20 April 2002


Employing Wittgenstein in Political Analysis

Daniel Hutagalung

This paper tries to analyse how Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language can be applied to political analysis. Firstly, I will discuss Wittgenstein’s concept of language games, which is one of most important concepts in his works. Thus, I will focus on an article written by James Tully (1989), which uses a Wittgensteinian approach.

Wittgenstein’s notion of language games is illustrated in the example of “the builders” in his Philosophical Investigation (1958):

“Let us imagine a language ...The language is meant to serve for communication between a builder A and an assistant B. A is building with building-stones; there are blocks, pillars, slabs and beams. B has to pass the stones, and that in the order in which A needs them. For this purpose they use a language consisting of the words ‘block’, ‘pillar’, ‘slab’, ‘beam’. A calls them out; – B brings the stone which he has learnt to bring at such-and-such a call. – Conceive of this as a complete primitive language” (Wittgenstein, PI, 2)

It seems to suggest an intentional reading, where the assistant learns to bring ‘pillars’, ‘slabs’ and ‘beams’ to the builder on call. When the participants intuitively master the cooperative context, they can assign words to objects through implicit definition: The speaker who gives the directives (the words that are called out) and the cooperative performance that is steered by their function as tools for the realization of his intentions (Wittgenstein, PI, 6). The words appear to derive their meaning from the purposes and the activities of the speaking subject. Therefore, “to understand a language means to be master of technique” (Wittgenstein, PI, 199).

Wittgenstein sees the practice of language games, which determine the use of linguistic expressions, not as a result of individual teleological actions on the part of isolated or purposefully acting subjects. Instead, “the common behaviour of mankind is the system of reference by means of which we interpret an unknown language” (Wittgenstein, PI, 206). In language games the whole consists of both linguistic expressions and non-linguistic activities interconnected. In his words, “I shall also call the whole, consisting of language and the actions into which it is woven, the ‘language-game’” (Wittgenstein, PI, 7).

Furthermore, Meredith Williams characterizes Wittgenstein’s central idea of language games in three ways: 1) as a methodological tool for examining philosophical theories, 2) as connected to the way children learn language, and 3) as an explanatory device describing the use of language in relation to other forms of acting (Williams, 1999, p. 220). She notices that Wittgenstein uses language games in those three ways to explore the stage setting or background involved in ostensive definition and interpretation. The background concerns human being’s ability for taking a range of objects or properties to be the same kind including people’s actions and judgements. For Wittgenstein the problem of normative similarity arises precisely because neither of the resources (sensory stimulations and hypothesis formation) characterizes human capacity for judging sameness. Williams locates this in the beginning of Philosophical Investigations when Wittgenstein discusses the role of ostension both in teaching and learning and in fixing the meaning of words. According to Williams, Wittgenstein contrasts the ostensive definition, which uses an object as an exemplar to fix the meaning of a word and ostensive teaching, with the effects of an association between a word and an object (Williams, 1999, p. 221).

Laclau and Mouffe have incorporated Wittgenstein’s philosophical thinking into their discourse theory. According Laclau and Mouffe, Wittgenstein’s material property of objects, which are a part of the concept of language games, is an example of what they call discourse. This is shown by referring to the example of “the builders”. In addition, Laclau and Mouffe argue that what constitutes a differential position and relational identity for linguistic elements within language games, “is not the idea of building-stone or slab, but the building stone and a slab as such. (The connection with the idea of ‘building stones’ has not, as far as we know, been sufficient to construct any building). The linguistic and non-linguistic elements are not merely juxtaposed, but constitute a differential structured system of positions – that is, a discourse” (Laclau and Mouffe, 2001, p. 108). Additionally, they agree with Wittgenstein that “there is no such thing as the ‘application of the rule’ – the instance of application becomes part of the rule itself” (Laclau and Mouffe, 2000, introduction).

Moreover, Mouffe uses Wittgenstein’s approach in her analysis of pluralist democracy. She argues that this approach used for political theory could play an important role in the fostering of democratic values, because it allows us to grasp the conditions of emergence of democratic consensus (Mouffe, 2000, p. 70). “A crucial insight which undermines the very objective that those who advocate the ‘deliberative’ approach present as the aim of democracy: the establishment of a rational consensus on universal principles”(Mouffe, 2000, p. 73) is brought forward by using Wittgenstein’s approach. If we want follow Wittgenstein, “we should acknowledge and valorize the diversity of ways in which the ‘democratic game’ can be played, instead of trying to reduce this diversity to a uniform model of citizenship” (Mouffe, 2000, p. 73). It means, for Mouffe, fostering a plurality of forms of being a democratic citizen and creating the institutions, which would makes it possible to follow democratic rules in a plurality of ways.

Thus, Mouffe’s concept of ‘agonistic pluralism’ is inspired by Wittgenstein’s mode of theorizing, and she attempts to develop what she believes is one of Wittgenstein fundamental insight – that is, understanding what it means to follow a rule. For Wittgenstein ‘obeying a rule’ is a practice and understanding of rules consists in the master of technique - the use of general terms can be seen as ‘practice’ or ‘customs’ of a subject not different from games like chess (Wittgenstein, PI, 199). Mouffe argues that this is why Wittgenstein insists it is a mistake to envisage every action according to a rule as an ‘interpretation’ and that there is a way of grasping a rule which is not an interpretation, but which is exhibited in what is called ‘obeying the rule’ and ‘going against it’ in actual cases (Mouffe, 2000, p. 72; Wittgenstein, PI, 201). For Mouffe, Wittgenstein has taught us that there cannot be one single best, more ‘rational’ way to obey those rules and that it is precisely such a recognition that is constitutive of what she calls a pluralist democracy.

Obviously, Wittgenstein states that following the rules are analogous to obeying an order, where subjects are trained act in particular way in accordance with an order. However, if one person reacts in one way and another person in another way to the order and training, the question then becomes, which one acted correctly? (Wittgenstein, PI, 206). Mouffe highlights the importance of this question for democratic theory. She argues that this question cannot be resolved by the claim of the rationalists, which holds that there is one correct understanding of the rule that every rational person should accept. Indeed, Mouffe believes it is necessary to distinguish between ‘obeying the rule’ and ‘going against it’. However, the distinction needs a space which provides for the many different practices in which obedience to democratic rules can be inscribed: Not just envisaged as a temporary accommodation, but as a stage in the process leading to realization of the rational consensus feature of a democratic society. In her words, she states:

“Democratic citizenship can take many diverse forms and such a diversity, far from being a danger for democracy, is in fact its very condition of existence. This will, of course, create conflict and it would be a mistake to expect all those different understandings to coexist without clashing. But this struggle will not be one between ‘enemies’ but among ‘adversaries’, since all participants will recognize the positions of the others in the contest as legitimate ones. Such an understanding of democratic politics, which is precisely what I call ‘agonistic pluralism’, is unthinkable within a rationalistic problematic which, by necessity, tends to erase diversity. A perspective inspired by Wittgenstein, on the contrary, can contribute to its formulation, and this is why his contribution to democratic thinking is invaluable” (Mouffe, 2000, p. 74).

James Tully also uses Wittgenstein’s approach in dealing with political philosophy. He has used Wittgenstein’s insights to criticize the mistaken convention of contemporary political thought, which says: “our way of political life is free and rational only if it is founded on some form or other of critical reflection” (Tully, 1989, p. 172). He examines Habermas’s picture of critical reflection and justification, and also Charles Taylor’s notion of interpretation.

According to Tully, Habermas’s form of critical reflection is guided by two pictures: First, we live a free and rational way of political life insofar as the rules – in accordance with which we act – are based on our agreement. Second, the activity of ‘coming to an agreement’ must be some form of critical reflection that ensures that the agreement is free and rational (Tully, 1989, p. 174). For Habermas activity must combine two types of critical reflection: First, transcendental and reconstructive in form, reason must turn back on itself and determine the conditions of possibility of a rational agreement. Second, emancipatory in form, everyone must engage together in an activity of critical argument to justify the rules governing their political life. Habermas argues that understanding/agreement can be reached by constructing it. Additionally, “We can reconstruct, the normative content of possible understanding by stating which universal pre-suppositions have to be met for understanding to be achieved in an actual case” (Tully, 1989, p. 175). Indeed, Habermas emphasizes that the condition for reaching understanding are those that make speech-acts acceptable. And his final step is his claim about the condition of possibility for comprehensible speech-act in reaching understanding/agreement seen in relation to three criticisable claims of validity. These are claims that the makes sure that the speech-act is ‘right’, that its proportional content is ‘true’ and that the speaker is ‘sincere’ or ‘truthful’ (Tully, 1989, p. 176).

Tully accuses Habermas’s of adopting a a mistaken rationalist’s view, which identifies ‘reasonable’ with ‘giving reason’. In some circumstances it is perfectly reasonable not to ask for reasons, and indeed it would be unreasonable to do so. Tully quotes Wittgenstein in his argument against Habermas,

“As though an explanation as it were hung in the air unless supported by another one. Whereas an explanation may indeed rest on another one that has been given, but none stands is need of another – unless we require it to prevent a misunderstanding. One might say: an explanation serves to remove or to avert a misunderstanding – one, that is, that would occur but for the explanation; not every one that I can imagine” (Wittgenstein, PI, 87).

In raise some doubts about Habermas’s sincerity, the reason is needed to clear it up, but Tully says, “We are neither unreasonable nor irrational in not raising the doubt”. Wittgenstein insists that ‘justification’ is not equivalent with ‘right’ in dealing with Habermas’s justification. For Wittgenstein, “to use a word without a justification does not mean to use it without right” (Wittgenstein, PI, 289).[1] Tully also argues against Habermas’s overly sharp distinction between the reflective grounding of speech-act in justifications and the mere de facto acceptance of habitual practice. In addition, Habermas’s justification activity does not transcend habitual practice but, rather, rests on the unreflective acceptance of juridical ways of thought and action.

Finally, Tully examines Habermas’s validity claims of sincerity and truth. There exists a fairly widespread agreement on ‘truth’ as a basic validity claim but also widespread disagreement on its use. He agrees with Habermas that often we find ourselves in understanding/agreement in using ‘truth’ or ‘rightness’ in given spatial and temporal circumstances of trying to reach understanding/agreement on other. But he also insists that there are long stretches in political history of agreement in speaking and acting with ‘truth’, ‘rightness’ and ‘sincerity’, which ground – for a while the – a critical reflective free play of disagreement. These agreements are in our ‘forms of life’ (Tully, 1989, p. 190).[2]

In examining Taylor’s hermeneutic approach, Tully argues that Taylor misunderstands the hermeneutical practice of critical reflection: i.e. interpretation; in which Taylor says, “human beings are self-interpreting animals”. For Taylor interpretation is not simply a method, procedure, or one activity among many, but that being engaged in the activity of interpretation is basically a way of being in the world (Tully, 1989, p.192).

According to Tully, Taylor’s proposition that human beings are self-interpreting animals is contained in two theses. First, interpretation is the most fundamental way human beings understand themselves in the world;

“We can therefore say that the human animal not only finds himself impelled from time to time to interpret himself and his goals, but that he is always already in some interpretation, constituted as human by this fact” (Taylor, 1985, quoted from Tully, 1989, p. 193).

Secondly, the essential feature of personhood is the participation in the reflective activity of partially disengaging from the non-reflective acceptance of conventional self-understanding, and engage in a critical reflective interpretation or ‘articulation’ of conventional self-understanding: “We must speak of man as a self-interpreting being, because this kind of interpretation is not an optional extra, but is an essential part of our existence” (Taylor, 1985, quoted from Tully, 1989, p. 193). Tully argues that Taylor’s assumption is based on a mistaken understanding of interpretation - assuming that understanding involves interpretation in some essential way. He refers to Wittgenstein’s argument that understanding a sign is not interpreting it. Interpretation of a sign is another sign and this activity involves the translation of one sign into another: “Every action according to the rule is an interpretation. But we ought to restrict the term ‘interpretation’ to the substitution of one expression of the rule for another” (Wittgenstein, PI, 201). Tully stresses,

“If interpretation is to account for the phenomenon of understanding, the interpretation should determine the correct use of the sign or rule it interprets, since understanding involves being able to use the sign in question or to follow the rule” (Tully, 1989, pp. 193-194)

For Wittgenstein understanding can be seen in the correct way, because there is no problematic gap in understanding and it does not need to be filled by a mediator (interpretation, representation, agreement, etc).[3] Wittgenstein writes, “It is not interpretation which builds the bridge between the sign and what is signified // meant //. Only practice does that” (Wittgenstein, On Certainty, 509, quoted from Tully, 1989, 195).

In summary, Wittgenstein speaks of language games primarily to teach us to dispel our language confusions, but this does not lead to a philosophy that tells us how to use language in our ordinary lives. I think, although Wittgenstein’s earlier work was concerned with such a project, his later philosophy, in which he introduces the term “language games”, is not. He says:

“Our clear and simple language-games are not preparatory studies for a future regularization of language – as it were first approximations, ignoring friction and air-resistance. The language-games are rather set up as objects of comparison which are meant to throw light on the facts of our language by way not only of similarities, but also of dissimilarities” (Wittgenstein, PI, 130)

Mouffe and Taylor’s work are useful for applying Wittgenstein’s approach within political analysis. They explain convincingly how the conception of pluralist democracy, agonistic pluralism, interpretation, agreement and justification can be coupled with Wittgenstein’s philosophy. By looking at their work I have tried to employ Wittgenstein within the field of political analysis.

However, it also can be seen that Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language has lot of complexity. But in spite of this complexity, it has some specific elements that highlight certain dimensions of language that often pass unnoticed. But I think, some attentions or questions should be considered in our reading of Wittgenstein. It draws my attention to the way language works to prompt a desired (or perhaps undesired) response. It also draws my attention to the way in which these language games can be learned before we have mastered the individual concepts used in the game. And in the discussion we can also look at the way in which we can confuse language games and become muddled, how this is a natural and inevitable part of any philosophical or political theory. And, finally, the concept presents itself as a way of analysing those muddles so as to dispel them, like what Wittgenstein says,

“My aim is: to teach you to pass from a piece of disguised nonsense to something that is patent nonsense” (Wittgenstein, PI, 464).


Mouffe, Chantal, The Democratic Paradox. London, Verso, 2000

Tully, James, “Wittgenstein and Political Philosophy: Understanding Practices of Critical Reflection” in Political Theory Vol. 17, No.2, May 1989, pp. 172-204

Williams, Meredith, Wittgenstein, Mind and Meaning: Toward A Social Conception of Mind. London, Routledge, 1999

Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Philosophical Investigations. Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1958.

[1] Wittgenstein gives an example, “When I say ‘I am pain’ I am at any rate justified before myself – What does it mean? Does it mean: “If someone else could know what I am calling ‘pain’, he would admit that I was using the word correctly?” (Wittgenstein, PI, 289)

[2] Tully uses Wittgenstein argument in deal with agreement, which says: “So you are saying that human agreement decides what is true and what is false? – It is what human beings say that is true and false; and they agree in the language they use. That is not agreement in opinions but in form of life”. (Wittgenstein, PI, 241)

[3] Wittgenstein stresses with states, “No course of action could be determined by a rule, because every course of action can be made out to accord with the rule. The answer was: if everything can be made out to accord with the rule, then it can also be made out to conflict with it. And there would be neither accord nor conflict here”. See Wittgenstein, PI, 201

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