This weekend the New York Times Styles section ran one of their periodic stories about kids growing up and moving to the suburbs, and changing both themselves and the suburbs in the process.  A while back the suburb in question (more of an exurb) was Rosendale, and this time it was Hastings-on-Hudson.  This particular article was notable for its sheer number of evocations of the wacky hipster frame, and specifically the description by “futurism consultant” (sorry, I have to put that in quotes) Ari Wallach that Hastings is a village “in a Wittgensteinian sort of way.”

Blogger Kieran Healy responded by posting the “Top Ten Ways that Hastings-on-Hudson might be a Village in a Wittgensteinian Sense.”  And of course he’s right that it is a very funny quote, name-dropping a philosopher that hardly anybody has read in the original, in a “Styles” article about real estate trends.  I would crack up if I ever found myself saying something like that, and I hope Wallach has enough of a sense of humor to do the same.

What’s funnier to me, as I just realized yesterday morning, is that I have an idea what Wallach was saying, and I agree with him.  In fact, on Sunday I was at the Lavender Languages Conference arguing that I am transgender in a Wittgensteinian sort of way.  I didn’t use those words; instead I referenced George Lakoff, who got the idea from Wittgenstein via Eleanor Rosch.

I learned about Ludwig Wittgenstein in Philosophy of Language class 22 years ago, but that class was so rich with theories that I couldn’t keep track of them all.  So now I’m catching up with the help of Wikipedia, which gives us this quote (Philosophical Investigations 66, 1953) about the idea of “family relationships”:

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 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 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 common features drop out, and others appear. When we pass next 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 the 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. And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail.

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I made this Euler diagram (which is not a true Venn diagram, according to the Wikipedian who made this page). Some of the games that Wittgenstein mentions, like Olympic track and field games, are amusing (in the sense of not being boring) and involve competition among players, skill and chance.

Other games fit only some of these criteria. There is no element of luck in chess or tic-tac-toe.  There is no competition among players in solitaire or throwing a ball at the wall.  There is no skill involved in ring-around-the-rosie.  Tic-tac-toe is not “amusing.”  Nevertheless, we call these all “games,” and if we tried to say that any of the four were necessary criteria we would exclude some of the games.

Similarly, these cannot be sufficient criteria either.  Surgery involves skill, but it is not a game.  Weather forecasting involves chance.  War involves competition.  Theater is amusing.  That said, they are often compared to games, and described with game metaphors.

This is a good place to stop.  I’ll talk in another blog post about how Hastings might be a village in this way.

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