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Video: Wittgenstein and the problem of universals
Duration: 00:24:14
Date: 26-09-1973

Wittgenstein and Universals

Anti-metaphysical reflections recur throughout Wittgenstein’s later writing. In Philosophical Investigations (1953) he speculated, ‘philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday’—when words are used in ways for which their ordinary employment makes no provision—and to overcome philosophical problems we must ‘bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use’ (§38, §116). In his preliminary studies for the Philosophical Investigations, the Blue and Brown Books, Wittgenstein diagnosed that philosophers are tempted to let their language go on holiday because they have ‘a craving for generality’, which is the ‘resultant’ of ‘particular philosophical confusions’ (17). Chief among them, Wittgenstein held, was the confusion of thinking that there is something common to all the things subsumed under a general word, which Wittgenstein likened to the absurd idea that properties are ingredients of things as alcohol is of beer and wine. It’s absurd because it would lead one to think ‘that beauty is an ingredient of all beautiful things and that we therefore could have pure beauty, unadulterated by anything that is beautiful’ (17). By contrast, Wittgenstein argued, there are many general words, such as ‘game’ or ‘colour’, which apply to many things because the various things subsumed by these words have overlapping resemblances, rather than because they all share a common property. Wittgenstein likened this to the manner in which the members of a family may be evidently members of the same family even though there is no single characteristic they share—they have a ‘family resemblance’ because of the overlapping resemblances between their chins, noses, gaits etc. 
Here, Renford Bambrough and Stephan Körner debate the significance of Wittgenstein’s insight that many words are ‘family resemblance terms’. Bambrough holds that recognising that there are family resemblance terms helps remove the temptation to think that things subsumed by the same term have a common metaphysical ingredient, a property. It’s a radical position because Bambrough is open to the possibility that all general words are family resemblance terms and he holds that recognising this solves the problem of universals once and for all. By contrast, Körner advances the more modest position that it is only vague terms or terms admitting borderline cases, such as colour terms, which are family resemblance terms. Exact terms, such as those drawn from mathematics, are not. Accordingly, Körner understands Wittgenstein’s recognition of family resemblance terms as a contribution to the problem of universals but not a solution.  
Fraser MacBride
Professor Fraser MacBride is Chair of Logic & Metaphysics at the University of Manchester.
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Debates and Discussions (page 13 of 14)