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A Nice Knock-Down Argument
by Peter Williams (after Lewis Carroll’s ‘Through the Looking Glass’)
The notion of ‘language-games’, often cited and discussed in my lectures at University, has become something of a pet hate with me. The concept comes originally from Wittgenstein, who asked us to “think of words as instruments characterised by their use.” The general idea is that the meaning of language is dependent upon the user, and words only have meaning within a particular context of use called a ‘language-game’. Some have argued that religious language, for example, should be recognised as a distinctive language-game. This implies that philosophical questions about religious matters, or matters in any ‘language-game’, should be restricted to questions about the role played by words in that particular game; philosophy is prevented from saying anything about the validity of the game itself.
I have no problem with the concept of ‘language-games’ as ‘universes of discourse’ where words are used in a particular context, but I do hold serious objections to the thesis that such universes of discourse are distinct from each other and to the relativistic idea that meaning can be wholly private and purely subjective. Words do not mean certain things because of the way in which they are used; words are used because they mean certain things. Any new or ‘invented’ term must be defined by pre-existing and meaningful terms.
In the hope of explaining myself in an engaging style, and engendering some debate upon the hot potatoes of languagegames and of relativism, I offer the following fable…
“There’s glory for you.”
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory’,” Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t – till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’”
“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
Alice considered a little. “But surely,” she said in a sudden flash of inspiration, “you simply have to agree with me that ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’, it means ‘glory’.”
“Not in the slightest bit,” humphed Humpty Dumpty, “I disagree with you totally.”
“Ah,” replied Alice cunningly, “so you do agree with me, for when I hear someone say ‘I disagree with you’, I think they mean ‘I agree with you totally’, don’t you? When I hear a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – nothing more nor less.”
“It is a most provoking thing,” Humpty Dumpty cried, breaking into a sudden passion, “when little girls make it impossible to disagree with them.”
“So,” said Alice, “now you do agree with me that ‘glory’ means ‘glory’.”
“Wrong!” Humpty Dumpty exclaimed triumphantly, “it would be alright for me to say that ‘I disagree with you’ meant ‘I agree with you’, because I believe in that sort of thing; but you don’t, or you wouldn’t be being so awkward about it! You can’t go using other people’s arguments against themselves, that’s plagiarism!”
(“He talks about it just as if it was a game!” thought Alice.) Trying hard to conceal her vexation with the phantasmagorical egg, Alice delivered her coup de grâce : “I’m afraid that you can’t get out of it like that Mr. Dumpty, it just won’t do at all. You think that words mean whatever you choose them to mean, but in order to say that I disagree with you, you have to agree with, or understand, my use of words; and if you agree with me, then you can’t disagree!”
“It’s very provoking,” Humpty Dumpty said after a long silence, looking away from Alice as he spoke. “I’d rather see that done on paper.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so little.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “who is to be master – that’s all.”
Alice waited to see if he would speak again, but as he never opened his eyes or took any further notice of her, she said “Good-bye.” and quietly walked away: but she couldn’t help saying to herself as she went, “Of all the unsatisfactory people I ever met –” She never finished the sentence, for at that moment a heavy crash shook the forest from end to end.
The Wittgenstein Reader ed. by A. Kenny (Blackwell) Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll (Pan Macmillan Children’s Books)
© Peter Williams 1995
Peter Williams is an undergraduate philosophy student at Cardiff University and says he most certainly does not live in a world of his own.