Language games allows religious language to be meaningful. Discuss (30)



  • In his book ‘Philosophical Investigations’ Wittgenstein developed his idea of language games, suggesting that the meaning of a word is determined by the game of which the word is a part of.
  • By this he meant a meaning comes from the context in which they are uttered and the meaning of the words used with them.
  • He considered how words perform a function and can indicate more than one idea at a time.Language is a process that develops and changes in different times.
  • Wittgenstein meant language games to be a way of expressing the idea that words only make sense in the context in which they are used and explored the idea that language usage in different contexts may have utterly different meanings.
  • An example of this being a farmer, a scientist and a cricketer may all use the word field but all use it in a completely different sense. There must be an understanding of the context before the full meaning is clear.
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What is a language game?

  • Wittgenstein saw language in terms of a game where we know how to play it once we understand the rules. When we participate in the game and learn how everyone else plays it, the language all begins to make sense.
  • We accept that words are used in a certain way because we recognise the role they have in the whole game. In chess for example, we may understand what a certain piece is called but until we play we won’t understand its significance within the game.
  • He also showed how language makes statements which are groundless. We cannot justify the statement ‘this is a piece of paper’ as we do not have any reasoning to why we call it this; it is just the way in which we were educated.
  • Definitions are groundless beliefs but they shape the way in which the world is understood. In a similar way, religious belief shapes the way in which the world is seen to an enormous extent.
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Religious language

  • Religious language is its own language game and such language of religious belief such as God and omnipotence is understood and meaningful to people who participate in the religious language game.
  • Wittgenstein does nothing to suggest that one language game is preferable over another as each game is significant only to those who participate.
  • If a believer says god exists then this has meaning to the person who so uttered it. However, a non believer who doesn’t share this language game would find it difficult, if not impossible, to understand the significance of the statement.
  • He implies that you need to be a member of the religious tradition to fully grasp the meaning of belief and so its language game. The statement ‘God loves me’ has a deep significance to a religious believer whereas for an atheist the statement lacks any meaning.
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Forms of life and D.Z Phillips

  • Wittgenstein talks of forms of life and each for of life has a different language game and unless you are in that form of life you will not understand the game.
  • The religious language game is not limited to one form; it differs from the Catholic form of life to the Hindu form of life etc.
  • The more a person participates in religious language the more they understand the language usage just as the more you play a game the more you get used to it.
  • You need to be part of the language game in order to understand the meaning and significance of the language.
  • D. Z. Phillips develops Wittgenstein’s approach by arguing that some of the problems caused by religious language exist because religious language is taken as literal. Phillips suggests that religious statements cannot be understood in a literal way but still have a profound meaning for those who make them.
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  • Braithwaite was influenced by Wittgenstein and so took a non-cognitive view on religious language. He criticises Wittgenstein’s Language games by arguing that we must see the empirical use of a statement, as well as its verifiability, when looking at its meaning.
  • It is not only if you can understand the rules of a game which makes it become meaningful. Braithwaite believed in empiricism, that through observation of religious statements we can uncover their meaning.
  • He suggests that religious statements are also expressions of a commitment to a certain way of life. Not all religions are the same and they follow different ways of life, but Wittgenstein believed that they all understand the same thing, so are not indistinguishable.
  • This means that the language game is not flexible and therefore makes religious statements meaningless. 
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  • Further, Wittgenstein is wrong in saying that no one who is outside of the game can understand it as it has occurred that scholars, who have no participation in the religious language game, have come to understand it more than those who are in it.
  • This raises questions on whether the language game really is limited to those in that form of life and who choose to play the game.
  • Also, many people lose their faith over time and so reach a point in which they used to be in the game and now are not. They will not lose their understanding of the game as at one point they participated and saw its significance, so is that still the case even though they are no longer an active player?
  • The implication that you cannot learn about another game allow doubts in the theory as a whole. If you cannot understand a certain language game from the outside, using religious language as an example, how do you explain religious conversion or how anyone became to be a part of religion in the first place?
  • This shows certain aspects of Wittgenstein’s theory to be thoroughly flawed.
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Comparison to verification

  • The question of whether language games make religious language meaningful can be found through looking at other ways of talking about religious language.
  • The verification principle of the logical positivists was inspired by Wittgenstein’s Tractatus saying that ‘some language is meaningless’.
  • The verification principle was not focused on whether a statement was true or false but whether it is meaningful. A statement can be both meaningful but false or meaningful and true as the investigation was not looking into the trueness of a statement.
  • An analytic statement, also known as a tautology, is something that is true within itself and therefore needs no further ratification to be accepted.
  • Logical positivism considers that the only meaningful philosophical problems are those which can be solved by logical analysis and the verification principle is a characteristic of such investigation.
  • The verification principle only questions a statement’s meaningfulness and makes no claim about its actual truth. However it does little to aid the meaningfulness of religious language for the fact that statements about the verification principle cannot be verified – almost making the whole theory redundant.
  • Therefore it is, and always will be, difficult to reach a final decision about whether or not the verification principle offers a real contribution to making religious language meaningful.
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  • In conclusion, I would argue that Wittgenstein’s language games do allow language to have meaning as it is taken on an individual perspective allowing people to find meaning in their own form of life and in their own contexts.
  • Religion and belief is not something that is universally understood by everyone and even those of the same belief find different meanings.
  • Because of this it allows religious language to have meaning because there is no rigid set of rules all must follow.
  • I am not disputing that the theory is without flaws but on the whole, when trying to take meaning from religious language, Wittgenstein’s theory of language games is beneficial.
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Thank you

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