Language Games – Notes

Again: nothing exciting I’m afraid. I wrote this the other week in response to what someone wrote (quoted below) and didn’t want to lose track of it. I want to keep it here for future reference. Perhaps it will be of minor interest to some.


“I am currently embroiled in a long discussion that started from how the notion of “two” is abstracted from being shown two nuts, etc.

Wittgenstein seems to favor the position that notions like “two” behave as counters in overarching language games that we internalize from social immersion. I certainly hope this is followed by at least a nominal discussion of other theories, because so far, methods like establishing positive and negative contrasts haven’t even been mentioned.

By positive and negative contrasts, I mean that in theory, two-ness can initially be explained by being shown as many sets of two objects as necessary to clarify the concept, sets that vary along every axis other than number, especially those axes along which misunderstandings are likely. And if negation is understood, then also several sets of nuts that are not two in number, while being told those are not-two nuts. This can then be repeated with all words, until it becomes clear which quality each label is intended to represent.”


On one hand, it’s generally accepted that Wittgenstein doesn’t ‘theorise’. He only has an argument to the extent ‘cogito ergo sum’ is an *argument*. More importantly, on the other: are you sure two-ness can so easily be explained? Is it as straight forward as the method you have just described? To everyone in the modern Western world, yes, of course; but only because our lifestyles are so similarly aligned.

I’m not sure if you have interest in Chomsky et al. but you might find it interesting to explore the work of one of his students, Daniel Everett, with the Pirahã. They’re one example of a culture who have no need, use, and thus concept of cardinal numbers or numerary but their language has uses for quantities (small, large, few, many, etc.). Now, unless you think that they’re intrinsically and naturally incapable of numeracy, the reason that they struggle with these definitions is that they’re seemingly arbitrary because mathematics is a cultural habit that they have never employed and do not employ (along with a lot of other social ‘norms’).

The example of positive and negative contrasts above is of course valid but is analogous to cases where, although the languages are very different, the cultures or societies between the pair are similar enough. For example, as an English speaker approaching a French speaker, I could be forgiven for the fact that when the French person is rapping his knuckles on a wooden table and saying the word ‘en bois’ to me that I presume that ‘en bois’ is the French for table. The Frenchman realises I have misinterpreted when I say ‘ah!’ and start tapping several glass tables in the room, gleefully exclaiming: ‘Enbois! … Enbois!… Enbois!’ To which he starts again: ‘Non, non, non: c’est en bois et ceux-ci NE SONT PAS en bois’. And so on and so forth. I think he means the word ‘flat’; I’m mistaken. I think he means ‘you can eat off this’; I’m mistaken. Eventually, though, what he meant is negatively defined for me, as you suggest. This cannot work if the item (or concept) has no cultural parallel or similarity.

Now, let’s pretend that the infamous French Ortolan dish, unique to their culture, was always eaten with a special dining tool that was, say, a figure 8 made of sterling silver and that our Frenchman refers to as a Pilala (this or something similar isn’t that inconceivable, really, given the religious quirks surrounding the meal). What positive or negative definition process is going to teach the Englishman what this object is? You might get close with ‘eating utensil’ etc., but you are truly and honestly only going to *understand* what the word is if you understand its role within the culture, the rules surrounding its usage, that you can talk about it meaningfully and correctly with other people: “Ah, you see, it’s a dining utensil but it is specifically used for only one meal: the Ortolan dish. A delicacy in France that is considered so sinful to eat that you wear a napkin over your head to shield what you’re doing from God. As such, being such a sacrilegious meal, knives and forks are not permitted; instead one must use a pilala, which is the only implement to be used to eat the bird and which should not be used to eat anything else.”

Such a social quirk doesn’t have any parallels in England and the only way you would learn it is from gaining familiarity with the culture.