The Context of Language-Games

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

It is an essential element of Wittgenstein’s later philosophical methodology to study difficult concepts by imagining language-games in which key terms and phrases can occur in everyday linguistic practice, where they are justified by fulfilling a definite purpose in the way people live, or in terms of what Wittgenstein refers to as a form of life. The results of examining the possible uses of epistemic vocabulary in language-games enable Wittgenstein to determine the salient features of the vocabulary’s philosophical grammar. The principles of the philosophical grammar of the language of certainty establish that when a philosophically problematic vocabulary is contexted in the everyday language-games in which it serves a pragmatically justified function, it occasions no philosophical problems. It is only when we remove such terms and phrases from their legitimate application outside of philosophy in ordinary linguistic practice and try to understand them in isolation that philosophical puzzles and paradoxes arise. The only proper philosophical methodology is Wittgenstein’s view is therefore one in which we try to arrive at a perspicuous representation of the appropriate ordinary language-games in which language use is naturally contexted. The activity of clarifying the pragmatically justified language-game provides a kind of therapy from the conceptual confusions that Wittgenstein attributes to philosophy as it is otherwise practiced, for example, as in Moore’s arguments.

There are many different language-games in which certainty is attributed to beliefs. The most familiar of these are contexts in which we claim to know something that we cannot imagine to be false. Wittgenstein elaborates the grounds for this sense of psychological certainty in situations in which we cannot imagine doubting a proposition, or in which we cannot consistently doubt a given proposition without equally doubting the meanings of the terms in which the doubt is expressed, or in which we judge that the fact that we doubt could never be as certain for us as the beliefs we may try to doubt. According to Wittgenstein, in language-games in which we express knowledge or certainty, the claim that a belief is certain signals the role of a proposition as a stable foundation for other beliefs in a larger system of beliefs. However, it does not certify the proposition’s truth in any higher philosophical sense that would remove it from all possibility of doubt from the standpoint of a different imaginable belief system.