuous;

4. Lesbians are man-haters who because either they want to he men or can't get a man, hate all men; and

5. AIDS is God's revenge (or nature's revenge).

All kinds of sexual activity, and not just homosexual activity, are surrounded by judgments, prohibitions, and prescriptions. There are judgments made about sex outside of marriage, reasons for sex, selling sex, having sex with people of a different race, class, and so on.

The child learns to believe a host of things and learns to act according to those beliefs. Gradually, a system is formed of what is believed. Some propositions such as "the earth has existed for more than one hundred years" or "every human has parents" are beliefs that stand fast and are unlikely to shift. And "[w]hat stands fast does so, not because it is intrinsically obvious or convincing; it is rather held fast by what lies around it". Also included as standing-fast judgments could be any or all the judgments about sexuality and sexual practice listed above. It is only after a person has learned a whole set of propositions where some are held fast that she can realize that these propositions are like an axis around which a body rotates. The axis is held immobile by the movement around it and not because anything stationary holds it fast .Wittgenstein argues that those propositions fixed are removed from the traffic of questioning and doubt. And that we have a system of beliefs where some are more firmly held and far less likely to be given up is what gives us the scaffolding of our thoughts. This scaffolding is not privately constructed and is only possible through publicly shared beliefs. It is this scaffolding that allows us to be competent participants in a language game. Competency is generally taken to be a good thing; incompetence is a condition to be overcome. But in the case of an abused child and a homo-phobic teenager, the competency each possesses is a bad thing. In these cases, the competency is in judging and hating oneself. These are things in which no one should he made competent.

Following the Rules in Language Games

The question whether someone is following a rule can only be answered within a language game. A language game includes a range of activities and practices, and these practices have certain uniformity. Rule-following is only possible within a language game. Wittgenstein asserts that “his term language-game is meant to bring into prominence the fact the speaking of a language is a part of an activity or of a form of life". Utterances play a role in language games but they do not constitute the whole range o possibilities within language games. Talking is but one move in a language game and its meaning comes from the rest of our proceedings. This uniformity of practices is necessary for answering the question whether or not a rule has been followed. This uniformity of practices is reinforced and preserved when rules are followed in the same way. Rule-following is ultimately practical. The necessary uniformity of practice is maintained by people doing the same sorts of things, such as continuing the series in the same way or saying "red" when presented with a particular color patch. In other words, the uniformity of practice is maintained by people following rules in the same way. Wittgenstein's discussion of rule-following is primarily limited to simple mathematical examples, such as "add two" but his treatment can be extrapolated for nonmathematical examples. There are many rules around desire—who can desire who, when this desire can be acted upon, how can this desire he expressed, and so forth. Desiring is as rule governed an activity as is mathematics, and these rules are human creations enforced and perpetuated by individuals' actions. Rule-following also depends on the existence of authority relations. It is those who are in authority who judge whether a particular rule is being followed correctly. The rules are not the same for all people; they vary depending on race, gender, and class, and double standards are common. It is difficult to follow a rule correctly when the criteria for doing so are not applied uniformly or when the criteria appear to be uniform and consistent but really are not. We are not as obviously and overtly trained to desire as we are to count and to write cursive letters, but we are trained nevertheless. Similar power mechanisms are in place, and children have already inherited a host of judgments. Wittgenstein is remarkably silent about the uses and abuses of power by those institutions and individuals possessing authority. In learning to follow a particular rule such as "add two" Wittgenstein mentions "holding a person back" or "allowing him to go on" when he continues the sequence correctly." But there needs to be a much more sophisticated and sustained discussion of the operations of power. This issue of power is central to how oppressive backgrounds are maintained.' Girls get all sorts of messages about "boys being boys" and that little girls should find all attention from boys pleasing. They'd better not find them too pleasing though. The message that girls and women should not only desire men but also make themselves desirable to men is so familiar that it is invisible.

Women should not desire women. A woman who has an object of her desire another woman is not only perverted; she is overstepping her boundaries as a woman. She does, in effect, desire what she has no right to desire. Sanctions follow when rules are disobeyed, and these sanctions can take a variety of forms. And further, individuals impose sanctions on themselves when they realize that they are acting in ways that, on their accounting, are wrong. These self-imposed sanctions can be the most devastating and destructive of any imposed. There is no reprieve from yourself. Acquiring these worldviews and learning how to follow rules that are most often not made explicit and are given in veiled language make it inevitable that a child who has been sexually abused believes that she is a bad, dirty person responsible for what has happened. All evidence she has comes from various authority relations, and nothing could count against her beliefs. Similarly, the woman who has internalized all sorts of messages and rules about whom and how she is supposed to desire, is going to feel different from her friends. In both cases, their differences cannot (and should not, according to the dominant language games) be validated. The means or avenues for validation are not available to them. One important consideration to keep in mind about rules is that they are human constructions. Unlike the laws of nature they have to be accepted and to which we adjust, rules "not only can be changed without contravening laws of nature, but occur already in many variations. Rather than our having to adjust to rules, we can adjust the rules instead."8 Rules do not compel us nor leave no choice about how to act. The laws of gravity do compel us and really don't give us a choice—I cannot really be said to be disobeying the laws of gravity. Rules, however, leave something open; it is not as if the use or the application is already determined. It is not the case that the steps are really already taken. The steps are no more determined by the rules or formula than the movements or actions of a machine are determined. With regard to the machine, "He talks as if the parts could only move in this way, as if they could not do anything else." What we forget, according to Wittgenstein, is that it is quite possible that the various parts might melt, bend, or break off. The movements of the machine are not inevitable. That the ma-chine has moved in these ways does not entail that it will always do so. Similarly, it is not inevitable that once a person sees herself as bad or perverse she will always see herself so. Parts of the scaffolding of her thoughts can melt or break off, no less so than the parts of the machine.

Private access to one's feelings does not ensure validation or even that you are getting it right about what you are experiencing. Rather, one must make use of concepts and meanings that are socially constituted and acquired. Wittgenstein says that "seeing life as a weave, this pattern (pretence, say) is not always complete and is varied in a multiplicity of ways. But we, in our conceptual world, keep seeing the same, recurring with variations. That is how our concepts take it. For concepts are not for use of a single occasion". The weaves and patterns of our lives are not always recognizable to us. There are times when we are unable to recognize a pattern because it is staring us in the face. It’s very familiarity is what obscures it. As we begin to change our perspectives, literally and metaphorically, we begin to see patterns in different ways and we may undergo a shift in what we take to be significant within a pattern. The patterns we perceive may be quite familiar to us, so familiar, in fact that we fail to perceive that they are patterns. We are not encouraged to see the world in different ways when we already see it the right what would be the point? It is difficult, if not impossible, for a child on her own to see aspects of her life as abusive. For her, because certain things are familiar and have always been done in certain ways, these are ‘normal.’ She may be quite convinced that this just is how children are (and should be) treated. She may not be able to see the abusiveness of a situation until she somehow becomes aware of different ways children can be loved. And even when she does see these ways, she may spend a significant amount of energy reinterpreting her experiences so that they, too, are like those loving ways. Language games are not fixed, and new ones come into existence while other become obsolete and forgotten. Language-games, like any other games, can undergo changes. Wittgenstein asserts that "the rules of grammar are arbitrary in the sense that the rules of a game are arbitrary. We can make them differently. But then it is a different game. He specifically links the grammar of "language" with the grammar of invent." Further, new language games can be invented for specific purposes and the purposes of language use are countless. There is a prodigious diversity of our language games and it is possible to invent new ones because there are already a multitude of games being played. Language-games are human activities and so they do undergo change, perhaps gradually, as time passes. Furthermore, when we imagine the facts otherwise than how they are, then certain language games lose importance while others become more important. New language games can develop spontaneously, as we see things anew. Wittgenstein says that “something new (spontaneous and specific) is always a language-game". The appearance of new perspectives and new ways of seeing are responsible for changes in our language games. We can decide to invent new language-games, and their "newness" belongs with the new ways of looking at things. When language games are altered, then there is a "change in concepts and with concepts the meanings of words change". These new language games make new meanings possible and these new meanings allow people to make a different kind of sense to themselves and to others. The activities associated with breaking silence and coming out are two new language games that have been invented for specific reasons and in response to seeing the world differently. In many ways, they both represent shifts in how people are oriented in the world. "Shifts in orientations" is a useful way to think about these processes. New language games enable people to think about their identities and relations with others in new ways because they have new concepts and meanings to use.

In many ways, these new language games are opposed to the other language games that people had previously played and used to understand themselves. They are what Nancy Fraser has identified as oppositional discourses.'' Oppositional discourses are concerned to politicize needs or issues that previously had not been regarded as political. A need is politicized when it is contested across a wide range of discursive arenas and among a wide range of discourse publics. Distinct discourse publics can be distinguished along a number of axes, including race, gender, class, sexual orientation, ability, or any particularly mobilizing issue. Some publics have more power and exert a more direct influence on the formation and reinforcement of hegemonic world views. Such publics also have a greater say in what counts as political. Counter hegemonic publics do not have the power to politicize needs in the same way. An oppositional discourse is one where the needs talk is politicized from below. Such discourses tend to challenge the traditional boundaries of "the economic" and "the domestic" and "the political." They offer alternative interpretations, descriptions, and understandings of experience. By doing this, they challenge and undermine hegemonic worldviews. Oppositional discourses contribute to the crystallization of new social identities on the part of subordinated social groups. They can also lead to the adoption of new social identities. Oppositional discourses also provide a ground from which to challenge and undermine dominant language games and worldviews. Wittgenstein says in On Certainty that a group can use their language game as a base from which to combat others. The language games of coining out and breaking silence, with all their attendant activities and newly-created recognizable meanings are, in many ways, loci from which to fight against the dominant language games we have all played. By being visible, by fighting for inclusion in all sorts of ways, by exposing the logics of dominant language games, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and people who have been abused and survived are creating, maintaining, and reinforcing meanings and concepts that are more broadly available. These new language games provide alternatives to the dominant world. Achieving a shift in orientation—of how one sees oneself and one's relations to others—allows a person to examine, criticize, and discard some of the propositions that had stood fast and replace them with others.


New language games and oppositional discourses have been vital for people who have been sexually abused in seeing themselves as survivors, and for people who have felt outlaw or unnatural desires in seeing themselves positively as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Such shifts in self-perception and orientation have been, for many, life affirming if not life saving. The threat of co-optation leaves oppositional publics with a multitude of tasks: continuing to provide alternative interpretations and descriptions of experiences, creating new concepts and vocabularies for articulating experiences, reclaiming words, and most fundamentally, being visible, so that no child or young person thinks she is the only one who has ever done or had done to her these things and has felt these ways.


1. Tractatus logico-philosophicus trans, D.F Pears and B.F.McGuinness

2. Power and Sex, Focault in Politics Philosophy culture

3. The complicated Form of Life: Essays on Wittgenstein

4. Power, discourse and gender in contemporary social theory, Nancy Fraser

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