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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A reconsideration of Wittgenstein’s “Family Resemblances” and “Language Games.”


What baffled Wittgenstein was his inability to define “games,” a simple concept, easily understood, but which defies the impulse of the dictionary. I have no interest in defining games. But I am very interested in his bafflement. There’s nothing special about a word that cannot be defined. What would be interesting would be a word that can be defined. What’s fascinating is the fact that anyone ever thought up the concept of dictionary, which is the legacy of Platonism, which got everything backwards. How much of history and philosophy and just thinking has been confused by the idea that meaning is something that words have rather than something, as every poet knows, that we use words to produce: always in time, at a moment in history. The moment stretches and changes through memory and writing (which is any form of recording) forward (Shakespeare would have said “backward”) into time. But meaning only ever exists at a moment, the moment of saying, the moment of hearing (writing/reading). We want to be as precise as possible, but not based on the meaning of the word, based rather on the history of the use of the word—the contexts in which it has been used to create meaning. The presupposition that meaning exists always already “out there,” and that our job is to find it, inscribe it, and pass it on is a metaphor less accurate and less useful than the metaphor deployed here, that words are used to inscribe meanings available but never yet accessed in language, by novel combinations of words. What is “out there” is the pressure of “being” at this moment on the writer (thankfully, me) to reassemble the words to settle for now the image whose formulation is functional, which makes our present make better sense. Since words like “game” (and all other words, those that obviously defy definition—poetry and history and love and nation and person and on and on—and those that we think do not) mean only in moments, then all uses are stipulative. And so in a moment of use “game” have have all the precision of the number “2”’ and “2” all the vagueness of the concept “nice.” And what’s surprising is that it is surprising. 

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