Family resemblance

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Family resemblance (German: Familienähnlichkeit) is a philosophical idea made popular by Ludwig Wittgenstein, with the best known exposition given in his posthumously published book Philosophical Investigations (1953).[1] It argues that things which could 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 of the things. Games, which Wittgenstein used as an example to explain the notion, have become the paradigmatic example of a group that is related by family resemblances. It has been suggested that Wittgenstein picked up the idea and the term from Nietzsche, who had been using it, as did many nineteenth century philologists, when discoursing about language families.[2]

The first occurrence of the term "Family resemblance" is found in a note from 1930, commenting on Spengler's ideas.[3] The notion itself features widely in Wittgenstein's later work, and in the Investigations it is introduced 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 context

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 no one feature 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.


The term "Family resemblance" as feature of Wittgenstein's philosophy owes much to its translation in English. Wittgenstein, who wrote mostly in German, used the compound word 'Familienähnlichkeit', but as he lectured and conversed in English he used 'family likeness' (e.g. The Blue Book, p. 17,33; The Brown Book,§66). However, in the Philosophical Investigations the separate word 'Ähnlichkeit' has been translated as 'similarity' (§§11,130,185,444) and on two occasions (§§9,90) it is given as 'like'. The German family-word is common and it is found in Grimm's dictionary; a rare occurrence of 'family likeness' has been noted in a lecture by J. F. Moulton in 1877.[7]

Examples and quotes

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 models

There are some simple models[5][8] 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.

Another 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 applications

  • Thomas Kuhn uses Wittgenstein's concept in chapter V ('The Priority of Paradigms) of his famous The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). Paradigms are not reducible to single discoverable sets of scientific rules, but consist of assumptions that relate to other rules that are recognized by parts of a scientific community.[9]
  • Morris Weitz first applied family resemblances in an attempt to describe art.[10] which opened a still[when?] continuing debate.[11]
  • 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".[12] His view provided the occasion for numerous further comments.[13]
  • 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]
  • Eleanor Rosch used family resemblances in her cognitivist studies.[14] Other cognitive research[15] has shown that children and even rhesus monkeys tend to use family resemblance relationships rather than explicit rules[16] when learning categories.

Game Studies

Wittgenstein's suggestion (PI, §66) about the impossibility of formulating a definition of games portrays a predicament for disciplines, which entail games as their subject matter, because it denies the possibility to know what games are. One possible solution is to point out that Wittgenstein merely acts out his failing attempt to define the concept of game, because he wanted to demonstrate a mechanism of language. He wasn’t particularly concerned about games, nor about the concept of ‘game’, but he was interested in the consequence of a definitory failure. The demonstration aims to show, that there is no reason to search for real definitions, which describe essential attributes of things, but rather nominal definitions, which describe the use of the term in a community. He connected this idea to language games – lingual expressions combined with action – as a more adequate alternative to explain the function of language. Confusing this is his choice to denominate the approach (PI, §7) as ‘language games’, further fueling the impression that he provides insights about the concept of game. Wittgenstein wasn’t interested in games but in language, therefore his theories and examples are only superficially related to academic disciplines with games as subject matter.

Criticism and comments

Philosophical Investigations is the primary text used in discussing family resemblances, even though the topic appears also in other works by Wittgenstein, notably The Brown Book.[17] Many contributions to the discussion are by people involved in philosophical research but concerned with more pragmatic questions such as taxonomy [4] or information processing.[18] Hans Sluga has observed that "the notion of family resemblance... draws on two quite different sets of ideas, two different vocabularies, but treats them as if they were one and the same. The first is the vocabulary of kinship, of descent, of some sort of real and causal connection.. the second is that of similarity, resemblance, affinity and correspondence."[19]

The main focus for criticism is[citation needed] 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.[citation needed] Admittedly infinity is only potential [clarification needed] but for any finite family some common element can be pointed out, especially if relational properties are taken into consideration.[examples needed] 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.[20][further explanation needed]

See also


  1. ^ Wittgenstein, Ludwig (2001) [1953]. Philosophical Investigations. Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 0-631-23127-7. 
  2. ^ Sluga H., Family Resemlance, Grazer Philosophische Studien 71 (2006) 1; see also A Wittgenstein Dictionary, ed. H.-J. Glock, London:Blackwell 1996
  3. ^ Wittgenstein L.,(1998) Culture and Value, London:Blackwell, p 14. Spengler's influence in this and other forms has been considered in papers published after this collection of notes became available, see e.g. DeAngelis W., "Wittgenstein and Spengler," Dialogue 33 (1994):41–61
  4. ^ a b Winsor M., 2003, Non-essentialist methods in pre-Darwinian taxonomy, Biology and Philosophy 18 (2003) 387–400
  5. ^ a b c 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. ^ see Griffin, N.: 1974, Wittgenstein, Universals and Family Resemblance, Canadian Journal of Philosophy III,635–651
  8. ^ Andersen H.,:2000, Kuhn's account of family resemblance, Erkenntnis 52: 313–337
  9. ^ Kuhn, T. (2012) 'The Structure of Scientific Revolutions', p. 45. Fourth (Anniversary) Edition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2012.
  10. ^ Weitz M., The Role of Theory in Aesthetics, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 62 (1953): 27.
  11. ^ Kaufman D., Family resemblances Relationism and the meaning of "art", British Journal of Aesthetics, vol. 47, No. 3, July 2007 doi:10.1093/aesthj/aym008 [1]
  12. ^ Bambrough, R.: 1961, Universals and Family Resemblance, Proc. Aris. Soc. 61, 207–22
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ Couchman, Justin J.; Coutinho, M. V. C.; Smith, J. D. (2010). "Rules and Resemblance: Their Changing Balance in the Category Learning of Humans (Homo sapiens) and Monkeys (Macaca mulatta)". Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes. 36 (2): 172–183. PMC 2890302Freely accessible. PMID 20384398. doi:10.1037/a0016748. 
  16. ^ The connection between rule following and applying or extending a concept has been noted early in the discussion of family resemblances, see e.g. Pompa L., 'Family resemblance: a reply', The Philosophical Quarterly, 18 (1968) 347
  17. ^ Wittgenstein L., The Blue and Brown Books, London: Blackwell (1958);I 68, 17, 73
  18. ^ Blair D., Wittgenstein, Language and Information, Berlin:Springer, 2006, ISBN 978-1-4020-4112-9
  19. ^ Sluga H., Family Resemlance, Grazer Philosophische Studien 71 (2006) 14
  20. ^ Resemblance Nominalism. In N. Bunnin & J. Yu [Eds.] (2004). The Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy. Accessed Online at:


  • Wittgenstein, Ludwig (2001) [1953]. Philosophical Investigations. Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 0-631-23127-7. 
  • Andersen H.,: 2000, Kuhn's account of family resemblance, Erkenntnis 52: 313–337
  • Bambrough, R.: 1961, Universals and Family Resemblance, Proc. Arist. 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.
  • Drescher, F.: 2017, Analogy in Thomas Aquinas and Ludwig Wittgenstein. A comparison. New Blackfriars. doi:10.1111/nbfr.12273
  • Ginzburg C.,: 2004, Family Resemblances and Family Trees: Two Cognitive Metaphors, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 30, No. 3 (Spring 2004), pp. 537–556
  • 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
  • Kaufman D.: 2007, Family resemblances Relationism and the meaning of "art", British Journal of Aesthetics, vol. 47, No. 3, July 2007, doi:10.1093/aesthj/aym008
  • 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.

External links

  • Lois Shawver's comments on Philosophical Investigations §65-9 [2]
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