This article is about the philosophical term proposed by Ludwig Wittgenstein, not about the common observation that offspring resemble parents and one another.

Family resemblance (German Familienähnlichkeit [1]) is a philosophical idea proposed by Ludwig Wittgenstein, with the most well known exposition being given in the posthumously published book Philosophical Investigations (1953) [2]. The idea itself takes its name from Wittgenstein's metaphorical description of a type of relationship he argued was exhibited by language.[3] Wittgenstein's point was 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. Games, which Wittgenstein used to explain the notion, have become the paradigmatic example of a group that is related by family resemblances.

Family resemblance features widely in Wittgenstein's later work, and the notion itself is introduced in the Investigations in response to questions about the general form of propositions and the essence of language - questions which were central to Wittgenstein throughout his philosophical career. This suggests that family resemblance was of prime importance for Wittgenstein's later philosophy, however, like many of his 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.

Since the publication of the Investigations the notion of family resemblance has been discussed extensively not only in the philosophical literature, but also, for example, 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. As the idea gains popularity, earlier instances of its occurrence are rediscovered e.g. in 18th century taxonomy [4], in the writings of Vygotsky[5] or Tatarkiewicz [6].

Philosophical ContextEdit

The local context where the topic of family resemblances appears is Wittgenstein's critique of language. In Philosophical Investigations §65-71 the plurality of language uses is compared to the plurality of games. Next it is asserted that games have common features but none is found in all of them. The whole argument has become famous under the heading 'language games'.

The larger context in which Wittgenstein's philosophy is seen to develop considers his uncompromising opposition to essences, mental entities and other forms of idealism which were accepted as a matter of fact in continental philosophy at the turn of the preceding century. In his view the main cause for such errors is language and its uncritical use. In the received view concepts, categories or classes are taken to rely on necessary features common to all items covered by them. Abstraction is the procedure which acknowledges this necessity and derives essences but in the absence of a single common feature it is bound to fail.

Examples and quotesEdit

Games are the main example considered by Wittgenstein in his text where he also mentions numbers and makes an analogy with a thread. 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 indefiniteness can be separated from the main point.

In §66 Wittgenstein invites us to
consider for example the proceedings that we call "games"...[to] look and see whether there is anything common to all.

The section mentions card games, board games, ball games, games like ring-a-ring-a-roses and concludes:

And we can go through the many, many other groups of games in the same way; we can see how similarities crop up and disappear.

And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities.

The following §67 begins by stating:

I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than

"family resemblances"; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way.- And I shall say: "games" form a family.

and extends the illustration

for instance the kinds of number form a family in the same way. Why do we call something a "number"? Well, perhaps because it has a direct relationship with several things that have hitherto been called number; and this can be said to give it an indirect relationship to other things we call the same name. And we extend our concept of number as in spinning a thread we twist fibre on fibre. And the strength of the thread does not reside in the fact that some one fibre runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibres.

The problem of boundaries begins in §68

I can give the concept 'number' rigid limits ... that is, use the word "number" for a rigidly limited concept, but I can also use it so that the extension of the concept is not closed by a frontier. And this is how we do use the word "game". For how is the concept of a game bounded? What still counts as a game and what no longer does? Can you give the boundary? No. You can draw one; for none has so far been drawn. (But that never troubled you before when you used the word "game".)

Formal modelsEdit

There are some simple models [5][7] which can be derived from the text of §66-9. The most simple one, which fits Wittgenstein's exposition, seems to be the sorites type. It consists in a collection of items Item_1, Item_2, Item_3... described by features A, B, C, D, ...:

Item_1: A B C D
Item_2: B C D E
Item_3: C D E F
Item_4: D E F G
Item_5: E F G H
......... . . . .

In this example, which presents an indefinitely extended ordered family, resemblance is seen in shared features: each item shares three features with his neighbors e.g. Item_2 is like Item_1 in respects B, C, D, and like Item_3 in respects C, D, E. Obviously what we call 'resemblance' involves different aspects in each particular case. It is also seen to be of a different 'degree' and here it fades with 'distance': Item_1 and Item_5 have nothing in common.

An other simple model is described as:

Item_1: A B C
Item_2: B C D
Item_3: A C D
Item_4: A B D
It exhibits the presence of a constant degree of resemblance and the absence of a common feature without extending to infinity.

Wittgenstein rejects the disjunction of features or 'properties', i.e. the set {A,B,C,D,..}, as something shared by all items. He admits that a 'sharing' is common to all but deems that it is only verbal:

if someone wished to say: "There is something common to all these constructions - namely the disjunction of all their common properties" - I should reply: Now you are only playing with words. One might as well say: "Something runs through the whole thread - namely the continuous overlapping of those fibres".

Notable ApplicationsEdit

  • Morris Weitz first applied family resemblances in an attempt to describe art [8] which opened a still continuing debate.[9]
  • Renford Bambrough proposed that 'Wittgenstein solved what is known as “the problem of universals”' and said of his solution (as Hume said of Berkeley’s treatment of the same topic), that it is “one of the greatest and most valuable discoveries that has been made of late years in the republic of letters”.[10] His view provided the occasion for numerous further comments [11].
  • Rodney Needham explored family resemblances in connection with the problem of alliance and noted their presence in taxonomy where they are known as a polythetic classification [5]

Criticism and commentsEdit


Philosophical Investigations is the primary text used in discussing family resemblances even though the topic appears also in other Wittgenstein's works, notably The Brown Book[13]. Most contributions to the discussion are by people involved in philosophical research but concern with more pragmatic questions such as taxonomy [4] or information processing[14] sometimes motivates the comments. The main focus for criticism is the notion of similarity which is instrumental for family resemblance. A similarity is always found for two arbitrarily selected objects or a series of intermediaries can link them into a family. This problem has been known as underdeterminacy or open ended texture. Admittedly infinity is only potential but for any finite family some common element can be pointed especially if relational properties are taken in consideration. Wittgenstein's insistence that boundaries do not really exist but can be traced arbitrarily has been described as conventionalism and more generally the acceptance of his conception has been seen to present a refined nominalism.

Notes and ReferencesEdit

Remarks in Part I of Investigations are preceded by the symbol "§". Remarks in Part II are referenced by their Roman numeral or their page number in the third edition.

  1. . 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.
  2. Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1953/2001). Philosophical Investigations. Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 0-631-23127-7. 
  3. "Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Ludwig Wittgenstein". Retrieved 2008-05-26. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 Winsor M., 2003, Non-essentialist methods in pre-Darwinian taxonomy, Biology and Philosophy 18 (2003) 387–400
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Needham R., 1975, Polythetic classification: Convergence and consequences, Man 10 (1975) 349
  6. Tatarkiewicz W., Postawa estetyczna, literacka i poetycka (1933) where it is called 'domino resemblance'.
  7. Andersen H.,:2000, Kuhn's account of family resemblance, Erkenntnis 52: 313–337
  8. Weitz M., The Role of Theory in Aesthetics, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 62 (1953): 27.
  9. Rfs needed
  10. Bambrough, R.: 1961, Universals and Family Resemblance, Proc. Aris. Soc. 61, 207–22
  11. a recent summary in Blair D. (2006), Wittgenstein, Language and Information, p.118 (note 117); see also Dilman, I.: Universals: Bambrough on Wittgenstein, Aris. Soc. Proc., 79 (1978): 35–58; reprinted in John V. Canfi ed., The Philosophy of Wittgenstein, Vol. 5, Method and Essence, pp. 305–328. New York: Garland Publishing, 1986.)
  12. Rosch E. and Mervis, C. (1975) Family resemblances: studies in the internal structure of categories, Cognitive Psychology 7, 573-605;
    Rosch, E. (1987), Wittgenstein and categorization research in cognitive psychology, in M. Chapman & R. Dixon (Eds.), Meaning and the growth of understanding. Wittgenstein's significance for developmental Psychology, Hillsdale, NJ.: Erlbaum.
  13. Wittgenstein L., The Blue and Brown Books, London: Blackwell (1958);I 68, 17, 73
  14. Blair D., Wittgenstein, Language and Information, Berlin:Springer, 2006, ISBN 978-1402041129
  • Andersen H.,:2000, Kuhn's account of family resemblance, Erkenntnis 52: 313–337
  • Bambrough, R.: 1961, Universals and Family Resemblance, Proc. Aris. Soc. 61, 207–22
  • Beardsmore, R. W.: 1992, The Theory of Family Resemblance, Philosophical Investigations 15, 131–146
  • Bellaimey, J. E.: 1990, Family Resemblances and the Problem of the Under-Determination of Extension, Philosophical Investigations 13, 31–43.
  • Griffin, N.: 1974, Wittgenstein, Universals and Family Resemblance, Canadian Journal of Philosophy III, 635–651.
  • Gupta, R. K.: 1970, Wittgenstein’s Theory of “Family Resemblance”, in his Philosophical Investigations (Secs. 65–80), Philosophia Naturalis 12, 282–286
  • Huff D.:(1981), Family Resemblances and rule governed behavior, Philosophical Investigations 4 (3) 1–23
  • Prien B.: Family Resemblances-A Thesis about the Change of Meaning over Time, Kriterion 18 (2004), pp. 15-24.
  • Raatzsch R., Philosophical Investigations 65ff. :On Family Resemblance, in Essays on Wittgenstein by P. Philipp and R. Raatzsch, Working papers from the Wittgenstein Archives at the University of Bergen #6 (1993), pp.50-76
  • Wennerberg, H.: 1967, The Concept of Family Resemblance in Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy, Theoria 33, 107–132.

See alsoEdit

External linksEdit

Lois Shawver's comments on Philosophical Investigations §65-9 [1]de:Familienähnlichkeit he:דמיון משפחתי ja:家族的類似 fi:Perheyhtäläisyys sv:Familjelikhet

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