Wittgenstein doubted that it is possible to have thoughts without language. “When I think in language, there aren’t ‘meanings’ going through my mind in addition to the verbal expressions: the language is itself the vehicle of thought” (Wittgenstein, 1958, p. 108). As McGinn (1997, p. 12) explains, for Wittgenstein, language is both a source of philosophical problems, and also the means to overcome them. As Wittgenstein (1984) wrote, “we are struggling with language. We are engaged in a struggle with language” (p.11). Our approach to language is a philosophical problem because we want to uncover what a particular word means, what it represents, and herein lies the problem. So, for example, when we ask a question, we are asking the nature of that particular phenomenon which constitutes our world. Wittgenstein reminds us to pay attention to the kinds of questions we ask because not every question is helpful. Like the theologian Lonergan, he cautions us on the kinds of questions we should be asking. The reason for this is because in the very act of framing this question, we are tempted to adopt an attitude toward this kind of phenomenon, which Wittgenstein believes, makes us approach it in the wrong way; in a way which assumes that we have to uncover or explain something. When we ask ourselves philosophical questions aimed at discovering the true nature of something, we take up a stance towards these phenomena in which they seem suddenly bewilderingly mysterious, for as soon as we try to catch hold of them in the way that our questions seem to require, we find we cannot do it; we find that we no longer know (McGinn, 1997, p. 18). For Wittgenstein, the nature of a phenomenon (e.g. sexuality) that constitutes our world is not clarified by attempting to explain an answer to a question but is instead revealed in the kind of statements we already make about the phenomenon .
His method of textual analysis relates grammar not simply to a language considered as a system of signs, but instead to our use of language. Wittgenstein (1958) famously declared, “the meaning of a word is its use in language” (p. 20) and further that “one cannot guess how a word functions. One has to look at its use and learn from that” (p. 109). Meaning is not grasped through examining sentences of ordinary language but must be revealed through an analytic process. This analytic process involves being attentive the context of words uttered in a specific setting.
Words derive their meaning from their use in what Wittgenstein referred to as “language games”. It is important not to misinterpret what is meant by the term “game”. By game, Wittgenstein does not mean something casual, flip, or that people are trying to play tricks on each other through the use of a word game. Instead a “language game” means that words and phrases only come alive within a culture or a specific context. Wittgenstein uses the term “language game” in connection with the means by which we teach students language and the activity of using language within the context of purposeful action. Scholars and some linguists who have viewed language only in terms of its formal properties suppose that there are three basic types of sentences; assertions, questions, and commands (Mcginn, 1997, p. 57). Wittgenstein’s suggestion that we look beyond the formal properties of a sentence and instead at the “language game” as the ground upon which distinctions between meaning of sentences are to be drawn, lead us not with just three types of sentences but countless numbers.There are countless kinds of sentences: countless different kinds of use of what we call “symbols”, “words”, sentences”. And this multiplicity is not something fixed, given once and for all; but new types of language, new language-games, as we may say, come into existence, and others become obsolete and get forgotten. (Wittgenstein, 1958, p. #23)