Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 3rd Edition, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1958)
65. Here we come up against the great question that lies behind all these considerations.–For someone might object against me: “You take the easy way out! You talk about all sorts of language-games, but have nowhere said what the essence of a language-game, and hence of language, is: what is common to all these activities, and what makes them into language or parts of language. So you let yourself off the very part of the investigation that once gave you yourself most headache, the part about the general form of propositions and of language.”
And this is true.–Instead of producing something common to all that we call language, I am saying that these phenomena have no one thing in common which makes us use the same word for all,– but that they are related to one another in many different ways. And it is because of this relationship, or these relationships, that we call them all “language”. I will try to explain this.
66. Consider for example the proceedings that we call “games”. I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all?–Don’t say: “There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games'”–but look and see whether there is anything common to all.–For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don’t think, but look!–Look for example at board-games, with their multifarious relationships.
Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear. When we pass next to ballgames, much that is common is retained, but much is lost.–Are they all ‘amusing’? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In ball games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared. Look at the parts played by skill and luck; and at the difference between skill in chess and skill in tennis. Think now of games like ring-a-ring-a-roses; here is the element of amusement, but how many other characteristic features have disappeared! And we can go through the many, many other groups of games in the same way; can see how similarities crop up and disappear.
And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail.
67. I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances”; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way.– And I shall say: ‘games’ form a family.
And for instance the kinds of number form a family in the same way. Why do we call something a “number”? Well, perhaps because it has a–direct–relationship with several things that have hitherto been called number; and this can be said to give it an indirect relationship to other things we call the same name. And we extend our concept of number as in spinning a thread we twist fibre on fibre. And the strength of the thread does not reside in the fact that some one fibre runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibres.
But if someone wished to say: “There is something common to all these constructions–namely the disjunction of all their common properties”–I should reply: Now you are only playing with words. One might as well say: “Something runs through the whole thread– namely the continuous overlapping of those fibres”.
68. “All right: the concept of number is defined for you as the logical sum of these individual interrelated concepts: cardinal numbers, rational numbers, real numbers, etc.; and in the same way the concept of a game as the logical sum of a corresponding set of sub-concepts.”– –It need not be so. For I can give the concept ‘number’ rigid limits in this way, that is, use the word “number” for a rigidly limited concept, but I can also use it so that the extension of the concept is not closed by a frontier. And this is how we do use the word “game”. For how is the concept of a game bounded? What still counts as a game and what no longer does? Can you give the boundary? No. You can draw one; for none has so far been drawn. (But that never troubled you before when you used the word “game”.)
“But then the use of the word is unregulated, the ‘game’ we play with it is unregulated.”—-It is not everywhere circumscribed by rules; but no more are there any rules for how high one throws the ball in tennis, or how hard; yet tennis is a game for all that and has rules too.
69. How should we explain to someone what a game is? I imagine that we should describe games to him, and we might add: “This and similar things are called ‘games’ “. And do we know any more about it ourselves? Is it only other people whom we cannot tell exactly what a game is?–But this is not. ignorance. We do not know the boundaries because none have been drawn. To repeat, we can draw a boundary– for a special purpose. Does it take that to make the concept usable? Not at alll (Except for that special purpose.) No more than it took the definition: i pace = 75 cm. to make the measure of length ‘one pace’ usable. And if you want to say “But still, before that it wasn’t an exact measure”, then I reply: very well, it was an inexact one.– Though you still owe me a definition of exactness.
70. “But if the concept ‘game’ is uncircumscribed like that, you don’t really know what you mean by a ‘game’.”—-When I give the description: “The ground was quite covered with plants”–do you want to say I don’t know what I am talking about until I can give a definition of a plant?
My meaning would be explained by, say, a drawing and the words “The ground looked roughly like this”. Perhaps I even say “it looked exactly like this.”–Then were just this grass and these leaves there, arranged just like this? No, that is not what it means. And I should not accept any picture as exact, in this sense.
Someone says to me: “Shew the children a game.” I teach them gaming with dice, and the other says “I didn’t mean that sort of game.” Must the exclusion of the game with dice have come before his mind when he gave me the order?
71. One might say that the concept ‘game’ is a concept with blurred edges.–“But is a blurred concept a concept at all?”–Is an indistinct photograph a picture of a person at all? Is it even always an advantage to replace an indistinct picture by a sharp one? Isn’t the indistinct one often exactly what we need?
Frege compares a concept to an area and says that an area with vague boundaries cannot be called an area at all. This presumably means that we cannot do anything with it.–But is it senseless to say: “Stand roughly there”? Suppose that I were standing with someone in a city square and said that. As I say it I do not draw any kind of boundary, but perhaps point with my hand–as if I were indicating a particular spot. And this is just how one might explain to someone what a game is. One gives examples and intends them to be taken in a particular way.–I do not, however, mean by this that he is supposed to see in those examples that common thing which I–for some reason–was unable to express; but that he is now to employ those examples in a particular way. Here giving examples is not an indirect means of explaining–in default of a better. For any general definition can be misunderstood too. The point is that this is how we play the game. (I mean the language-game with the word “game”.)