Postmodernism and Language Games: The limits of abslute truth

Language gamesWhen I studied philosophy in the Netherlands, postmodernist thought was an important part of the curriculum. Now that I am studying in Australia, I am more exposed to the analytical philosophy tradition. (See also my previous article Schools of Thought). I have been reading some analytical criticisms of postmodern thought and think some are missing the point.

Thinkers of the analytical tradition have a big issue with the postmodern idea that truth is not absolute. A very common counter argument is that this is by itself presented as an absolute truth and therefore a logical contradiction. Most criticisms are, however, missing the point.

The answer to the problem lies in the work by Richard Rorty whose interpretation of Wittgensteinian Language Games provides a very powerful way of dealing with relativism.

Within a Language Game (closely related to Khun’s ‘paradigm’ and Foucault’s ‘episteme’) there is absolute truth. Rorty argues, however, that there is no almighty Language Game that can provide a universal truth. Human culture has produced many different language games across time and cultures and none of these provide a final answer to any problem, nor will any future products of the human mind be able to do so.

This thought is quite disturbing as we are psychologically wired to favour certainty. Our oversized brains give us the possibility to contemplate the future. This amazing feature enables us to develop science and philosophy because we can think about an answer to the question “What if?”. This causes a great deal of grief because with an uncertain future comes fundamental existential uncertainty. Science, philosophy and the arts are merely psychological band-aids to help us deal with this uncertainty and prevent anxiety.

Postmodern philosophy is, in a way, an attempt to create a universal language game. The quest for universality comes at a great price, because the only universal claim we have been able to find is that all knowledge is relative and only valid within a certain Language Game. The issue that many analytical commentators, and also many postmodern thinkers, do not seem to understand is that postmodernism—as a universal language game—can not be used for any practical purposes. It is a Language Game about Language Games—not a Language Game by itself.

Postmodernism is therefore only useful to be able to talk about language games in general. The problem is that postmodern mankind is by definition detached from the possibility of finding truth with the inherent risk of falling into nihilistic despair. Postmodernism is a Venom Crystal, a beautiful wisdom which is poisonous to the mind. From an existential point of view, postmodernism is a view that can only be maintained by those who are able to float in a metaphysical hot air balloon above the landscape of Language Games.

11 thoughts on “Postmodernism and Language Games: The limits of abslute truth


    The issue of language and language games arises from the misconception of philosophy as consisting of propositions rather than an activity. Language relates to information not to knowledge. In philosophy, information (propositions) is the ladder by which we hope to attain knowledge, not knowledge itself. Using another analogy, philosophical propositions are sign posts not the destination.

    Knowledge can be shown but not said (or thought); information can be said (or thought) but not shown. This is best explained by way of an example.

    Knowing how to swim is knowledge. Understanding what the word ‘swim’ means is information. Looking up the word ‘swim’ in a dictionary does not show what swimming is nor does one thereby know how to swim. One gains information not knowledge. Swimming is not its definition it is an activity which consists of the demonstration (showing) of it. Talking (or thinking) about swimming and deriving propositions about it are not swimming. The activity of swimming is unrelated to language. Tadpoles can swim but have no language (presumably).

    There is a difference between being a philosopher and studying philosophy in the same way as there is a difference between being a Buddhist and studying Buddhism. Language applies to studying (information) not the activity of being (knowledge). The issue of language and language games applies to the study of philosophy not to philosophising. A philosopher investigates truth not philosophy. Wittgenstein regarded all philosophy (including his own) as nonsense insofar as it consists of propositions. Once this is recognised, language and language games become irrelevant.

    Studying philosophy is seeing through a glass darkly. It is the study of language and language games, not truth. Philosophising is seeing face to face. Only by the latter shall you know as you are known. Ultimately, all knowledge is self-knowledge and nobody is a language although most think they are. They imagine they are their own definition of themselves. Thus, they are bewitched by language and trapped like a fly in a bottle of their own making. They spend their lives improving their bottle instead of finding an escape. The same applies to philosophy; it is bewitched by language and assumes it is its own definition of itself. It is a language game because and only because it has made itself such. It need not and should not be so.

    • Bert,

      You raise a wide range of topics in your response.

      Simply changing the definition of philosophy does not make it so. Philosophy is indeed an activity – it is, and has been for millennia, the use of words. The “seeing face to face” you refer to seems to be reminiscent of Levinas’ ‘other’. Your version of philosophy is closer to the arts than to philosophy. But even the wordless arts (music, painting, sculpture and so on) are still language games – each with their own vocabulary. We simply cannot escape language if we want to communicate our experience of the world.

      We can experience truth without language, but only in a mystical and fully private experience.

      Philosophy is not about truth (You can’t handle the truth). Philosophy is about conversations; about shaping society. The theory of language games is not a metaphysical proposition, it is an epistemological proposition. Language games evolve where people see a need to share their experience of the world. The theory of language games says nothing how the world is actually like. It is considered unknowable, but describable.

      Everybody is indeed their own definition of themselves. The self as an absolute entity is an illusion. To cite Heraclitus: “We step and do not step into the same rivers, we are and we are not”.

  2. I agree that, in practice, conventional philosophy is a language game although conventional understood as being the pursuit of knowledge.

    In my thoughts, I can define philosophy as I choose thus making it so for me. In the interests of clear and precise thinking I adopt the conventional understanding and regard the language games of academic ‘philosophers’ as linguistics not philosophy. Most certainly they will object to this but that does not concern me.

    I regard philosophy as an art because it is not a science. In this I align myself with Socrates, Plato, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Emerson rather than Aristotle, Descartes, Kant and Hegel. As you quite rightly say, the experience of truth is ‘mystical’ and private. Consequently, it is discovered by introspection not in the language games and the pseudo-science of academic philosophers.

    Of course, everyone is at liberty to choose their own interpretation and practice. Those who play language games and call that philosophy are free to do so.

    • You can indeed define anything any which way you choose. It does, however, make communication difficult. You are using the term philosophy as a value judgement: “that is not philosophy, this is”. Philosophy is an essentially contested concept: a phenomenon for which we will never be able to find a final definition. Just like ‘religion’, ‘culture’ and so on. One thing is certain, definitions should be inclusive and be without value judgements. If we keep arguing over what philosophy is, that we are not actually doing philosophy.

      I agree that philosophy is not a science. Philosophy is, among other things, about science and can as such not be a science herself.

      Language games are, however, inescapable, once you decide to leave the solitude of the mystical experience.

      I hope you don’t believe that everybody who has studied philosophy academically is a lesser philosopher; that is a very gross generalisation. Dutch philosopher Jan Bor is an example of how an academic education does not have to lead to bloodless drawing room philosophy.

  3. I am not arguing over what philosophy is. I have my understanding and everyone else is entitled to theirs. If they wish to spend their time playing word games, it is their choice.

    I define ‘mystical experience’ as thought using clear and precise definitions although they may not be commonly accepted and open to public dispute. In this sense, the language of thought is private and difficult to communicate. One becomes embroiled in discussing the meaning of words. In any event, such communication is information (a word game) not knowledge.

    I accept that my opinion of academic philosophers is a generalization and even a gross one. I nevertheless stand by it although there may be rare exceptions. My preferred philosophers are primarily non-academic, including Wittgenstein who lectured non-academically. Academic philosophers gain their reputation by intimidation rather than the value of their work (which essentially consists of inventing new and more complex word games).

    • The mystical experience is pre-language and does not involve definitions. Some interesting research has been undertaken into the language of thought (‘mentalese’), starting with work on the thoughts of a deaf-mute person by William James. You refer to using private language, which is fine, but makes discussion with other difficult.

      Your understanding of philosophy is certainly not unique. I have written several times about the limitations of academia. My view is that academic philosophy is a toolbox, a map to help you guide through a 2500 year old wilderness.

      Wittgenstein was, by the way, an academic and lectured in Cambridge.

      • ‘Mystical experience’ is your term. I took it to mean ‘inspiration’ i.e. new discovery or revelation of truth. I have frequently experienced this as a consequence of thought. Seems we are at cross-purposes there.

        Using words in their often vague and confusing public sense renders clear and precise thinking difficult. However, one can make use of both private and public language as appropriate. The one does not invalidate the other.

        Explanations should simplify and clarify. Academic philosophy complicates and confuses. I consider most of it not only pretentious nonsense but also a disservice to humanity.

        I mentioned that Wittgenstein lectured but his philosophy is refreshingly unique, not steeped in jargon nor reliant on terminology of his own creation. For these reasons, I regard him as a rare exception to the usual academic philosophers. If Jan Bor is of the same ilk I shall add him to my list.

        • You are throwing out the baby with the bathwater. There are indeed many problems with academia in general – pressure to publish, internal politics and many other problems. But you cannot simply disregard academic philosophy.

          Mystical experience is not my term – it stems from anthropology.

          • In my view this is no baby, only bath water.

            I have seen the words ‘mystical experience’ used in many contexts. It is not exclusively an anthropological term and can relate to any non-physical experience.

  4. Nice post, thanks. I’d like to add that postmodernism is more than just a relativistic stance. It also asks pertinent questions about the ‘authority’ of those who claim truth. How much of this ‘authority’ is based in gender, ethnic background, socio-economic status, etceteras? To become sensitive to these issues colours our reading of (philosophical) texts, adding another layer to our understanding. Of course, this way of thinking can also be misused to dismiss someone’s argument because he happens to be male, or caucasian or rich. Being male and pale-skinned and from a fairly rich country myself, I do not recommend this :-). But I do think the postmodern view offers a valid perspective and one that has been missing from the main philosophical discours until recently.

    • The importance of authority is indeed an important driving force in the creation of truth. I admire the work of Bruno Latour who has shown how social networks influence knowledge creation. As an engineer working in a government owned water utility I see many of these external drivers influencing what is considered truth.

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