Monday, 19 September 2011

Drawing the Line: Family Resemblance Concepts

So far (§§1-64) Wittgenstein has been chipping away at the Augustinian picture of language, showing that it doesn’t provide us with the essence of language. All attempts to delineate or shore up its features have only led to confusion or nonsense (metaphysics, for example). Finally, at §65, Wittgenstein’s interlocutor snaps:
You make things easy for yourself! You talk about all sorts of language-games, but have nowhere said what is essential to a language-game, and so to language: what is common to all these activities, and makes them into language or parts of language.
Let’s consider the interlocutor’s frustration in more detail. After all, what is it about the concept of language that might lead him to claim it must have an essence? It hinges upon an understanding of the term “concept” which might be put as follows:

A concept picks out a particular group of things that all have a common factor (or factors). For example, generosity, bravery and humility are all called “good” because they all have something good about them. But what is this quality of goodness? That is to be revealed by a logical analysis of the sub-concepts “generosity”, “bravery”, etc. And what is thereby revealed will be goodness in its pure or ideal form; it will be the essence of goodness.

Following on from this, it seems reasonable to expect that concepts must be exact. If all objects with the factor Φ fall under the concept P, then object x either has Φ or it doesn’t. It’s either in or it’s out.

It’s clear then, I think, why the interlocutor demands an essence of language: since items x, y and z all fall under the concept-term “language” there must be some quality Φ they all share and is the reason they are grouped together in this way. So what is quality Φ? If the Augustinian picture isn’t the essence of language then what the hell is? Typically, Wittgenstein’s response is a rejection of this question:
 Instead of pointing out something common to all that we call language, I’m saying that these phenomena have no one thing in common in virtue of which we use the same word for all – but there are many different kinds of affinity between them. And on account of this affinity, or these affinities, we call them all “languages”.
Philosophical Investigations §65

To demonstrate this, he asks us to consider the concept of “game”. From board-games to guessing-games to bouncing a ball against a wall, there is no one thing (or set of things) that all games have in common. Instead, “we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: similarities in the large and in the small” (§66). These similarities he christens “family resemblances”, and says that the various things we call “games” form such a family (§67).

This account denies that either commonality or exactness are necessary features of our concepts. The members of the concept “number” (cardinal numbers, negative numbers, imaginary numbers, etc) have no one thing in common, but it is clear what we call a number and what we don’t. To that extent it is an exact concept (though there’s always the possibility that it might be extended by a development in mathematics). But with a concept like “game” not only might there be extension, but the current members cannot always be clearly identified. Is throwing a ball against a wall really a game? Or seeing how long you can hold your breath? With such borderline cases there may be no right or wrong answer – we could just say “it’s up to you”.

But now (the interlocutor may object) it seems the concept is in danger of losing coherence. If you replace commonality with resemblance then can’t everything be linked to everything else by a web of resemblances? What’s to prevent everything from finding a place in the concept? Moreover, how can a concept function if it isn’t exact? If we don’t know which objects fall under it then surely we don’t know what it means? So even though commonality and exactness might not appear to be there, in some way they must be or else the concept is unviable.

Wittgenstein first tackles the question of exactness. He admits that the use of a word like “game” is not everywhere clear, but denies this necessarily makes it unviable. As he points out (§68), tennis is a perfectly playable game despite the fact that there’s no rule about how high to throw the ball when serving. In the same way, the concept-word “game” fulfils its purpose even though it’s not always clear whether something is a game or not. Of course, it may sometimes be helpful to draw a clear boundary (Game Theory, for example, uses a specific definition of “game” for the purposes of its research) but that is something we do as and when we need to. It is an invention rather than a discovery.

Moreover, not only is a clear definition not always necessary, it is not even always preferable. When a mother tells her child “go out and play” would it always be better if she specified exactly which games she meant (supposing she could)? Mightn’t it sometimes be best to let the child make its own mind up?

At §71 Wittgenstein moves on to the notion of essence, which he raises in the context of how we explain family resemblance concepts to others. This, he points out, is often done by giving typical examples, together with a similarity-clause (“and so on”, “and similar things” etc). We expect this explanation to be taken in a certain way: most of the time (we hope) the other person will “draw the line” in the right place from now on. Of course, here we are at the mercy of his ability to understand – but that is true given any explanation or definition we might provide.

Such an explanation is not an incomplete expression of my knowledge – as if I had a precise definition that for some reason I couldn’t articulate. Here Wittgenstein is combating the temptation to suppose that understanding our explanation “means to have in one’s mind an idea of the thing explained, and that is a sample or picture” (§73). This sample would be the essence or ideal form of the concept. Wittgenstein’s point here is not simply that we don’t have such a sample, but that the sample could not possibly do the job required of it.

What, for example, would be a completely general representation of “redness”? A sample like “” is not unambiguous; it might be taken as a sample of that specific shade of red. Alternatively, if it’s supposed to be a sample of a specific shade, what’s to stop it being taken as a general sample of redness? The requisite type of training is required to make it one or the other (eg: “When I hold up this→ bring me any red object”) but that’s precisely what is lacking here. Without this training the sample might stand for redness, a shade of red, or even “not red”. It could stand for anything, and so it stands for nothing.

Similar difficulties arise if essence is viewed in terms of a definition – as if our rough explanation might be used as the raw material for constructing a precise one. For a start, this would put us in a very strange situation: in explaining (eg) games we (somehow) consult a definition we are not aware of having and which we are (somehow) unable to articulate. The other person then uses our rough examples to (somehow) formulate this same definition – without realising he’s doing it – and is then unaware of having it and (somehow) cannot articulate it.

Even if we accept this situation, we’re still faced with the problem that no definition can be completely clear or stipulate how we should proceed in every possible case. Take, for example, a proposed definition such as, “Games are those things we play according to certain rules”. For absolute clarity, don’t we need a further analysis of the words “things”, “play” and “rules”? And won’t that analysis throw up yet more terms to be explained? There seems to be no end to the process (cf, the seemingly throwaway remark in §1: “Explanations come to an end somewhere”). As Wittgenstein comments (§87): “It may easily look as if every doubt merely revealed a gap in the foundations; so that secure understanding is possible only if we first doubt everything that can be doubted, and then remove all these doubts.”

But still (it might be objected), even if we accept that an essence cannot guarantee coherence, how is it maintained in a family resemblance concept? Why doesn’t everything leech into everything else in a blur of affinities? The point here is that we distinguish between pertinent affinities and superficial ones. War is similar to a game in many respects; however, we don’t call it a game (though we may accuse someone of treating it like a game) because this similarity is not as pertinent as the one between war and a quarrel. It is important that we don’t confuse “let’s play war” with “this means war!” and so we have drawn a conceptual boundary-line between the two. In other words, it is the activity in which the concept is embedded that dictates where its boundaries lie. And where no boundary is necessary then none need be drawn. The boundary does not come built in to the concept so that we have to discover its contours (like discovering the molecular structure of salt); it is dictated by use – and that is something invented by us.

This is why we do not have to combat every conceivable doubt before a concept can be declared viable. As Wittgenstein puts it: “an explanation may indeed rest on another one that has been given, but none stands in need of another – unless we require it to avoid a misunderstanding – one, that is, that would arise if not for the explanation, but not every misunderstanding that I can imagine” (§87).

We can (and often do) use words without fixed definitions. We may even alter our definitions “on the hoof” if required (§79). And this is fine so long as it doesn’t make our language-game unplayable. It is the language-game (the activity) that dictates whether or not a concept is coherent – not an Ideal Form which is supposed to reveal the common essence of our concept words and provide them with completely clear boundaries. For the Ideal can do no such thing. It is neither possible nor necessary. “The signpost is in order – if, under normal circumstances, it fulfils its purpose” (§87).

Well, perhaps the interlocutor still has one last question: “If the explanation of ‘game’ doesn’t provide a sample or definition or formula, then what does it provide? Surely the pupil gets something? After all, he understands! Before he didn’t know and now he does know. So what’s in his mind now that wasn’t there before?” This leads to questions about what it means to “know” or “understand” something. Wittgenstein has already flagged up the issue (in §81) for further consideration. And it will get a lot of further consideration, because it involves confronting what is perhaps the really deep illusion here – the one that stands behind (and sanctions) illusions concerning logical simples, essences and ideal forms.

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