Bourdieu and the Social Conditions of Wittgensteinian Language Games


William C. Gay

UNC Charlotte



I.   Introduction:  Language Games and Relations of Power

A. Contemporary French sociologist

1.  Sketch of Bourdieu, who was born in Southern France in 1930

a.  Philosophy, École normale supérieure , Paris late 40s-early 50s

b.  Shifted to empirical studies in anthropology and sociology

c.  Collège de France and Director, Centre de sociologie européenne.

1) Dissatisfied with Claude Lévi-Strauss's structuralist method

2) Critique of Saussurian linguistics and its inherent limitations

2.  Relevance to philosophy of language

a.  Written extensively on language and society

b.  Extension on later Wittgenstein's treatment of language games

B.  Language and Symbolic Power

1.  Insufficient focus on social conditions regulating use of language

a.  Use of language "depends on the social position of the speaker"

b.  Authority of language "comes to language from outside

c.  Outside" as social conditions in which language games situated

2.  Speaking and Power

a.  Speaking is inseparable from distribution of power in society

b.  Distribution of power in society is unequal

1) Not separate analysis of language games from awareness of social classes and of the relative social position of speakers

2) Thompson, institutionalized social relations establish "who is authorized to speak and recognized as such by others"

c.  Possibility of foregoing linguistic advantage is generally abandoned in favor of utilizing the power it provides

3.  Themes and Conclusion

a.  Symbolic violence of legitimate discourse

b.  Linguistic role of educational systems in legitimating inequality

c.  Heretical subversion and obstacles which neutralize it

d.  Reduce linguistic violence by changing language games'


II     The Symbolic Violence of Legitimate Discourse

A. Social Context of Speech

1.  Specific social contexts termed "fields," "markets," and "games"

a.  Distinctive ways of designating and relating forms of capital

b.  These ways shape perpetual struggle by individuals within it to maintain or alter the distribution of its forms of capital

2.  Three types of capital as a departure from Wittgenstein

a.  Economic capital composed of material wealth

b.  Cultural capital derived from knowledge and skill

c.  Symbolic capital based on prestige and honor

3.  Assumptions about language

a.  A means of communication and a medium of power

b.  Symbolic power of language is a form of symbolic violence

B.  Possession of Symbolic Power and Use of Physical Violence

1.  Inverse relation typical

a.  Exercise of power is common, but not use of overt physical force by authorities

b.  Thompson, "Violence is ... built into the institution itself"

2.  How physical violence reduced

a.  Usually, violence is transformed into a symbolic form

b.  Bourdieu says, "Language ... is no doubt the principal support of the dream of absolute power"

1) Fortunately, as Young has shown, even totalitarian regimes efforts to control language have not been successful

2) Still, symbolic power endows individuals within its various markets with added legitimacy

C.  Linguistic markets over the system of language (langue)

1.  Circulation

a   Not "language" as such

b.  Discourses that are stylistically marked in their production and in their reception are circulated

1) Linguistic utterances are produced in particular markets

2) Properties of markets establish the "value" of utterances

3) In markets, some linguistic products more valued

2.  Competence within a market

a.  Ability to produce utterances valued within that market

b.  Draw on accumulated linguistic resources and adapt words and forms of speech to respective markets

c.  Every linguistic interaction reflects the social structure

3.  Exploitation of a market

a.  Degree to which an individual can exploit is a function of their level of linguistic capital within that market

b.  Consequence of individuals tailoring their discourse to markets is that speakers are involved in a type of active complicity

1) "The language of authority never governs without the collaboration of those it governs"

2) Linguistic self-censorship provides legitimacy to the distribution of power within markets


III.   The Linguistic Role of Educational Systems in Legitimating Inequality

A. Beyond Weber and Habermas on System Legitimation

1.  Brings out the violence of legitimate discourse

a.  "Legitimate works thus exercise a violence which protects them from the violence which would be needed if we were to perceive the expressive interest which they express"

b.  "The histories of art, literature and philosophy testify to the efficacy of strategies of the imposition of form through which consecrated works impose the terms of their own perception"

2.  Relation of official language to imposition of political unity

a.  Illusion of linguistic communism

1) View that all members of society share the wealth of their language equally and freely

2) Critique of Chomsky

a) Addresses linguistic competence as if equally distributed

b) Not address the "economic and social conditions of the acquisition of the legitimate competence"

b.  Bourdieu reassesses Saussure's langue

1) Speaking "the language," "is tacitly to accept the official definition of the official language of a political unit"

2) "The official language is bound up with the state"

c.  Single "linguistic community" formed by political domination

B.  Official language and social classes

1.  Class differences

a.  Lower classes are often limited to a local dialect

b.  Upper classes have access to official language enable them to function as intermediaries

2.  Role of educational institutions

a.  Control code governing written language termed "correct"

b.  Education helps "impose recognition of the legitimate language"

3.  Legitimate Practice

a.  "All linguistic practices are measured against the legitimate practices"

b.  "Legitimate practices" are defined as "the practices of those who are dominant"

4.  Linguistic understanding vs. linguistic attention

a.  Most people have the capacity to understand discourse

b.  Fewer people get "listened to"

C.  Educational System and Linguistic Capital

1.  Linguistic competence yields linguistic capital

a.  Means to obtain "a profit of distinction on the occasion of each social exchange"

b.  Distributed on the basis of one's position in the social structure

2.  Deviational hierarchy in forms of speaking

a.  Almost universally accepted as legitimate

b.  Bourdieu stresses the "unequal distribution of chances of access to the means of production of the legitimate competence"

1) Society restricts linguistic opportunity

2) Ones who possess it "impose it as the only legitimate one in formal markets"

a) Linguistic alienation results from differentiations in linguistic capital across markets

b) Since linguistic alienation is a form of linguistic violence, speaking cannot be separated from linguistic violence

3.  Influence of Educational System

a.  Monopoly on "large-scale production of producers/consumers" of different languages

b.  Educational systems largely influence the reproduction of linguistic markets and their relative social value

1) Impact on linguistic markets and their value a result of its control over the "instruments of correction"

2) Establish the "correct" by simply "correcting" students

c.  "Educational market is strictly dominated by the linguistic products of the dominant class and tends to sanction the pre-existing differences in capital"

1) Not that only the children of the dominant class are admitted into the best schools.

2) Instead, to enter or finish programs at top schools one generally has the legitimate language imposed on them

a) Structure of class relations sets the "structure of chances of access to the educational system"

b) Qualifications and credentials create, sustain inequalities

3) Education legitimates established order

a) Thompson, education "mechanism for creating and sustaining inequalities, in such a way that the recourse to overt force is unnecessary"

b) Thompson, "Enables those who benefit most from the system to convince themselves of their own intrinsic worthiness, while preventing those who benefit least from grasping the basis of their own deprivation"

4.  Arbitrary Nature of Titles and Degrees

a.  Bourdieu exposes rites as setting arbitrary boundaries

1) "Rites ... consecrate or legitimate an arbitrary boundary, by fostering a misrecognition of the arbitrary nature of the limit and encouraging a recognition of it as legitimate"

2) "Rites draw the attention of the observer to the passage ... whereas the important thing is the line"

b.  Bourdieu exposes what is hidden in most rites

1) Exposes the complement to the class of the initiated

2) "There is thus a hidden set of individuals in relation to which the instituted group is defined

a) Key contrast not between the initiated and others yet to reach the age for or fulfill the conditions of initiation

b) Key contrast is with those who will never qualify

c.  Admission to and degrees from educational institutions

1) Granted by rites which conceal their arbitrary character

2) Rites, religious or educational, a form of social magic

a) "The act of institution is ... can create difference ex nihilo, or ... by exploiting ... pre-existing differences"

b) Work best when appear as based on objective differences

c) "Social magic always manages to produce discontinuity out of continuity"


IV.   Heretical Subversion and Its Obstacles

A. Description and prescription

1.  Language and the social world

a.  How groups are constituted and transformed

b.  "Act on the social world by acting on .. knowledge of this world"

1) Language used for "producing, reproducing or destroying the representations that make groups visible for themselves and for others"

2) Dominated groups can move from imposed classification to politics by denunciation

2.  The importance and arbitrariness of classification

a.  "The social order owes some measure of its permanence to the fact that it imposes schemes of classification which ... produce a form of recognition of this order"

b.  Politics as "the denunciation of this tacit contract of adherence to the established order which defines the original doxa"

3.  "Heretical subversion"

a.  Exploits "the possibility of changing the social world by changing the representation of this world"

b.  Speakers can articulate alternative descriptions

1) Similar to Rorty's abnormal or edifying discourse

2) Similar to Ricoeur's metaphorical redescription

a) "Aims to bring about what it utters"

b) "Contributes practically to the reality of what it announces by the fact of uttering it ... of making it conceivable and above all credible"

c.  No area of discourse or knowledge is politically neutral

1) Tacit legitimations in self-censored speech

2) Explicit challenges in heretical subversion

d.  Discourse and power

1) Discourse relates to power struggles in which speakers seek to perpetuate dominant consensus or to transform it

2) Heretical subversion and the establishment's resistance to it involves social struggle.

a) "Struggle lies ... at the very root of the construction of the class (social, ethnic, sexual, etc)"

b) "Every group is the site of a struggle to impose a legitimate principle of group construction"

c) "The propulsive force of heretical criticism is met by the resistant force of orthodoxy"

B.  Voice and Authority through Delegation

1.  Establishment groups and heretical groups

a.  Easily seen when one person delegates to one other person

b.  "When a single person is entrusted with the powers of a whole crowd of people, that person can be invested with a power which transcends each of the individuals who delegate him"

1) "In appearance the group creates the man who speaks in its place and in its name

2) "In reality it is more or less just as true to say that it is the spokesperson who creates the group"

2.  Political fetishism

a.  Generally concealed, as Marx noted in Capital.

b.  "Cannot constitute themselves (or be constituted) as a group ... unless they dispossess themselves in favour of a spokesperson"

1) ."One must always risk political alienation in order to escape from political alienation"

2) "Delegates and ministers ... are ... among those 'products of the human brain [which] appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own'"

3.  Delegation as usurpation

a.  "Usurpation already exists potentially in delegation"

b.  Speaks in the place of others, but not a true servant

c.  Nietzsche's critique of Christianity read as critique of delegation

1) "The priest decides the value of things by declaring that things are good absolutely when they are good for him"

2) "Politician ... calls his own will 'people', 'opinion' or 'nation')"

d.  Occur regardless of location on the political continuum

1) See in the behavior of political delegates in the transition from Soviet communists to Russian democrats

2) "Nietzsche means ... delegates base universal values on themselves ... and thus monopolize the notions of God, Truth, Wisdom, People, Message, Freedom, etc."


V.  Conclusion:  Changing Language and Reducing Linguistic Violence

A. Classification as Struggle

1.  Rejects the view of classification as natural

a.  "Nobody would want to claim today that there exist criteria capable of founding 'natural' classifications

b.  '"The most 'natural' classifications are based on characteristics ... which are ... the product of an arbitrary imposition"

2.  Arbitrariness of classifications opens the door for change

a.  Social reality as constructed by the members of society

1) Elite groups structured social reality in their own interests

2) Dominated groups can reconstruct it in a manner that brings about a more equitable distribution of power

b.  Like Wittgenstein, describes how language games played

1) Indicates linguistic points where dominated groups can exercise leverage

2) Not propose how to change relations of power imposed by language

c.  Existence of such mechanisms exist as contra Weber

1) We need not remain trapped in the "iron cage" that others have constructed for us

2) Heretical subversion exposes system of representations as non-natural, arbitrary conventions like Foucault's epistemes

B.  The Importance of Changing Language

1.  Bourdieu aids in this task

a.  Makes us more aware of the obstacles we face

b.  Political labor remains

2.  Language games as treated by Bourdieu

a.  Allow the Wittgensteinian to do applied philosophy

1) Describe how words in various language games are forms of linguistic violence

2) Describe how the rules of these language games sustain arbitrary social inequalities

b.  In moving from understanding to action, philosophers and others can work to change these words and rules