Table of Content


1. Aristotle’s Concept of Essence

2. Likeness as
Representation of the Self

3. Wittgenstein’s
Concept of Family

4. Likeness as
of “self”

5. Master of Arts Art Exhibition




The Representation and Reality of the Self in Art

Chapter 3. Wittgenstein's Concept Of Family Resemblances

So far, in Chapters 1 and 2, I demonstrated that Aristotle’s Metaphysics can be considered as the historical source for the thesis that self-portraits represent the essential self, which is based on the assumptions that (1) there is an essential Self and (2) the Self can be visually represented as likeness. My thesis is that self-portraits refer to a concept “self”, and not to an essential Self. In this chapter I will argue that Aristotle’s concept of essence is not a fact, but a metaphysical construction which should be abandoned, and replaced with Wittgenstein’s concept of family resemblances.

Wittgenstein discusses the concept of essence in Philosophical Investigations, when the question of essence of language is raised. For Wittgenstein, language is not a single entity, but a set of various language games. He starts the analysis of language with examples of ostensive definitions and the game of naming. In such games, language is understood as a relationship between words and objects. This definition of language is important insofar as it creates a metaphysical illusion when words like “spirit”, “mind” are treated as referring to existing objects, in the way in which the words “table”, “chair” are referring to actual tables and chairs.

Wittgenstein proceeds with an example of language that consists of four words referring to physical objects used in masonry. Such a language would serve as communication between a builder A and his assistant B. Person A is building with four types of building stones: blocks, pillars, slabs and beams. B has to pass the stones to A, corresponding to the words A utters. For that purpose they use a language consisting of words “block”, “pillar”, “slab” and “beam”. [1]

Wittgenstein calls such a primitive language a language-game. [2] The whole language consisting of language and all possible actions is also a language-game. He doesn’t consider language to be single entity, but a complex structure containing numerous language-games. Such language-games are: giving orders, describing the appearance of the object, constructing an object from the description, reporting an event, speculating about an event, forming and testing hypotheses, making up a story, singing catches, guessing at a riddle, telling a joke, translating from one language into another, requesting, thanking, cursing, greeting, praying, etc. [3]

Such an understanding of language raises the question of whether there is an essence common to all language games. Wittgenstein’s answer is that there is no common essence shared between all language games. There is only “a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarity, sometimes similarity of detail.” Wittgenstein calls this network of similarities family resemblances. [4]

Wittgenstein’s examples are various games, which have no one single thing in common. He compares board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games etc. If we look for what is common to all, we will find only similarities and relationships. We can find more similarities among board-games, or among ball-games, but there is no one characteristic common to all. [5] Now, the question is whether such a “concept with blurry edges” [6] has meaning at all. Wittgenstein’s answer is that the meaning of the word is its use in a language game. Therefore, the concept “game” has a meaning in referring to all various games, without having one simple definition of “game” common to all various games.

We could consider “self” to be a similar family resemblance concept, which yields no one precise definition, but which is a concept that is used in a “language-game”. That would explain why it is possible to find numerous, even contradictory definitions of the “self”. The Dictionary of Philosophy defines self as “1. Ego, subject, I, me, as opposed to the object or the totality of objects 2. The quality of uniqueness and persistence through changes, by virtue of which any person calls himself “I” and leading to the distinction among selves, as implied in such words as “myself”, “yourself”, “himself”, etc. 3. The metaphysical principle of unity underlying subjective experience, which may be conceived as dependent upon the given organism or as distinct in nature; sometimes identified with the soul”. [7] Some philosophers, like David Hume and Daniel Dennett, doubted or even denied the existence of the self. Michael Foucault traced various meanings of the concept “self” in The Technologies of Self. [8]

For the sake of my thesis it is important to explain how Wittgenstein’s “family resemblances” refutes Aristotle’s “essence”. Aristotle considered that the genus of species is essence, imprinted as a form on a particular individual body. Wittgenstein’s argument is that it is fallacy to posit the existence of such an ideal constellation of shared characteristics among members of a species. Instead of “essence” we can only find “family resemblances”. And “family resemblances” bypasses the traditional questions of the ontological status of universals.

Now, the same analysis applies to the individual and the concept of the Self. Instead of supposing that there is a singular identity unifying a person we should recognize that there is only a “family resemblance” of characteristic identifying the individual through time and actions. The Self is a metaphysical construction we project into observation, and not a universal concept we derive from observation.

The same can be said about Rembrandt’s self-portraits. Where art historians used to see representations of the essential Self, or searched for the hidden self, the essence of a person, we should recognize just a family resemblance of individuals changing over time.


1. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (Massachusetts, Malden: Blackwell Publishers, Inc., 2001.), 3-4.

2. ibid., 4.

3. ibid., 10.

4. ibid., 27.

5. ibid., 27.

6. ibid., 29.

7. Dagobert D. Runes, ed., Dictionary of Philosophy (Totowa, New Jersey: Littlefield, Adams and Co., 1975), 287-8.

8. Martin, Luther H., Huck Gutman, Patrick H. Hutton, ed. Technologies of the self : a seminar with Michel Foucault (Amherst, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988)


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