Language Games

I’ve just filed my copy for a review of Martin Weller‘s book, The Digital Scholar: How Technology is Changing Academic Practice (which, incidentally you can buy online but if I was you I would just grab the free version online because there’s less chance of that getting wet and ultimately crispy like my copy did).  Hopefully it will be forthcoming in JiME fairly soon.

It’s a bit of a strange experience to review someone’s work when you work for them – normally this happens behind a veneer of relative anonymity – but I hope I’ve managed to find the golden mean between obsequiousness and being critical just for the sake of it…

Anyway, the point of this post is to capture something that I was thinking about a long time ago and in the course of writing the review I was reminded of it.  It goes back to the following passage near the start of Martin’s book:

A simple definition of digital scholarship should probably be resisted, and below it is suggested that it is best interpreted as a shorthand term. As Wittgenstein argued with the definition of ‘game’ such tight definitions can end up excluding elements that should definitely be included or including ones that seem incongruous. A digital scholar need not be a recognised academic, and equally does not include anyone who posts something online. For now, a definition of someone who employs digital, networked and open approaches to demonstrate specialism in a field is probably sufficient to progress.

Weller, M. (2011:4)

A couple of years ago I was a researcher on the Digital Scholarship project and read Martin’s book in manuscript form.  I recall thinking at the time that the whole idea of digital scholarship was a bit sketchy.  After all, who isn’t ‘digital’ these days?  The whole thing seemed to me to need much more precise definition (which Martin always resisted for reasons I’ve never been entirely clear on but seem to have to do with something traumatic in his past around learning objects).  For what it’s worth, I think I understand his perspective a bit better now.

Anyway, re-reading this section got me thinking again and I had another look at the Wittgenstein.  The discussion of ‘games’ comes from the later part of Wittgenstein’s work; Wittgenstein is unusual among philosophers in that he produced two distinct and original philosophies during his life, both of which are primarily concerned with our relation to language.

The so-called ‘early’ Wittgenstein – he of the forbidding Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus -argued that most philosophical confusion results from failing to respect the sense-making limits of language.  Only certain kinds of propositional utterances – descriptions of states of affairs (facts) or relations of ideas (definitions) – make any sense and the rest is just confusion.  I’m oversimplifying.  But the general idea is expressed in the seven ‘basic’ propositions of the Tractatus.

  1. The world is everything that is the case.
  2. What is the case, the fact, is the existence of atomic facts.
  3. The logical picture of the facts is the thought.
  4. The thought is the significant proposition.
  5. Propositions are truth-functions of elementary propositions. (An elementary proposition is a truth function of itself.)
  6. The general form of truth-function is [p, ξ, N(ξ)]. This is the general form of proposition.
  7. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

There are of course problems with this, but the idea that philosophy is an activity which is fundamentally therapeutic (or even quietist) is one that has stuck around.  But in his later (posthumously published) work, Wittgenstein attempts to make sense of linguistic meaning moved away from logic in the direction of ordinary language.  I won’t go into the reasons for his development in this direction here, but trying to find absolute definitions is replaced by looking at how language is used in practical social contexts (like working on a building site, acting in a play, cracking a joke or playing a game) since “the speaking of language is part of an activity, or a form of life” (Wittgenstein, 1953:§23).  Wittgenstein termed the relationship between utterances and contexts ‘language games‘ to reflect the idea that the ‘rules’ language follows are less like axioms of logic and are mostly to do with making sense in a particular situation.

If we want to resist giving final definitions of (especially new) concepts we shouldn’t talk so much about ‘games’ but instead in terms of family resemblance between uses of language.  Games are just the example Wittgenstein uses to illustrate the point about family resemblances since there are lots of things we call ‘games’ but there are often lots of difference between them (competitiveness, equipment, purpose, etc.).  The thing that binds them all together is our use of the same word to describe them:  “what is common to all these activities and what makes them into language or parts of language” (Wittgenstein, 1953:§65).

The implications of this are more significant for philosophy than they might as first appear.

But to my mind the idea is not that we should give up on the idea of tight or final definitions.  Rather, we just need to be aware of the fact that ‘defining’ is also a language game and one that is often of great use (such as in taxonomy).

When it comes to a neologism like ‘digital scholarship’ we aren’t necessarily looking at a referent which already exists in common usage. Wittgenstein’s point about language use must be taken in conjunction with the idea of the impossibility of private language.  Language doesn’t enable forms of life, but forms of life enable language.  It isn’t through the definition of ‘game’ that Wittgenstein shows this, but through the idea of a ‘family resemblance‘ between different practical uses of the same word.

It’s understandable that we should strive not to get bogged down in trying to define things but we should also recognise that in itself this can be an incredibly valuable activity, particularly when sketching out new developments in existing fields, or indeed when identifying new domains of study.

And that’s the point I struggled to make even this concisely two years ago.  But that’s philosophy for ya.  Or maybe just me.

Weller, M. (2011).  The Digital Scholar: How Technology is Changing Academic Practice. Bloomsbury Academic.

Wittgenstein, L. (1922). Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. C.K. Ogden (trans.), London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical Investigations. G.E.M. Anscombe and R. Rhees (eds.), G.E.M. Anscombe (trans.), Oxford: Blackwell.

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One comment

  1. Later Wittgenstein is some of my most favourite philosophy. This brought to mind something I’ve only recently come across, through a reference from Joss Winn, Kevin Kelty’s work _Two Bits_ (on the cultural significance of open source.) In it he introduces the term “recursive publics” to describe the culture of open source, part of the defining feature of which are the seemingly never-ending (but extremely necessary) debates on definitions that actually help to create the boundaries of those publics. The point being not the final resolution but the ongoing discussion.

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