Words are clearly of vital importance to humans. There is very little that we do without exchanging words. We talk to each other in multiple languages, we absorb vast amounts of information through the media, we raise the alarm, we issue commands, we make puns, we make poetry and songs, we persuade and much more.

Much of analytic philosophy is taken up by fussing over words. That is because much of our conscious reasoning uses words as a medium, whether in conversation with others, or an inner monologue. Philosophers are notorious for nitpicking over definitions and this leads to even more notorious people like Bill Clinton claiming that “it depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is”. However, there are several important concepts to help understand words that philosophers have argued over for millennia but that a mix of philosophy and linguistics have made much clearer.

Three of these concepts are often associated with the philosopher Wittgenstein; his notion of “language games”, that of “family resemblance” and that of meaning as use. All of these are intended to break down the idea that words and sentences have specific, essential meanings and I have found that my understanding of them adds a lot of clarity to many arguments.

Language games

The notion of “language games” is based on the idea I just mentioned, that language plays many more roles in our life than just formal discussion in the shape of complete sentences, statements and questions. Our speech is actually far more complex and not always to be taken as a colloquial version of “proper” language. When someone yells Fire!, it is not a shorthand for “The building is on fire, you should probably leave”. It is complete by itself, given the context. Our speech is used for many purposes and in many contexts and in many cases uses a much simpler form than formal orders, questions and propositions. The word “games” isn’t the best, because some of the contexts for the use of words are deadly serious, but it is accepted so I will continue to use it.

The meaning of a word is not just given by its dictionary definition or by the other aspects I will discuss below, but by understanding the “game” in which it is used. How is this a thinking tool? When it is important to understand what is being said, ask “what game is being played here?” When the maker of Sudso laundry soap says “Sudso washes whiter than white”, it is not making a factual claim, but attempting to plant a favourable impression of Sudso in your head so that when you are picking up laundry soap, with other things on your mind than careful comparison shopping, you have a bias towards picking up that brand. What game are white Nationalists playing when they say “free speech is a human right, so I should be allowed to say whatever I like, wherever I like”.

Family Resemblance

“Family Resemblance” is the idea that words do not usually have a single, essential meaning, but that each word can be used in different contexts with somewhat different meanings, each bearing a resemblance to each other in the same way that family members can resemble one another without there necessarily being a single distinguishing feature.

Perhaps two members have a similar nose, while one of them has similar hair to another. So there is no exact definition of a game because some there is nothing in common with all the things we call games. There are card games, board games, ball games, video games and many more. Many are entertaining to participate in, others are trickery (“so that’s your game!”, “Game of Thrones”). It is not that any of these embody the “real” meaning of the word “game” but they are each just as much games as the other. The boundaries between what we call a game and what we do not is arbitrary and changes with time and with context. Why do we refer to a football game, but a 100 metre race, not a game, even though it is in the Olympic Games.

We seem to have an inclination to look for the meaning of a word, as if there were some place we could find the definitive definition. This example shows there is not. Another example is the word “energy”. A scientist may define it fairly precisely so that equations like Einstein’s famous e=mc2 work. But if you’re feeling listless and remark “I don’t have much energy”, you are not looking for a physicist to correct you by telling you that your mass can be converted to enough energy to accelerate your car to near light speed. That is a different language game.

On the other hand, on June 3, 2019, Canada’s National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) issued its report. It found that Canada had committed genocide against the Indigenous peoples who lived on the land it occupied. The outcry was immediate, the media were full of people explaining that it could not possibly be genocide because it wasn’t like other genocides because it didn’t involve thousands being murdered by the authorities. This in spite of a carefully reasoned supplementary report in which they explained the reasons why they used this term.

The report covered the international legal definitions and showed how it met those criteria. That is the equivalent of the physics definition of energy, and I’m not qualified to evaluate that except to say that it looks close enough to me. I could be wrong, but suppose I am? That may mean that a suit in a court of law may fail. Perhaps we’ll find out. But it certainly means that all those arguing those fine points at this point are derailing the conversation from the horrors documented in the main report for no relevant reason at this time. They’re playing an inappropriate language game and missing the fact that “genocide” bears an extremely close family resemblance to other situations where we all accept that it’s the right term. It may have been slower than other genocides but it was certainly officially sanctioned. The specific instances of MMIWG were not state-ordered mass killings, but the state’s official response was not to investigate and not take action to stop them. And this, involving thousands of deaths, was only one, small aspect of the deaths caused by the state’s deliberate actions (Residential Schools with their own graveyards!) or wilful ignorance of well-documented police actions (“Starlight tours” where police took Indigenous people outside city limits and dropped them off to freeze to death in frigid prairie winters!)

Meaning and Use

In his Philosophical Investigations1, Wittgenstein says “For a large class of cases—though not for all—in which we employ the word “meaning” it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.”

Although dictionary definitions often work by synonyms, if you try to define the word “and”, you will find it quite difficult. The Oxford dictionaries explain how it is used. And all of the more comprehensive dictionaries give examples of how words are used.

This tool is useful when people insist on using dictionary definitions as if they are the full story on the meaning of a word. It applies to the word “genocide” as introduced above. When a National Inquiry explains with great care how they are using the word in their report, uses it consistently with that explanation and shows how useful it is in understanding and correction the situation, arguing that it doesn’t exactly fit the international legal definition is futile even if it were correct.

This tool is also useful in dissolving philosophical mysteries, such as free will. Consider how most people use the words “free will”, when they say “she did that of her own free will” and you will realize that deterministic physics is not even relevant to their intention, let alone proof that they are wrong.

You may have noticed that these three concepts work together. They are an example of viewpoints, that I will introduce later in a section on models.


1. Remark 43

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