Dear Editors,

Although I largely share L. Rhodes’ views expressed in “Justifying Proteus“, my Wittgensteinian self has to comment on this sentence:

All of which gives partisans a hook on which to hang a kind of authority, just as others have retreated to the authority of Wittgenstein to argue that games are inherently impervious of definition.

This seems rather strange, since the whole of Rhodes’ argument is quite close (consciously or not) to Wittgenstein.

A little precision on this philosopher, that seems to get lost when he’s brought into discussions about games: Wittgenstein wasn’t interested in games per se, they were merely used as an example for a larger argument about language, to illustrate his concept of family resemblance. For him, there is no immutable, universal dictionary residing somewhere in a Platonic ideal sky; meaning comes to words by how we use them. Just like Rhodes wrote for Proteus, we use the word “game” with a precise intention, in order to make an argument for the others. The meaning of the word “game” is shifting depending on the situation where we use it, or whom we speak to. But this vagueness and small shift in meaning is true for all words (well, it’s more true for some words, like “game” or “art”, but “game” isn’t the only word inherently impervious of definition).

Appeal to authority is not necessarily a logical fallacy. If the whole of your argument is “Wittgenstein said it, so it must be true”, then it’s a fallacy (and it would be very easy to quote another philosopher with a contradictory perspective, since Wittgenstein has more enemies than followers). But Rhodes’ article could have closed with a quote from this philosopher, and it would have been a perfectly valid conclusive argument (and I think Wittgenstein has been mostly used that way—although not on Twitter, but that’s another discussion). Anyway, it’s a small detail in an otherwise insightful (as usual) article, but I couldn’t resist to point towards it.

Thanks for your time,
Sylvain Lavallée
Postcards from the Uncanny Valley

• • • • •

Many thanks for the response, Sylvain. Context is always welcome, and rarely more so than when Wittgenstein is the subject. Like many thinkers who have shaped the modern philosophical landscape, his is an authority that is often cited without doing justice to the complexity of the case he makes. I certainly haven’t helped matters with that offhand comment, and I’m grateful that someone stepped in to round out the reference.

On the whole, I’m bound to Wittgenstein’s assessment of the limitations of language, less on account of his authority than by the force of his arguments. There is no “truest meaning,” in the Aristotelian sense, of any word. Nevertheless, we can, I think, work with definition in limited contexts. The trick, again, is recognizing the context—or rather, the variety of contexts, some of them overlapping in concentric circles.

So what happens when we talk of defining a word like game without bothering to specify a context? One option is to root around for clues as to the implicit context, as I did in “Justifying Proteus.” Another is to take the broader social circumstance as the context—to ask, in effect, what most of us are likely to understand when the word is brought in without any clear context. Stated in negative terms, it’s whatever you summon to mind by way of comparison when you hear someone declare, “We’re not playing games here!”

Inasmuch as that background informs how we understand the more context-specific uses of a word, that seems like a reasonable way to deal with the ontological imprecision of language. When it’s clear that the speaker has assumed a narrower context, we define the word according to that context. When there is no clear context, we default to the most socially broad, or risk some very acute misunderstandings. It’s certainly not ideal, but that may be the closest we can get to something like Aristotle’s one truest meaning while still deferring to the logic of Wittgenstein’s argument.

Thanks again,

L. Rhodes

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