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Anti-essentialism and the problem of definitions

Wittgenstein famously stated his theory of family resemblances in his
posthumously published book, Philosophical Investigations. In remark 66 and
onwards, he affirmed his radically anti-essentialist understanding of what he calls
concepts by making allusion to the word game (in German, spiel). He
defended his position that there is no one single element which is common to all
of the things that we call games and, from this, argued that one cannot provide
a definition of the word that may serve as a general criterion of what may be
called a game or not.1
Wittgenstein urged the philosopher to not think about the word, but
merely to look how it is used in our everyday language. By assuming this stance,
one would be able to see that the many activities that we call games, such as
board games, card games, ball games, and others do not have one binding
property that can be said to belong to them. Rather that there are interconnections
that overlap, intertwine and these network of characteristics may coincide in
detail or in general.
In this perspective, the theorist simply would not be able to do more
than point out some similarities between the many occurrences of a given
concept, and any attempt to expose a set of necessary and sufficient conditions
that can unequivocally be utilized to determine if a certain term is applied
correctly or incorrectly is, from the start, a source of philosophical deceit, prone
to tangle the theorist in an endless web of futile debates.
This view conflicts with the assumption that in order to philosophize
one should always define ones terms in a way which leaves no room (or at least
almost no room) to ambiguity. For instance, Bertrand Russells discursive paper
Mr. Strawson on referring2 contains one of the earliest attacks on the notion that
common speech may be acceptable to do philosophy. Russell attacked those who
were persuaded that common speech is good enough, not only for daily life, but
also for philosophy, and stated that he, on the contrary, was:

Wittgenstein, L. Philosophical Investigations. G. E. M. Anscombe, trans. Oxford. Basil Blackwell. 1963.

Russell, Bertrand. Mr. Strawson on Referring. Mind, New Series, Vol. 66, Issue 263. Oxford. Oxford
University Press. 1957. p. 387.

persuaded that common speech is full of vagueness and inaccuracy,

and that any attempt to be precise and accurate requires modification
of common speech both as regards vocabulary and as regards syntax.
Everybody admits that physics and chemistry and medicine each
require a language which is not that of everyday life. I fail to see why
philosophy, alone, should be forbidden to make a similar approach
towards precision and accuracy.
Russells view that philosophy needs an advanced linguistic toolkit in
order to overcome the vagueness and inaccuracies of ordinary speech seems to
collide with the one proposed by Wittgenstein. Are these views entirely
incompatible? In this paper, it is my aim to show that the adoption of an antiessentialist view regarding concepts does not commit one to reject the usefulness
of creating conceptual schemes in order to do theoretical work. This work, then,
is preoccupied with the method of philosophy rather than a philosophical problem
to which a method would be used in its treatment.
The problem
In my introduction I talked about how certain theorists, striving to
perfect and enhance natural language in order to do philosophy have tried to come
up with general definitions of certain terms. This pursuit has led a large group of
philosophers to uphold a view that I shall call the representational view of
language. This is the view which holds that any inquiry of certain problematic
words such as truth; relation; knowledge; justice; mind; language;
numbers etc must be done by a) giving an account of the semantics of the
term, in other words, providing a general definition of the concept which is its
meaning. And b) analyzing how we manipulate this meaning in our discourse to
apply it in the most varied situations. This second part is what is often called the
pragmatics requirement. This requirement is also sometimes called theory of
To the representational theorist, meaning and use are two notions that
are to be treated separately, and they cannot, under any circumstance, be
conflated. Since the semantic requirement exists with the finality of defining the
entity (the meaning of the term) we denote when we utilize a word in our
linguistic exchanges, it must be given before one starts explaining how we use
this term correctly, or, before we fulfill the pragmatic requirement.
Moreover, if one wants to evade the ambiguity and vagueness of
ordinary language and clearly cast light into the meaning of a certain concept, the

definition must be capable of acting as a tool of decidability, deciding whether

the occurrence of the word in a certain situation was correct or incorrect. That is
to say, a definition has to include certain criteria that unambiguously establish
not only the extension of the term (the class of objects that fall under the set of
correct applications of the term), but also if the term was correctly employed in
a certain situation, wherever this situation might have taken place.
If all of these requirements are met, the representational concludes, one
can aptly say that a concept has been philosophically analyzed and a theory of
the concept has been put forward. For instance, under this philosophical program,
the expression know that would be one used to make reference or denote a
particular relation that may or may not hold between agents and facts.3 The
peculiar corollary of this theoretical approach is that if one accepts it, then one
may infer that the utterances of know and its cognates should act as a
placeholder for the definition given by the philosopher.
To better illustrate this point, lets assume for the sake of argument, that
the representational view about knowing as described in the first phrase of this
paragraph is correct, and further assume that the relation between the agent and
the fact which is known is one of justified true belief.4 Now imagine that during
a conversation someone utters the sentence John knows that such and such. If
both of our initial assumptions are combined, then one could rephrase this
ascription of knowledge as John is in a relation with such and such in which he
has, in connection with such and such, a justified true belief and no difference
between both utterances could be said to exist on the level of meaning
This peculiar phenomenon happens because the word, in the
representational view, acts a mere trigger for the definition and a relation of
identity is created between both. If one utters the indicative sentence Thomas
knows that such and such and the conditions for this utterance to be true are
contained in a general scheme, no difference can be said to exist between the
definition and the word, since they indicate the same entity. If one accepts this
position, it follows that what uttering the word is, is triggering this mechanism of
satisfiable conditions and then checking to see if they were indeed satisfied. Now,
the troublesome aspect of this position is that one could use, in principle, the
definition to explain the real meaning of a certain word to someone else.

Baz, Avner. When words are called for: a defense of ordinary language philosophy. Cambridge. Harvard
University Press. 2012. p. 95
Since this paper does not concern a certain theory of knowledge but the underlying assumptions that lead
philosophers to search for the meaning of knowledge, I shall use in my example the justified true belief position
regarding knowledge since most readers will be acquainted with it.

To better illustrate this point, imagine that you have never been exposed
to the word game, and after hearing someone uttering it somewhere you ask
the theorist just what a game is. He tells you that a game is, for example:
a rule-based formal system with a variable and quantifiable outcome,
where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player
exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels attached
to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are optional and
Now, how is the person who has never been exposed to occurrences of
the word game react to this definition? Remember that the definition just given
and the word game have the same exact meaning under the representational
view of language, and that this is meant to unveil the core of gameness. Did the
theorist answer your question of what a game is? Did his explanation achieve the
goal of dissipating doubt and giving you the means to competently employ the
word game? It is my contention that the definition just given falls flat in relation
with your expectations to have your question answered. The problem of
definitions such as the one exemplified just above is that they sprung when the
philosopher already has a grasp of the concept by means of having heard, read
and uttered the word itself in ordinary language.
Definitions of this sort can only be formulated if one already has a
certain intuition about the uses of that particular word in ordinary speech and tries
to apply a method of reverse engineering in order to determine the meaning of
that word. However, this meaning is only passible of being unveiled after the
theorist has grasped many of the uses the word has in ordinary situations. That is
to say, this artificial separation of semantics and pragmatics is created as a result
of the theorists pursuit of transcending ordinary language when he himself did
not acquire his intuitions about the word he tries to ultimately define by means
other than those found in common speech.
In his quest for the essence of a concept, the theorist relies on his
experience with episodes in which this concept was used, phrases his definition
by creating tests that conform to what he intuits to be correct applications of that
concept and contends that this is the ultimate essence of the meaning of the
concept. This method of reverse engineering is not up to the task of transcending
the so-called ambiguity of concepts found in ordinary language because it cannot

Juul, Jesper. The Game, the Player, the World: Looking for a Heart of Gameness. Utrecht. Level Up:
Digital Games Research Conference Proceedings. 30-45. 2003.

act as the final correction criterion of the concept. There is no reason for the
theorist to believe that his intuitions, however tightly constructed, will coincide
with every correct application of the concept in any situation. In other words, the
general scheme created by the theorist cannot wholly predict its own extension,
and even less act as the final test to every occurrence of the concept in different
This source of philosophical entanglement creates intractable disputes
about what is to count as the ultimate theory of a concept. Contending
definitions, set up according to different underlying intuitions, will serve as
criterions for different situations but never to the conjunction of all possible
situations. Some occurrences will always escape the scope of the definition and
the truth or falsity of these occurrences will be undecidable if one only uses the
finite set of conditions put forward by the theorist in his theory.
A way out
I propose that the philosophical approach that relies on a theory of
meaning and a theory of force be rejected since it creates the problem just
described, giving rise to endless philosophical disputes that are artificial from the
start. We should discard the hunt for a philosophical definition that serves as a
tool to decide if utterances of a certain word in both philosophical and ordinary
This hunt leads the philosopher to extract a word from the setting where
he learned it and where he acquired his intuitions, to use these intuitions as a basis
on which to build a technical definition that is supposed to be intuition-free and
reinsert the defined word in its original setting with this new definition. This last
step is the fatal one, and the theorist should avoid it at all costs. About this
phenomenon, Wittgenstein comments in PI 107:
The more narrowly we examine actual language, the sharper becomes
the conflict between it and our requirement. (For the crystalline purity
of logic was, of course, not a result of investigation: it was a
requirement.) The conflict becomes intolerable; the requirement is now
in danger of becoming empty. We have got on the slippery ice where
there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal,
but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk:
so we need friction. Back to the rough ground!

When the theorist extracts the word from the setting where he came to
learn how to employ it (that is, ordinary language) and try to explore its essence,
he enters this frictionless space where he is free to manipulate the meaning of the
word and to erect a seemingly general definition of what the word really means.
In this space, the definition seems to be the ultimate one, and the theorist supposes
he has achieved a complete understanding of the meaning of the word and can
thus explain how we should use this meaning when partaking in linguistic
exchanges, and what counts as a correct usage of the term. However, as soon as
he leaves the frictionless ground behind, he finds that his theory could not predict
every linguistic episode where the term appears.
Giving up on the assumption that language functions by referring to
metaphysical entities called meanings does not render definitions useless. It
simply entails that definitions play a much more modest role than previously
supposed. A definition of a term in natural languages can still serve a purpose.
When the philosopher feels his usages of a certain term will go beyond the
readers intuitions about the term, it makes sense to provide a definition. This
definition will act as a reminder of this new path taken by the term. It cannot do
more than help the reader understand how the term appears within the body of
work of that philosopher, or of other philosophers who accept and utilize that
defined concept. One can even use a definition to confer more rigidness to how
the word is to be applied, but there will always exist instances where this
rigidness is subjugated by language.
Wittgensteins family resemblances act precisely in this way. He admits
that are several correspondences between the class of things called games, that
some of them appear more regularly than others and even that there is an
underlying similitude between the things which we call games. Nevertheless, if
we try to expose these similitudes in a systematic way, we find it difficult to
correlate all the possible classifiable characteristics under one comprehensive
guideline to the essence of the word.
In conclusion, we are more than able to accept the usefulness of
definitions without assuming an essentialist view about language. Under an antiessentialist view, definitions act as direction signs that help the reader understand
what the philosopher brought into discussion. A finite definition of a term can
never be a serious contender of what is common to all of the correct occurrences
of a term in language. This does not entail any more difficulty than assuming we
need to clarify unequivocally the meaning of a term before it can be used in
philosophy. This requirement only appears if we presuppose that for each word
there is an entity to which it makes reference, and when this presupposition is

dispelled, one can see that the requirement of absolute clarity is not only purely
fictional, but also ultimately useless.
Baz, Avner. When words are called for: a defense of ordinary language
philosophy. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 2012.
Juul, Jesper. The Game, the Player, the World: Looking for a Heart of
Gameness. Utrecht. Level Up: Digital Games Research Conference
Proceedings. 30-45. 2003.
Russell, Bertrand. Mr. Strawson on Referring. Mind, New Series, Vol. 66, Issue
263. Oxford. Oxford University Press. 1957. p. 387.
Wittgenstein, L. Philosophical Investigations. G. E. M. Anscombe, trans.
Oxford. Basil Blackwell. 1963.