In a previous post, I asked whether it is possible to objectively compare the quality and validity of different pieces and forms of art. In the responses I got the overall response is that there is no accepted way, and it might be impossible all together. I still struggle with the idea, that even if we could never differentiate between Pink Floyd and Justin Bieber or Martin Scorsese and Michael Bay, surely there are extreme cases which can be dismissed as commercial or insincere art. For example in the case of film arts, surely advertising and most internet pornography don't qualify as legitimate artistic expression. But it seems that even that is not possible (see this reply to my pervious post).

But then I came across the statement "I know it when I see it", in particular the way it was used by US supreme court justice Potter Stewart:

The phrase was famously used in 1964 by United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart to describe his threshold test for obscenity in Jacobellis v. Ohio.13 In explaining why the material at issue in the case was not obscene under the Roth test, and therefore was protected speech that could not be censored, Stewart wrote:

"I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["hard-core pornography"], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that."

Is seems that Justice Stewart here is using an informal version of Wittgenstein's concept of family resemblance. From the SEP article on Wittgenstein:

There is no reason to look, as we have done traditionally—and dogmatically—for one, essential core in which the meaning of a word is located and which is, therefore, common to all uses of that word. We should, instead, travel with the word's uses through “a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing” (PI 66). Family resemblance also serves to exhibit the lack of boundaries and the distance from exactness that characterize different uses of the same concept.

Justice Stewart used this "I know it when I seen it approach" to differentiate between obscenity and acceptable porn. But it seems to me that we can use for at in general.

  • What are the problems with using Wittgenstein's family resemblance to categorize pieces and forms of art into high art and industrial art?
  • Has anyone proposed such an approach?
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    "Pink Floyd and Justin Bieber or Martin Scorsese and Michael Bay" This is exactly the kind of thing that somebody who uses the term 'high art' would think is 'high art' - Pink Floyd? Scorcese? Come on, at least pretend to have some taste! – M. le Fou Feb 2 '16 at 3:55
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    @user259242 I used those very examples for a very specific reason, one that for all of your highbrow taste, seems to go above your head :-) – Alexander S King Feb 2 '16 at 6:21
  • @AlexanderSKing I actually think Wittgenstein would go the opposite way on this, saying both "high art" , "low art" , etc would all fall under art. Family resemblance is not really about separating things out, more about meshing things together. The example of "Bring me a slab" becoming the command "Slab" comes to mind. – hellyale Feb 2 '16 at 20:05
  • @AlexanderSKing on a side note, if you can find some passages where Wittgenstein talks specifically about aesthetics and not language I would be highly interested. – hellyale Feb 2 '16 at 20:07
  • This is actually an argument that Salinger uses in one of his short stories. – Mozibur Ullah Feb 2 '16 at 22:08

It is natural to use it, both aim at the problem of vagueness in predicates. The Sorites paradox is as ancient as the Liar, and much more pervasive, as a list of nicknames suggests: paradox of the heap, paradox of the beard, continuum fallacy, line drawing fallacy, bald man fallacy, etc. One grain is not a heap, adding a grain to not a heap does not make it a heap, therefore no number of grains makes a heap. More generally, if there is an unbroken chain of intermediaries between x and y then the argument concludes that x and y are not essentially different, be it handful and heap, black and white, romance and porn, or art and kitsch. Or contrapositively, if they are essentially different then there must be a bright line separating them. Soritic reasoning is considered fallacious, but telling what exactly is fallacious in it proved to be as intractable as the Liar. Many responses revise classical logic to assign neither true nor false to borderline cases, or both. "I will know it when I see it" is a practical response on a par with Diogenes walking to "refute" Zeno, or Johnson kicking a stone to "refute" Berkeley.

Family resemblance (James suggested it for religions already back in 1902, but without the name) is a way to go beyond philosophical stone kicking. One implementation was suggested by Searle's extension of Russell in 1950s. Scope of a predicate is decided by a cluster of descriptions, not a single essence, just a critical mass of them is enough to meet it. But this formalistic solution is not in the spirit of late Wittgenstein, more so is Mary Hesse's non-Aristotelian theory of universals used to explain metaphoric shifts in meaning:"without assuming that there is any universal "P-ness"... we assume that in an FR class (for example, "the Churchill nose"), the members of all pairs of objects in the class resemble each other in some respects relevant to P, and that those resemblances form as it were a chain like structure through the class in such a way that there are relatively clear cases of objects falling within the class, and relatively clear cases of those that do not". Bambrough in Universals and Family Resemblances even goes as far as to say that Wittgenstein solved the problem of universals.

But when it comes to aesthetic judgement at least, one does not have to settle for Wittgensteinian skeptical solution. Let us consult the usual authority on mental faculties:"If we judge Objects merely according to concepts, then all representation of beauty is lost. Thus there can be no rule according to which any one is to be forced to recognise anything as beautiful. We cannot press by the aid of any reasons or fundamental propositions our judgement that a coat, a house, or a flower is beautiful. We wish to submit the Object to our own eyes... the necessity which is thought in an aesthetical judgement can only be called exemplary; i.e. a necessity of the assent of all to a judgement which is regarded as the example of a universal rule that we cannot state". Kant gives a non-skeptical explanation of it in the resolution of the antinomy of taste in Critique of Judgement, as usual by drawing a transcendental distinction:"At the basis of this there must necessarily be a concept somewhere; though a concept which cannot be determined through intuition... Yet at the same time and on that very account the judgement has validity for every one (though of course for each only as a singular judgement immediately accompanying his intuition); because its determining ground lies perhaps in the concept of that which may be regarded as the supersensible substrate of humanity... the explanation of the possibility of their concept may transcend our cognitive faculties".

Making the usual move of relativizing Kant's absolutes, one could say that while taste is culturally acquired and communicable, it relies on a faculty that does not translate into propositional descriptions, it is "exemplary". On such reading Kant and Wittgenstein are easily reconcilable, and both accounts validate "I will know it when I see it" in practice.


The argument was made in Euthyphro - a dialogue by Plato - that men will argue about the Beautiful in a way they won't argue about the Empirical.

Thus it seems there can be no truly objective measure of what this can be; and according to the SEP Wittgenstein had 'precious little sympathy' for a science of aesthetics, calling it 'almost too ridiculous for words'; thus he agreed with Plato, and like Plato he considered it a central concern of human life and discourse but wrote little himself on it - some notes survive from a lecture course he gave in '38.

In Culture & Value, he notes:

Spengler [a historian of culture] could be better understood if he said: I am comparing different cultural epochs with the lives of families; within a family there is a family resemblence; though you will find a resemblence between members of different families.

This is quite suggestive, and is probably used implicitly, if not explicitly in all kinds of comparative ventures: comparative philosophy, as well as aesthetics, literature or art - Goethe was already talking about Weltliteratur (World Literature) in the early decades of the 19thC, and contributed to it by his East-West Divan, a collection inspired by the Persian poets S'aadi & Hafiz.

This however doesn't help solve your problem of distinguishing between commercial art & high art, since they're within one cultural matrix - ie local; and Wittgenstein himself observed:

to describe their use or describe what you mean by a cultured taste, you have to describe a whole culture


what belongs to a language game is a whole culture

Thus one must look closely at local conditions, or better, live it; Stallbrass, wrote High Art Lite criticising British Art of the 90s, the YBAs (Young British Artists) as contaminating the values of High Art with the values of commercial art and commerce - a heady mixture - then - which to him, later - looked flat and uninspired, once the Sturm & Drang of the moment cleared.

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