Religious Language, Wittgenstein, and Language Games in the A-Level Syllabi

I’ve had loads of conversations with A-level students and their teachers about religious studies and philosophy, and one of the topics that always makes them turn pale is religious language, and specifically the stuff on Wittgenstein and language games.

This is unsurprising when the resources linked to in the OCR A-level specification are Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations and a dense article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. These are far from ideal reading for a frazzled teacher with a thousand other things to think about, and still less for an A-level student who is probably unaccustomed to texts on this level.

If you have struggled to understand exactly what Wittgenstein is getting at, please don’t worry. In universities all over the world there is a whole cottage industry dedicated to trying to figure out exactly what Wittgenstein is getting at!

Having said that, there are some basics that can help you to navigate this material at the depth that you need for A-level, and once you get your head around those, you have some really handy concepts at your disposal for which you will find uses all over the place. I feel that they have lots of applications in the ways that we communicate in online spaces, and in political discourse, as well as when we talk about religion.

This is something I hope to make a short video about at some point, because it is something I get asked about so often, but for now, here’s a rough and ready blog post about it.

Background

The background to this topic may already be familiar, so feel free to skip this if you have followed all that, and just get hung up on the language games bit.

The question that all this is geared towards is “What is going on when we use religious language?” So, when we use words like “God”, “miracle”, and so on, what are we doing? Do these terms refer to real things? Do they have meaning in the same way that words like “cat”, “atom”, and “chair” have meaning?

A lot of doubt was cast on this in the early 20th Century following the thought of the Vienna Circle and A.J. Ayer (you can see more about that in relation to ethics in my video here.

The basic point here is that according to logical positivism (the view adopted by the Vienna Circle and Ayer) there are only two kinds of thing that count as knowledge: things that can be demonstrated through experience and observation, and things that can be proven through logic.

Statements are only the kind of thing that can have meaning if they can be true or false. They can only be true or false if there’s a way of testing them through science or observation, or if their truth or falsity can be demonstrated logically. They can be meaningful and still false, provided that they can be tested. So, for example, if I claim that all ginger cats are male, there’s a way of going out and checking this. If I make a mathematical statement, we can examine it logically (the logical positivists believed that mathematics was reducible to logic).

Anything that can’t be subjected to these kinds of tests is, according to this view, meaningless. It isn’t about anything at all.

This applies to talk about God and many other religious entities and concepts. They cannot (or so Ayer thought) be empirically tested, and they cannot be logically demonstrated. So, on this view, religious language is largely meaningless. It isn’t just that God doesn’t exist, but that when we talk about whether or not God exists, we’re not saying anything at all.

Games

So where do games come into this?

Philosophers of the early to mid 20th Century were a little obsessed with games, for reasons that I can’t really go into here. You can get a flavour of it in Mary Midgley’s article ‘The Game Game’ (Philosophy 49, no. 189 [1974]) and in this rather obscure but spectacular 1960s lampoon from Beyond the Fringe:

The part of all this that matters is Wittgenstein’s notion of language games. The idea is that the meaning of language is dependent on the kind of ‘game’ that we are playing when we use it.

So if you think back to the Vienna Circle and logical positivism, there’s an idea that our words correspond to particular things. I can speak meaningfully about cats, chairs, and atoms, because those are the sorts of things that we can observe and describe.

When I say that all ginger cats are male, my words point directly to a certain sort of entity, ascribe certain properties to them (maleness and gingerness), and make claims about the arrangement of these properties in relation to those entities. Word meaning is quite a definite and fixed sort of thing, and my meaning can be grasped by anyone who understands the language that I am speaking.

Wittgenstein’s idea of language games casts doubt on that, since he argues that the same words can have different meanings in different games, and sometimes they have meaning in some games and no meaning at all in others.

Example

When I see this image, I immediately recognise it as the board for playing the game Connect Four. This is a simple game where players take turns to drop a counter into a slot, each attempting to get a straight line of four counters before their opponent does. Once a player connects four, they have won.

Hasbro image of Connect Four, displaying a blue upright plastic board filled with round red and yellow plastic counters. More counters are shown beneath the board.

However, when my three-year-old sees this board, he recognises it as the equipment for playing a different game. In his version, each player takes a turn to place a counter in a slot, in such a way that both players work together to build neat alternating columns of different colours. Once the board is full of perfect columns of red and yellow, or we run out of counters, we have both won.

The problem occurs when I try to teach my son how to play Connect Four. Quite simply, he isn’t having any of it, and continues to play his game of Build Columns. We can play a few moves quite harmoniously, if they are compatible with the rules of both games, but once I play a red counter on top of his yellow counter, he is ENRAGED! Why? Not because I am beating him (in his game that isn’t even a thing), but because I am not playing according to the rules as he understands them. We are playing different games. At this point, the board gets tipped over in frustration.

Religious Discussions

Now let’s imagine a televised debate between an eminent priest and a prominent atheistic scientist. The cleric speaks about God, the afterlife, atonement, miracles, and blessings. The atheist responds that there is no empirical evidence for such things, and the priest is talking a load of nonsense. They each keep elaborating on their points and making further arguments, but to the audience it feels as though they are headbutting opposite sides of a brick wall. They don’t even seem to be talking to each other, and are unable to respond to or build upon each other’s points.

Wittgenstein would say that the two interlocutors are each inhabiting a different form of life (lebensform). The exact meaning of this term in Wittgenstein’s writing is disputed, but roughly these are ways of living that encompass our cultural practices, the ways that we organise our concepts and language, and generally our way of navigating in the world.

When we have different forms of life, we play different language games. The game played by the scientist revolves around notions of empirical proof, material entities, the interaction of physical forces, and so on. The priest’s life, and thus his concepts, are quite different from this. The language the priest is using has meaning within his own world, but not within that of the scientist (the urge to be balanced tempts me to add ‘and vice versa’, but since our contemporary culture is permeated by scientific discourse, it is quite likely that the priest will be more familiar with the scientist’s world than the other way round).

They, like my son and I with our Connect Four/Build Columns board, are playing different games from each other. The discourse is frustrating because it is not a genuine discourse at all. Each keeps making moves that the other regards as invalid, because they are invalid moves within his game.

This leads us to the conclusion that there is not a simple yes or no answer (as the Logical Positivists would say there is) to the question of whether religious language – or any kind of language- has meaning. Its meaning depends on which form of life we inhabit, and therefore on which language games we play.

Criticism

You’ve probably noticed all my caveats. I’m always a little nervous about talking about Wittgenstein, since whatever I say about him, there is probably some Wittgenstein scholar or other waiting in the wings to say I got him all wrong (the same is true of many other philosophers to be fair – I’d add Kant and Aristotle in particular).

Having said that, here are a couple of criticisms of the view as presented above.

Firstly, it doesn’t seem to tell us much, and perhaps it rules out the possibility of saying much about religious language at all. It rescues religious language from the charges of the Logical Positivists by creating a set of religious spaces that are immune from their view of language (in fact, their view would probably be limited to a very narrow scope of language games in logic, mathematics, and the natural sciences) but it does so at a certain cost. It potentially throws us into a relativistic situation where religious language could mean anything at all: if you don’t like this form of life, I have others. For some religious people, this would undermine the all-encompassing truth that they see in their religious doctrines. After all, for many, God is everywhere, and relevant to everything, no matter how any groups or individuals choose to look at it.

Secondly, although we definitely do observe spectacles of the kind that I described with the priest and the cleric, it is actually rarer than we might suppose for someone to overturn the board and storm off because the other person isn’t playing their game properly. Indeed, there is plenty of apparently meaningful and fruitful dialogue between people of different faiths, and between religious people and atheists.

Conclusion

There are many possible answers to these criticisms. For example, we could respond to the first by saying that it isn’t a threat to God’s significance or omnipresence that he doesn’t feature in the pages of physics textbooks, and that even religious people may not have use for religious concepts when they are playing the ‘ordering-a-pizza’ language game. To the second, we could say that fruitful dialogue is possible only because we can enter a little way into other forms of life, even if we only do so imaginatively. I could keep going in this way with more criticisms and counter-criticisms, and many people do just that.

But that’s not my purpose here. I aimed to say something that would help you find a way into these ideas in the depth required for A-level, and hopefully I have done a little bit of that.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s