Reflections on Wittgenstein


by Adam T. Miller

If you’re friends with me on Facebook, you may have noticed a recent spell of Wittgenstein quotes as status updates. This is because I’ve been doing a quick read of his Philosophical Investigations as a one-last-hurrah sort of thing before winter quarter begins. And in my reading yesterday morning, I came across the following intriguing remark:

It is, of course, imaginable that two people belonging to a tribe unacquainted with games should sit at a chessboard and go through the moves of a game of chess; and even with all the mental accompaniments. And if we were to see it, we’d say that they were playing chess. But now imagine a game of chess translated according to certain rules into a series of actions which we do not ordinarily associate with a game–say into yells and stamping of feet. And now suppose those two people to yell and stamp instead of playing the form of chess that we are used to; and this in such a way that what goes on is translatable by suitable rules into a game of chess. Would we still be inclined to say that they were playing a game? And with what right could one say so? (Anscombe, Hacker, and Schulte [trans.], remark 200, p. 87)

What is at issue here, on my reading, is the relationship between categories and that which they purport to demarcate, and to explore this problem, Wittgenstein uses the category game.

He first asks us to imagine a social group “unacquainted with games,” two members of which engage in a behavior we associate with one species of our genus game (namely, chess). To paraphrase further: He wants us to imagine a society in which the category game does not exist, yet the people therein–or, at least two of them–sometimes behave in accordance to a set of rules that we associate with chess. So far, so good.

He then asks us to imagine a scenario where these same individuals engage in an activity that doesn’t seem to us to be a game, yet in fact has rules and aims that correspond to those of chess in a one-to-one manner. Again, given that they lacked the category game, would we still want to call it a game? If so, on what grounds? If not, why?

This thought experiment, and the questions that come with it, ought to give scholars of religion pause, especially those of us who study cultures where the category religion did not exist.

As Wittgenstein aims to show throughout his work–our ordinary language is often vague, and the meaning of a word comes not from the object to which it refers (which is more or less his view in the Tractatus) but rather from its use in a given context. Now, there are multiple contexts in which the category religion is used–ranging from dinner conversation to news reports, from academic literature to tax codes. In these contexts, the sense of the category arises from how the word is used, from the ends such a usage serves, from its relationship to the words around it, and so on. Taken together, these uses form a family.

Returning briefly to Wittgenstein on games:

How would we explain to someone what a game is? I think that we’d describe games to him, and we might add to the description: “This and similar things are called ‘games’.” And do we know any more ourselves? Is it just that we can’t tell others exactly what a game is? — But this is not ignorance. We don’t know the boundaries because none have been drawn. (ibid., remark 69, p. 37)

Does this hold with religion? In all its use-contexts, have no boundaries been drawn between religion and other categories? Or is it more accurate to say that multiple boundaries have, in fact, been drawn where the category is known and used? And what can we say of contexts in which the category itself is unknown? Has no boundary been drawn in such cases? Or have multiple boundaries been retrofitted by those using the category? In any event, Wittgenstein maintains, clarity is not required to make a concept usable in everyday life. And this, I think, we can all agree on.

But, he writes, “we can draw a boundary — for a special purpose” (ibid.), and drawing a specific boundary makes a category useful for that purpose. Now, I hope it is relatively uncontroversial to suggest that the academic study of religion is different from dinner conversations, news reports, and tax codes in that it takes religion as its organizing concept, as its very reason for being. But is it special enough to insist that a boundary, perhaps just a certain type of boundary–one governed by the methodological strictures associated with the academy–be drawn? Others may disagree, but I think so.

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