Is Buddhism a language-game?

It would be very convenient if the ‘truth’ - the way it is - fitted neatly into our concepts (our categories). Then, we could contain it in our minds and, nothing would spill-over into anything else. Unfortunately, everything spills-over in this way as nothing inherently exists from its own side. We could study Buddhist theoretics ‘till the cows come home’ and if there has been no hands-on engagement with the teachings we may be largely clueless.

The same goes with Hinduism, we may hear of Hindu-notions or, other religious teachings. We may move them around like pieces on a chess-board and come to believe we know what they mean - what they are about. This is the problem with discursive activity - it gives the illusion that we have actually understood something, when in fact, we have just been playing a kind of mental-chess?

We have to know the rules, its not just about what you say but how you say it! Someone, may be a very capable communicator in ‘Buddhist philosophy’ for instance. They will be able to follow various lines of inquiry and exposition. They may be erudite but may be pretty much in the dark about the ‘actual’ meaning and import of the teachings. It involves a language-game - it’s a practice - a form-of-life.

“Wittgenstein argues that definitions emerge from what he termed “forms of life”, roughly the culture and society in which they are used. Wittgenstein stresses the social aspects of cognition; to see how language works for most cases, we have to see how it functions in a specific social situation … In short, it is essential that a language is shareable … Wittgenstein rejects the idea that ostensive definitions can provide us with the meaning of a word. For Wittgenstein, [the thing that the word stands for] does not give the meaning of the word.” - Wikipedia

“For a large class of cases - though not for all - in which we employ the word ‘meaning’ it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.” - Wittgenstein

Rhetorical games are played through various moves (manoeuvres) - to and fro - the ball is in your court! As to whether the players have any real understanding of what it is they are talking about (that which the words stand for) is not required for the game to continue.

Language-games can give us the impression that we have understood the truth of the matter - the way things are - but, it ain’t necessarily so! We can be taken-in by our own confidence-tricks - bewitched by language.

There is another sense in which language can be game-like! We can play with words and be amused by them - we may feel empowered by words. A leader may give a resounding speech - a call to action! We all have our roles to play. We may identify with a body of teachings because they give us a sense of being a ‘somebody’ in an indifferent, hostile and dangerous world. An image of a missionary clutching a bible in a remote jungle - the power of belief - comes to mind. Liberating insight makes it possible to see the difference between language - what can be said - and truth (to be known by the wise, each for themselves).

Let the children play!


For some, Buddhism is a language game but not for all.

Buddhism leads us to change, meditate and able to calm the mind right down to knowing itself. It does so by saying little to none about the truth, the reality, etc but more about the practice and the signs.

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Some people ask question, and they don’t necessarily understand the answers. Others ask questions, but challenge the answerer because the questioner don’t want to change their views. Others ask the question but the answer isn’t beneficial. Others ask questions pertaining to the dhamma, and get the right answer- and they develop Right view. Others ask incisive questions and get incisive answers. And some go on to penetrate through to the True dhamma (sadhamma) of stream entry (sotapatti magga).

with metta,


The issue with the idea of language games is not really whether it is an apt description of language or not, I think it is a good way to think about language.

The issue is whether religious language games are connected to reality in some way or not and whether they admit evidence or not. In philosophy of religion this is the split between evidentialists (like Thomists for example) and fideists.

The problem with fideism is that there is ultimately no way to judge between different religious revelations or traditions other than to say “this one is mine” or “i like this one”.


I am not sure that faith can be completely done away with when it comes to what it is we believe to be true. We can have varying degrees of confidence in what we take to be ‘true’. On the basis of evidence there can be good reasons for [believing] that the sun will continue to appear - weather permitting - from morning till night.

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If I may question that: Wittgenstein actually meant something very different with ‘language games’. For him it was exactly not tossing around words without relevance. A language game is the combination of words and the activities that give them meaning. In this original Wittgensteinian sense the ‘language game’ is listening to a youtube video, reading the words, visiting a meditation retreat, sitting through it, re-visit the text, understanding it and its rules of meaning-making differently etc.

See: Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, I.7

I shall also call the whole, consisting of language and the actions into which it is woven, the “language-game”.


If we talk without experience it becomes a language game. I think asking question is a good thing so we can clarify our doubts. Dhamma investigation and Sutta study and discussions is not a language game. It becomes a language game when we getting to an argument to prove our point rather than leaning.