language games

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# the beetle-in-a-box
# my takeaways

# the beetle-in-a-box

My icon is a reference to Wittgenstein’s beetle-in-a-box thought experiment. Briefly, it paints a pictures of a world where everyone is in possession of a box, that only they can look inside, containing a “beetle.” In this world, every individual can only learn what is meant by “beetle” by looking inside their box.

In this world, Wittgenstein argues that the word “beetle” cannot actually refer to something, since each individual could have something different, nothing at all, or something changing inside their boxes. So, the idea is that whatever is in the boxes is actually irrelevant to the way that the word “beetle” is used in the language.

Generalizing a bit, one can argue that the only relevant part of words referring to private states (e.g. mental states) is how the word is used in the language. If taken to an extreme, we could apply the reasoning to say that the only relevant aspect of any part of a language is how it is used inside of the language. From this perspective, one can view all of language as a performative language game which the speakers participate in. So, a word or gesture’s use is wholly defined by how it is used, and the participants socialize others into the use of the parts of language to play the language game.

# my takeaways

I’m far from qualified to comment on the “correctness” or rebuttals to Wittgenstein’s philosophy. For those interested in some rigorous philosophy, I’ll just leave a pointer to the relevant SEP article. For me, I care more about pragmatic views of his philosophy.

First, I think Wittgenstein’s perspective can help people to understand the role of language games in our every day and academic conversations. Approaching conversations with a clear intention helps (me) focus my language on getting my point across. When I find myself going off on tangents or using confusing language, I remind myself about the intent of my language game. Usually, this leads me to either use simplified language, move past a tangent point, and/or focus on what’s being communicated rather than whats “actually in the box” (wordless concepts/values/ideas in my head) because the point communicated is always the relevant part.

My other practical takeaway is to view all language as a language game that we are socialized into whether we’re aware of it or not. People who appear to have ineffective communication skills often have different socialization or values. Unfortunately though, I view most language (games) as a sometimes necessary means to an end, and sometimes people end up in those games without effective strategies for communicating with me. So, when I talk with people, I try to reinterpret what they say from a few different interpretations and maybe tone up or down their passionate rhetoric. Not every pair of people have the same communicative preferences, but everyone can take steps to understand other’s strategies in the language games we all have to play.

Written: 2023-09

Last updated: 2023-09