3.01.2002

We have come to a most difficult area in Wittgenstein's thought: The relation between forms of life and language-games. This area has produced more commentary than almost anything other issue in Wittgenstein's philosophy. One reason is that he does not provide us with much direction. In remark 23 we see that the language-game is part of a form of life. At the same time, we spent a good deal of time on remark 7, where Wittgenstein tells us that "to imagine a language means to imagine a form of life." This relatively stable image of language gave way to the more playful realization that what we call language is, itself, a language game. It follows, then, that forms of life are language-games. I may be reinventing the wheel here, but I want to think this through as if no one has ever thought about the relation of language-games to forms of life before.

Forms of life can be thought of as the forms human life takes. A human life, mine for example, is composed of language games and forms of life. At this very moment, I am apprehending the world from a form of life -- a pattern of regularity that I have settled into. This pattern is shared and related to the question of what it means to be human. What is unique about me, what is the source of my individuality, lies in the relation of language-games to this form of life I find myself in at this moment. That is, I am the product of a unique constellation of language-games. This constellation undergoes change throughout a life: language-games are added even as I enter middle-age. The rate of change has slowed, to be sure, but I continue to learn or have revealed to me perceptual vantage points I have not seen before. The form my individual life takes, in turn, alters my relation to the larger form of life I inhabit. We can call this larger form of life "culture." Wittgenstein suggests this in the Blue and Brown Books, p.134. To understand our culture as a totality of the individual constellations of language-games is to retain the character of language-game on this larger level. Culture, too, is a product of a unique constellation of language-games that changes with time. But the rate of change would be necessarily slower, even imperceptible, unless there was crisis or attack from another cultural form of life.

This gives me a framework that I can work within. Language-games are themselves patterns of regularity. What are the language-games that compose my particular form of life? This is the question that animates the "examined life" demanded by Socrates and it is probably unanswerable because of the areas of imbrication uniting language games. There are language-games I am probably blind to or ashamed of and so dishonesty or self-deception and myopia keep the reduction of life incomplete. As Saul Bellow said in Ravelstein, it may be that only the examined life is worth living, but it is also true that examining your life could make you want to kill yourself. Wittgenstein probably left the relation between language-games and forms of life ambiguous because ambiguity cannot be eliminated.

There are two helpful metaphors offered by Wittgenstein. One is the relation of a river to the river bed. The flow of language-games is contrasted with the relative stability or "bedrock" of forms of life. Nevertheless, there is erosion and shifting sand and banks on the level of this bedrock. The second is the idea of "patterns in the weave of life." The weave is the (incomplete) totality of forms that human life can take. Within this totality are patterns -- language-games, individual forms of life -- that we take to be regular, but alterable. The weave can be damaged or snipped or supplemented. We can, for example, imagine a new, highly technical, neurophysiological language-game that arises to replace older language-games for describing human conscious experience. Snip, snip; sew, sew. We can imagine a fading pattern reinstilled with color, as the phrenology language-game is reinvented to fit contemporary games pertaining to modular minds and notions of intelligences. (As I write this a piece from Phillip Glass came on the radio. The repetition and slow exploration of possible permutations of a single pattern of notes is precisely what I want to get at in this idea of language as weave, river, form of life, language-game.)

What do I mean by "we" when speaking of how language-games are altered, erased, or reinvigorated. We-ness, here, is a product of a form of life that permits an "outside" look onto a particular language-game or smaller form of life. Since the weave is flat, there is no privilege involved here. That is, the form of life does not offer a "higher" point of view. We do not get to see the weave in its entirety from a transcendent perspective. Rather, the position is immanent. We are like Quine's shipbuilders in this respect. We repair our boat plank by plank while at sea. (This metaphor works on a few levels -- especially the idea of being "at sea.") We arrive at a position of relative truth -- defined in terms of agreement over the way the surrounding weave should look -- by consensus.) Forms of life are wider, communal patterns of agreement. We understand that while we are snipping and sewing from one direction, there can be another pattern of agreement going at the same area of the weave in a different way. Let me stay with the philosophy of mind here where within a larger pattern of agreement there are smaller patterns that perceive the area differently. Materialists are cutting and sewing from one side, while functionalists and dualists are cutting and sewing from others. There can come a point where the area is so ugly and unwieldly that a larger (or qualitatively more authoritative) form of life weighs in and cuts the whole piece out. How long before the philosophy of mind realizes that it has been pulled apart from the larger clothe?

This may now sound like a non sequitur, but I want to close by saying that forms of life and language-games are distinctions that can be retained, but that it would not be an error to mistake a language-game for a form of life or vice versa. Such a confusion emerges from our inability, at times, to see the extent of an agreement. This limited perspective is overcome by travel around the pattern in question.

Why would we want to retain these distinctions between language, language-games, and forms of life? An easy answer is that Wittgenstein retained them. The more difficult answer is something we can talk about before moving on to remark 21.

I am so glad to be on The Wittgenstein Portal along side Brian Carver's website. Carver's Wittgenstein website is a work of art and useful. I've always wanted to thank Brian for all his efforts.

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