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Wittgenstein Plays Snooker

Peter Mullen reproduces part of Wittgenstein’s lost work, Bemerkungen Uber Die Grunds√§tzlichkeit Des Snooker.

(Editor’s note: In 1948, Ludwig Wittgenstein, aged 59, paid a brief visit to Sheffield, Yorkshire, in order to study Gemeinschaft [community] there. One Saturday afternoon when there was nothing particularly interesting on at the pictures, he went into the snooker hall known as The Crucible, where he became instantly fascinated by the play. Following this visit he went again to Norway, where, putting aside his already well-advanced work on the final version of Philosophical Investigations, he began a lengthy treatise on the art of snooker. This previously unpublished fragment was discovered down the back of a sofa in the tap room of The King’s Arms, Cable Street, Attercliffe, in the summer of 2017.)

35. I am teaching a friend the game of snooker and he accidentally plays the green ball before the yellow. I remind him of the sequence which must be followed, explaining that this sequence is the syntax or depth grammar of the game. (Remark on the concept of following a rule.)

36. Then he plays a red ball, and the cue ball rolls into a pocket. I exclaim – my exclamation is accompanied by a gesture – “Ah, so you’ve gone in-off!” (In-Entfernt). My friend expresses astonishment at this locution and replies, “But I thought in English ‘In’ is contrasted with ‘Out’?” I explain that in snooker the language game (Lebensform) ‘In-Off’ is what is known as an exception to the usual rule-following procedure. I give him a list of such exceptions and add four points to my score. (What does it mean to make a list here?)

37. I say, “The brown is on the blue spot”. His face wears a look of unbelief (Unglaubigkeit) and he lifts the brown ball from the table. I explain that lifting the brown is not part of the language game. (But the idea of lifting the brown was meant deliberately as a joke – Ein Witz oder Ein Scherz.)

37.1 He says, “But this spot is not-blue! (Unblaulichkeit). It is only a little black mark on the table!” I explain that here ‘a little black mark’ means ‘the blue spot’. I laugh out loud and he looks offended.

37.2 (Whether my laughter and his being offended are also part of the game?)

37.3 The mistake is always to look for a definition of being offended where we should look for a criterion. Taking offence cannot be defined: it can only be shown. We might make a list of what is shown when one takes offence:

* Frowning

* Leaving the table and sullenly taking a sip of one’s beer.

* Ripping the cloth with one’s cue – with a grimace. (But the grimace too is also part of the criterion.)

37.4 Imagine this language-game: I say, “That’s not just a little black mark, you idiot! It’s the blue spot.” My friend comes over to where I am philosophising and sticks his cue up my nose. So we say, “Yes, sticking a snooker cue up Ludwig Wittgenstein’s nose is also a criterion for an instance of offence-taking.”

38. “Ouch!” too is designated part of the language-game here.

39. “But the blue spot is also a little black mark.” (Remark concerning the open-textured nature of ontology.)

40. It is a mistake to think of it as being a little black spot or the blue spot (Ein Klein schwartz Punkt oder Der blau Punkt). We should rather look for its use.

41. Is the blue spot still a blue spot in the dark? Questions such as this produce a feeling of giddiness (Schwindelgefuhl). This is a particular sort of giddiness which might be called philosophical (Philosophische Schwindelgefuhl).

Wittgenstein with cue
Original portrait of Wittgenstein by Athamos Stradis

42. Compare the various occasions of giddiness which we might experience and note the family resemblance among them:

* Standing on the sloping roof of a house built by Wittgenstein

* Playing snooker with Wittgenstein

* Sitting on the blue spot in the dark, etc

What all these have in common is not a particular sensation. Rather they are governed by the use of the word Schwindelgefuhl.

43. I see a man at the table and he is bending over his cue, taking careful aim, following through, potting (as it might be) a red ball, etc, and I exclaim, “Ah, so he is playing snooker!” Then I see his opponent, who is sitting on the seat drinking his beer, and I say, “He also is playing snooker!”

44. Then someone says, “I saw a man sitting on a bench outside a café yesterday and he was drinking beer. Does that imply that he also was playing snooker?” (What does ‘playing snooker’ mean here? The inadmissibility of beer-drinking as a criterion for snooker-playing.)

44.1 ‘Waiting one’s turn’ is also part of what we mean by the game.

45. Is it possible that you see a brown ball where I see a blue one? We must guard against the bewitchment of our intelligence by our tendency to slip into (ausrutschen, ausgleiten) the ontological mode. Questions of this sort are only solved by asking, “What rule is being followed here?”

45.1 We see that he pots a ball and scores himself four points. “Ah!” we conclude, “So it was the brown ball after all.”

45.2 But we object, “Is it possible that I see him score four points where you see him score five?” (Remark on the notion of the infinite regress, unendlich sich ruckwarts bewegen.)

45.3 Cases in which we may be mistaken about whether the ball is blue or brown:

* When my opponent scores himself five points, perhaps only four were due to him? (The concept of cheating, Betrugen.)

* His arithmetic may be very poor.

* The lights went out. (But could we see that the lights had gone out?)

46. But the fact that my opponent is a cheat is not the cause of the ball’s being brown (or blue). It is only a proto-phenomenon where we ought to say, “ This language-game is being played.”

47. The rest is silence.

© Rev’d Dr Peter Mullen 2022

Peter Mullen is a philosopher and Anglican priest. His last cure of souls before he retired was Rector of St Michael’s, Cornhill, in the City of London.

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