Pictures, Parables, Paradoxes
Edited By András Benedek and Kristóf Nyíri
The Thread and the Chain “Family Resemblances” and the Possibility of Non-Essentialist Conceptual Structure
The Thread and the Chain
“Family Resemblances” and the Possibility of Non-Essentialist Conceptual Structure
In this paper I propose an interpretation of Wittgenstein’s idea of family resemblances. Beginning with Wittgenstein’s metaphors of the thread and the chain, put forward in his Philosophical Investigations and Philosophical Grammar, respectively,1 I interpret Wittgenstein’s idea in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions for concept-application. The central thesis of my paper is that there are both necessary and sufficient conditions for application of family resemblance concepts. Hence, my interpretation is essentially anti-decisionist. The difference between Wittgensteinian concepts and Platonic concepts consists in the fact that the latter, unlike the former, have individually necessary and jointly sufficient application conditions. Still, the lack of these conditions is not exclusively characteristic for family resemblance concepts. I will therefore compare Wittgensteinian concepts with some other kinds of concepts that have a similar “loose” structure.
Wittgenstein’s idea of family resemblances represents a model of conceptual structure alternative to the traditional Platonic view that every concept has strictly determined application conditions. According to Platonist western thought, as well as the common-sense perspective, there is a crucial relation between the concept of a certain thing and essential characteristics of that thing. Plato’s dialogues give us probably the best example for that. In his dialogues Plato is always looking for a definition of some X: what is justice, knowledge, beauty, etc? He always presupposes there has to be something common for all...
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