Can’t stop thinking about dogs today. I find Chaser’s ability to understand superordinate nouns impressive. The thing is word meanings often have fuzzy rather than fixed boundaries. Take the word ‘cup’ for example. When exactly does a cup become a bowl?
It’s tempting to think that there are necessary and sufficient conditions that dictate where one word stops and another begins, but often there aren’t precise boundaries.
The philosopher, Wittgenstein, illustrated it beautifully when he talked about the word ‘game’. He said:
Consider, for example, the proceedings that we call “games”. I mean board-games, card games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? – Don’t say “There must be something in common, or they would not be called games, but look and see whether there is anything common to all. – For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships and a whole series of them at that. To repeat, don’t think, but look.
Look for example at board games, with their multifarious relationships. Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many features drop out and others appear. When we pass to ball games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost.
–Are they all “Amusing?” Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In ball games there is winning and losing, but when a child throws his ball at a wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared. Look at the parts played by skill and luck; and at the difference between skill in chess and skill in tennis. Think now of games like ring-a-ring-a-roses; here is the element of amusement, but how many other characteristic features have disappeared? And we can go through the many, many other groups of games in the same way; can see how similarities crop up and disappear.’
I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances”; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way.- And I shall say: “games” form a family.
So there’s a family of words that go by the name ‘game’, but presumably we think some games are gamier than others – just as we might think some dogs are doggier than others (as Eleanor Rosch might put it).
So could you do me a favour and answer this question for me? Take a look at these three dogs. Which one looks doggiest to you? I don’t mean which one do you like the look of the most. I mean which one looks like the best representative of the class of things that we call dogs. Just click the poll, and of course I’ll be delighted to hear more thoughts in the comments. Woof!
Dog 1 Dog 2