Analytic Philosophy

Ordinary Language Philosophy

What was Ludwig Wittgenstein’s major insight concerning ordinary language and philosophy?

Wittgenstein’s (1889–1951) work in ordinary language philosophy was published posthumously; his lecture notes and notebooks came out as Philosophical Investigations (1953) and The Blue and Brown Books (1948). Wittgenstein’s interest in ordinary language represented a shift from his earlier interest in an ideal representational or “picture theory” of language to the ways in which human beings actively use language to go about the business of life.

Wittgenstein believed that the multiple uses of language cannot be codified and that key words cannot be neatly defined, but rather that we are engaged in overlapping series of “language games.” Language games are like other games that are loosely related through “family resemblance,” even though it is impossible to provide a definition of a “game” that will cover all of them. Wittgenstein used the simile of family resemblance because if one looks at the members of a large family, while they do not look exactly alike, there may be features that some share. For example, siblings and cousins might have the same hair color, or they might share certain similar facial structures inherited from their parents.

What Wittengstein meant in calling language a game was that how we use language is a self-contained system of practices with many implicit rules. Sometimes we cannot even say what the rules are, so Wittgenstein thought it was better not to concentrate on describing the rules, but to pay attention to actual language usage instead.


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