Monday, October 3, 2011

Wittgenstein on family resemblances

To: Mary J.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Wittgenstein on family resemblances
Date: 31 March 2005 12:47

Dear Mary,

Thank you for your email of 22 March, with your essay for the Associate program entitled, 'Explain Wittgenstein's Theory of 'Family Resemblances''.

My initial response was to object to the question - until I realized that it was actually one of the questions I gave you! The objection would be (as you explain in your essay) that Wittgenstein does not see himself as putting forward a 'theory', in the way that philosophers do, but rather seeking to combat the theorizing tendency.

But let that pass, for the moment.

This is a good essay. Some relatively minor comments before I proceed with my main worry.

I couldn't remember where Wittgenstein gives the example of a pen and writing - a reference would have helped. He is (ask you acknowledge) not saying that ostensive definition has a role to play, but only rejecting the idea that meaning can be established by ostensive definition alone. Having said that, given that the other elements of a language game are in place, ostensive definition can be perfectly adequate to convey meaning. Pointing to colours, for example. 'This is shocking pink'. Unlike words for objects which have a functional significance, or belong to a more or less systematic theory, learning words for colours presupposes only the ability to differentiate an objects colour from other aspects. Even here, however, it could be argued that no-one ever learns a colour from a single example. It takes a process of training to be able to distinguish shocking pink from non-shocking pink.

The example of 'digging with my pen' seem to raise hopes for organized opposition to the family resemblance idea. First there is the core meaning, established through the original point or intention of the concept. Then, following that, are various metaphorical extensions which the linguist or philosopher can trace. We know what it is to 'dig the dirt' on someone because of our prior grasp of the concept of digging. It would seem a rather bad example to cite in support of a family resemblance account of the meaning of 'dig'.

'Concept words do not have an essence', is a claim about the nature of language. So is, 'the concept of 'language' does not have an essence.' It might be worth while to emphasise the way that the family resemblance idea applies to different levels here. (This also relates to the claim that Wittgenstein is not putting forward a 'theory'.)

There is a great deal to say about the concept of a 'game'. Consider:

* Game theory, as a mathematical inquiry into the nature of win-lose games.

* Evolutionary considerations on the nature of play as a feature of the 'natural history of mankind' which we share with many non-human animals.

* The philosophy of sport - arguably, competitive sport is no less important as a feature of human culture than art, literature, music.

Given the importance of these phenomena, a case could be made that we are far too sloppy in calling so many things 'games'!

Surely, what this example shows is that there is nothing wrong with theorising - for a specific purpose.

This brings me to my main point. The one thing which is noticeably lacking from your treatment of family resemblance (and I blame this on my badly formulated question) is consideration of what philosophers ought to be doing when they look at philosophically important concepts - like 'cause', 'truth', 'existence', 'freedom', 'personal identity'. Are these all just family resemblance concepts? And is that all there is to say about them?

Philosophers today rarely talk of 'philosophical analysis'. This is at least partly due to the influence of Wittgenstein. Another, perhaps more influential figure is W.V.O. Quine in his important essay 'Two Dogmas of Empiricism' which attacked the analytic-synthetic distinction - the holy cow of philosophical analysis. Today, you are much more likely to hear a philosopher advancing a 'theory' of causation, or of personal identity - or of concepts, or language.

Is this wrong? Did Wittgenstein see something that contemporary philosophers have still not 'got'? The example of games suggests to me that Wittgenstein has over-exaggerated a point in order to make his case, that there is much to learn from conducting the kind of investigation that Wittgenstein exemplifies in his later work - but not everything. There are other, valid, ways of pursuing philosophical inquiry.

All the best,