(These comments represent a journey in my undertstanding of Wittgenstein's Philosophical investigations. As I read Wittgenstein more closely, I have sometimes discovered certain preconceived ideas that had to be revised or discarded. 1-6 may sound like a plausible reading of Wittgenstein.but as I pay closer attention to the actual text and am able toI set aside my previous ideas about Wittgenstein, the more mistaken these early comments appear to be. Still, they seem to have some value -- at least, as a caution to those who think they know what Wittgenstein is about in his Philosophical Investigations without close reading of the actual text in its entirety.)
1. “I shall also call the whole, consisting of language and the activities into which it is woven, a ‘language-game’.” (PI, 7)
Is not Wittgenstein’s philosophical activity also one of the many language activities (games) that are woven into the whole (game)? How could it not be? Wittgenstein’s philosophical activity clearly involves techniques or skills that can be mastered and, like other games, can be played at different levels of sophistication. An example of such a skill in Wittgenstein’s game is what he calls a “grammatical investigation”:
“Understanding a world”: a state. But a mental state? – We call dejection, excitement, pain, mental states. Carry out a grammatical investigation as follows: we say
‘He felt dejected the whole day'
‘He was in great excitement the whole day’
‘He has been in pain uninterruptedly since yesterday’. –
We also say, ‘Since yesterday I have understood this word.’ ‘Uninterruptedly’, though? – To be sure, one can speak of an interruption of understanding. But in what cases? Compare: ‘When did your pains get less?’ and ‘When did you stop understanding that word?’ (PI, 149)
This manner of looking at our actual use of words like ‘pain’ is repeated over and over again throughout the Philosophical Investigations. Wittgenstein’s game, of course, is not restricted to one such gambit. There are many others that must be mastered. It is perhaps enough to say here that even the formatting of this critique of Wittgenstein’s philosophical activity is to play the Wittgensteinian game. Of course, it is a poor attempt, but like any game, Wittgenstein’s can be played on all levels of mastery.
2. But even if this critique of Wittgenstein’s philosophical activity is correct, what has been achieved? Does it invalidate or weaken Wittgenstein’s work? Of course not. For what is good or useful or true or well done has only relevance within the game that is being play. And certainly the fact that we have identified Wittgenstein’s philosophical activity as one language-game among others does not mean that it is frivolous, trivial or merely diverting. (Here it is important to remember that W explicitly states that he intends his use of “game” to be not a definition of anything or a valuation but rather an analogy that will help us understand how we use words. Further discussion of this ‘analogy’ is required.)
3. One consequence of identifying Wittgenstein’s philosophical activity as a “game” is that we are able to recognize that it has “affinities” and “family resemblances” with other philosophical activities, such as Plato’s or Aristotle’s. There are a great many of these “affinities” to be explored, but for now, it is enough to recognize how familiar Wittgenstein’s resort to everyday usage is to Aristotle’s discussion of happiness or how familiar Wittgenstein’s use of analogy is to Plato’s.
4. But on what ground can Wittgenstein’s “game” be considered superior to those of other philosophers who appear, despite their “affinities”, to be playing games as different as checkers, chess, ring-around-a-rosy, poker, or GO. The play in each of these can only be evaluated within the individual games themselves. The one fault we might find with Wittgenstein’s game is the same one we find in those of other philosophers: that their game is presented as the game, the one by which all others are to be measured.
5. That Plato is playing a different game from that of Wittgenstein can be demonstrated by an investigation into the former’s use of analogy. Plato uses his analogies (the cave, the divided line, the chariot, the theory of recollection which leads to the further analogy of the slave-boy) to bump up against the barriers of language: an attempt to say the unsayable. To turn any one of these analogies into Platonic doctrine is to forget the purpose within any given dialogue that these analogies serve. In the case of recollection and the slave-boy episode, Plato employs these analogies to help us move beyond Meno’s paradox that it is senseless to search for what one does not know. Indeed, at the end of the slave-boy analogy, Socrates offers this qualification:
I shouldn’t like to take my oath on the whole story, but one thing I am ready to fight for as long as I can, in word and act – that is, that we shall be better, braver and more active men if we believe it is right to look for what we don’t know than if we believe there is no point in looking because what we don’t know can never be discovered."
We may say something similar in response to Wittgenstein: the attempt to say what cannot be said about truth, beauty and virtue is not a futile activity even though it will render up only what is nonsense from Wittgenstein’s perspective. The attempt itself has the effect of creating a life that is experienced as deeply meaningful. In playing Plato’s game, we discover that what is of most value is not the answer to the question, What is virtue?, but the kind of life that silently, invisibly comes about as a consequence of earnestly asking the question.
6. Wittgenstein himself seems to be alive to and find personal value in those games that involve bumping one’s head against the barrier of language. See his “A Lecture on Ethics” as well as the later part of the Tractatus. It may be that Wittgenstein’s problem with Plato and other philosophers is really the problem that has developed with respect to his own philosophical activity: the philosophical activity has become hardened into doctrine, or even worse, dogma. (It is all too often forgotten that Wittgenstein used "game" as an analogy, which like all analogies must eventually fall away.) Socrates is all about the activity itself of philosophy, as is Wittgenstein. As with any game, the value is in the play itself.
(See Journal 7-13 where the above critique is understood as flawed.)