Wittgenstein noted that we engage in language games and quite often we borrow words from different games and misuse them such as using words with scientific connotations in religious discourse or using aesthetic terms in ethics and so on. He even claimed that mathematics was also suffering from the same problem, and he fiercely advocated for finitism as a result. Has anyone developed Wittgenstein's insight into techniques for discussing philosophical problems? Is it possible and if not why?

For me particularly in the field of theology, I often thank Wittgenstein for saving me from the theist/atheist debates that were really popular a few years ago. As a theist myself, l think we need to emphasize how much we don't understand God as he is unlike anything we know of, for starters He exists outside spacetime and when we use the word exist for him, it is clearly used in a different sense than any simple empirical statement in the world. Some theologians (Ibn Arabi) even differentiated existence into necessary and dependent existence to resolve the confusions that arise out of mixing these concepts up together. I believe that philosophy should always be focused on making things clear rather than building newer structures, but that's a topic for another day.

  • Welcome to SE Philosophy! Thanks for your contribution. Please take a quick moment to take the tour or find help. You can perform searches here or seek additional clarification at the meta site. Don't forget, when someone has answered your question, you can click on the checkmark to reward the user!
    – J D
    Commented Nov 26, 2019 at 19:30
  • Please be aware that questions are subject to editing and closure, and that reflects the site's policies on acceptable questions and NOT a personal attack. What to avoid in questions.. Questions, including those that are closed, can be edited to bring them within guidelines. Keeping questions on-topic Additional clarification at the meta site.
    – J D
    Commented Nov 26, 2019 at 19:31
  • 1
    As a matter of fact, I don't really mind edits. Commented Nov 26, 2019 at 19:45
  • 1
    I like edits cause they clean up the mess l leave behind and can't be really bothered to fix, hahaa. If you happen to edit some masterpiece, work of art. Be careful and brace yourself.But you won't find any such stuff from me, 😀😀😁 Commented Nov 26, 2019 at 19:56
  • 1
    With the increase in precision of one language comes a lack of consistency with another. To create a new language, or at least definition of words, results in a new subgroup. Thus we end up with a meta-tautology that applies to perspectives and not just language.
    – Eodnhoj7
    Commented Nov 26, 2019 at 23:08

1 Answer 1


It's best not to think of this as merely 'borrowing words.' I suspect that Wittgenstein himself would have said that it's impossible to borrow a word as such; what we do instead is import rules across games in strange ways. Imagine if you and I were playing checkers, and when I got a piece all the way to your side of the board (creating a king), I started moving that king according to the rules of chess. The game would de-evolve into nonsense.

This often happens in atheism/theism disputes. These disputes are not actually analytical discussions within a single language game. They are political disputes trying to legislate which language game should dominate. they are inherently lawless (rule-less) because the goal on each side is to undercut the coherence and credibility of the other side's rules.

Wittgenstein actually gave the solution for this, though he didn't develop it as fully as he could have. It's in his notion of a philosophical therapy, where one addresses an intractable philosophical problem by stepping back and looking for where language games have gotten crossed. It's a method of separating out and clarifying the rules of the language games being played, so that everyone can agree on a common game (even if they agree on nothing else). However, that only works with people who are intent on being philosophical, which implies a certain earnest reflection. People set on a political agenda are not interested in reflection, and while they can be 'therapized' — e.g., the kind of acute critiques one finds in Marxism and modern Critical Theory — that will rarely have any significant effect.

Politics is a totalizing language game all its own, and a very tough nut to crack.

  • I think we certainly share a common viewpoint regarding the terrible way in which most debates and discussions are tackled but to get to the gist of the problem and the solution as you have rightfully mentioned, the notion of engaging in a philosophical therapy and setting a common ground to have a constructive discussion will be impossible in most cases and not for the feeble and irrational nature of human minds but because of the fundamental differences in the understanding of the world that are held at the opposite ends. Setting common grounds can cause everything to evaporate sometimes. Commented Nov 26, 2019 at 18:38
  • Oh, it's hardly impossible; I do it all the time. Much of the time it's merely an exercise in squatting in the middle ground until the ideologues get frustrated and walk away, but there's a value in that as well. Remember, the goal of Wittgenstein's therapy is to make the problem evaporate: get to a place where we realize that we are mixing up rule-sets, then fix the rules so the 'philosophical' problem we were stuck on no longer exists. Commented Nov 26, 2019 at 18:45
  • The term borrowing words was ironically misleading and can we really hope to set common grounds in philosophy ? If the answer is a negation, then the only sensible response would be relativism in most matters of discussion but again the modern approach of relativism in most matters will also be difficult to address as certain matters are clearly right but the act of justification will never be free of any challenges from a philosophical perspective. Commented Nov 26, 2019 at 18:46
  • Are you asking me whether we can agree on a proper and consistent set of rules for discussions? Sure we could, if we wanted to; there are just lots of people who (a) don't know that we can, and (b) don't want to, because they ignorantly assume that creating constant conversational rules is some kind of 'trick.' Commented Nov 26, 2019 at 18:50
  • If l am not wrong, does Wittgenstein's approach classify philosophical problems into two categories, one of them will evaporate once misunderstanding is removed and the others that are legitimate and will be solved. In that case, we may have a scientific approach to philosophy which wittgenstein clearly hated.Maybe it is an unintended consequence and resembles the early Wittgenstein too.I wonder if wittgenstein would classify ethical problems in either of the two categories as he seems to have believed in the truthfulness of the ethical statements without resorting to any justification. Commented Nov 26, 2019 at 18:54

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .