Family Games

Early on in the Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein offers his famous example of games to show how many things are united in name by similarities not underscored by any single common feature. He writes:

Consider, for example, the activities that we call “games”. I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, athletic games, and so on. What is common to them all? — Don’t say: “They must have something in 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 won’t see something that is common to all, but similarities, affinities […] I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances”; for the various resemblances between members of a family a build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, and so on and so forth — overlap and criss-cross in the same way. — And I shall say: ‘games’ form a family (§§ 66–7).

It has since been customary amongst philosophers to talk of some concepts being ‘family resemblance concepts’. This is problematic, but not for the reasons that Wittgenstein’s detractors assume. The most famous of these is Bernard Suits, who in his playful book The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia states that Wittgenstein ‘saw very little’ before putting forward what he takes to be an adequate definition of ‘ game’ in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions shared by anything worthy of the name.

The book takes the form of stories designed to support his definition:

To play a game is to attempt to achieve a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by rule, where the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favour of less efficient means, and where the rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity.

He abbreviates the above to the shorter:

[P]laying a game is a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.

This short sentence is fondly quoted by many as a knock-down refutation of Wittgenstein’s prized example. It is usually accompanied by the thought — explicitly rejected by Suits himself — that if games can be given such a simple and meaningful definition, the very concept of a family resemblance concept must be bogus. Yet both of Suits’ (arguably non-identical) definitions are non-starters, for the very reasons that bothered Wittgenstein in the first place.

Why insist that the attempts must be either voluntary or even accepted? Most of the game-playing in my life has occurred during PE class and family Christmases and you have my word, dear reader, that almost none of it was voluntary and the rules were frequently questioned.

One might object that I am using ‘voluntary’ in a different sense to Suits. If so, this would only suggest that ‘voluntary’ is also resistant to attempts at definitional analysis (attempts which, incidentally, add up to nothing more than philosophical game-playing, on Suits’ own short definition).

It is worth remembering, at this point, that it was a clash between Ryle and Austin over the meaning of ‘voluntarily’ which led Benson Mates to throw down the gauntlet to Stanley Cavell, inviting him to defend Oxford linguistic philosophy against empirical semantics (an early version of experimental philosophy) at the 1957 Christmas meeting of the American Philosophical Society. Cavell’s address resulted in his magisterial paper ‘Must We Mean What We Say?’, whose title question is pregnant with ambiguity.


As for overcoming unnecessary obstacles, this would seem to include all sorts of adventures (from white water rafting to mountain hikes) that hardly count as games. Conversely, games as diverse as chase, pass-the-ball, and chocolate Russian roulette don’t involve the overcoming of any obstacle whatsoever (whether genuine Russian roulette counts as a game is a moot point). Perhaps the problem is that the concept of an obstacle is no more straightforward than those of games and voluntariness.

This brings us to a worry about the very expression ‘family resemblance concept’. Wittgenstein himself never used this phrase, for good reason. It suggests a special sub-class of concepts that stubbornly refuse analysis. The implication seems to be that there is something special about such concepts that distinguishes them from ordinary ones. But it is only precise technical concepts that are immune from the open fluidity of everyday language. It’s no wonder, then, that philosophers cannot even agree on the definition of ‘water’ or ‘book’. This is no cause for despair, just a reason to keep the plurality of interrelated senses of any given word in mind, in lieu of theorising about the essence of things.

Despite all this, the metaphor of family resemblance is a peculiar one for Wittgenstein to have chosen. As Richard Beardsmore argues in ‘The Theory of Family Resemblances’, members of human families resemble each other because they are related; games, by contrast, form families because they resemble each other. The order of explanation has been completely reversed. If there is anything to the family analogy it’s the fact that families themselves, like concepts, have no clear borders. We can talk of the family of Wittgenstein if we like, just as we can talk of the concept of a game, but we should not let this mislead us into thinking that we cannot sensibly make a more refined distinction between overlapping families, be they human or conceptual. We thus have two reasons to abandon the notion of a family resemblance concept, neither of which are good news for critics of Wittgenstein’s philosophical bent.


A version of this essay is forthcoming in The Philosopher’s Magazine

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