Talk:Family resemblance

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What is this article about? the lead does not define the term, it merely categorizes it. If the article defines the term, it doesn't do so in a concrete manner that I can even come close to understanding. -Verdatum (talk) 20:05, 25 March 2008 (UTC)

I tend to agree. This is a fairly central notion in LW's later philosophy (see how he introduces it in the PI), and yet there is very little here to either explain it or tie in into his later philosophy as a whole; or, indeed, to explain how it has become significant in modern philosophy. I will try to do an extensive expansion of the article but would welcome as much input as I can get. A 44 will get you 99 (talk) 23:59, 12 April 2008 (UTC)

Have done a little bit, needs a lot more.A 44 will get you 99 (talk) 01:59, 13 April 2008 (UTC)

I think the article is significantly worse now than it was a few weeks ago. The focus has been turned back onto items such as games rather than on language which was obviously Wittgenstein's point. That is, family resemblance is introduced in the Investigations as Wittgenstein's new answer (non-answer) to the questions of what the general form of a proposition is and what the essence of language is. He then uses games as an example/analogy for what he is saying about language.
There are also quite a few sentences in the article now that don't appear to mean anything, for example,
"He develops his argument further by insisting that in such cases there is not a clear cut boundary but there arises some ambiguity if this indefinitness can be separated from the main point."

A 44 will get you 99 (talk) 12:54, 24 May 2008 (UTC)


I have made extensive changes to the introduction which I will explain here.

Family resemblance is a philosophical idea proposed by Ludwig Wittgenstein in the posthumously published book Philosophical Investigations.

Changed "philosophical conception" to "philosophical idea" because it is a simpler way of saying the same thing. Also removed the explanation of family resemblance (FR) and left this until later in the intro to put in a changed version (see below).

a)The idea takes its name from Wittgenstein's metaphorical description of a type of relationship
b)he argued was exhibited by language.

a) is hopefully an uncontroversial statement of fact about the name followed by (b) a more controversial explanation of the focus on language. I've written the bit about the name because it's not a normal name for a philosophical idea and could be misleading if not explained (it has nothing to do with families in the normal sense for example). Re (b) see next explanation.

The central theme being that things which may be thought to be connected by one essential common feature may in fact be connected by a series of overlapping similarities where no one feature is common to all.

I have changed this and the ending of the previous sentence completely to put the focus back onto language. FR is not about games. Games are an analogy for something LW is trying to say about language. "I will try to explain this" is the last line of PI65 where LW's focus is exclusively on language and before PI66 where the games analogy is introduced. That many commentators have simply talked about games and chairs and other "family resemblance concepts" should not mean we need to adopt their reading wholesale. Other commentators has been far more concerned with how this analogy relates back to language so hopefully my brief focus back onto language and then fairly straight statement of the central theme of FR will sit between these readings and allow both to follow in the later sections about philosophical interpretation (which will need to be added).

Games, which Wittgenstein used to introduce the notion, have become the paradigmatic exemplar of a group that is related by family resemblances.

Hopefully uncontroversial statement.

Variations on this theme appear repeatedly in Wittgenstein's work, and the notion itself is introduced in response to questions about the general form of propositions and the essence of language which were central to Wittgenstein throughout his philosophical career.

I have made changes to this and added the stuff about the questions about propositions and language. This is because just before LW introduces his new answer he says, "Here we come to the great question the lies behind all these considerations", the "great question" being the one about "the general form of propositions and of language" PI65 (as opposed to the one about games PI66 which is an analogy intended to help explain his non-answer to the question raised in PI65).

This seems to indicate that Wittgenstein felt family resemblance was of prime importance for his later philosophy

Again, "Here we come to the great question the lies behind all these considerations" seems to indicate this so hopefully that will be OK and it leads nicely to the next line.

however, like many of Wittgenstein's ideas, it is hard to find precise agreement within the secondary literature on either its place within Wittgenstein's later thought or on its wider philosophical significance.

This relates to a new section that will have to be written. There are countless interpretations of FR, see for example, Hacker (Insight and Illusion), Kripke (Naming and Necessity), Cavell (in The New Wittgenstein), Bouwsma (in Fann LW: The Man and His Philosophy) and countless others, Rhees, Malcolm, Searle, McGinn, Fodor, Pears, Lugg etc. etc. who all say something slightly/vastly different on FR. These will need to be grouped and briefly discussed at some point but for the intro I think only the fact of this divergence needs to be mentioned.

Since the publication of the Investigations the notion of family resemblance has been discussed extensively in the philosophical literature

See above

and in works dealing with classification where the approach is described as 'polythetic', distinguishing it from the traditional approach known now as 'monothetic'. Prototype theory is a recent development in cognitive science where this idea has also been explored.

I don't know about this but have left it in for the time being to illustrate the wider impact.

A 44 will get you 99 (talk) 14:26, 24 May 2008 (UTC)

Reverted for the moment[edit]

Two main reasons: style and lack of perspective.

About style: imho it is really odd to explain Wittgenstein in terms he disputed and sought to eliminate ('idea', 'essence' etc);the word idea is used 3 times in 10 lines. The opening sentence suggests that somehow Wttg posthumously proposed an idea... Next absatz is as clumsy as possible; "..seems to indicate that Wttg felt.." is unencyclopedical and unphilosophical; note also the repetitions (theme, later..) or 'the idea takes its name..'

About perspective: FR is a pet conception of Wttg appearing in his writings after 1929. PI are his the latest work, only it was published first: it might be a good place to anchor the exposition but it does not provide the ultimate explanation. Now FR can be traced back and not just in his work but also in other areas. Needham's paper is available online and please take a glance at the :

2. At not point do I use the word essence to describe FR other than in the negative. That is, I say that FR is a notion that offers a different answer in cases where one might think an essence was involved. This is surely exactly what LW is saying and, I think, captures the initial sections is the PI where he introduces it in exactly this contrasting manner.
3. The opening sentence can easily be changed to reflect the fact that FR appears throughout the later work of LW.
4 Re the Brown Book - FR there is even more explicitly about language than in the PI, see here, for example [1], and see the link below (hardly a word about games, other than language games, in either)
5. The point is not really whether you, or anyone else, agrees with Bambrough. FR is interpreted in many different ways. See how it is described here in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Phil [2], and look at how differently Hacker describes it in the Oxford encyclopedia of philosophy (can't find a version online). While Bambrough seems to think it was offered as a solution to the problem of universals, and Kripke thinks it is identical to Searle's cluster theory. And McGinn, in her book about the PI, discusses batches of sections up to about PI200 but completely leaves out PI65-88 (not sure about the exact numbers). My point here is that we cannot simply opt for one interpretation we like and then focus exclusively on that. The fact of this variety of interpretations of what FR is about and how important it is should be noted.
Re your intro:
1. You just plainly state the analogy as if it was what FR is actually about. That is, you say, "in some cases the items named by a single word exhibit resemblances although they do not share a feature common to all of them." Yes, of course, but this is merely an analogy for something LW is saying about language. The PI makes this very clear, as do the Blue and Brown Books and Zettel. As it stands, then, the introduction is saying something that fundamentally misses the point.
2. Later in the first para you say, "which suggests that it was important for his anti-essentialism". But this is again to take one reading (a literal reading of an analogy) and treat that as central. As such, it's not wrong per se, but it further clouds the issue.
3. "With hindsight the approach exposed by Wittgenstein has been found..." is bizarre. With hindsight? Exposed? Hindsight means the ability to see, after the event, what should have been done. And "exposed" is a peculiar word to choose here.
4. You suggest my version says that LW proposed an idea after he died (it didn't). Your version states plainly that he wrote a book after he died. In the posthumous book (your version) versus in the posthumously published book (my version). In my version only the publication is posthumous, in yours it is the writing.
Given this, I will incorporate a few amendments but revert to my version.A 44 will get you 99 (talk) 14:12, 26 May 2008 (UTC)

Let's see if we can do something about the main point of discussion: language does not have a privileged role fore the topic. In PI the argument goes: language uses (plural) are like games which are like FRs and also like a thread - the four instances share the same structure. The problematic thing named 'language' is explained by the trivial 'game' and the explanation schema is called FR which, admittedly, is a bad name.

"The idea takes its name from Wittgenstein's metaphorical description of a type of relationship he argued was exhibited by language" is a sentence, imho, as bad as it could be. If language does anything it is not exhibiting. Also: an idea is hardly an agent to do anything and rarely ideas have a name. What do we know about types of relationship between unspecified objects? And why start with the badly chosen name.
I think that Wttg argued that the word 'language' hides the relationship between its various uses. By considering games he shows that the situation is not unusual; mentioning a thread consisting of fibres he offered a suggestive image. He was never interseted in language pre se. (talk) 13:02, 27 May 2008 (UTC)
I'm not sure I understand much of what you're saying here. "Exhibited" admittedly is not the best but it's not as if LW, or the intro, is suggesting that this is the main/only thing language does. So language exhibits lots of things and it exhibits FRs in the same way games do - i.e., something that is there to be seen if one cares to look. Perhaps it would be better to say, "type of relationship that Wittgenstein argued connected various uses of language".
We have to really start with the name (I don't agree that it was badly chosen btw), because that's the title of the article and because it's a strange name for a philosophical idea (as opposed to the Language of Thought hypothesis, for example, which tells you exactly what it is about). I therefore think that a few words about it ("takes it name from W's metaphorical description of...") which lead directly into the first part of the explanation of what the term is about is a perfectly reasonable way to kick things off.
What on earth makes you think that the intro assigns agency to an idea? When one says "the idea takes its name from..." that doesn't mean the idea actively takes something the way an agent would. This is a common enough phrase, for example, football takes its name from the fact that it is a ball game played primarily with the feet. On a related point, many ideas have names, particularly within science and philosophy. (I googled the phrase - see what comes up [3])
If LW was not interested in language per se then it is hard to see why he talks about language in the PI virtually from cover to cover. If language has no privileged role (whatever that actually means) for FR then it hard to see why LW offered FR as his new (non) answer to the question "about the general form of propositions and of language". And it is hard to see why the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy discusses FR solely in terms of language. As I said, I'm not sure I understand much of what you are saying here. A 44 will get you 99 (talk) 15:06, 27 May 2008 (UTC)
Hopeless: people who use figurative language without being aware what they are doing, who refer to dubious entities (ideas, essences) as matter of fact and who still insist that they should be writing about (talk) 09:58, 29 May 2008 (UTC)
What figurative language? What are you talking about. If you are referring to "takes its name" then you simply don't know what that phrase means (here is a google search to show how ordinary this phrase is [4]). Similarly, an idea is just a idea, or a thought, or a notion - which are all standard (and philosophically neutral) philosophical terms. In this sense it has nothing at all to do with Idealism or Ideas. And essence is only used in contrast to FR which is exactly the way LW used it. A 44 will get you 99 (talk) 17:48, 29 May 2008 (UTC)
Here are two lines from the PI. The first line of the preface:
Up to a short time ago I had really given up the idea of publishing my work in my lifetime.
And the first line of the PI itself (after Augustine is quoted):
These words, it seems to me, give us a particular picture of the essence of human language.
Both words, then, "idea" and "essence", are used by LW in exactly the sense I use them in the intro. "Idea" just means a thought that someone had, and "essence" means a/the central feature - this particular essence (of language) being the one that LW goes on to address, reject, and offer an alternative non-essential account of. That non-essential account being the non-essence that is FR.A 44 will get you 99 (talk) 18:45, 29 May 2008 (UTC)

Well done[edit]

As one of the authors of a previous, and inadequate, version of this page, I would like to congratulate the present authors. This is an excellent article. Banno (talk) 20:41, 15 October 2008 (UTC)

Formal Models[edit]

I'm puzzled by the assertion "Item_1 and item_5 have nothing in common" when manifestly each item has commonality in being letters of the Latin alphabet, in the same typeface and size and weight and colour, all are capital letters, there being four in each, presented in alphabetical order, and being four consecutive letters of the conventional alphabetic ordering. The source document may have been handwritten and all manner of variations could have been selected amongst. NickyMcLean (talk) 23:42, 10 December 2008 (UTC)

A - H stand for distinct features or characteristics of the items rather than the letters themselves. For example, in the case of games, A might be "involves winning and losing", B might be "is played with a ball", C might be "involves gambling" and so on. A 44 will get you 99 (talk) 23:53, 10 December 2008 (UTC)
Ah, yes. I stopped one level of indirection short! Oops. It helps to read the article carefully. NickyMcLean (talk) 19:20, 11 December 2008 (UTC)

Image removed[edit]

I took the liberty and removed the image showing a familiy reunion of some family. As far as I understand, it has nothing to do with the article. Feel free to put it back if I am mistaken. Bleistiftspitzer (talk) 09:10, 10 February 2012 (UTC)


In the leading section, a footnote reading,

In translations of Wittgenstein's works, his term, Familienähnlichkeit is variously translated as both "family resemblance" and "family likeness" with, often, both versions appearing in the same English translation.

has been replaced with,

The German word is found in Grimms' Dictionary and Wittgenstein used in English either family "likeness" or "resemblance", so both appear in translations.

This amendment is both factually incorrect, and extremely misleading. The facts are these: (1) In his works, Wittgenstein consistently uses the German Familienähnlichkeit. (2) This word/expression is not unique to Wittgenstein. (3) Depending upon your personal preference, ähnlichkeit can be translated as "similarity" (the most normal translation) or "resemblance" or "likeness". (4) Wittgenstein did not write English versions of his works; the "English" works are translations (by another) of his German texts. (5) The point is NOT that some translators have rendered his Familienähnlichkeit as "family resemblance" and others rendered it as "family likeness"; it is, in English, you will find the "to English readers obviously different expressions" of "family resemblance" and "family likeness" without any footnotes or any other assistance to the English reader to inform them that these two, very obviously different terms are in fact being used, within the body of the same book, to denote precisely the same referent.

To express my own view — and, in particular, as a consequence of Wittgenstein's own freely given admission that the origins of his thoughts on Familienähnlichkeit was his viewing of sets of composite photographs made by Francis Galton of the prototypical "face" of particular families — I feel that the only correct way to transmit the meaning intended by Wittgenstein is to create an entirely new term, "familylike-ness", because it is the similarity or dis-simarity to the supposed "familyness" that is being spoken of.

I have altered the footnote accordingly.Lindsay658 (talk) 00:15, 1 October 2010 (UTC)

Wittgenstein spent a lot of time lecturing and speaking in English and apparently he has been using both. One has to check the various "lecture notes" to find evidence; in the Blue book it is 'likeness. (talk) 10:21, 11 November 2010 (UTC)

I just wanted to congratulate all of the contributors to the Family Resemblance page. It is one of the best I have read in Wikipedia (and I have read a lot of them). It not only captures Wittgenstein's ideas succinctly, but also, occasionally, his very rare and dry sense of humor. (Yes, I know, many people believe those words should not be used in the same sentence.) Odyssoma (talk) 15:45, 23 July 2013 (UTC)

Mill on ressemblance[edit]

The lead states that retrospectively the idea can be found earlier, so moved here the following, as it is not really to the point:

John Stuart Mill described family resemblances in Chapter 8 of Book 1 in "A System of Logic" published in 1843.

"But where the resemblances and differences on which our classifications are founded are not of this palpable and easily determinable kind; especially where they consist not in any one quality but in a number of qualities, the effects of which, being blended together, are not very easily discriminated, and referred each to its true source; it often happens that names are applied to nameable objects, with no distinct connotation present to the minds of those who apply them. They are only influenced by a general resemblance between the new object and all or some of the old familiar objects which they have been accustomed to call by that name. This, as we have seen, is the law which even the mind of the philosopher must follow, in giving names to the simple elementary feelings of our nature: but, where the things to be named are complex wholes, a philosopher is not content with noticing a general resemblance; he examines what the resemblance consists in: and he only gives the same name to things which resemble one another in the same definite particulars. The philosopher, therefore, habitually employs his general names with a definite connotation. But language was not made, and can only in some small degree be mended, by philosophers. In the minds of the real arbiters of language, general names, especially where the classes they denote cannot be brought before the tribunal of the outward senses to be identified and discriminated, connote little more than a vague gross resemblance to the things which they were earliest, or have been most, accustomed to call by those names. When, for instance, ordinary persons predicate the words just or unjust of any action, fnoble or meanf of any sentiment, expression, or demeanour, statesman or charlatan of any personage figuring in politics, do they mean to affirm of those various subjects any determinate attributes, of whatever kind? No: they merely recognise, as they think, some likeness, more or less vague and loose, between gtheseg and some other things which they have been accustomed to denominate or to hear denominated by those appellations." (talk) 20:54, 17 September 2014 (UTC)