Anthropomorphic Words: Wittgenstein’s Language Games

When discussing anthropomorphism, we use language as a platform. Can the language itself have its own problem?


Socrates is said to be the starting point of Western philosophy. An ancient Greek man, Socrates would argue with the rich of society. Giving up his material life and neglecting his family, he solely focused his life on dialogue with others to find truth. He would ask deep questions like “what is justice” or “what is truth?” With a pretense of lacking arguments, he’d lead people into talking about their views, then tear them apart with skeptical logic. He’d do this until they could not define the basic words they use.

In the 20th century, in his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein argued that these philosophical questions were nonsense. Wittgenstein throughout his life was concerned with the limits of our understanding, and the limits of language.
He looked at a word we use, game. What is a game? We use the word so widely, it’s hard to pin down what it means. Solitaire’s a game. Poker is a game. Baseball is a game. Doing exercises in a certain way can be a game. Doing menial labor competitively is a game. Doing math in your head can be a game. And on and on. Wittgenstein said there is no core definition.

Then if there’s no particular definition, how do we use the word? He argued meaning came from use. Language has rules and words exist relative to other words. Their meaning comes from their use within the language’s web of logic itself.
Language is like a city, a square in the middle with a kind of architecture. Around the city are expansions filled with different architectures. The roads connect it all, turning it into a city, but it did not form all at once. We use the center of the city, and as more people come in and more words form, so does the city expand. All building exist in context of the other. There is no platonic city, rather a living city.

Language take place in a network of rules. These are what he called language games. For example, Person A says “My you look fine, today,” then person B, misunderstanding, says “Yeah, I’m no longer sick. How are you?” Person A said that to flirt, so they are taking place in flirtation game. Person B is taking place in small talk game. If one person says something sarcastically, they are taking place in sarcasm game. If someone is arguing with logic, they are taking place in logic game. Outside of tone, the words themselves have their own context. “What is the weight of a voice?” “What is the color of a soul?” “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” These are all nonsense questions because they apply words with differing rules. Weight describes material things, while the voice is immaterial. The same with the color question. To clap is to have two hands, so to do it with one is nonsense. These statements garner thoughts because they arrange words in ways we do not think of things, but there is no answer because they break the context in which the words play their parts in.

“What is justice?” Well, nonsense. A philosopher trying to find out what justice is, outside of its language game, doesn’t work. It would be like placing the courthouse in the above city example on mars, then expecting the building to stand, the people to live, and everything to stay the same within the building.

This is when Wittgenstein said philosophy has another purpose, Linguistic therapy. When using language and misapplying it, we create anxieties and unanswerable questions that lead nowhere. Language is a line in which humans interact with the world. As part of our experience, it keeps us stuck to the world. To use it properly and improperly can create problems with our perceptions and judgments.

How does this apply to anthrozoology? That’s quite simple. Our language supposes human rules. If I said “What do I think?” The question makes sense. If I said “What does a dog think?” The question is nonsense. The rules of my use of the word think, presuppose human thinking, so the rules of the word has a part within the human experience. You can speak of human thought and dog thought to classify the difference, but this brings us no closer to understanding dog thought, it’s just a separation of rules we imply through the words. “An animal has rights.” “An animal has a soul.” “An animal is immoral.”
These all can be misapplied language games.

Another important aspect of language is the boundaries we create. We take specific junctures in time and space, and label them. We do not label everything, as that’d be impossible for a human and impractical. The limit of this label creates word problems, though.

An example: the intellect creating these words comes from the brain. The brain does not operate on its own, though. That is, when describing oneself we do not take into account the whole picture.The word car represents the whole object that we call car. “An engine is what makes the car run.” This is not true because most of the car is needed to make it run. “A car has weight.” This is true because every part of the car has weight, therefore contributing to a cars weight. Thus, ” The concept of meaning comes from neurons” is not true. “The human body creates the concept of meaning,” is true.
The concept here of body and mind being separate would fade, because they all take up the same “human” space. You can ascribe certain functions to parts, but you have to be careful of the contexts of the words within ascribing them.

What’s important about Wittgenstein’s philosophy is that it shows the limits of language in two ways. Language’s meaning does not transcend its own rules. Language doesn’t transcend human understanding. This is important in exploring the boundaries between human and the non-human, so we do not fall into traps while doing philosophy. This brings a greater focus toward more legitimate questions. If we create meaningless questions about our relationships to animals, we create inner angst, not answers.

Note: I HIGHLY recommend reading Wittgenstein yourself or learning about him another way besides here. This is a very simple reading of his stuff that gets little of the picture.

This is a good quick summary.

Partially Examined Life podcast did a discussion on his Philisophical Investigations. This is much more suited for beginners who want to hear it described and a discussion on it.
This can summarize him, but due to the complexity of the arguments, I recommend more sources. A lot of google and youtube stuff will lead you to interpretations and summaries.
The book. It’s confusing to read and not recommended if you don’t read much philosophy:


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