Friday, April 08, 2005

Language: Learning the Rules of Engagement

One of my favourite characters in Philosophy is Wittgenstein, and most people who know me have realised I will try to talk about him whenever possible. You should be pleased to know that I shall keep this concise.

One of the areas Wittgenstein found himself most involved with in philosophy was language, and reading that last post, I think there is something that Wittgenstein can bring to the topic.

Wittgenstein theorised that language was a game played between players, and could not be private to one individual. In a nutshell, this says that all things are meaningful, provided they are said in the appropriate Language Game. You must understand the rules of the Game before you can properly play it. You could think of it such that each discipline has its own set of rules for discussion. A simple example would be that a zoologist who believes he is in a zoology department meeting will be appalled to hear the other participants talking of hitting wooden balls by swinging bats at them. Once he understood he was in a cricket club meeting, and understood what cricket was all about, the whole thing would make more sense to him.

Wittgenstein would probably say one shouldn't participate in a Language Game if we do not know the rules: we will confuse ourselves and others. Drawing on this, I think we can make a link to Andy's last post, The Beauty of Language. If we do not understand our language, and how it is used, then in many ways we are excluded from all kinds of debate, simply because we will not understand how they work. This is why, for example, most of the ancient Greek philosophers wrote books explaining the most important philosophical words, such as Plato's* Definitions.

In this coming election season, it is likely that politicians will start using the old devices of rhetoric to some extent. People who do not understand the rules of engagement will probably find themselves confused and excluded by the proceedings. Worst-case scenario: no one will vote!

It is important that we learn the rules of playing games with language: the rules of discussion, as well as those rules unique to political debate. Otherwise we could be in all kinds of trouble.

* Most scholars actually believe Plato did not write the Definitions, but it is accredited to him nonetheless. Back up

1 comment:

HP said...

Ok, Ok, i get the point now, but I still think that rather than the zoo-ologist having to understand the cricketers, more that the cricketers should really be nice and explain what they're talking about.

I guess maybe I'm a little bitter that I could never understand what my English lectureres were talking about...