Significance of language games for an understanding of religious statements

  • Theory of language games emerged from Wittgenstein‘s disillusion with the Logical Positivists extreme stance on the validity of anything which could not be verified or falsified as an analytic or synthetic statement.
  • He categorised religious language as one of many areas of human life which has not only its own vocabulary but its own rules too and was therefore not subject to judgement by the usual rules of empirical criticism.
  • This theory was to protect religious language from accusations of meaningless since the reality it was used to describe was not the concrete reality of the world of the phenomenon.
  • Critics of religious language would have to become fully initiated into the use of this type of language in order to understand it in its context. Ultimately the critic would have to become a member of the community which used that language.
  • Any attempt to impose scientific or even logical criteria upon the religious life represented a misunderstanding of the ‘game’!
  • Wittgenstein further highlighted the fact that the religious language game is more complex than most. The empirical world view and this one are so far removed from each other that dialogue cannot take place unless there is agreement not to criticise from the wrong perspective. His own example from WWII was one soldier saying to another, ‘I believe there is a German aeroplane overhead.’ The other replies, ‘possibly.’ But in a different scenario, the first says, I believe there is a Last Judgment’ to which the second replies the same as before, ‘possibly.’ It is quite obvious that the first man’s belief affects his world view and impacts on his whole life rather more than the possibility of the aeroplane overhead.
  • One of this theory’s successes is the possibility for communication it opens up between different disciplines.
  • In science particularly, scientist and theist can have a discussion recognising that they are not talking in contradictions but expressing their experiences by different rules. Both might refer to the beauty of a sunset, the theist from the point of view of God’s creation, the scientist from physical and natural laws but they are both referring to the same phenomenon though using their own ‘rules’ or vocabulary.
  • Language games therefore enable different forms of life to exist in parallel without necessary contradiction.
  • A criticism could be that it allows for nothing better than a compromise. Though religious language uses non-cognitive forms such as myth and symbol not all religious language is.
  • The assertion ‘God exists,’ refers to more than just the symbolic realm the believer is using it to express a claim about reality. God may be transcendent but he can also be experienced in the real world. It becomes a universal truth.
  • Although language games attempt to make all forms of life equally valid it does gloss over the difficult relationship between language and reality rather than opening up the way for a deeper understanding of the functions of religious language.


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