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The Philosophical Investigations of Ludwig Wittgenstein.

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Aphorism 65-69 from
Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations
with commentary on the right by
Lois Shawver
(Emphasis in bold is inserted by Shawver to enhance commentary.) 
Shawver commentary:
65.   Here we come up against the great question that lies behind all these considerations.-For someone might object against me: "You take the easy way out! You talk about all sorts of language-games, but have nowhere said what the essence of a language-game, and hence of language, is: what is common to all these activities, and what makes them into language or parts of language. So you let yourself off the very part of the investigation that once gave you yourself most
headache, the part about the general form of propositions and of language." 


We have now shifted to a new topic that he announces straightforwardly.  The topic is presented in the form of an Augustinian voce, or a "somone."  This someone wants Wittgenstein to defie the essence of the concept of a language game.  Notice, within the Augustinian frame, the 'essence" is equal to "what is common to all these activities."  This idea goes back to Plato who talks of the essence of various things or the transcendental idea behind their various sensual manifestations.

So, the question is: What is the essence of a language game?  and hence to all of language?  What is the essence of language?

Also, notice that in the last part of this passage, the Voice reminds LW that this search for the essence was once something that he tried very hard to do, and it gave him considerable trouble.

And this is true.-Instead of producing something common to all that we call language, I am saying that these phenomena have no one thing in common which makes us use the same word for all,-but that they are related to one another in many different ways. And it is because of this relationship, or these relationships, that we call them all "language". I will try to explain this.  It is true, LW is saying, that he hasn't yet presented this essence that is common to all language (or all language games).  His answer here in this passage is very famous, and it is a powerful move in developing the Wittgensteinian framework.  Before this move, it seems imperative that we define the essence of what we are talking about.  Now, LW is going to show us another way to see things.
66. Consider for example the proceedings that we call "games". I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? -- Don't say: "There must be something common, or they would not be called 'games' "-but look and see whether there is anything common to all. -- For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don't think, but look! -- 
This aphorism has a little different structure than some of the others that we are reading.  Here LW is explicitly guiding our reading and he does such a good job of it, I am not going to offer much commentary. 

But a few notes:  Now, notice your inclination to say certain things has become the Wittgensteinian voice.  Now, we can begin to listen to this voice within ourselves.  The voice speaks within us when we want to say "there must be something common among "games."  There must be an essence if we have a concept.

LW says, in a manner of speaking, "don't say to yourself that this must be the case and then give yourself a headache trying to see what is not there.  Let's look at specific kind of cases and ask if the essence is there in those cases.

Look through these aphorisms while putting the point that he is making out of mind.  Don't think so much, or ponder what you're looking for, just look at your memories and understanding of games and detail what you observe.

Look for example at board-games, with their multifarious relationships.  Board games, what are some?  Consider chess, of course, but think also of monopoly.
Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear. 


Card games.  What about poker?  And what about Old Maid.  Remember that children's card game?  How are these card games alike and different from each other?  And how do they compare with board games?  What about the element of strategy?  Or how many players can play and whether or not there is a single winner or, as in Monopoly (I believe) there are different degrees of winning.
When we pass next to ball-games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost.-- Are they all 'amusing'? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In ball games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared. Look at the parts played by skill and luck; and at the difference between skill in chess and skill in tennis.  Think of the way one wins or loses in tennis.  Winning is hierarchical.  One can win a point, but lose the game.  One can win the game, but lose the set.  And one can win the set, but lose the match.  One can win the match but lose the tournament. Compare this with baseball (also hierarchical) or with checkers.  And howabout board games that revolve around a throw of the dice?
Think now of games like ring-a-ring-a-roses; here is the element of amusement, but how many other characteristic features have disappeared! sometimes similarities of detail. 
Then we have children's ritual games.  Do they have a winner?  What about drop the hankerchief?  Or London Bridge is falling down?  How about "spin the bottle."?  Are you winning or losing if the bottle stops pointing to you? 

What about jacks?  Jacks is a girls' game that was popular when I was a child and I was into the game.  You have 10 little objects called "jacks" that you toss onto the ground as the other girls sit in a circle.  Then each girl has a turn.  She starts with a ball in her preferred hand and she tosses the ball up and lets it bounce and before it bounced again, she picks up one jack and then catches the ball before it bounces again.  She does that with each jack.  Then she does "twosees" which means she picks up two jacks in one sweep.  She continues that until she has done all ten jacks.  Then, if she completes that round without difficulty, she starts again with a more difficult rule.  Perhaps she doesn't let the ball bounce at all, or she not only picks up the jacks but she puts them in a particular place before she catches the ball.  There are a few of these rounds that are already invented, but it is common for the winning player to invent the next game.

How does "jacks" compare with chess?  Or with ring-a-ring-o-roses?  How are they different?  How does it compare with tennis?  Or American football?

And we can go through the many, many other groups of games in the same way; can see how similarities crop up and disappear. 


Don't children invent games on the spot?  See who can spit the furtherest?  Or see who can solve a particular puzzle first?  Or who can follow a rule the best (think of Simon Says).
And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and cries-crossing: sometimes overall similarities.


And what you'll find, I think, if you go through a careful study of these various types of games, is that there are similarities and differences.  Poker is like chess in certain ways.  They both have clear rules and the winner is likely to have practice and skill.  But they are different in some ways, too, and if you look at how they are different, you'll find other games that are not different in these ways, but different in other ways.
67. I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than "family resemblances"; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and cries-cross in the same way.-And I shall say: 'games' form a family. 


Here is the key move, and the new metaphor that LW extends to replace the old Platonic metaphor of essence.  The concept is one of "family resemblance."
family Notice Al and Jack have the same eyebrows, while Elmer and Bob have the same ears and Al and Bob have the same smile.  There is no common feature among them yet they all resemble each other.
Wittgenstein Family
And for instance the kinds of number form a family in the same way. Why do we call something a "number"? Well, perhaps because it has a-direct-relationship with several things that have hitherto been called number; and this can be said to give it an indirect relationship to other things we call the same name. And we extend our concept of number as in spinning a thread we twist fibre on fibre. And the strength of the thread does not reside in the fact that some on e fibre runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibres. 
I suppose what LW means here is that we call positive numbers, negative numbers, real numbers, or a sequence of characters (a,b,c...z) numbers (see 8).  How are these "numbers" like and unlike a series of characters that we would not consider numbers?

Also, consider phone numbers, and the numbers on football jerseys, social security numbers,  numbers that are ranks, verus numbers that can be added and subtracted. 

Or, let's take an example that requires less mathematical sophistication.  Take the word "food."  Imagine a plate of food composed of only vegetables, or a food concoction made of cheese and tomato sauce, or food for the dogs, or for the goldfish.  Also, imagine spoiled food, or raw food, or petrified food. Is there some single feature in these foods that runs through all of them?  Think of artificial food (like wax apples) and playfood (for children's tea).  And don't say that the single feature is that they are all related to eating because that is a way we frame "wax food" and "play food" but it is not a characteristic of this "food."

And, what a closer examination shows is that even if there isn't a single thread that runs through everything (and there may be in some cases, of course), there is a family resemblance between these different items.  Some are edible.  Some are animal flesh.  Some are vegetable.  But there need not be a single aspect that is common to all the varieties.

Can you think of another example that can be analyzed in this way?  Take the concept of "thought."  Do all the different acceptable uses of this term have a common feature?  Or take the concept of "nothing."  Is the meaning of "nothing" the same in these two sentences:

1. There is nothing in the box.
2. There is nothing for me to do.

But if someone wished to say: "There is something common to all these constructions-namely the disjunction of all their common properties"  --I should reply: Now you are only playing with words. One might as well say: "Something runs through the whole thread- namely the continuous overlapping of those fibres".  This is an important passage, too.  It points to the tricks we play to keep ourselves in the fly-bottle.
68.    "All right: the concept of number is defined for you as the logical sum of these individual interrelated concepts: cardinal numbers, rational numbers, real numbers, etc.; and in the same way
the concept of a game as the logical sum of a corresponding set of sub-concepts."
Here's the Augustinian voice, again.  It always seems to have a comback.  To return to the concept of "number," remember LW had said that there need not be a single common feature in all "number" systems.
--It need not be so.  For I can give the concept 'number' rigid limits in this way, that is, use the word "number" for a rigidly limited concept, but I can also use it so that the extension of the concept is not closed by a frontier. And this is how we do use the word "game". For how is the concept of a game bounded?


Here is another important passage.  Wittgenstein is pointing to the way in which we can locally and provisionally define a concept.  How do we do this?  In numerous ways.  Sometimes we set things up explicitly.  We say, "I am using the word number here to mean 'rational number.'"  And sometimes this slips in without our awareness.  (We studied this 51-59, and see especially 51).
What still counts as a game and what no longer does?  I think we can count this as the Augustinian voice.
Can you give the boundary? No.  It is very hard to delineate what the boundaries of a game are, to define it so that it includes both tic-tac-toe and Rugby.
You can draw one; for none has so far been drawn.  But in a local and provisional context you might say, "By game I mean something in which one keeps score and there is a definite winner."
(But that never troubled you before when you used the word "game".) But ordinarily you use the word "game" without trying explicitly to define it locally and provisionally.  You just say, "Is this some kind of a game?" and you take it that people will understand you. 
"But then the use of the word is unregulated, the 'game' we play with it is unregulated."  Now, the Augustinian feels uncomfortable with where we're going.  It seems we need to keep things more tied down than this.
It is not everywhere circumscribed by rules; but no more are there any rules for how high one throws the ball in tennis, or how hard; yet tennis is a game for all that and has  rules too. The rules of the game can't control every last detail of the action.  There is always a considerable amount action that is beyond the rules of the game. 
69.    How should we explain to someone what a game is?  If we don't have a common thread running through everything we call a "game" it seems very chaotic!  How on earth do we teach people to use this term "game"?
I imagine that we should describe games to him, and we might add: "This and similar things are called 'games' ". And do we know any more
about it ourselves? Is it only other people whom we cannot tell exactly what a game is?
Still, don't we teach this term "games" to children?  And don't they learn it?  Can it really be as diffficult as all that if we manage to teach it so easily?
 -But this is not ignorance. We do not know the boundaries because none have been drawn. To repeat, we can draw a boundary-for a special purpose. Does it take that to make the concept usable? Not at all!  (Except for that special purpose.) No more than it took the definition: 1 pace = 75 cm. to make the measure of length 'one pace' usable. And if you want to say "But still, before that it wasn't an exact measure", then I reply: very well, it was an inexact one.-Though you still owe me a definition of exactness.  The term "game"  is not a difficult term for a child to learn and the fact that it seems that it should be  is a flag for this being a confusion left over from our Augustinian muddle.

The situation is that we imagine that we have one term here and the different senses are just variations on a common theme, but in practice we take these vague concepts that are loosely defined and we tie them down to more particular definitions.  It just takes a moment to do this, and the practice is all around us.  It is just that we fail to notice that we do this.  We have a theory of terms having essential meanings (based on transcendental essences) and this belief in the theory of language is so strong we simply overlook the way in which we negotiate the language that we use, when other people do it, and when we do it ourselves.

#[Someone says to me: "Shew the children a game." I teach them gaming with dice, and the other says "I didn't mean that sort of game." Must the exclusion of the game with dice have come before his mind when he gave me the order?]  This is a footnote in which LW reminds us how we teach this ostensibly difficult concept of "game."  Notice how we have practices of continuously clarifying our local and provisional meanings.

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Shawver Commentary

Index Page
Extended Look at 43

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