Wittgenstein’s Family Relationships

Several years ago, my dad found a picture of my great (or possibly great-great) aunt on his side, whom I resemble closely enough that my younger sister asked when I’d dressed up in Victorian clothes and had my picture taken in sepia.  It amazed me wonderfully, particularly because it usually seems that I took much more after my mum’s side physically; I’ve been mistaken for her, too.

Today we were discussing Wittgenstein’s language theory.  He argues that words do not point directly to things, but have a kind of cloud of meaning around them.  We call various things by the same word, because we perceive some sort of relationship between them.  But it’s not that there’s a common denominator to all the things called by the same word — not all games, he says, have a common denominator, or if they do it’s so general it would apply to most human activity. (One could argue that most human activity can be taken as a game, but that’s another topic.)

Instead, one collection of meanings brushes up against another, pointing to a network of similarities, a family relationship.  That is, board games are a family of games, and, on one side, they run into games of strategy, say, which could lead you from chess to Capture the Flag and thence, via group games, to, say, dodgeball.  In the same way that my own face is my own (has its own meaning, as it were), but yet shares enough common features with two completely different sides of my family, so I can look both very much like my motherand remarkably like my great(-great) aunt from my father’s side.  (And this is not even to get into other aspects of similarity and difference, such as my emotional nature or my tastes or how I tend to think about problems.) 

It’s sort of like a Venn diagram of meanings, except without hard edges.  The meanings, Wittgenstein argues, are formed by how we use and how we behave in response to the use of language.  If I decide to make up a word, it is private, unless I use it in such a way that you come to understand the complex of meanings surrounding it, and accomodate your behaviour — whether your actions or your own words — accordingly.  It doesn’t stay private.

This is one of the functions of creative activity, I think: to make what was (or seemed) entirely private, incommunicable, accessible to expression, and also to oneself.  It’s nonsense to say I know I am in pain, Wittgenstein says; I am in pain.  I may know someone else is in pain.  But yet there are ways we might be feeling something but not realise we are until we see the experience outside of ourselves, can name it, can draw it into the web of family relationships of happiness or pain or hunger or awe.


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