Family resemblance  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Family resemblance (German Familienähnlichkeit) is a philosophical idea made popular by Ludwig Wittgenstein, with the best known exposition being given in the posthumously published book Philosophical Investigations (1953) It has been suggested that Wittgenstein picked the idea and the term from Nietzsche, who had been using it, as many nineteenth century philologists, when discoursing about language families. 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, in the writings of Vygotsky or Tatarkiewicz.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Family resemblance" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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