PHIL 4150: Analytic Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Thursday November 1, 2012


[5.6.2.] Family Resemblance.


The concept of family resemblance is a very important one in Wittgenstein’s later thought. He employs it for the first time in the Blue Book, and in doing so he illustrates what he means with the example of games:


[Our] craving for generality is the resultant of a number of tendencies connected with particular philosophical confusions. There is –

 (a) The tendency to look for something in common to all the entities which we commonly subsume under a general term. -- We are inclined to think that there must be something in common to all games, say, and that this common property is the justification for applying the general term “game” to the various games; whereas games form a family the members of which have family likeness. Some of them have the same nose, others the same eyebrows and others again the same way of walking; and these likeness overlap. The idea of a general concept being a common property of its particular instances connects up with other primitive, too simple, ideas of the structure of language. It is comparable to the idea that properties are ingredients of the things which have the properties; e.g. that beauty is an ingredient of all beautiful things as alcohol is of beer and wine, and that we therefore could have pure beauty, unadulterated by anything that is beautiful. (576)


There is a family resemblance among all the different sorts of game—not one, or two, or any number of characteristics that they all have in common, but a set of overlapping and criss-crossing features that make each similar to many others in varying numbers of characteristics—just like the members of a large family. [1]


Applied to traditional philosophical concepts like knowledge, virtue, love, beauty, etc., the point is that there is no one thing (no essence) that all instances of knowledge (etc.) have in common. There is only a family resemblance among many different types of example of knowledge (etc.).


And so a Socratic quest for the essence of knowledge, or a definition that is true of all and only the things that we call knowledge, is pointless.



[5.6.3.] Anti-Essentialism about Meaning.


On Wittgenstein’s later view, in writing the Tractatus he himself had assumed that there is an essence of meaning—some one thing that all and only instances of meaning must have in common.


The Blue Book opens with the question: “What is the meaning of a word?” (567)


But he also issues a warning: in asking this question about meaning, “[w]e are up against one of the great sources of philosophical bewilderment: a substantive makes us look for a thing that corresponds to it.” (567)


Here “substantive” means: a word or expression that functions as a noun. The substantive that Wittgenstein has in mind is, of course, “meaning.” His warning amounts to this: just because “meaning” is a noun, don’t be misled into thinking that the meaning of a word is a thing to which “meaning” corresponds.


He gives examples of other substantives that do not refer to objects: “length” and “the number one.”


Here already we see a movement away from the Tractatus’ picture theory of meaning, according to which every meaningful piece of language must “picture” (correspond to) some object in the world. Language has meaning because any proposition can (in principle) be analyzed into basic components that name different objects in the world, and thus the proposition is a picture of a state of affairs.


The later Wittgenstein attacks this view and suggests a different view of language altogether. He came to see the picture theory as much too limited:

·         he didn’t reject it as being completely false;

·         he just thought that it described only one of the many different ways in which language works.

·         In the Philosophical Investigations, he uses the following analogy to describe his mistake:


It is as if someone were to say: “A game consists in moving objects about on a surface according to certain rules . . “ – and we replied: You seem to be thinking of board games, but there are others. You can make your definition correct by expressly restricting it to those games. (PI 3; not in your textbook)


In other words, the picture theory of language accurately describes one sort of language, but it does not describe every meaningful piece of language.


But he did not attempt to replace the picture theory with another account of what all meaningful language has in common. He believed that no single, universally applicable account of meaning is possible, since there is no one thing that all instances of meaning have in common.


Wittgenstein was moved to abandon the picture theory of meaning, and the attempt to give a single account of meaningful language, by an incident recounted in the following passage, which describes a conversation he had with Piero Sraffa, a Cambridge University lecturer in economics:


One day (they were riding, I think, on a train) when Wittgenstein was insisting that a proposition and that which it describes must have the same ‘logical form,’ the same ‘logical multiplicity,’ Sraffa made a gesture, familiar to Neapolitans as meaning something like disgust or contempt, of brushing the underneath of his chin with an outward sweep of the fingertips of one hand. And he asked: ‘What is the logical form of that?” Sraffa’s example produced in Wittgenstein the feeling that there was an absurdity in the insistence that a proposition and what it describes must have the same ‘form.’ This broke the hold on him of the conception that a proposition must literally be a ‘picture’ of the reality it describes.[2]




[5.6.4.] Against the Augustinian Theory of Language.


The Brown Book opens with a reference to Saint Augustine (354-430 CE)[3]:


Augustine, in describing his learning of language, says that he was taught to speak by learning the names of things. It is clear that whoever says this has in mind the way in which a child learns such words as “man”, “sugar”, “table”, etc. He does not primarily think of such words as “today”, “not”, “but”, “perhaps”. (577)


Wittgenstein has in mind the account of language learning that Augustine gave in his Confessions:


                When they (my elders) named some object, and accordingly moved towards something, I saw this and I grasped that the thing was called by the sound they uttered when they meant to point it out. Their intention was shewn by their bodily movements, as it were the natural language of all peoples: the expression of the face, the play of the eyes, the movement of other parts of the body, and the tone of voice which expresses our state of mind in seeking, having, rejecting, or avoiding something. Thus, as I heard words repeatedly used in their proper places in various sentences, I gradually learnt to understand what objects they signified; and after I had trained my mouth to form these signs, I used them to express my own desires.[4]


In Philosophical Investigations (1b, the second paragraph of section §1; not in your textbook), Wittgenstein explains two assumptions about language made by Augustine:

·         “the individual words in language name objects”;

·         “sentences are combinations of such names.”


And he says these two claims are “the root” of the following “idea”:

1.      “Every word has a meaning.”

2.      “This meaning is correlated with the word.”

3.      A word’s meaning “is the object for which the word stands.”


This is an early version the picture theory of language that Wittgenstein had articulated in the Tractatus.


Early in the Brown Book, Wittgenstein says:


                Suppose a man described a game of chess, without mentioning the existence and operations of the pawns. His description of the game as a natural phenomenon will be incomplete. On the other hand we may say that he has completely described a simpler game. In this sense we can say that Augustine’s description of learning the language was correct for a simpler language that ours. (578)


So it is not that Wittgenstein rejects the Augustinian view of language in its entirety. Rather, he thinks that something like that view is true about only some instances of linguistic meaning.



[5.6.5.] Meaning as Use.


In describing some assumptions that lie behind the Augustinian picture, Wittgenstein offers an important hint about his later view of meaning:


Our use of expressions like “names of numbers”, “names of colours”, “names of materials”, “names of nations” may spring from two different sources. One is that we might imagine the functions of proper names, numerals, words for colors, etc., to be much more alike than they actually are. If we do so we are tempted to think that the function of every word is more or less like the function of a proper name of a person, or such generic names as “table”, “chair”, “door”, etc. The second source is this, that if we see how fundamentally different the functions of such words as “table”, “chair”, etc., are from those of proper names, and how different from either the functions of, say, the names of colours, we see no reason why we shouldn’t speak of names of numbers or names of directions either, not by way of saying some such thing as “numbers and directions are just different forms of objects”, but rather by way of stressing the analogy which lies in the lack of analogy between the functions of the words “chair” and “Jack” on the one hand, and “east” and “Jack” on the other hand. (580)


The hint lies in his reference to the functions (uses) of different sorts of language.


Wittgenstein’s view is that for many (although not all) expressions, the meaning of that expression is not some object for which the expression stands. Rather, its meaning is its use in the language in which it occurs.


In other words, the meaning of some expressions is simply the way in which people use those expressions.



[5.6.6.] A Primitive “Language Game.”


In the Brown Book, Wittgenstein illustrates his claim about meaning and use by introducing a very primitive “language-game.”


The idea of a language game (Sprachspiel; “Sprach” refers not only to written language, but to spoken language as well[5]) is very important for the later Wittgenstein. It is introduced in the Blue Book:


I shall in the future again and again draw your attention to what I shall call language games. These are ways of using signs simpler than those in which we use the signs of our highly complicated everyday language. Language games are the forms of language with which a child begins to make use of words. The study of language games is the study of primitive forms of language or primitive languages. If we want to study the problems of truth and falsehood, of the agreement and disagreement of propositions with reality, of the nature of assertion, assumption, and question, we shall with great advantage look at primitive forms of language in which these forms of thinking appear without the confusing background of highly complicated processes of thought. When we look at such simple forms of language the mental mist which seems to enshroud our ordinary use of language disappears. We see activities, reactions, which are clear-cut and transparent. On the other hand we recognize in these simple processes forms of language not separated by a break from our more complicated ones. We see that we can build up the complicated forms from the primitive ones by gradually adding new forms. (576, emphasis added)


A language-game is not just language, but a larger chunk of activity into which language is interwoven. It consists of language AND action.


We understand words by engaging in the language games in which they are used. To understand what a word or group of words does, you do not look for its reference, the thing(s) in the world that it designates. Rather, you look at the language game in which it is used and you try to understand what it does in that game.


Language use is woven into a network of activities, and language has meaning because it plays a certain role in those activities. To know the meaning of a word is to understand the role it plays in a given activity.


The primitive language game that Wittgenstein introduces at the beginning of the Brown Book involves four words:

Each word corresponds to a different shape of building stone.


This language is used by a very small community: two builders, A and B. When A calls out a word, B brings the corresponding stone to A.


Each of the words in this language game (call it Builderese) can be understood as a name, as in the picture theory.


But they are not merely names. We do not fully understand the meanings of these words if all we know about them is that they name different building stones.


If we think of the meaning of a given word in Builderese as the object that each word names, we will not understand that language. Simply making an association between “slab” and that which it (allegedly) names does not give the term a meaning. “Slab” gets a meaning only when it is connected with a specific training; and different trainings might be connected with that word.


Builderese illustrates that meaning is not always a matter of a word referring to some object. Even if it is correct to construe “slab,” etc. as referring to slabs, etc., we still don’t understand what those words mean in Builderese until we understand how A and B use those terms in their daily activities, including how they were trained to use them.[6]


Wittgenstein gives a more straightforward illustration of this point in Philosophical Investigations:


Suppose I write the expression “five red apples” on a slip of paper and give it to my grocer. The grocer, in receiving the slip, acts in a certain way: he goes to a drawer of apples and removes five red apples, counting them as he pulls them out: one, two, three, four, five.


But what is the meaning of the word “five”?—No such thing was in question here, only how the word “five” is used. (PI §1d)


Wittgenstein’s point is that we can thoroughly understand the meaning of “five” without asking questions like “What does ‘five’ stand for?” or “What object does ‘five’ name?” In this example, the meaning of “five” is nothing but how it is used by the grocer.


Assume for the moment that there is such a thing as what Frege called reference (Bedeutung)... Say that “red,” “apples,'' “five,” etc. stand for simple objects, and that when connected in such a way they form pictures. Wittgenstein grants this, but asks, “Who is interested in pictures?” What is important to language is that something can happen. Even if correlating the word with something will help somehow in understanding language, it still is not what understanding language is all about. The brute relation between name and named is dead; it doesn’t do anything.


This idea, that the meaning of some expressions is how they are used, is central for the later Wittgenstein.



[5.6.7.] A Variety of Uses.


After he introduces Builderese, he goes on (578-581) to expand it in various ways, by adding different kinds of words and activities. These different types of word are taught and used in different ways. One of the points that he is making is that there are many different types of use to which different parts of language are put, and thus that there are many different types of meaning.


Recall his anti-essentialism and his employment of the concept of family resemblance. He is illustrating with these examples that there is no one use, and therefore no one type of meaning, that all meaningful expressions share: there is no essence of meaning.


In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein compares the types of word in a language to the variety of tools in a toolbox, which can be put to a number of different uses:


Think of the tools in a tool-box: there is a hammer, pliers, a saw, a screw-driver, a rule, a glue-pot, glue, nails and screws.—The functions of words are as diverse as the functions of these objects. (And in both cases there are similarities.) (PI §11)


But the uniform appearance or sound of words fools us into thinking that they all do one fundamentally similar job:


Of course, what confuses us is the uniform appearance of words when we hear them spoken or meet them in script and print. For their application is not presented to us so clearly.

... It is like looking into the cabin of a locomotive. We see handles all looking more or less alike. (Naturally, since they are all supposed to be handled.) But one is the handle of a crank which can be moved continuously (it regulates the opening of a valve); another is the handle of a switch, which has only two effective positions, it is either off or on; a third is the handle of a brake-lever, the harder one pulls on it, the harder it brakes; a fourth, the handle of a pump: it has an effect only so long as it is moved to and for. (PI §11-12)


He gives a long list of different uses of language:


Giving orders, and obeying them--

Describing the appearance of an object, or giving its measurements--

Constructing an object from a description (a drawing)--

Reporting an event--

Speculating about an event--

Forming and testing a hypothesis--

Presenting the results of an experiment in tables and diagrams--

Making up a story; and reading it--


Singing catches-[7]-

Guessing riddles--

Making a joke; telling it--

Solving a problem in practical arithmetic--

Translating from one language into another--

Asking, thanking, cursing, greeting, praying. (PI §23)


He is trying to dispel an idea that is associated with the Augustinian picture, an idea that he himself had adopted in the Tractatus. It is the idea that sentences are primarily descriptions of the world. Part of his point is that we do much, much more with language than simply describe the world.


So just as there are many different types of word other than names, there are many different types of sentence other than descriptions.


Wittgenstein chose the metaphor of a game to help convey this view of language, because

·         there are many different types of game, just as there are numerous different types of language use; and, more interestingly,

·         there are no characteristics that are shared by all games; in other words, there is no accurate definition of “game” that lists properties shared by every single game:


And the same, he maintains, is true about uses of language. There are no general characteristics that unite all meaningful uses of language, no one or more things that they all have in common, not even picturing facts (as the earlier Wittgenstein had maintained). There is just a family resemblance among the many and varied uses of language.



[5.6.8.] Quietism: Philosophy as Therapy.


Something that the later Wittgenstein has in common with the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus is that he is critical of all traditional philosophy.


He began to think of philosophy as a sort of therapy—an examination of ordinary language that is therapeutic, in the sense that it cures us of traditional philosophical problems by showing them to be pseudo-problems:


Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language. (PI §109)


                Philosophy unties the knots in our thinking, which we have foolishly put there; but to do that it must make movements which are just as complicated as those knots. Although the result of philosophy is simple, its method cannot be if it is to arrive at that result.

                The complexity of philosophy is not in its subject matter, but in our knotted understanding.[8]


This attitude towards philosophy is sometimes called quietism: the view that philosophers should not put forward theses about the world but should instead work to dispel the confusion that gives rise to philosophical questions to begin with.


One aspect of this critical stance was his rejection of the traditional idea of philosophy as an attempt to provide general explanations, e.g., the traditional attempt to explain what knowledge is.


As we have already seen, Wittgenstein came to think that philosophy isn’t capable of such explanations/definitions. We can list different examples of knowing, but they won’t all fulfill the same conditions. They will share something more like a family resemblance.



Stopping point for Thursday November 1. For next time, begin reading Quine, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” pp.518-526.




[1] In Philosophical Investigations, he makes the same point about games and family resemblance at greater length:


Consider for example the proceedings that we call “games”. I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all?—Don’t say: “There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games’”—but look and see whether there is anything common to all.—For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don’t think, but look!—Look for example at board-games, with their multifarious relationships. Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear. When we pass next to ball-games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost.—Are they all ‘amusing’? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In ball games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared. Look at the parts played by skill and luck; and at the difference between skill in chess and skill in tennis. Think now of games like ring-a-ring-a-roses; here is the element of amusement, but how many other characteristic features have disappeared! And we can go through the many, many groups of games in the same way; 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, sometimes similarities of detail. (PI 66, second emphasis added)


[2] Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1958, p.69); quoted in Norman Melchert, The Great Conversation p.514.


[3] You may have studied Augustine in PHIL 3100 (Ancient and Medieval Philosophy). For more on Augustine, see Michael  Mendelson, “Saint Augustine,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = < >.


[4] Wittgenstein quotes this passage at the beginning of Philosophical Investigations.

[5] This term reminds speakers of German of Schachspiel, chess, a game with a certain structure in which different pieces play different roles (e.g., the role of the queen, the role of the rook).


[6] In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein introduces Builderese as follows:


                We could imagine that the language of §2 was the whole language of A and B; even the whole language of a tribe. The children are brought up to perform these actions, to use these words as they do so, and to react in this way to the words of others.

                An important part of the training will consist in the teacher’s pointing to the objects, directing the child’s attention to them, and at the same time uttering a word; for instance, the word “slab” as he points to that shape. … This ostensive teaching of words can be said to establish an association between the word and the thing. But what does this mean? Well, it may mean various things; but one very likely thinks first of all that a picture of the object comes before the child’s mind when it hears the word. But now, if this does happen—is it the purpose of the word?—Yes, it may be the purpose.—I can imagine such a use of words (or series of sounds). (Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination.) But in the language of §2 it is not the purpose of the words to evoke images. (It may, of course, be discovered that that helps to attain the actual purpose.)

                But if the ostensive teaching has this effect,—am I to say that it effects an understanding of the word? Don’t you understand the call “Slab!” if you act upon it in such-and-such a way?—Doubtless the ostensive teaching helped to bring this about; but only together with a particular training. With different training the same ostensive teaching of these words would have effected a quite different understanding. (PI §6, emphases added)


[7] A catch is “A canonical, often rhythmically intricate composition for three or more voices, popular esp. in the 17th and 18th centuries.” (American Heritage Dictionary, 2nd college ed.)

[8] Philosophiche Bemerkungen, Basil Blackwell, 1964, p.52; translated by Norman Malcolm, The Philosophical Review, v.LXXVI, p.229; quoted in Kenny, Wittgenstein, p.18.


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