Against Family Resemblance


Against Family Resemblance



After the well-known section on games in Philosophical Investigations(section 66), Wittgenstein writes: “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, color of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way. And I shall say: ‘games’ form a family.”[1](67) He then goes on to suggest that the kinds of numbers “form a family in the same way”. He gives no further examples, though he employs the concept to characterize language: “I am saying that these phenomena [linguistic phenomena] have no one thing in common which makes us use the same word for all, but that they are relatedto one another in many different ways.” (65) There is not much to go on here, given how important the notion of family resemblance is to Wittgenstein’s later philosophy, but I think we have enough to raise some serious objections to what he says. I am going to argue that the concepts in question are not family resemblance concepts, and indeed that there are not and cannot be any such concepts.  The whole idea is a mistake—and not for any particularly profound reasons. Wittgenstein’s laconic remarks are full of errors, confusions, and non-sequiturs.

The first point I want to make is that the concept of a family resemblance concept is not itself a family resemblance concept. Consider the class of family resemblance concepts—say, game, number, languageand art(not mentioned by Wittgenstein): do they have any common feature? Yes, they are all such as not to be defined by a common feature but by a series of overlapping similarities—that is the common feature they all share. Wittgenstein has given us a general definition of the term “family resemblance concept” such that anything denoted by it satisfies that definition; it is not just that the concepts are similar in certain ways, as games are said to be. So we know there is at least one non-family resemblance concept, viz. family resemblance concept. This is a bit ironic and certainly not noted by Wittgenstein: it should make us wonder about the generality of the idea. It renders contradictory the claim (not made by Wittgenstein) that all concepts are family resemblance concepts, since thatconcept isn’t a family resemblance concept. It also raises the question of how widespread family resemblance is according to Wittgenstein, and why it has the extension it does. Does he think it is limited to the examples he mentions? And what is it about these examples that requires the use of family resemblance concepts instead of common feature concepts? It would be odd if such a heterogeneous group were the only instances of the phenomenon, with all other concepts proudly possessing uniting common features. The notion doesn’t seem to have been systematically thought out and looks suspiciously ad hoc.

Now consider what is meant by “family resemblance” (elsewhere Wittgenstein speaks of “family likeness” and we could also say “family similarity”). This is not the same notion as that of belonging to the same family: that is a matter of parentage and genetic transmission, and is presumably not counted by Wittgenstein as a family resemblance concept. He is talking about various observable traits typically shared by members of the same biological family, as his list suggests. He doesn’t confine the notion to visual appearances, since he includes temperament, and he could have included aptitudes, intelligence, religious beliefs, etc. There are a great many respects of similarity between human beings. Nor does the notion coincide with membership in a biological family: some members of a family are not similar to any other members, and some people from outside the family look just like people in it. The class of people who are notably similar to members of a given family is distinct from the class of people actually making up the family. These are really completely different concepts. In fact, Wittgenstein need not have invoked familyresemblance at all; he could have just spoken about similarity in general. Take three cars, a,b, and c, where aand bhave the same color but are not the same model, while band care the same model but not the same color. Car a is similar to car bin respect of color but not similar to car cin that respect, whileband care similar in respect of model but not color.[2]Thus we see the non-transitivity of similarity: ais similar to band bis similar to c, but ais not similar to c. The same could be true of individuals exhibiting family resemblance. So Wittgenstein is really drawing attention to the way the concept of similarity works—not a very startling insight. The question is whether similarity relations can ground a unified concept.

Notice that there is no unified (non-disjunctive) concept that corresponds to the list Wittgenstein offers. What concept do we have that expresses likeness of eyes, mouth, gait, and temperament? We might try to manufacture a concept, say Smith-ish, to characterize a certain family’s appearance, where not all members of the Smith family are Smith-ish and some non-members are Smith-ish: but this a pretty feeble concept with little internal unity. And the reason for that is that mere similarity in a respect is no basis for a concept, since everythingis similar to a given thing in somerespect. The class is simply too heterogeneous to be worth picking out. This is not so for the concept of a family, which is far more constrained; and one can’t help suspecting that Wittgenstein’s choice of familysimilarity illicitly trades on this other source of conceptual unity. For familyis a unified (common feature) concept while family resemblanceis not—it could include members of (say) my family as well as assorted people distributed across the globe who look or behave like me in some respect or other. To look like someone that looks like Winston Churchill is no basis for a usable concept (it includes certain breeds of dog or even clouds). That is why there simply is no concept that corresponds to Wittgenstein’s list. It amounts to an uninteresting disjunction: xlooks like a member of family Fif and only if xeither has the eyes of For the nose of For the mouth or the gait or the temperament or the size or the color or the religious beliefs of F, etc.

Then what are we to say about Wittgenstein’s alleged examples—aren’t theyexisting unified concepts that are characterized merely by non-transitive similarity? The question is whether games are linked by nothing butfamily resemblance: is there really nothing they have in common? Two points may be made. First, Bernard Suits’ analysis of the concept of a game refutes this contention: a game is a rule-governed activity in which the player voluntarily chooses an inefficient means to achieve the goal of the game. I won’t go into this here; it has been amply discussed elsewhere.[3]What I will say is that the existence of such an analysis is entirely predictable, given the unity of the concept of a game and the complete lack of unity exhibited by the pattern of similarities and dissimilarities to which Wittgenstein draws attention. Second, why can’t we say that what is in common to all games is that they are all games? That is, we treat the concept of a game as primitive and unanalyzable (we might add that all games are played). Consider the concept of a line: there are all sorts of lines—long, short, squiggly, curved, straight, open, closed, etc.—and it is hard to find one such feature that all lines share. So is the concept of a line a family resemblance concept? Why not say—what seems obvious—that the concept of a line is primitive and cannot be explained in other terms? Wittgenstein appears to be presupposing that if a concept isn’t analyzable it must be a family resemblance concept—he conveniently forgets about the possibility that it is indefinable. Compare color and shape concepts: here too we have a great variety of things that fall under these concepts and no possibility of unifying them by citing a specific color or shape. So what? Why not accept that the concepts colorand shapehave no non-circular definition, yet apply to very heterogeneous extensions? The same goes for animalor particle: these come in great variety too and it is hard to define the concepts in non-circular fashion—but why leap to the idea of family resemblance instead of accepting indefinability? And notice that Wittgenstein never cites such examples, presumably because it is obvious that the indefinability response is plausible. So we are certainly not compelled to accept the family resemblance theory—even if it were coherent—in order to handle the case of games. In fact, the concept of a game has sources of unity quite other than that (dubiously) provided by family resemblance.

The case of numbers is even more glaring, and it seems distinctly odd for Wittgenstein to choose this example to illustrate his thesis. What do cardinal numbers, rational numbers, and real numbers have in common? Well, we could just say they are all numbersand admit that the concept cannot be defined; or we could note that all numbers are subject to mathematical operations such as addition, subtraction, and division–or that they come in different sizes, belong in number series, and can be used for measuring and counting. There is actually a lotthey have in common. More adventurously, we might also add that they all admit of set-theoretic construction. You might as well say that organisms have nothing in common or chemical compounds or trees or houses. True, there is a lot of variety in those classes, but that doesn’t preclude a common feature—either expressed by the concept in question or by some analysis of it. Wittgenstein never makes a convincing case for the thesis that any of these concepts mustbe treated as family resemblance concepts. Nor can such a treatment confer the kind of unity possessed by these concepts. How, say, can Wittgenstein explain the fact that golf is a game but hitting stones with sticks to clear a patch of land is not? There is an obvious similarity between these activities, yet one is clearly a game and the other is definitely not.[4]Similarity in some respect is a hopelessly weak relation to ground a concept, because it is so cheaply obtained. A different principle of grouping is needed.

What about language? There are certainly different dimensions of similarity among words: words can sound alike but not mean alike and vice versa, for example. But is there really nothing they have in common? Don’t they all contribute to forming sentences, and don’t all sentences have meaning and grammar? By all means let’s recognize the variety of linguistic forms, but why deny that anything can be said more generally? Aren’t all words and sentences usable in acts of communication? Isn’t human language a species-specific biologically given trait with infinite potential? There is plenty we can say generally about language. True, it is a mistake to suppose that every sentence expresses a proposition, as the Tractatusclaimed, but there is no need to go to the other extreme and declare that there is no common feature at all to language. Moreover, many things that don’t belong to language are similar to things that do, so similarity alone cannot be grounds for inclusion under the concept. The screeching of tires could sound like a cry for help, but it isn’t a part of language. The humming of a bee’s wings is not part of its language, though its dances are; and our dances are similar to theirs but not part of our language. Mere similarity to a paradigm in some respect is nothing to the point.[5]

In sum: there are no good examples of family resemblance concepts; the notion is incoherent; and the concept itself is not an instance of itself.



[1]Why he puts the word “games” in inverted commas here I don’t know, since he clearly means to be talking about games not the word “games”: but let that pass.

[2]He might also have spoken of racial resemblance where much the same pattern of similarities and differences obtains.

[3]See Bernard Suits, The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia(1978). I discuss the matter in Truth By Analysis: Games, Names, and Philosophy(2012), chapter 2.

[4]Compare Suits’ remark: “For if family resemblance were the reason they are nearly all called games, then it would be puzzling, I submit, why a cop chasing a robber is notcalled a game.” (173)

[5]It is notable that when Wittgenstein is trying to explain his notion of a family resemblance concept he falls back on metaphors in order to capture conceptual unity, specifically the metaphor of a thread made up of overlapping fibers. But this does nothing to render his theory intelligible, since it is just a metaphor.


Modal Objectivism




Modal Objectivism



It is now almost fifty years since Kripke made his celebrated distinction between epistemic and metaphysical necessity.[1]He pointed out that not all necessary truths are known a priori: for example, it is not a priorithat this table is made of wood, but it is a necessary truth—this very table could not have been made of plastic. Similarly for water and H2O, heat and molecular motion, a person and his origin, an animal and its species, etc. Since these necessities are not a priorithey are not analytic, i.e. a consequence of the concepts involved. Thus it follows that they do not depend on our concepts: they do not arise from the content of our thoughts or the meaning of our words. To that extent they are not mind-dependent. It would be tempting to conclude that Kripke established the objectivity of necessary truths: he established that there are necessary facts obtaining independently of minds. This table would necessarily be made of wood even in the absence of human beings and their minds (or any other form of intelligence). Kripke certainly talks this way, without making explicit that he is affirming modal objectivity. If necessity doesn’t depend on our concepts, but on “the world”, doesn’t it follow that it obtains independently of minds? And isn’t it intuitively obvious that water is necessarily H2O whether or not anyone refers to or thinks about water?Likewise, isn’t it obvious that water is only contingently found on earth whether or not anyone talks about water? Aren’t these objective modal facts once we distinguish them from analytic and a prioritruths? So doesn’t Kripke’s distinction establish modal objectivity? I certainly have assumed as much for the last fifty years.

But the matter is not so obvious on reflection: for there are other ways to formulate modal subjectivism than by equating necessity with analytic or a prioritruth. So the correctness of Kripke’s distinction does not entailmodal objectivism. For instance, one might claim that modality consists in dispositions to produce impressions of modality—as color consists in dispositions to produce impressions of color.[2]Thus for this table to be necessarily made of wood is for it to be disposed to cause in subjects the impression that it is necessarily made of wood. If that were so, the necessity would not be mind-independent; in the absence of minds there would be no such modal fact (compare colors). In other words, if modal properties were secondary qualities they would not be objective. And to be a secondary quality is not to be a priorior analytic: it is not a priorior analytic that this table is brown, but being brown is mind-dependent (assuming the dispositional analysis of color). Thus modal subjectivism is logically compatible with accepting Kripke’s distinction. For all Kripke has said, modality is entirely in the mind not in the world, de mentenot de re. Similarly, someone who believes that necessity arises from our practices of individuation will also reject strong modal objectivism, since necessity will then depend on the human agent. Suppose it is claimed that we individuate the table by means of its composition not by its location (since it moves around) and that is why we rate its composition as necessary. Such a theorist would be committed to a mind-dependent view of so-called metaphysical necessity. The impression of necessity is a function of our practice of identifying and re-identifying objects; there is no more to it than those practices. Or again, suppose the theorist is an expressivist in a variety of domains (ethics, aesthetics, probability) and wishes to apply this doctrine to modality, holding that “This table is necessarily made of wood” merely expresses an attitude about the table not a fact about it. It is a fact that the table is made of wood but not a fact that it is necessarilymade of wood—that is no more an objective fact than the “fact” that torture is wrong. Both are expressions of human sensibility. Such a view implies that modality is not an objective matter—a matter of facts obtaining independently of human sensibility. But it is not the doctrine that all necessity is a priori. Modal subjectivism can take other forms.

Now it is not that I take any of these views seriously: I am a convinced objectivist about the metaphysics of metaphysical necessity. I am merely indicating a gap in the argument for modal objectivism. The question is how to close this gap, given that Kripke’s distinction isn’t sufficient. And here the matter grows murkier—more profound, if you will. For it is not clear how to argue for the objectivist position: we have here a clash of basic intuitions. The modal subjectivist can’t see how objective reality could contain modal ingredients to be set beside tables, piece of wood, particle and planets–as she can’t see how values can exist objectively alongside facts. The modal objectivist prefers a more expansive view of reality and recoils at the idea of consigning necessity to the subjective world. How can we decide between these views? It is no use appealing to intuitions about what reality would contain in the absence of minds, because those intuitions are likely to conflict according to philosophical predilection. However, there is a type of argument that can at least focus the issue—and which to my mind settles it in favor of objectivism. This is what we can call an inversionargument, familiar from discussions of color. What if Martians see as green what we see as red—would they be wrong? Intuitively the answer is no: they would simply see the same objects differently. Objects have color only relative to a chosen class of perceivers, not in themselves. By contrast, if Martians see as circular what we see as rectangular, one of us would have to be wrong—because shape is objective. Where does modality fall? What if Martians were under the impression that the table is contingently made of wood and necessarily located in a certain place—would that just be a matter of their subjective response, true relative to them? I think not: they would be wrong so to suppose. Clearlylocation is not an essential property of the object, and clearlycomposition is. Likewise, it is not a relative matter whether water is necessarily H2O and contingently in my cup—anyone who thought otherwise would be wrong. The same point can be made about the expressivist and the enthusiast of individuation: inversion does not preserve truth. Modality does not track response; it can falsify response. Modal truth is not response-dependent. So now we have an argument in favor of modal objectivism and can relax into the mode of speech Kripke found so natural, in which we speak of necessity as de re, in the world, an aspect of objective reality. The table in itself is necessarily made of wood no matter what anyone thinks, and water is necessarily H2O irrespective of anyone’s impression. Even if no intelligent beings had ever existed de renecessities would still exist, and contingencies too. Not only is necessity independent of concepts; it is independent of anything mental. Not only are there metaphysical necessities; there are objective metaphysical necessities.[3]


[1]Naming and Necessity(1972); originally given as lectures in 1970.

[2]Hume provides the locus classicusof this type of view: causal necessity consists of nothing more than our habit of moving mentally from cause to effect when exposed to constant conjunctions—we project causal necessity onto the world. At least that was the traditional interpretation of Hume, which I reject (along with many Hume scholars): the correct view is that he believed in objective causal necessity but thought we could have no adequate idea of it, though we do have a kind of surrogate idea deriving from our inner inclinations. At any rate, the traditional interpretation gives a model for the type of subjectivism I am interested in describing (but not endorsing).

[3]It is completely unclear to me from Kripke’s text whether he subscribes to modal objectivism as a piece of metaphysics, since he says nothing explicitly on the question; but his general style of talking indicates that he would accept it.


The Concept of Meaning

The concept of meaning is recalcitrant to analysis, elucidation, or theory. There is almost no consensus about what constitutes meaning. We possess the concept, but we don’t know what to say about it—it is opaque to us. Thus we are treated to a wide variety of opposed suggestions: mental images, dispositions to behavior, truth conditions, verification conditions, criteria, possible worlds, functions, intentions, use, modes of presentation, mental models, nothing at all. Compare the concept of knowledge: there is wide agreement that knowledge is a type of true belief. Granted, there are differences of opinion, especially when it comes to filling out the idea of true belief, but the involvement of truth and belief are not contested. Our concept of knowledge makes this clear to us; it is not a complete cipher. But the concept of meaning is silent about itself, or speaks with many voices. We don’t know what it entails. We search for a central concept with which to understand it, say the concept of truth, but soon encounter difficulties with sentences that are not truth-bearers (imperatives, questions, exclamations, performatives, ejaculations), among other difficulties. In the case of knowledge the concept of truth is clearly central, but in the case of meaning it is only disputably so—hardly a necessary condition of meaning.

Why does the concept of meaning contrast so strikingly with the concept of knowledge? They are both concepts we possess, yet one is relatively transparent and the other maddeningly opaque. Indeed, it is hard to think of a concept of philosophical interest that is quite as opaque as the concept of meaning—quite as fundamentally contentious. Take belief, intention, necessity, causation, truth, free will, and consciousness: at least there is some consensus here—all is not darkness. People know what they are talking about, more or less. Why then is meaning so obscure, elusive, and slippery? Take the locution “x knows that s means that p”: we know what  “know” means in this type of sentence, but when it comes to “means” we are brought up short. Thus we have a meta-puzzle about the puzzle of meaning: the puzzle of why is it so puzzling? Why is the puzzle a puzzle? It ought not to be, given that the concept is very familiar to us, but apparently it is. What is the concept of meaning such that it is puzzling in the way it is? Phonetics and syntax are not similarly puzzling, so why is semantics so up in the air? Why is the theory of meaning such a quagmire? Wittgenstein veered sharply from a truth conditions theory in the Tractatus to a use “theory” in the Investigations: how did the concept of meaning make that possible? How could it give rise to such contradictory intimations?

The question has not been asked, so far as I know, but possible answers suggest themselves. It might be said that the word “meaning” is ambiguous: the reason no single central concept carries the day is that the word signifies quite different things. Likewise, there is no satisfactory theory of banks, if we insist on supposing that “bank” is univocal: x is a bank if and only if x is a river with money floating in it! When we say “Snow is white” has meaning in the same sense that “Shut the door!” has meaning we speak erroneously; rather, these two types of sentence mean in different senses. I don’t know of anyone who has ever propounded such an ambiguity thesis, but it is surely implausible in the extreme, for reasons too obvious to be worth going into. More plausible is the idea that “meaning” is a family resemblance term, so that the search for a single definition of meaning is misguided. Some meanings are constituted by truth conditions and some by verification conditions, while some have their meaning by dint of use, or the association of mental images. Thus the different theories that have been proposed are correct for some varieties of meaning but not for all; we have here the familiar philosophical vice of overgeneralization. Again, I don’t know that anyone has ever held this view—certainly not Wittgenstein in the form just described (he held that all meaning is use). Or again, it might be suggested that “meaning” is an empty term and the concept of meaning a pseudo-concept: that’s why we can’t come up with an adequate theory of it. There is nothing for the theory of meaning to be a theory of, so the wheels are turning in a vacuum. How can there be agreement about the content of a concept that has no determinate content? This account of the puzzle is also hard to swallow: words and sentences certainly seem to mean something, even if we find it hard to say what this consists in. But there does seem to be something in the idea that the concept is exceptional in some way—that it is a concept of a certain type—and that this type precludes it from the usual kind of analytic treatment. It is a concept that belongs in a different category from the concept of knowledge and similar concepts. We are mistaking the category and then cudgeling our brains over how it should be analyzed. Let’s pursue this hint.

The dictionary is always a useful point of departure. The OED gives this definition for “meaning”: “what is meant by a word, text, concept, or action”. The broad scope of the word “meaning” is registered here, though the definition looks disappointingly circular, what with the word “meant” occurring in it. However, the definition does offer the suggestion that meaning should be understood in the context of what is meant by agents—those who utter words, write texts, possess concepts, and perform actions. For x to have meaning is for x to be meant in a certain way by agents. Presumably, this relation is a type of action or process or event; so what has meaning is what is usable to mean something in such acts, etc. But what is it for an agent to mean something? The dictionary doesn’t say, but we can: it is to employ a symbol in order to communicate—to get something across, to convey something to somebody. This is a highly neutral description with nothing specific contained in it—nothing about truth or verification or images or dispositions or criteria or use. Meaning is simply what is meant when people communicate. This could include gestures and facial expressions (“She gave him a meaning look”) as well as elements of grammar or signs of arithmetic. Notice that there is no requirement for all the things that can be meant to resemble each other, either by sharing a common property or by dint of family resemblance. There need not be anything in virtue of which the class of things that can be meant mean what they do; the class is united merely by its relation to agents. So, in particular, the class is not united by the property of having truth conditions or verification conditions, but merely by being usable in a certain way, i.e. to get something across.[1] This is not to say that meaning is use in the manner of Wittgenstein; it is just to say that meaning is a matter of getting things across by employing some kind of symbolic entity or other. This isn’t a theory of meaning, just an indication of its scope and context. The question of interest here is whether this definition of “meaning” resolves our puzzle.

Consider the concept of furniture. The OED defines “furniture” as “the movable articles that are used to make a room or building suitable for living or working in, such as tables, chairs, or desks”. Notice that this is not a family resemblance concept: there is no suggestion that all items of furniture have any such resemblance. Rather, the class of items is determined by the use the items are put to, supplemented with some examples. We could call it a functional concept, except that would align it with the concept of biological function. I prefer to call it a “collectivity concept” because it gathers together a widely heterogeneous collection of items according to how they are used (“suitable for living”). It would obviously be a mistake to try to define this class by fastening onto certain of its members, as if the shape of chairs (say) could define it. This would give rise to pointless controversies as other theorists select a different subset of furniture items (beds, say, instead of chairs). It is not that furniture has a hidden essence not apparent on the surface to be discovered by empirical methods. Furniture has no nature beyond what the dictionary definition specifies. It is not like water or heat—or even knowledge. Nor is the concept elusive or obscure, though it may be vague and interest-relative. Well, the concept of meaning is like that—a collectivity concept held together by what agents mean (strive to communicate). There is no property with a submerged nature that we might investigate and articulate. Items with meaning might well have properties with such natures—such as truth conditions or verification conditions—but these properties are not what meaning in general is. There are no identity statements of the form “Meaning is X”, where X might be truth conditions or verification conditions (or use, etc.). There are many properties in virtue of which an item can be meaningful, but none of these is what meaning is. There are many properties in virtue of which an item can be an instance of furniture, but none of these is what being furniture is (e.g. being shaped to fit the human body). I will put this point by saying that the concept of meaning is a collectivity concept not a property concept, acknowledging the inadequacy of these portmanteau terms. The intuitive idea is that meaning is not a single attribute common to all meaningful items but what items come to have when agents use them to get things across.

The point of this proposal is to explain why the theory of meaning takes the form that it does. We are taking a concept of one type and assuming that it is of another type—a category error. We search for a single central concept because we assume that meaning is a property that meaningful items have—like the property of knowledge. It is true that meaning involves various properties, such as truth conditions, but it involves many properties, so that it cannot be united by any one of them. So there cannot really be a theory of meaning, i.e. a specification of what all meaningful items have in common (including use). The concept of meaning is not the concept of any property or trait of the sort proposed by putative theories of meaning, just as the concept of furniture is not the concept of any property or trait of items of furniture such as comfort or human shape or intentional design or location in the home. We tend to think the concept belongs to the same category as the concept of knowledge or belief or intention, which do have a uniform nature, but in fact, it is like the concept of furniture or tool, whose principle of unity is quite different. In effect, we are reifying the concept—taking it to connote something over and above using a symbol to get something across. Asking the question, “What is meaning?” or “What does meaning consist in?” invites the kind of category error I am diagnosing. Better to ask, “In virtue of what does this act of meaning work?” Then we can specify what property is being exploited in the act of meaning, such as truth conditions, verification conditions, felicity conditions, intensions, extensions, images, conventional use, etc. It is not that the word “meaning” is ambiguous between these various properties, any more than “furniture” is ambiguous between chairs and beds; rather, these words connote collections of things united by patterns of human employment, namely in living and communicating. There cannot therefore be a general theory of meaning of the kind that people have sought. To be specific, the idea that meaning is truth conditions is a category mistake. There can be theories of truth conditions  (like Tarski’s theory of truth) but there cannot be theories of meaning, not because they are false and some other type of theory is true, but because it is misguided to seek theories of meaning to begin with.[2] So it isn’t that the concept of meaning is maddeningly opaque but rather that we misconstrue what kind of concept it is. Semantics isn’t so controversial because the concept of meaning has a content that we can’t easily access; rather, it’s because the concept has no such content, being what I am calling a collectivity concept. This resolves the puzzle.


[1] Much the same point can be made about the meaning of individual words: names have meaning and so predicates, but there doesn’t have to be anything else they have in common that makes them usable in acts of communication, such as a denotation. There is no theory of meaning common to names and predicates, only the fact that both compose sentences that can be used to communicate, i.e. be meant in a certain way. It would be a mistake to cudgel our brains in the search for the common semantic property possessed by different categories of expression (compare chair legs and chair seats).

[2] In a sense the position defended here is more Wittgensteinian than Wittgenstein. He took language and meaning to be family resemblance concepts, assuming genuine resemblance, and opposed this to a common essence view. I am suggesting a view on which there is no resemblance at all between different meaningful items, but only a similarity of employment. We can thus allow that there is nothing remotely alike about facial expressions and sentences–not sound, not grammar, not truth conditions—and yet both count as meaningful items. All we can say to unite them is that both can be used to get things across. Contrast members of a family and people who happen to do the same job: the former look alike, but not the latter. So meaning is even more heterogeneous and unsystematic than Wittgenstein supposed.


Skepticism and Possible Worlds

Picture all the possible worlds laid out in logical space in the style of David Lewis.[1] They all objectively exist just like the actual world—real and concrete entities. There are people in some of them who know about the world they inhabit, as we take ourselves to know about the actual world. Now consider skepticism: the contention that we don’t know much, if anything, about the world we live in. That is, we don’t know much about the actual world—whether it contains material objects or other minds or a future like the past. We can’t be certain what objects, facts, and events constitute the actual world. If the actual world is the totality of facts, we don’t know what this totality is—it might be quite otherwise than what we normally suppose. Maybe it is a totality of facts about a solitary brain in a vat, or a disembodied mind being deceived by an evil demon. The contents and nature of the actual world are subject to skeptical doubt.

But is the same thing true of merely possible worlds? Is it possible to be skeptical about our knowledge of them? Suppose I set out to consider a possible world in which everything is just like the actual world except that it contains one less penguin. Is it possible for a skeptic to question whether I really know that the world I am considering contains one less penguin than the actual world? Can the skeptic say that I have no right to make such a claim because I might be wrong about the contents of that world? Obviously not: I know with certainty that the world in question is as I say it is. It is not that I might be in a situation analogous to a brain in a vat with respect to that possible world. I can’t say, “For all I know, I might be considering a world in which there are 10 more penguins than the actual world”. I can’t be sure how many penguins there are in the actual world, but I can be sure about this question with respect to a possible world. Here I am quite certain of the contents of the world in question. Yet, by hypothesis, possible worlds are existing entities distributed in logical space, just like the actual world. So there is an epistemological asymmetry between the equally real actual world and all the possible worlds: the former is subject to skepticism while the latter are not. There is no such thing as skepticism with regard to our knowledge of possible worlds. Possible worlds are transparent to us while the actual world is opaque (at least according to the skeptic).[2]

What does this tell us about possible worlds? You might suppose it tells us nothing, ontologically speaking: it just so happens that possible worlds are available to our knowledge in a way the actual world is not. They are still entities just like the actual world, considered intrinsically. Granted, the epistemological asymmetry might be puzzling given the ontological symmetry, but lots of things are puzzling—no need to question the ontology. On the other hand, you might take the asymmetry to demonstrate that possible worlds are merely mental constructions, matters of stipulation, not mind-independent entities—so that our knowledge of them is really knowledge of our own minds. Neither of these responses is attractive, which is why the asymmetry with respect to skepticism is interesting. It poses a philosophical problem. What I would venture to suggest is that it reflects the different roles of perception and imagination in grounding knowledge of worlds. I can coherently say that what I perceive might be otherwise than I perceive it to be, but I can’t say that what I imagine might be otherwise than I imagine it to be.  If I imagine some possible flying pigs, I can’t say, “These pigs I’m imagining might not be flying”—for the possibility I am imagining must be the possibility I seem to be imagining. If I imagine a certain possible world, there can be no doubt about what I am imagining: but the same is not true of perception. This is why the asymmetry exists, because of the different epistemic roles of perception and imagination in producing knowledge of the actual and the possible, respectively. Thus it is that skepticism applies in the one case but not in the other.

A radical response to the asymmetry would be to claim that it shows that realism about possible worlds is more acceptable than realism about the actual world. That is, it is better to believe in entities that can be known than entities that cannot be known. The actual world cannot be known, according to the skeptic—it is entirely conjectural—but possible worlds are transparent to knowledge. The actual world is like an unobservable while possible worlds are like an observable—we can only guess about the former, but the latter are presented to us just as they are. Possibilities are part of the given while actualities are merely “theoretical”. This point of view is not without philosophical interest—and I can see David Lewis’s eyes lighting up at the mention of it—because it turns the tables on dull commonsense realism. It’s the actual world that is philosophically suspect! Possible worlds are entities in good standing, ontologically and epistemologically, while the actual world is riddled with uncertainty. Wouldn’t Descartes welcome possible worlds over the actual world given their indubitable status? Isn’t a skepticism-proof ontology superior to a skepticism-prone ontology? One can imagine a Platonist favoring the possible over the actual, i.e. the ordinary empirical world. Maybe we should just junk the actual world!

Let me put the point another way. It is coherent to say, “The actual world may consist only of brains in vats”, but it is not coherent to say, “All possible worlds may consist only of brains in vats”. The reason is that we know that there certainly are possible worlds that consist of people seeing ordinary objects in their environment in the way we normally suppose; we just don’t know if our world is one such. Thus from an epistemological point of view, we stand in quite a different relation to the actual world and possible worlds—ignorance and knowledge, respectively. This is why there has never been a skeptic about our knowledge of possible worlds: for we can’t misperceive logical space.[3]


[1] See On the Plurality of Worlds (2001).

[2] It is not the same with space and time. Skepticism applies to places other than here and times other than now: the spatially and temporally remote are not privileged over the here and now. But remote possible worlds are known to have just the properties we take them to have.

[3] Of course, people in a possible world can misperceive the world they are in, so that skepticism always gets a purchase on the inhabitants of a world; but outsiders are granted special access to the content of a possible world—they don’t perceive it but conceive (i.e. imagine) it. In a sense, we know more about a possible world than the inhabitants of it know. Of course, we can make modal errors, but we can’t misperceive a possible world once we have it in our sights, since we don’t perceive it to start with. No one has ever seen possible pigs flying, though they are frequently conceived.


Generative Economics

Darwin’s theory of evolution includes two generative components: mutation and natural selection. Mutation generates genetic variants and hence phenotypes; natural selection operates on these to produce differential survival. Neither of these generative processes involves intention or intelligence. Thus we have biological novelty without intentional intelligent design. Both processes are blind and driven by non-mental causes. We have creativity without a creator. But Darwin also recognized what he calls artificial selection, as with the selective breeding of dogs (or horses and flowers). Here human beings intentionally direct the course of evolution according to their own preferences, producing dog breeds that would not arise by natural selection. This is not selection by nature but selection by human design and desire. Of course, the process of generation is still natural not artificial: dog breeders rely on the genes to generate dog variants. They don’t make poodles from scratch; they just interbreed dogs and let the genes do their work. So here we have a case of natural generation and artificial selection to be added to the far more common case of natural generation and natural selection. Dog breeders don’t even know how to generate dog variants artificially; they depend upon natural reproduction.

In principle there could be artificial generation combined with natural selection: a type of intelligence creates an organism and then turns it loose in the world to the tender mercies of nature. You could genetically engineer organisms and then let nature select the good from the bad. In effect that is what happens with many human artifacts: they are intelligently created but left for nature mindlessly to destroy or preserve (as with architectural ruins and plastic bags). What about artificial design combined with artificial selection? Can there be intelligently created entities that are then intelligently selected? Of course, there can: machines created by humans and selected by humans to be used as they see fit. Motorcars are propagated by these two modes of generation: first they are designed and manufactured by the use of intelligence; then they are bought and sold in the marketplace by a process of intelligent selection, intentionally and consciously. So there are four logical possibilities in all: natural generation and natural selection, natural generation and artificial selection, artificial generation and natural selection, and artificial generation and artificial selection. Entities can come into existence and reproduce (or be reproduced) by any of these four methods.

There is something strange in Darwin’s terminology, because so-called artificial selection is itself a natural process. The mind is natural and it is what directs selective breeding; there is nothing super-natural going on here.[1]Bees select flowers and hence direct the course of flower evolution: this is not “artificial”. When humans selectively breed animals for their own purposes this is an aspect of their species-specific nature. It would be better to speak of intentional intelligent selection versus selection that is neither. For intelligence is part of nature too. Still, we can keep the terminology for convenience. The question I am interested in is the nature of economic activity; and what I want to maintain is that economic activity is continuous with biology. It is just another form of biological generation. Now it is true that (so far as I know) other animals don’t engage in economic activity, though it would serve my purpose if they did; but that doesn’t prevent us from imagining such activity in animals. So suppose we encountered a species of bird that manufactures nests that it exchanges with other birds for food. Instead of just building a nest for its own use, it builds nests “for sale”. This has become part of its genetic make-up, as much as nest-building itself. We can think of it as instinctual and automatic, like birdsong, and not as reflective and flexible: birds that exchanged nests for food in the past (as a result of some mutation) did better than birds that kept their nests to themselves. Thus a primitive bird economy develops. In such a case we would say that the entire process is part of the bird’s biological endowment. The “buyer” birds would select nests according to their own criteria and a form of competition might develop, which would lead to a selection process. In just such a way human commerce might have originated: humans capable of exchange do better than humans incapable of it. This would also be as biological as digestion and sexual reproduction, whatever the later elaborations (banks, money). It is a form of social behavior rooted in biological imperatives.

So there are two principles of generation at work here: generating the nests and their being selected. Both are “artificial” in Darwin’s strained sense, since they involved goal-directed action. The bird makes the nest not its genes and other birds do the selecting not brute nature. But this doesn’t exclude the phenomenon from the realm of biology. Or again, consider those ants that enslave other ant populations: these “brood parasites” seize the eggs of other ants and bring them back to their own nest where they carry out the work of their “slave-owners”.  Again, I don’t know of any documented cases of ants that then trade their slaves with other ant slave-owners, but the idea is not beyond reason. What if we encountered an ant species that did just that, perhaps because they were better raiders than their potential trading partners? The “buyers” exchange food for slaves, which they find a bargain. This would be an entirely biological arrangement, not introducing any new non-natural principle into biology. Some ants are natural-born slave-traders! No doubt this is deplorable of them, but it is biologically possible. They thus have a nice little economy going here—a system of exchange trading one sort of good for another.

I don’t think it is farfetched to suggest that human economies are analogous. Perhaps they even arose from some such primitive beginnings way back with our ancient ancestors in Africa. In any case, we can say that human productivity and the capacity for economic exchange are part of our biological nature. It turns out that the biological realm includes more than just natural generation and natural selection (in Darwin’s restricted sense); it includes the kind of intentional intelligent design and exchange that we find in human social groups. We can imagine our remote ancestors exchanging primitive tools for other tools or for food; we now do it with computers and cars. Thus from a lofty philosophical perspective economics is a branch of biology involving the basic twin generative processes: first make the product, then sell the product (ensure it is selected by purchasers). There is no discontinuity between genes and nature, on the one hand, and products and purchasers, on the other. There is a smooth transition from natural selection through artificial selection through economic selection. Darwin also included sexual selection in his list of types of selection; I am adding economic selection. Both of these are selection by conscious agents (peacocks and purchasers), but that doesn’t make them beyond the range of biology. Minds are a part of biology too. The dichotomy of culture and biology is artificial and misleading; economics belongs with both.[2]That is, economic culture is just another type of biological phenomenon. It is the same with business culture: that too is continuous with biology. Specifically, it involves the two generative components I have identified: creating the product and then marketing it, i.e. offering it up for selection by purchasers. The structure is the same. Markets are arenas of voluntary action, to be sure, but that doesn’t put them outside of biology or nature. In particular, economics is a generative science in the sense that biology is: it involves the generation of entities from raw materials and the generation of further entities by means of market forces. Production is like embryogenesis and buying and selling is like the selective survival of the fittest. Products go extinct if no one buys them, as animals go extinct if nature stops selecting them. We might even say that the Darwinian notion of natural competition is modeled on the notion of economic competition. Animals compete with each other in much the same way that products do. And of course the two intersect, as when animals are bought and sold (some breeds do better in the marketplace than others).

Just as Darwin’s theory is a theory of evolutionary change, so too economics is concerned with economic change—with how goods and services succeed each other in time. It is a dynamic science not a static science. The idea of a purely structural economics is a misguided one: economies are changing evolving structures just like animal species. The change can be slow judged by human standards, but the entire biological world is in constant flux; so too is the economic world. Supply and demand are forever changing. From a meta-economic point of view, then, economics shares the basic structure of biology (the same is true of linguistics and psychology—and even philosophy). In linguistics we are used to the idea that a grammar generates an infinite array of sentences—it is not merely a structural description; in economics too we should also think of economic mechanisms as generative—of products and of their adoption. A successful product is very like a thriving organism: there will be many instances of them and they will outperform the competition. This is the theoretical framework to adopt when considering the foundations of economics as a science. Economics is a generative biological science (so it is not like mathematics or logic). Capitalism, say, is a species of economic system that replaced feudalism, as mammals replaced dinosaurs. And it is still evolving into variant forms.

Let me suggest another analogy: verbal communication. A speaker is engaged on two generative tasks: (a) producing a grammatically well-formed sentence and (b) ensuring that she is understood by the hearer. The former does not entail the latter, which requires an additional generative effort—sufficient volume, getting the hearer’s attention, saying something interesting, etc. Similarly, the genes must produce an anatomically well-formed organism and one that will survive the pressures of natural selection—particularly, those arising from competition for resources and mates. Similarly again, a product must not only be functionally well designed but must also achieve market penetration in a competitive economic environment. The entrepreneur is like a speaker striving to be heard in a cacophonous world: she needs a sound product but also the means to be heard by potential consumers. It is necessary to generate supply and demand (hence advertising etc.). Whether an animal will survive depends on the world it confronts as well as on its internal structure; but the same is true of a product. A speaker faces the same problem: first produce a good sentence but then ensure it is heard and understood. You have to create understanding as well as what is understood. These are different (though connected) tasks. So economics is not just a generative science; it is a doubly generative science.[3]


[1]I discuss this in “The Language of Evolution”, Philosophical Provocations(2017).

[2]I defend this view in “Biology and Culture: an Untenable Dualism”.

[3]This essay is a sequel to my earlier essay, “Memes, Behavioral Contagion, and the Zeitgeist”.


Drumming Tutorials

Let me give this more prominence: my demonstration of two new drumming techniques on Youtube. Just go to “Colin McGinn drumming tutorials” on Youtube. My drumming is a bit ropey but you will see the lessons I’m trying to impart.


Memes, Behavioral Contagion, and the Zeitgeist



Memes, Behavioral Contagion, and the Zeitgeist



I want to bring these three concepts together to create a meme that will be contagious and contribute to the zeitgeist.[1]First a quick introduction to our principal players: a meme is an idea or action that spreads analogously to the gene; behavioral contagion is the process whereby the actions of some members of a group are copied by other members of the group; the zeitgeist is the sum of all ideas and patterns of behavior prevalent at a given time in a culture. For example, a meme may be a melody or a catchphrase or a fashion; behavioral contagion occurs when yawning spreads from one person to another or mass hysteria grips a mob; the zeitgeist could be the belief system of medieval Europe or the mind-set of industrial capitalism. I want to say that memes are transmitted by behavioral contagion to form the zeitgeist: that is the basic structure of cultural (ideational) formation. I will generalize the concept of behavioral contagion to include not just behavior but also attitudes and ideas—psychological contagion.[2]Emotions can be propagated through a group as well as actions. The notion of contagion is taken from epidemiology: ideas can spread like a disease caught by social contact. Ideas can “go viral” in the sense that they leap from one mind to another, as bodies are invaded by a virus, leaving their mark as they disseminate. Thus the meme is the unit of transmission, psychological contagion is the method of transmission, and the zeitgeist is the totality of items transmitted. The three concepts all belong together.

We can take the gene as our basic model. The gene is the unit of inheritance, the focus of natural selection, and the driver of embryogenesis; it is fundamental to biology. As we know, it consists of DNA molecules—a certain type of physical structure. The gene is transmitted across generations, passing from one organism to another, somewhat like a germ (indeed biologists call this transmission the “germ-line”). Thus genes have the power to combine in one organism and spread to others. They are “contagious”. Inheritance is therefore the analogue of behavioral contagion—the way items replicate and multiply. Genetic transmission is a copying process just like the spread of fads and fashions, theories and obsessions. There is also the so-called gene pool—the totality of genes characterizing a species at a given time (along with the mega gene pool that includes all the genes on the planet at a given time[3]). This is the biological zeitgeist—the analogue of the “Spirit of the Times”. Thus we can map our three concepts onto concepts drawn from genetics: gene and meme, inheritance and psychological contagion, gene pool and culture pool. This provides a theoretical framework for thinking about cultural formation (as theorists have observed). What I am adding is the completion of the analogy to include means of transmission and to the sum-total of what is transmitted (psychological contagion and zeitgeist, respectively).

There is an abstract theoretical structure here: a replicating entity, a method of transmission from one host organism to another, and a repository of all the items capable of such transmission. Memes and genes are special cases of this abstract structure. Are there any other domains in which the structure applies? Written language appears to exemplify it. Words are the replicating units, which combine into larger units (phrases, sentences); writing is the means by which words are disseminated through the population; and libraries are the totalities that result from this dissemination. Words pass from one mind to another by a process of copying (e.g. “To be or not to be”) and books contain totalities of words. Thus we have word units, word transmission, and word pools. Reading and writing (and publishing) are the means by which words propagate and multiply and fill libraries. Indeed, inverting the analogy, we can describe the genome as a library of genetic verbiage, and embryogenesis as a process of “reading” the books of this library. Words produce copies of themselves by being transmitted between people; and a dictionary is a compendium of all the words of a language at a given time (a “lexeme pool”). As there is a spirit of the time, so there is a biosphere of the time, and a language of the time: replicating units that get transmitted through a population. And these three types of “pool” can have a characteristic shape at a given time—say, a religious shape or a dinosaur shape or an eighteenth-century British shape (see Thackeray and Austen). Certain words and styles of speech can be in vogue, or a certain type of organism dominant, or a particular system of thought communally received. These can mutate and be selected for or against, yielding to new formations (e.g. scientific thought, mammals, contemporary American English). Different domains have different categories of zeitgeist and different units of transmission, but the broad structure is common to all—replicating units, a means of spread, and a currently existing totality of favored items.

Is there anything else that exemplifies this structure? Yes: commodities, products, artifacts, bits of technology, machines. I mean to include a broad range of items here, ranging from motorcars to furniture, clothes to life-styles, food to computers. Things that can be bought and sold: these too can be analyzed in the tripartite way outlined. Take computers (or their parts): these are the units, the economic system is the way they are propagated, and the collection of them at a given time is the technological zeitgeist. The units are manufactured and sold, and they form the state of technology at a given time (the zeitgeist shifted when Apple came along). Behavioral contagion explains their widespread adoption. They are selected for or against in the marketplace. They reflect a given stage of technical and business evolution. Books fill libraries as genes fill genomes; commodities fill warehouses in the same way (and homes and offices). Genes, memes, words, and products: all are subject to the same overarching structure, the same logic. If products can’t be replicated or can’t be distributed, they won’t survive in the marketplace—just like genes or memes. Reproduction and transmission are essential, as is intrinsic quality (lousy TVs are as bad as lousy genes or lousy ideas). And the state of contemporary technology (in the broad sense) reflects the state of the world at that point in time—products come and go, as civilizations do, or animal species, or words. The zeitgeist is perishable and may be superseded by a superior zeitgeist (there are plenty of extinct zeitgeists). Thus we can subsume the business world under our general schema. The entrepreneur is swimming in a sea of replicators, contagion, and time-bound constraints—just like the biologist, the librarian, and the historian of ideas. Survival depends on navigating these waters, and it’s good to know what sea you are floating on and how the current flows. The successful entrepreneur needs to be aware of the conceptual structure that underlies and shapes his or her activities.[4]



[1]The literal translation is “time-spirit”; apparently Hegel preferred “Geist der Zeiten”, i.e. “Spirit of the Times”.

[2]Behavioral contagion belongs with other forms of social influence such as suggestibility, conformism, imitation, social facilitation, copycat behavior, and the like. What I want to emphasize is the more or less automatic absorption of social trends whereby something comes to permeate a population without any rational deliberation. It is sub-rational, below the radar, and sometimes insidious. Often it occurs by the release of inhibition triggered by an aberrant individual, as in copycat shootings or suicides. At the other extreme we have the general adoption of a particular accent. The human mind seems especially susceptible to this kind of subliminal influence. Memes need it to get off the ground and colonize a population—mere reproducibility is not enough. The channel must exist as well as the replicators that flow through it.

[3]The cosmic gene pool would be all the genes existing in the universe.

[4]I intend this to be the first of a series of essays about the theoretical model described, with special reference to the business world.


Against the Argument from Design


Against the Argument from Design


I have a parakeet, Emma, who developed a rather nasty infection about a year ago. Her feet became encrusted with some horrible-looking growth and her beak was discolored and deformed. I took her to the vet who diagnosed a parasite quite common in parakeets (but only in parakeets)—a tiny mite that lives in the feet and beak. A series of injections cured Emma of this ailment by exterminating the invading parasite. This made me think about the argument from design. That argument celebrates the beauty and ingenuity of design found in plants and animals, and argues that only an intelligent designer could explain this excellence of design. It’s like finding a watch in nature and inferring the existence of an intelligent and mighty watchmaker. But don’t parasites put a crimp in that argument? Who would design a creature susceptible to what Emma went through? I don’t mean ethically (though that is a question); I mean rationally. Isn’t it just bad design to make something so vulnerable to breakdown—why not create a parakeet that can’t be hijacked in this way? Suppose the watchmaker constructs a watch that is vulnerable to invasion by a common fungus that clogs up the works when it would be perfectly possible to build in a device that keeps the fungus out. Wouldn’t that be a better design? It is simply unintelligent to design a watch with such a flaw. True, the parakeet itself exhibits excellence of design, but making it the prey of a parasite is a design weakness. It is not that the designer can’t avoid such a flaw because it is an inevitable side effect of good parakeet design; it would be perfectly easy to keep the parasite at bay (after all, no other bird suffers from it). It looks like sloppy workmanship, sheer oversight, rank incompetence. It would be reasonable to infer that there wasno intelligent designer, given the lack of intelligence displayed by the alleged design product. Of course, we know that to be the case, given Darwinian theory—this is just a case of evolved inter-species competition. But what is striking is that the argument from design overlooks such failures of intelligent design, concentrating instead on traits that are good for the animal and beautiful in themselves. There is nothing good or beautiful about the deformed beak and feet suffered by Emma—if that were intentionally installed by a designer, we would think he or she an exceptionally incompetent designer (assuming good intentions). So really the argument from design proves that that there isno intelligent designer of nature—just as Darwin teaches us. From good design we might infer an intelligent designer (except for the alternative explanation provided by Darwin), but from bad design we can only infer the non-existence of an intelligent designer such as God is supposed to be. We might try to refurbish the argument to deliver only sometype of designer, albeit an inept and careless one; but clearly that would not get us to the conclusion envisaged by the classic argument from design. If God designed Emma in such a way as to be susceptible to the mite that plagued and deformed her, he is not the God we had supposed him to be. He is a watchmaker who should be banned from the watchmaking profession. Even if we didn’t have Darwin’s theory to fall back on, the argument from design is therefore flawed on its own terms; if anything it proves that nature is unintelligently designed.[1]


Colin M

[1]Of course, that is just what it is: the process of natural selection is not an intelligence-driven process. It may mimic intelligent design in some respects, but if you look deeper there are signs of the lack of intelligence everywhere (e.g. human anatomy).