Wittgenstein on the definition of a ‘game’

Christopher asked:

Wittgenstein asked about what is it that all games have in common. Could the answer be that they all are competitive? Or that they all are fun? What makes us call games games is that they all make us feel the same way, they all serve the same purpose(s), relieving boredom, entertainment, to improve certain skills, etc…

Answer by Shaun Williamson

You have completely misunderstood this as people always do when they try to understand one of Wittgenstein’s remarks in isolation. Wittgenstein did not ask this question hoping that one day you would answer it and your answer is incorrect.

It is not true that all games make us feel the same way, or that all games exist to relieve boredom or that they all serve the same purpose or that they all improve certain skills. So your answer like all the other answers is based on an incorrect assumption i.e. that all games must have one thing or a set of things in common.

Wittgenstein said ‘Look, don’t think’. You need to look at the wide variety of games before you leap to conclusions.

Suppose all games relieve boredom, well reading a book or watching TV can also relieve boredom, entertain or improve certain skills. Now according to your answer this would mean that reading a book is a game, it isn’t. Also not all games are fun and not all games are competitive.


Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Wittgenstein’s remarks on defining a game in Philosophical Investigations have given rise to an impression that he believed that there is nothing determinate about the meaning of the concept ‘game’. This is true in one sense, in that any attempt to give a rigid definition of a ‘game’ in terms of necessary and sufficient is bound to fail.

This isn’t because anything can be a ‘game’, or because we can use word ‘game’ in any way we like. The quote I would emphasize occurs many pages after Wittgenstein’s main discussion, around Para 66, of the question of defining a game:

So I am inclined to distinguish between the essential and the inessential in a game too. The game, one would like to say, has not only rules but also a point. (Philosophical Investigations Para 564)

The ‘language game’ in using any concept – e.g. the concept of game – has a point. The concept of a ‘game’ must have a point, in some sense, otherwise what would be the point of talking so much about ‘language games’ as Wittgenstein does? The point of a concept can only be characterized in general terms. However, the fact that there is such a thing as ‘game theory’ in mathematics should at least hint at the possibility of the richness of the concept of a game.

Grasping the point of talk of a ‘game’, we are able to identify new things or activities as games which we would never have imagined if we had tried to delimit all the possible games by means of a verbal formula, or describe what all games ‘all have in common’.

‘Game’ is a concept with vague boundaries. Most of our concepts are like this. The concept of a ‘heap’ is a classic example. However, one can be misled by the obvious vagueness of ‘heap’ (as in the Paradox of a Heap) into thinking that there isn’t anything precise to say about heaps, or any point in calling something a heap. I will leave you with this example:

My father was a Mining Engineer. I remember him telling me that one of the topics in mining engineering is the behaviour of heaps and formulae for describing their shape. For example, the angle that the apex of a heap of a particular material will form, e.g. a heap of fine sand, or a heap of smooth pebbles, or rough rocks. A heap is different from a pile, not in a vague but in a precise way, in terms of the way the constituents hold together. A heap of books is different from a pile of books. Which still allows for indeterminate cases in between (as, e.g. books partly piled and partly heaped).

There is nothing vague about the point of talking of a ‘heap’ or a ‘pile’ — or indeed a ‘game’.


2 thoughts on “Wittgenstein on the definition of a ‘game’

  1. Definitions of “heap” and “pile” in engineering will be different from those used in normal life. The same happens in mathematics, many many definitions like “ball, “lattice”, “set” (I know, tricky one!), “ring”, “field”, “group” etc

    You wouldn’t get far if you thought these definitions applied in real life too. (Maybe this is what you’re getting at) I suppose Wittgenstein would say the mathematical meanings of the words are different because the *use* is different..

    ..but wouldn’t want to second guess him on that one :)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.