Last month I guessed that when Ari Wallach said that Hastings-on-Hudson is a village “in a Wittgensteinian sense,” he meant that it was part of a family of things that are called “villages,” but don’t all share the same set of criteria. Wallach confirmed on Twitter that this was what he meant.
Wittgenstein’s example came from the area of games, where poker is competitive and contains elements of chance, tic-tac-toe is competitive but involves no element of chance, and solitaire contains elements of chance but is not competitive. Meanwhile, there are things that are not games but are competitive, like war, and things that are not games but involve chance, like weather forecasting.
In my previous post I had four criteria for “games,” but I chose to focus on two of them to make the diagrams easier to read.
Similarly, George Lakoff argued, a typical mother provides genetic material to her child and nurtures the child once it is born. A genetic mother does not necessarily nurture the child and an adoptive mother does not provide genetic material, but they are both considered to be mothers. A father can provide genetic material, and an teacher can nurture, but they are not mothers. Lakoff calls these radial categories.
(Strictly speaking, war contains elements of chance, and fathers can nurture, so the diagrams don’t quite fit the way people think about these categories, but it’s hard to capture everything.)
Back to Hastings-on-Hudson: it is legally incorporated as a village, but it is more suburban than rural, bordering on the city of Yonkers. Greenwich Village and Queens Village were once villages, but are now neighborhoods in New York City, and may not be considered villages by anyone anymore. Meanwhile, Huntington Village on Long Island is more rural, but is not legally a village. A typical village, like New Paltz, is incorporated and rural. Then there are rural areas like Wittenberg (where I spent a good part of my childhood, essentially a crossroads with a general store), and incorporated areas like Buffalo, that are not villages.
These “family resemblances” are everywhere in human categorization, and they are the basis for many of what I call “category fights.” The existence of this kind of polysemy is rarely acknowledged, unfortunately, and many people argue over these categories as though they were Platonic categories with necessary and sufficient conditions, when the actual facts are more complicated.
One thought on “Wittgensteinian villages”
Thanks for this piece, as it has come up twice in the past few days. The first time is a planning board meeting about Dobbs Ferry’s new huge development along the Saw Mill Parkway. People keep saying things like ‘we’re a village, not a city.’ When in fact, we have similar population density to many US cities like Portland, OR and Dallas, TX.
The next time it came up was in conversation about economists. When the spectrum of economists runs from Schumpeter to Keynes to Marx, how do you start labeling them?