Language-Games and the Stream of Life

  • David Bloor
Part of the Theoretical Traditions in the Social Sciences book series


In the Blue and Brown Books Wittgenstein introduced the idea of language-games by saying that they are ‘the forms of language with which a child begins to make use of words’ (BB, p.17). To study them, he said, is to study primitive forms of language, and primitive languages. The point is to ensure that matters of principle stand out clearly. One such principle is that linguistic responses can only be understood if we see how they are integrated into patterns of activity. ‘Only in the stream of thought and life do words have meaning’ (Z, 173). Meaning is located in the function that words have as ‘signals’ passed back and forth between people in the course of purposeful and shared activity (PI, I, 180; Z, 601). ‘Here the term “language-game” is meant to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity or of a form of life’ (PI, I, 23). Many of Wittgenstein’s examples involve work and labour. One language-game he describes in some detail involves a builder, called A, and his helper, B.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Notes and References

  1. 1.
    Strictly, what I have counted as different facets of the same game, Wittgenstein counts as different language-games.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    The word ‘finitism’ has a variety of more-or-less technical meanings. My usage follows that of Hesse: M. Hesse, The Structure of Scientific Inference, London, Macmillan, 1974, ch.8.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Cf. also Z, 540–1.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    ‘If you use a rule to give a description, you yourself do not know more than you say. I.e. you yourself do not foresee the application that you will make of the rule in a particular case. If you say “and so on”, you yourself do not know more than “and so on” ‘(RFM, III, 8).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    For a valuable discussion of the topics broached in this section see B. Barnes, ‘On the Extension of Concepts and the Growth of Knowledge’, Sociological Review, vol. 30, no. 1, 1982, pp.23–44.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 6.
    In the Blue and Brown Books the idea of family-resemblance groupings is applied to psychological concepts like recognising, comparing, expecting, etc. The aim is to show that there is no single, characteristic experience that is referred to by these concepts; cf. BB, pp.87-8, 112.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    L. S. Vygotsky, Thought and Language, ed. and trans. E. Hanfmann and E. Vakar, Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press, 1962; e.g. pp. 61 and 62.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 8.
    ‘Don’t look only for similarities in order to justify a concept, but also for connexions. The father transmits his name to the son even if the latter is quite unlike him’ (RPP, vol.1, 923).Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Opinions have divided sharply on the status and scope of family-resemblance theory. The majority opinion seems to be that its scope is limited. An important exception to this is R. Bambrough, ‘Universal and Family Resemblances’, Proceedings of the Aristotelean Society, vol.LXI, 1960–1, pp. 207–22. While agreeing with the general thrust of Bambrough’s argument, my treatment of the issue will be somewhat different.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    K. Campbell, ‘Family Resemblance Predicates’, American Philosophical Quarterly, vol.2, no.3, 1965, pp.238–44, p.244. Campbell’s paper is an attempt to clarify Wittgenstein’s doctrine. It is therefore worth noting that it proceeds along very un-Wittgensteinean lines because Campbell takes for granted the idea of a reference class, or extension. In the formal development of his argument Campbell acknowledges that whether a concept has a family-resemblance structure is always relative to the background of linguistic usage — i.e. the taken-for-granted or ‘basic’ predicates in the language. This important element of relativity is never reconciled with his call to banish family-resemblance concepts from science.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    L. Fleck, Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, Chicago, Chicago University Press, 1979. (First published in German in 1935.)Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Ibid, p.5.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Ibid, p.12.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Ibid, pp. 13–14.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Experimentally injecting an animal with Spirochaeta pallida and observing the onset of the disease will not prove the point. It is also necessary to prove that the real cause was not introduced along with the suspected cause.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Fleck, Genesis and Development, p. 18.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Ibid, p.19.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Ibid, p.19.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Ibid, p.9.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    The law of constant proportions had to be established in the face of a host of obscurely understood counter-examples and anomalies such as solutions, alloys and glasses. Only later, after the law had been accepted, did reasons emerge for not counting these cases as compounds. Although these cases came to be understood in a way that reconciled them with the law of constant proportions, other problems emerged, e.g. interstitial compounds. See L. Nash, ‘The Atomic-Molecular Theory’, in J. Conant and L. Nash (eds), Harvard Case Histories in Experimental Science, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1966, vol.1, pp.217–321, esp. pp.238–141Google Scholar
  21. and J. Agassi, Towards an Historiography of Science, The Hague, Mouton, 1963, esp. pp.58–60.Google Scholar
  22. 21.
    Recall for example the idea popularised by, among others, Otto Weininger: that each human being, and perhaps even each cell of the body, is really a mixture of the pure male archetype and the pure female archetype: O. Weininger, Sex and Character, London, Heinemann, 1906 (trans. from the 6th German edn). This example has been specially chosen. Wittgenstein is known to have been greatly interested in Weininger’s writing. They were widely discussed in Vienna. See, for example: A. Janik and S. Toulmin, Wittgenstein’s Vienna, London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1973, pp.71–4, 176Google Scholar
  23. W. Bartley, Wittgenstein, London, Quartet, 1974, pp.13–14Google Scholar
  24. A. Janik, ‘The Philosophical Sources of Wittgenstein’s Ethics’, Telos, no. 44, Summer 1980, pp.131–44.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. 22.
    Fleck discuses this on p.xxvii and pp. 112–13 of Genesis and Development. A similar thesis and its methodological implications are explored in: H. Collins, ‘The Place of the “Core Set” in Modern Science: Social Contingency with Methodological Propriety in Science’, History of Science, vol. 19, 1981, pp.6–19CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. H. Collins, ‘Understanding Science’, Fundamenta Scientiae, vol.2, 1981, pp.367–80.Google Scholar
  27. 23.
    A. J. Ayer, The Problem of Knowledge, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1956, p.11.Google Scholar
  28. 24.
    E. Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1937.Google Scholar
  29. 25.
    ‘It is evident that there was a critical difference of viewpoint between Compton and Gray. Gray had argued that any difference in intensity between the primary and secondary beams could only stem from a change in hardness of the radiation in the scattering process. Compton chose precisely this change in hardness as a criterion for distinguishing the “truly scattered” radiation from the “fluorescent” radiation.’ R. Stuewer, The Compton Effect, New York, Science History Publications, 1975, p.139.Google Scholar
  30. 26.
    Cf. OC, 98.Google Scholar
  31. 27.
    G. Baker, ‘Criteria: A New Foundation for Semantics’, Ratio, vol.16, no.2, 1974, pp.156–89.Google Scholar
  32. 28.
    Ibid, p. 182.Google Scholar
  33. 29.
    Ibid, pp. 168–9.Google Scholar
  34. 30.
    E. Specht, The Foundations of Wittgenstein’s Late Philosophy, trans. D. Walford, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1963.Google Scholar
  35. 31.
    Ibid, p.165; cf. also pp.154 and 185.Google Scholar
  36. 32.
    ‘“We decide spontaneously” (I should like to say) “on a new language-game’” (RFM, III, 23). Cf. also PI, II, xi.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© David Bloor 1983

Authors and Affiliations

  • David Bloor
    • 1
  1. 1.University of EdinburghUK

Personalised recommendations