Wittgensteinian ethics

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L114-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 18, 2022, from

2. Describing language games

One offshoot of this conception of value was the ‘noncognitivist’ theory of ethics, which classifies the functions of language under the two main headings of description and expression (see Analytic ethics). Wittgenstein himself, by contrast, moved during the 1930s towards an appreciation of the indefinite variety of ‘language games’ or types of rule-governed linguistic activity. In Philosophische Untersuchungen (Philosophical Investigations) (1953), our main source for his later thought, he sees language-use as part of our ‘natural history’ – one of those elements in human life that are given rather than chosen, and so ‘have to be accepted’. This does not mean that ‘good’, in the ethically interesting sense, can after all be analysed (‘naturalistically’) in terms of a value-free notion of human welfare (see Naturalism in ethics). What it means is that the proper aim of moral philosophy (like that of philosophy in general) is not justification but a certain kind of clarity, and that its proper method is one of reflection on what we might do or say in various concretely imagined contexts – not of trying to formulate universal normative principles that would validate our behaviour.

This approach was seen by its exponents in the 1950s and 60s partly as a check on the pretensions of ‘theory’, but it also yielded illuminating discussions of familiar moral practices, which could now be accorded the same respect as the ‘alien’ anthropological phenomena conjured up in some of Wittgenstein’s thought experiments. A practice, it was argued, generates its own characteristic patterns of reasoning, and theorists are wrong to suppose that the behaviour internal to it admits of any better explanation than can be gathered from the participants themselves. Thus if someone (presumably a child) does not understand punishment, what we actually provide is help in seeing how the concept of punishment relates to others within the same region of social experience, such as wrongdoing, responsibility, forgiveness, making amends. And this is all the ‘explanation’ needed.

The view that philosophy should limit itself to ‘describing language games’ without passing judgment on them may seem to lead in the direction of relativism, a tendency already discernible at the end of §1 (see Moral relativism). It should be remembered, though, that Wittgenstein officially holds ‘ordinary’ (as opposed to philosophical) language to be in perfect order as it is, so that if our (ordinary) ethical language game happens to incorporate activities of critical observation and reflection, there would seem to be no (philosophical) reason why we should renounce these. Such activities might well go against Wittgenstein’s own anti-modern, even primitivist taste; but in keeping with the nonjudgmental attitude, he states no principle by reference to which they could be condemned. (Relatedly, one might ask about the ‘we’ that figures in this section: who exactly counts as being located outside ‘our’ moral practices, and so beyond the reach of ‘our’ judgment? (see Moral agents; Universalism in ethics §1).)

Citing this article:
Lovibond, Sabina. Describing language games. Wittgensteinian ethics, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L114-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2022 Routledge.

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