Wittgenstein On Games

Wittgenstein on Games


How do you define a thing?

For example, if you ask, ‘what is a bus?’, you could start to define that by setting out all the conditions that define a ‘bus’ until you have covered them all, and then you have the necessary and sufficient conditions to answer the question.

Often the problem is that you’ll find an example that breaks the definition and you have to re-define the answer.

That’s especially true of things that are more nebulous than, say, a bus.

Try defining Art, Music, Beauty, Blues, and so on.


Anyhow, in his book, Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein ask the question, ‘What is a game?’.

He gets you to think about the nature and use of language, and his argument, briefly, is that words are not defined by the things they represent, but rather by their use. And that there is no need for the idea of a perfect version of a thing to exist independently of an example of a thing.

That fits really well with music, I think.

You can say, ‘a is a bit like b, which is a bit like c, which is like d’, and so on. And that, ultimately, removes the need for a boundary definition.

All music can be connected together into one big amorphous blob of music. And all art. And all creations. And Everything.

Everything is Everything.

It’s a view that will not help you one bit in a record shop :)

Comments on Wittgenstein On Games

  1. William gibson says:

    Excellent :-) There was a point where I spent a lot of time reading Wittgenstein. A huge hero of mine. I think you are absolutely right that his ideas about language apply to musical language as much as to spoken language.

    Another concept that is useful in his work is language games. It is a big concept but one part of this is that you can make an analogy between rules in games and rules in language, and ‘saying something’ is related to, for example, making a move in chess: it implicates a set of next options that can be followed by the next person. (My own discipline of conversation analysis is very interested in this – here is a good explanation of what that is: https://youtu.be/MtOG5PK8xDA)

    And the point is the same is true in music – you can say that there are ‘rough’ rules about musical actions and that there are ‘more or less’ sect of expectations about what happens when. BUT, to say it is a rule is not to say you HAVE to do it like that, or that there is a kind of CAUSAL connection: just that there are kind of recognisable structures that people who speak (or play chess, or play music) would recognise as ‘a normal kind of thing to do’ in that particular context. I remember having a lesson with mike about a year ago and we played a tune and then listened to my attempt at a solo. I had quoted a bit of the melody in the solo and he said ‘you quoted it in the wrong place, it doesn’t fit there’. A little ‘rough’ rule.

    It also means that the meaning of something is dependent on context. so the meaning of ‘no’ completely depends on when you say it, how, after what, to who. No, can very easily mean yes, for example :-)

    …that also reminds me of Mike talking about the Phrygian Natural 6 mode – hear on a dominant chord, it doesnt sound minor….

    Wittgenstien forever :-)

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