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Language on Holiday: Wittgenstein all Work and no Play



Wittgenstein says, with his usual brilliant adroitness, “…philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday” (PI section 38). This is a rather powerful swipe at broad range of “uses” (for one cannot deny that the kinds of linguistic behaviors Wittgenstein objects to are also “uses” of language). A stand against some uses, and for others.

So one has to ask, is Wittgenstein the task-master of “work”, the lowering industrial manager who “takes language off holiday”, and gets it doing what “needs to be done”? If language can go on holiday, what is to prevent us from using it to do so? Do not holidays have a value and a use of their own? Is there something of Wittgenstein-the-engineer still remaining in this abstention from “holidays”? Something of a good ole German work ethic (not that Wittgenstein worked much)?

If one is to look to use and not meaning, by what criteria do some sort of uses become illlegitimate? In looking to purge language of its “holiday-ness” is Wittgenstein still attempting the same kind of purification that he attempted, and failed at, in the Tractatus? Once he let the “use-genie” out of the bottle to defeat the postivists, how can he keep it from destroying the legislation of work/holiday he is still attempting to forge?

Apart from the old-fashion gear-work of plain language (you know, the kind that “gets things done”), are there not uses for language that get-things-done another way? And is not work-language itself shot through with holiday language, in the kinds of cerimonial, affective, metaphorical associations that keep language alive and growing?

What are the “proper” uses for language? How can you fully distinguish “work” from “play”? And how can you take the “play” out of language games?


[written August 27, 2006]