Tamasi & Kim Ling
22 March 2018
Word Count: 758
The Act of Language Games
One way to answer the question of when and how words get their meanings is by
examining the phenomenon of language acquisition. How and when children learn language, and how language fits into how we perceive the world has been questioned time and time again by philosophers and scientists alike. According to Ludwig Wittgenstein, we learn words via language games – and words have meanings which are inherently determined by use. This poses an interesting challenge to the science of language acquisition, because it challenges how children and people learn to use words that are abstract concepts. However, I would like to pursue a different question here: the question of whether Wittgenstein’s language games are the same thing as John Searle’s concept of a ‘speech act,’ and, if so, what these concepts mean for language acquisition. For the sake of this paper, I am arguing that language games and speech acts are one in the same.
In order to argue that these two concepts are the same, first I would like to delve into the concept of speech acts. Searle believed that every utterance is a form of a speech act, requiring intentionality and social contract (Searle 2009). Additionally, Searle believes that language ties a society together, emphasizing that “once a society has a language, it already has a social contract” (Searle 2009). The meaning of an utterance is a social contract between the speaker and the listener; an agreement on the locutionary and illocutionary force of the statement.
Wittgenstein’s theory of language games has several layers to it. Overall, language games to Wittgenstein is literally just “language, and the actions it is woven into” (Wittgenstein). This ranges from how we as a species first teach language to children, to the subtle nuances of
language in which meaning can be changed slightly (Wittgenstein 1958). According to Wittgenstein, the meaning of a word comes from how it is used, and therefore, a word can have multiple meanings. However, Wittgenstein also believes that each individual has their own internal private language, which is specific to them and cannot be shared with spoken language. Finally, Wittgenstein believes that language games have rules which are determined by the community which speaks the language.
Understanding now both Searle and Wittgenstein’s definitions of speech acts and language games, respectively, what do the two concepts have in common? There are three main parts that I would like to point out here. First, both Searle and Wittgenstein believe that language is a social contract between people (Searle 2009, Wittgenstein 1958). This is perfectly in line with Wittgenstein’s theory of meaning in use – Searle emphasizes the role of intentionality, locutionary/illocutionary force. It is essentially one in the same as Wittgenstein’s notion of meaning in use. Second, both language games, and speech acts emphasize the role of culture within language. Wittgenstein emphasizes the role of community in language games in order to learn the rules to the language games, which is in line with Searle’s belief that language is a social contract (Searle 2009). Finally, and perhaps most importantly, language games are actable on, just as language in Searle’s speech acts is something that must be actable on. In Wittgenstein’s language games, the listener is always responding to or learning from someone else.
However, Searle’s concept of speech acts does not remark upon Wittgenstein’s concept of private and how people go about learning words to abstract concepts (Wittgenstein, 89). Additionally, Searle’s speech acts also fail to address what successful communication is, precisely. According to Wittgenstein, successful communication is an agreement from the
listener of the speaker’s intent (Wittgenstein 1958). Any disagreement on the two is called a miscommunication. Searle’s speech acts only draw upon what speech and language are, but not the concepts of miscommunication necessarily.
But, how does this tie back into the concept of language acquisition? Understanding the two theories helps us to address how we both first learn language, and how we use it in every day life. The concept of language games (which, as discussed in this paper, are analogous to speech acts), forces us to examine what is special about language that helps us use it. The nuances of culture Wittgenstein discusses gives us the rules we develop to learn and use language, from a young age, forward. They help us to frame what meaning is in a new way.
Searle, John. What is language?: Some preliminary remarks. Ethics and Politics, XI, 2009. Wittgenstein, Lugwid. Philosophical Investigations. 1958.