Daily Archives: January 16, 2013

‘Language games’


Some time ago I started reading a biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein ((Ray Monk: Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius). After some 200 pages I laid it aside and it was not until last week that I picked it up again. But now the book has me in its grip and I am sure to finish it.  I must admit that there are, however, some portions that are a bit beyond me. When Monk tries to explain what this famous philosopher exactly meant in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922) I am still not sure that I understand everything. The first chapter of Wittgenstein’s book already presents quite a challenge. It deals with the proposition: “The world is all that is the case.”  This is followed by his second proposition: “The world is the totality of facts, not of things.” What can he possibly mean by that? But perhaps I should not worry all that much about my lack of comprehension. The great English contemporary philosopher Bertrand Russell admitted that he had not understood a single word of what his friend Ludwig had written in his (thin) book. [But even though I do not always understand the drift of Wittgenstein’s philosophy, his life story remains extremely fascinating.)

Later in life (and I will no doubt read about that in great detail later in this biography) Wittgenstein focused, in particular, on the philosophy of language. He is well known for his suggestion that language is based on an agreement between people who belong to one and the same group. Such groups have agreed that the words they use have a certain meaning. Wittgenstein rejects the idea that words refer to some reality that is irrefutable. It refers to what the members of a group consider to be the truth. He, therefore, speaks of a ‘language game’ that each group plays.

In many ways his philosophical ideas about language are important building blocks for the postmodern view that there is no absolute Truth and no absolute meanings. Every individual has his/her ‘truth’ and all interpretations are equally valid. Apart from the fact that I fail to understand some aspects of this subject (since I have only limited expertise in the domain of philosophy), it would be impossible to deal with this at some length in a short blog. But two things seem of special importance to me.

It is a fact that many (and I include myself most definitely) often use words and arguments that a lot of people around us do not understand. Research has shown that a major percentage of the viewers of the daily TV-news program do not understand what is being reported, especially when it concerns items about the economy.  My wife often tells me to avoid ‘difficult’ words in what I write and in my sermons. The content of what I try to convey is certainly not as convoluted as the content of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, but she may have a point.

The second thing to be noted is that Christians are often involved in language games. They use a very special kind of language. I do not mean that they are only involved in a ‘game’ and that their words are not linked to any ‘Reality’. But their words can often only be understood by people who belong to the same group and who have learned and have agreed to use these words in a particular way. People who are outside of this group, or young people at the margins of the group, find it difficult to know what it is all about.

All religious communities are, to some degree at least, guilty of using a jargon that is not understood by others. An extreme example is provided by a group whose books can still be found in a number of very conservative bookshops in the Dutch Bible Belt. A book written in the seventeenth century by a reverend Smytegeld, containing 153 sermons about the crooked reed (Matt. 12: 20, 21), is still available but will leave most other Christian wonder what the reverend wants to say!

Seventh-day Adventists, however, also are a good example of a group that has developed its own jargon. Many of them sill know exactly what is meant by ‘Adventist’ terms that have been sanctified by history and frequent use. But an ever growing segment of the church experiences this as a ‘language game’ of which they do no longer know the rules. This clearly poses an enormous communication problem. For, if you have massage that you want to spread, you must communicate that message in a language that your target audience can understand. If we fail in this respect, we will be like Wittgenstein, whose message was not understood even by his friends who tried very hard to grasp what he meant to say. It is a lesson that I am still trying to learn.