Post lecture notes for students of IR 6901: (Week 5, notes b) Wittgenstein’s Language Games: Implications for discourse analysis

By Farish A. Noor ~ April 8th, 2010. Filed under: Lecture Notes.

Post lecture notes for students of IR 6901: (Week 5, notes b) Introduction to Discourse Analysis, with a special reference to religio-political discourse:

Wittgenstein’s Language Games: Implications for discourse analysis.

From this point onwards in the course, we will be referring a lot to Wittgenstein’s notion of language-games (as rule-governed context-bound modes of language use in specific contexts) when we talk about discourses.

The term ‘discourse’ is often used in academic and non-academic work, but a lot of scholars/writers fail to understand the use of the term and thus commit the same errors when describing the object of their research as ‘discourse’. For the sake of this course, our working operational definition of ‘discourse’ will tally closely to what Wittgenstein describes as ‘language-games’ in the Philosophical Investigations.

During our discussion yesterday some problems were raised by you (and me) about discourses as hermetically-sealed economies that are distinct from one another. Remember the example we cited, of the use of a term like ‘Jihad’ in two different discourses/discursive economies: Due to the fact that all signifiers are not essentially bound/linked to any particular signified (refer to Saussure here, on the arbitrary, contingent and historically-contextualised nature of all signifying relations between signifiers and signifieds), there will always be the possibility of any signifier (any word/sign symbol or phonetic sign) to be placed in an array of signifying relationships with any other signifieds.

Thus in the case of a general signifier like ‘Jihad’, it can be placed in a signifying relationship with a host of different referents/signifieds depending on the discourse that deploys it. ‘Jihad’ therefore means one thing in the countext of say, militant Jihadist discourse; but means something else when it is deployed in the context of say Sufi/metaphysical pacifist discourse. In the first context Jihad may be contextualised within a language-game that equates it with violent resistance, opposition to Secularism, etc.; while in the second context the very same sign can be equated with a different set of ideas, such as the struggle for the liberation of the soul/ego, the struggle against personal flaws and other human failings etc.

Now of course Wittgenstein would argue that the sign ‘Jihad’ gets to play this multi-faceted purpose due to its historical context as an important idea/sign in the economy of Islamic discourse. It is this long historical ‘patination’ that lends the sign the ‘family resemblance/s’ that Wittgenstein speaks of when he discusses how word/signs can be used and deployed in a variety of language-games.

Now the problem that some critics of Wittgenstein have noted is that IF we accept his workings premises that are:
• All speakers are always in one language-game or another as any use of language (public, ordinary language) is rule-governed and context-bound;
• One can never get out of any language-game as language-use has to be regulated by norms and rules of language-use and context. (Otherwise we are back to the private language argument where meaning breaks down and we are speaking nonsense)
THEN we will end up with the conclusion that all our linguistic-experiences of the world around us are discursively-constructed. (This is the famous motto/rule of discourse analysis, namely that ‘reality is discursively constructed’)

But this leads us towards a sort of discursive relativism that some critics have found difficult to accept for both their logical and ethical consequences:

Going back to our example above: We can understand how a general sign like ‘Jihad’ can be appropriated and deployed in the context of two (and many other) different discourses such as Jihadist-militant discourse and Mystical-pacifist discourse. In both cases, it is the use of the sign in its rule-governed context that gives the sign its meaning and signification.

So what happens when there are ideological/political instances of contestation over the meanings of terms as they are deployed in different discursive contexts? During the period after the attacks on 11 September 2001, for instance, many scholars disputed the use of the term ‘Jihad’ by Jihadist-militant groups by recourse to the meaning of the term in other contexts/discursive economies. However if we were to accept the account of language-use that Wittgenstein offers us in the Philosophical Investigations, there can be no Archimedean point exterior to any discursive economy where an objective judgement can be made about the alleged use/misuse/abuse of terms in any discourse, for the use of any sign in any discourse gives it its own meaning that makes sense in the context of that discourse.

This effectively means that there is no universal foundational basis to make comparative claims about the appropriateness/inappropriateness of the use of signs in any discourse. One can understand how a general abstract sign like ‘Jihad’ can make sense and have meaning/s in the discourses that deploy it – but we are left with no extra-discursive scale/rule to decide where and when a term is being used wrongly. In a sense, the language-game theory of the later Wittgenstein opens up the possibility for any sign to be deployed and re-deployed ad infinitum in an unlimited range of discourses as long as there are language-users and a context to sustain those language-games.

The relativism of this position has been criticised by some later critics of Wittgenstein who regarded this later position he took as being comparatively much weaker than the position he adopted in his Tractatus. The positive aspect of his later work and his theory of language-games in particular is that it allows us to speak of meaning in context and to go beyond the narrow solipsism of the Tractatus where talk of values was regarded as extra-linguistic and meaningless. By the time of the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein adopts the view that talk of values is indeed meaningful and sensible, but the consequence of the theory of language-games is that it leaves us with a world made up of distinct discourses whose rules of determination of meaning are distinct from each other.

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