For a country so often believed to be anti-intellectual, it is striking how much of American political conversation has come to revolve around seemingly pedantic quarrels about terminology. Critical race theory, which dominated media analysis of the Virginia governor’s race this November, might have been a new term to many who tuned into the political news in the days following the election, but the shape of the argument about its meaning and function was so familiar that it is hard not to reach for a psychoanalytic vocabulary when describing it. The neurotic process commences when a term or theory that had started life decades ago at some obscure intersection between academia and left-wing activism—before CRT, there was political correctness, intersectionality and identity politics—begins to be publicized by progressive activists and commentators as a superior way to talk about some broader set of social phenomena. Taking advantage of its newly expanded—and usually piecemeal—application, right-wing critics then respond by seizing on the term as a blanket pejorative for an approach to social problems they oppose, while simultaneously connecting it to various other charter members of their lexicon of Bad Things (like Nazism and… Kant?). At this point, progressive intellectuals accuse conservative columnists of peddling “absolute nonsense” while at the same time deriding ordinary people who begin to apply the term for being either dupes (for falling for a “moral panic”) or bigots (for using the term to soft-pedal their own prejudice). Both progressive accusations imply that the people who use the new terms inappropriately are, at the very least, hopelessly confused about the meaning of their own words, which in turn allows right-wing critics to reprise the familiar accusation that progressives are always lecturing people about what to call things. Now the process has reached its terminal phase: the concept is too ideologically freighted to serve as anything other than an occasion for meta-discussions about the debate itself (like this one), which means we are close to the end of one cycle—and the beginning of its compulsive repetition.
Notwithstanding their sometimes tendentious selection of evidence, conservative critics are right about one thing: progressives do like to tell people what to call things. The well-rehearsed rhetorical drama over this kind of conceptual terminology is only one of the ways in which arguments over definitions and usage have risen to prominence and in some cases become almost synonymous with the desire for social change in recent years. On one hand, progressives push to substitute centuries-old terms with wide public currency like “hunger” and “homelessness” with recondite neologisms like “food insecurity” and “unhoused persons.” At the same time, they insist that familiar—if familiarly contested—terms like “racism,” “white supremacy” and “violence” be expanded to cover huge new swaths of attitudes, institutional arrangements and beliefs, including many (such as “freedom of speech,” or the prospect of a “color-blind” society) that the majority of Americans still think of as signaling positively virtuous commitments. That many of these efforts meet with mockery, resistance and recrimination only seems to reinforce confidence on all sides that the battle is a crucial one.
But is it? It is tempting to say that these arguments are really about something much deeper than language—say, a clash of ideologies, or traditions, or values. And in a way this is true enough. The terms that become its flash points are not arbitrary; it is significant that they all touch on the most sensitive topics in American democracy: race, gender, capitalism, economic inequality and so forth. Yet this only underscores the importance of the question: Why does the debate over those things keep taking this form? Why, if we are really concerned with education, or racism, or sexism, or economic inequality, do we keep ending up arguing over the definitions of our words?
The term “language game” was invented by the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein in part to describe the role that definitions do or do not play in everyday communication. In using it, Wittgenstein did not mean to imply that language is merely a game, but to point out the ways in which our definitions and usage of words were, like the customs and rules in a game, determined by the context and purpose of their employment. The word “hit,” for example, means something different on a baseball field than it does in a war, and there is no “higher” criterion to which we can appeal to settle the difference between them (there is simply no way to “hit a home run,” except metaphorically, in a war). Indeed, to even try to establish such a criterion betrays a refusal to accept the full consequences of the fact that, in any human society, there will always be more than one game.
In the second of his two great books, Philosophical Investigations—written in the final years of his life and published posthumously in 1953—Wittgenstein used the concept of language games as part of his attempt to question the way that philosophers from Plato to Augustine to the “ideal language” theorists of his own day had often understood the relationship between language and meaning. It had long looked to philosophers, he suggested, like it was an important precursor to philosophical progress to adjudicate the meaning of philosophically controversial concepts (like “truth”), in part by separating the words denoting them from the various contexts in which they were customarily employed. This procedure rested on the assumption that language functioned mainly by pointing at or “naming” independent objects (a fact, a thought, a metaphysical truth), and it often involved clarifying the rules for consistent usage. When necessary, it also involved supplying new names or definitions for things our “ordinary language” was thought to give us only a confused impression of.
There was nothing inherently wrong with philosophers undertaking such activities—with, that is, creating their own language games. To the extent they might hope to apply their conclusions outside of philosophy seminars, however, this picture of language was liable to mislead us about how we usually do things with words. Not only did the concept of language games help us see how deeply intertwined were the meaning of our words and the contexts in which we used them, but they pointed to something philosophers often missed about what made our “ordinary language” work as well as it did. “If language is to be a means of communication there must be agreement not only in definitions,” Wittgenstein observed, “but also (queer as this may sound) in judgments.” Our ability to communicate, he meant, depends less on logical agreement about what our words “mean” than on the shared judgments and experiences—what he liked to call our “form of life”—that allow us to understand what we mean in saying them. (Wittgenstein crystallized this point with his famous incantation that “if a lion could speak, we could not understand him.”) Disagreements over definitions and usage were not, therefore, deficiencies awaiting the application of philosophical intellect; they were an expression of differences that both informed and reflected our forms of life.
Wittgenstein’s observations about language were addressed mostly to other philosophers, but they can nevertheless help us appreciate both the attractions and the limitations of today’s battles over terminology. On one hand, his emphasis on the social rootedness of language games is consistent with the importance today’s progressive activists and intellectuals assign to the definition and usage of words. Progressives have long been invested in the project of disseminating new terminology, for understandable reasons: if a language reflects and informs a form of life, then it stands to reason that if our way of living is unjust, our customary ways of speaking will reinforce that injustice. Hence arises the requirement to reform those ways of speaking, inventing new words and redefining old ones, as the first step in the project of creating a more just world.
In many ways, this project has in recent years achieved astonishing success. No one who remembers mocking the abstruse theoretical vocabulary in humanities journals from the mid-Nineties can help but marvel at how successfully the ensuing generation of progressives managed to spread this vocabulary into contexts as heterogeneous as human-rights nonprofits, museum brochures, fashion magazines and the boardrooms of Google and Goldman Sachs. The new, expanded definitions of white supremacy and violence are now standard-issue on many college campuses, while the neologisms to describe poverty and hunger are working their way through the usual channels. Nor can it be denied, if we accept Wittgenstein’s framework, that this terminology will change, in those places where it is sincerely adopted, the way the social world is viewed and experienced. Infelicitous as it may sound, who can doubt that the substitution of “unhoused person” for “homeless” really does make it easier for some to blame the system that fails to provide adequate housing stock as opposed to the individual who has “lost” their home? Or that expanded definitions of racism, patriarchy and privilege haven’t motivated many to reevaluate past behavior and beliefs?
Paradoxically, however, it is just such successes that create fertile ground for the same kind of hubris (or naïveté, depending on your point of view) that Wittgenstein observed in many philosophers of language. Even in some of the places where progressive language games now hold sway—think of the presenters plowing cheerfully through their land acknowledgments and identity categories on Microsoft’s online conference stage this November—it is worth asking whether they reflect a genuine change in orientation, or merely a superficial capitulation to demands felt to be mysterious and arbitrary. But especially as they move further from their institutional strongholds in universities, nonprofits and the mainstream media, the insistence by progressive commentators that everyone adopt their preferred terminology makes them akin to philosophers who believed that there could ever be, as Wittgenstein once put it, “an aura accompanying a word, which it carried with it into every kind of application”—that is, into every context and social setting. That this effort is likely not only to fail but also to reliably incite strong feelings of alienation and resentment—not to mention coordinated campaigns that exploit those feelings for political gain—is connected to what we might call the conservative implication of the Wittgensteinian insight about the social constructedness of language. If language games are rooted in forms of life, then there is a deep disrespect implied when we tell someone from a different language game that they must play not by their own rules, but by ours.
It is at this point, when attempts to redefine words or dictate usage of concepts meet with resistance, that progressive intellectuals are always tempted to jab at their blackboards—whether to appeal to the authority of an origin story (“Here, not there, is the ‘real’ genealogy of critical race theory”) or of some antecedent moral consensus (“This, not that, is the right way to use ‘white privilege’”). It looks in such cases like the “first step” is to settle the matter of terminology—as if this were preparatory to the real conversation about the underlying political or moral disagreement (“First, define your terms!”). But this step, as the most recent round of debate over CRT ought once again to show us, constitutes a movement away from that conversation rather than toward it. For those concerned mainly with demonstrating their intellectual or moral superiority, this is undoubtedly the whole point. But even for commentators more interested in crossing lines than in drawing them, the charms of the language game of definitions can be difficult to resist, perhaps because it allows us to “play” at politics without ever leaving the smooth ground of conceptual manipulation. Yet this is also why it so often feels as if, far from making progress, the conversation is merely slipping from side to side.
If we were looking for positive political lessons from Wittgenstein’s analysis, one implication might be that supporters of social change ought to frame their agenda in words that belong, as much as possible, to the “ordinary language” they share in common with the groups they aim to persuade. A not-too-distant example of this approach can be found in the successful campaign to legalize gay marriage. In the 1990s and 2000s, tellingly, it was the proposal’s opponents on the right who spoke of “defining” marriage—in retrospect, a sign of weakness—as they tried to hold the line against a coalition that appealed to values and conventions that already held pride of place in the language game of their most skeptical audiences: family, marriage, faith and faithfulness. (Ongoing campaigns for social programs like the child tax credit might benefit from similar tactics.) In contrast, there is no better evidence that progressives are in danger of squandering a moment of broad sympathy for police reform than the fact that so much of the conversation about crime and public safety is being consumed by debates between journalists and academics over what the term “defund” means and doesn’t mean.
We do not need Wittgenstein, however, to make us better at messaging—a term with a built-in connotation of disrespect for its audience. Intellectuals are not politicians or political strategists, which is why it is discouraging when so much of their output becomes indistinguishable from a day-to-day discourse suffused with moralizing, mistrust and the skeptical suspicion—the flip side of the dream of complete clarity—that our words may not be capable of convincing anyone at all. The reason to turn to the Investigations, in such a condition, is as an aid for finding our way back from our feverish fantasies about communication to the everyday circumstances in which we speak to each other as neither lecturers nor propagandists but rather as finite and fallible human beings trying our best to make ourselves understood. This was, for Wittgenstein, an ethical demand before it was a political one: it meant accepting that the risks of being mistaken or misunderstood were the conditions of possibility for communication rather than evidence of its deficiency. Yet in a pluralistic democracy like ours, where it is a bedrock fact that different individuals and groups will judge events in profoundly different ways, it may be the ethical lesson of which we are most in need politically.
To be clear, to give up arguing over definitions does not mean giving up arguing about what we judge to be right and wrong, or negotiating—as many activists and organizers already are—over how to improve the conventions and practices that give rise to those arguments. It is rather to acknowledge that, with the conceptual flash points of our cultural and political conversation, the battle over usage and definition has become a formula for evading, rather than confronting, the differences in judgment and experience that cause us to care so much about those words and concepts in the first place. We should be ready, by now, to play a different game. The first rule might be: before proposing new words, examine the beliefs and practices that we—and “they”—know perfectly well how to speak about.
Art credit: Federico Scrinzi/Paolo Massa, Manypedia Cube, 2013 (CC BY)