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  • Writer's pictureJude

Aesthetics: Art as a Family Resemblance Concept

Updated: Dec 28, 2023

The importance of defining art was not a mere intellectual exercise but crucial to understanding the concept of art in order to judge its worth. In his essay, “The Role of Theory in Aesthetics” Weitz criticises and rejects Aesthetic theories based on defining art, claiming that these past theories have made no progression since Plato, as it still leads to a misunderstanding of the concept and fails to define it. Because of this failure, Weitz argues that art should be perceived as an open concept. He then uses a Wittgensteinian term “family resemblance” to support his view. In this article, I shall assess Weitz’s view, whilst looking at the objections made by two philosophers, Maurice Mandelbaum and Stephen Davies.

Aestheticians have been occupied with establishing a definition of art that has necessary and sufficient properties. Weitz believed there has been no progression since Plato because of the essentialist logic imbued within their theories propounded by others. Essentialism advocates sets of attributes within objects, entities and concepts, which are necessary to identity and function. Platonic idealism is the earliest known essentialist theory. Plato suggests things have an essence that gives us an idea of something at its core and through acknowledging this we can identify them, for example; the Platonic idea of Weitz: “Weitz is a Human Being”. Similarly, Aesthetic theorists identify something as art if it has applicable necessary or sufficient properties, which are logical terms used as conditional statements.

This makes Weitz an anti-essentialist, as he refutes the idea of a closed set of attributes. Weitz saw that Aesthetic theories converge in claiming their theory is the truest whilst refuting and producing a counter to the definition proposed by each other. Following from this, he asserts that an Aesthetic theory of arts definition is not forthcoming, supporting his claim by summarising the inadequacies of previous theories. As already stated, Weitz suggested they were wrong in assuming the possibility of a correct theory as it misinterprets the logic of the concept of art. The central theme of these theories was their concern with necessary and sufficient properties, which eventually led to exclusiveness and counter arguments, thus making them logically flawed.

Various theories of art have been propounded over the years, such as Formalism, Emotionalism, Organicism, Intuitionism and Voluntarism. In brief summary of two, Formalism suggests that what is found in painting can be generalised for other art forms. The essence of painting is the combination of plastic elements, which produces a significant form. Not anything without significant form is Art, it asserts. Emotionalism contests Formalism by claiming that the vital property of art is expression, which Formalism does not classify. To Emotionalists, the requisite defining property is emotion; without emotion projected into a piece, it cannot be considered a work of art.

This is what Weitz refers to when he notes these definitions contradict each other’s central point. Formalism pays no attention to emotion or a spiritual essence. No theory advocates a spiritual form like Organicism. Formalism and Intuitionism lack distinguishable properties, their definitions can apply to other objects as a result. Intuitionism’s properties are not relevant to architecture, which falls into the description of art. The theory of Organicism is too general in the sense that its necessary and sufficient properties cover things which are not considered art. Voluntarism and Intuitionism’s principles are also doubtful because they are not empirical. Due to the subjective nature of these theories, Weitz states the use of the concept of art suggests that they are open concepts.

Weitz asserts his intention is to go beyond these theories, noting that in Philosophy, a recurrent problem is explaining the relation between the employment of and the conditions in which concepts are used correctly. In Socratic dialogues, Socrates investigated by diverging from the original question “what is X?” when faced with inadequate answers. He altered the question to “what is the concept of X?” and “Is Y an example of X?” in order to see if they logically fit the initial provided definition. Weitz refers to Wittgenstein who similarly said we should not ask, “What is the nature of X?” but “What is the use of X in the language?” Weitz saw this as the true method of solving any Philosophical problem and attempted to utilise it in Aesthetics.

Weitz uses Wittgenstein’s example of games from his book Philosophical Investigations, which looks at the treatment of language in relation to terms. In Wittgenstein’s view, he saw the term “game” as an example of a word that does not have a single essence, meaning a common feature, which covers its definition. We often assume that for terms we have a definite meaning. Wittgenstein provides a counterexample to this notion stating no single thing is common to all uses of the term. Not all games are played recreationally. Some games are based on competition. Some games are played out of addiction. There are varieties of aspects within games.

He refers to the resemblance within a family pointing out family members do not relate to each other through one specific trait but a variety which are shared by some and not all. E.g. my facial features are similar to that of my Mothers. My Brothers features are similar to my Fathers and my Sisters features are a combination of our Parents’. My brother also has freckles and a brighter complexion, which nobody else in the immediate family has, except my grandfather. Not one feature in my family is common to all members – similarly, when applied to games, there is not one feature in games that are common to all. Wittgenstein coined the term “family resemblance” to describe the complex pattern of similarities within games, as they resemble traits within a family.

After summarising Wittgenstein’s family resemblance concept Weitz notes the problem of the nature of art is similar to the nature of games stating looking into things we call art we find no common properties – only similarities. He maintained knowing what art is not, acknowledging a latent essence, as suggested by essentialists, stating both concepts are open. Weitz claimed a concept is closed if necessary and sufficient properties can be defined. A concept is open if its conditions of use are amendable and corrigible, which means it can be changed and corrected. Wittgenstein’s family resemblance theory has proven art and games are amendable concepts. Expanding on this point Weitz proposes an example based on novels to show how amendable an open concept is. He asks, “Is Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake a novel?” claiming traditionally the construction of the question aims for the answer to be factual hence a yes or no normally suffices.

This question is answered depending on the presence or absence of defining properties. Similarly, to Wittgenstein, Weitz delves into the question instead of following that typical route – and so, using a method similar to his family resemblance, Weitz explores this novel. He compares this work to others already called novels to see if similarities warrant the covering of this new case. Comparing the novel, which he calls N, to faux novels, A B and C, Weitz states N is similar to A B C in some respects but not like them in others. He points out it was the same for B C in some respects to A before it was decided to extend the concept of novels to accommodate B C.

Weitz reinforces this point by observing the concept of arts movement, which constantly develops new conditions, art forms and demands verdicts from professional critics who extend the concept to accommodate them. Due to this constant innovation of art, its expansive character makes it logically impossible to define. In Weitz’s view, it was imposing to close the concept of art to stabilise a definition as it would be detrimental to creativity.

The objections of Weitz’s theory are centred on his usage of Wittgenstein’s family resemblance and his views on defining art as a closed or open concept. In Maurice Mandelbaum’s article “Family Resemblances and Generalizations Concerning the Arts” he implies Weitz did not attempt to analyse, clarify or defend Wittgenstein’s family resemblance doctrine hence he endeavoured to criticise his theory. Stephen Davies briefly criticises Weitz in his essay “Definitions of Art”

Mandelbaum addresses Wittgenstein’s literal use of the term game and family. At first instance he claims it may seem like a plausible argument, pointing out we do not hesitate to describe Tennis, Chess, Bridge and Solitaire as games even though they hold no specific feature between them. However, he objects the doctrine of family resemblance and provides two counterexamples to prove its inadequacies. Using the form of Solitaire, Mandelbaum asks us to consider a situation where you layout cards in the same manner of the game. Someone asks, “I see you’re playing cards. What game are you playing?” – In response, the answer is, “I am not playing a game, I am telling or reading fortunes”.

Despite the striking resemblance between the layouts of the cards, Mandelbaum states it is not an example of Solitaire. He also states two boys having a scuffle is not similar to a wrestling match hosted in a gymnasium. This criticism can be applied to Weitz’s use of family concepts. For example, I could be drawing a rough plan for the layout of a room. Someone could ask, “I see you’re sketching. What are you trying to draw?” Assuming it has intended to be a piece of art. My response would be “I’m not sketching something, it’s a plan for my room” Hence Mandelbaum states it’s not simply a matter of noticing a number of resemblances between concepts but there’s something further that distinguishes them. In order to find that further distinguishing characteristic Mandelbaum inquiries into the notion of what constitutes a family resemblance through an analogy.

In the analogy, we are given a number of photographs of people and asked to decide which hold resemblances. Mandelbaum states we might not find difficulty in selecting a few such as colour of hair or head shape. He stresses that we can only speak of the resemblances in that metaphorical sense, as the usage of the word family in a literal implies a biological connection. Again, this criticism can apply to Weitz’s argument in a literal sense – by using the world family, you are implying a biological connection of some sort. Mandelbaum states that Wittgenstein fails to explore his own concept. He claims that there is indeed a common similarity within a family and that is their relation through a common ancestry.

This is not evident in games and art, they do not all stem from one source. Mandelbaum moves onto criticise Weitz directly. He states Weitz fails to present a logical argument for his claim that the concept of art must be treated as open because new art forms develop and some, like novels, undergo transformations. Using a counterexample of “representational painting” Mandelbaum believes we can define this particular form of art without closing it off to mythological or religious scenes. Historical paintings, interiors, still life etc. count as representational. There is no reason why a definition could not have been created prior to any of these forms of representational painting. For these reasons, Mandelbaum states it is mistaken to assume defining properties are detrimental and authoritarian in their effect.

Stephen Davies shortly addresses Weitz’s spotting a few contradictions. He sees a problem with the notion of family resemblance stating that everything resembles or can be made to resemble. In example: Painting in artistic terms means creating some sort of image with paint and colours. Paint and colours are used on many things such as books, newspapers, walls, furniture etc. Due to the frequent similarity of paint and colour in these things, it could be suggested that walls, chairs, books and anything that is covered in paint or has a distinctive colour is a form of art.

Hence, family resemblance cannot really explain the unity and integrity of any concept. Davies is unconvinced by Weitz’s notion that definitions only apply to closed unalterable concepts, which shows that art is undefinable. He uses an example of meals stating the range of meals he has eaten keeps growing and sometimes he eats new and unusual meals in comparison to the previous. What alters is the class’ membership, not the defining characteristics of meals. Davies implies that it could be part of the unchanging essence of art that many of its instances are created to be original. This is similar to what Mandelbaum suggested with representational painting. Weitz uses an example of tragedies. In it he distinguishes between an open and closed concept, the open being normal tragedy and the closed a Greek tragedy, which was defined by Aristotle and its term only applies to a certain model. As Davies said some instances are created, defined and unamendable – like Greek tragedies, they are created in respect to stay original.

Davies asserts Weitz may be correct in insisting that we do not find any properties common to all art works. Nevertheless, Davies suggested that art is definable but its defining properties are non-perceptible, relational ones. To me this is somewhat similar to the notion of Platonic ideas, although Davies does not claim so in a metaphysical sense.

In conclusion Weitz’s theory that art is a family resemblance concept loses its credibility through the refutations provided. Weitz falls into the same fallacy as the Aesthetic theories he criticises, notably the openness of the properties in which theories suggest we can find the definition of art. He claims theories such as Formalism advocate properties which cover examples that are not considered art. Using his own example of novels: N holds some similarities to A B C like B C did with A, Weitz saw this enough of a reason to extend the concept to cover N. Let us say a new novel, M, is also similar to A B C and N. They are similar in a sense they all have blurbs, covers and contain stories within the book. The content of M is evidently a Philosophical text, albeit using family resemblance I can claim it to be a novel. M contains analogies, which can be described as fictional scenarios narrated by the Philosopher. It also has a blurb and cover. Weitz did not note what amount of similarities in number is acceptable for it to be defined under the same concept, so using this logic any number of similarities could result in the extension of a concept to accommodate something.

Another example of this fallacy would be the concept of music. Sounds 1, 2 and 3 are all songs played on the radio. Sound 4 is the sound of my footsteps. Due to the common similarities of sound, echo and tempo etc. I can claim my footsteps is a form of music. Weitz might point out that conspicuously footsteps aren’t played on the radio, or conducted rhythmically for our enjoyment. That’s true, however looking at the work of tap dancers which people consider to be a performing art – I could compare this to a single beat of a drum. In many forms of music we beat a drum to make the instrumental, taking that beat of the drum out of the music and just beating the drum in a monotonous manner do we still consider that to be music? The sound made by any instrument is often classed as musical, even unintentional. Similarly to how we enjoy the sound of waves, a strong gust of wind, raindrops or chirping birds in the early morn. Hence I believe footsteps,  the instrument of tap dancers, when placed in the same position as the novels N and M, can be considered music.

My last criticism, similarly to Mandelbaum, is the usage of the word family in a literal sense. The word family implies an antecedent connection. Maybe, for novels, Weitz could have suggested the antecedence is all printed novels are made from wood and plastic, as the paper is made from wood and the cover is made from plastic – it wouldn’t matter about the actual content. However, this would imply necessary and sufficient conditions, which Weitz attempted to refute. This theory is centred on family resemblance and art being an open concept, but because of the apparent loopholes within the argument, I do not acknowledge it as a plausible theory.

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