Monthly Archives: September 2015

Family resemblances

“I take after my dad in appearance and my mother in personality,” offered a student who had obviously gotten to grips with this phrasal verb.

“I take after my grandmother because we are both good at cooking,” came a second, accurate example from another member of the class..

“Rugby takes after football….” The other students turned to look at the speaker, and I asked him if he could explain what he meant by this.

“Rugby takes after football because they both need a ball,” was the answer. A concept check revealed the student was aware that the object in such a sentence ought to be ‘senior’ to the subject (hence his choice of sports), and he went on to confidently expound a brief history of our national sport for his classmates, beginning with a schoolboy named Ellis catching a football and running with it in a games lesson. The student who had given the first example of ‘take after’ attempted to explain to the other that the connection between the subject and object should be familial, to which the other replied that rugby and football ARE part of a ‘family’- they are both ‘games’.


The language level of the class was such that a discussion of the ‘family resemblance’ theory of Wittgenstein was deemed a challenge too far, but the specific example that the student gave was the same that the philosopher utilized in order to demonstrate his own idea.

In his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, an ambitious attempt to establish once-and-for-all the relationship between language and reality, Wittgenstein supposed that words are representations of concepts  which can usually be whittled down to irreducible concepts- revealed by the most fundamental of words.  Later, however, in the posthumously published Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein was highly critical of his own earlier suppositions.

In this later work, Wittgenstein trounced the idea of concept delineation between word groups and contended that apparent demarcations were illusory, though necessary for word usage. To demonstrate this, he looked firstly not at how the ‘family members’ organised by category nouns are distinct from those of other ‘families’, but how those members are assumed to be related at all.

The famous example Wittgenstein gives is of the concept of ‘games’. If we were to make a list of all the games we could think of, we would also presumably be able to list the ‘resemblances’ or features of relatedness that enabled us to produce the first list. What we would find though, if we had approached the endeavour with sufficient seriousness and compiled a suitably extensive catalogue of ‘games’, is that no one common feature would be applicable to every item. Rugby and football do indeed require a ball, as does tennis and many other games, but what of badminton and its shuttlecocks? Shall we say then that Rugby, football, tennis AND badminton are games because they necessarily involve two opposing sides? But then we recognise any number of solitary practices as games too, such as Sudoku. What we begin to see is a collection of words categorized according to a network of ‘resemblances’ and making up the ‘family’ for the language-users’ identification.


The example is deliberately patent, but next time you are tackling an abstract grammar concept with your students and an unhelpful exception arises, you may wish to recall it and, depending on the class level, even incorporate it into your explanation.

Tristan Francis
Director of Studies

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