Noûs 34 (4):483–516 (2000)
Wittgenstein emphasizes two points concerning his notion of family resemblance. One is that the use of a family resemblance expression resists characterization by certain kinds of rules; the other is that due to the prevalence of family resemblance in the philosophical lexicon, philosophical inquiry must in many cases proceed differently from how it traditionally has. This paper develops an interpretation of family resemblance that seeks to do justice to these claims. I argue that what is characteristic about family resemblance expressions is not that they exhibit a basic semantic feature unique to themselves, but that they combine a number of semantic properties that happen not to be coinstantiated elsewhere. These features include (1) content variability (also a property of ambiguous expressions, polysemes, and standard indexicals), (2) a feature I call "topicality" (which is also a characteristic of polysemes), and (3) "semantic openness" (a feature of many ordinary indexicals). The notions of topicality and semantic openness are explained, and certain terms of natural language are shown to be family resemblance expressions. I conclude by indicating some of the potential philosophical ramifications of these results
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