Cluster concepts

Actress Audrey Hepburn Leaning on Tree

One of my colleagues finds it patronising when men give up their seats for women on the train. She believes such men think women weak and such men generally just want to show off their manliness, think well of themselves or get inside a woman’s pants. Or all three.

I suppose this might sometimes be true but probably not as often as she thinks. There is a more obvious reason why men act chivalrously towards women, namely, that they like them. It is natural to want to do things for people you like.

I think men carry an idealised picture of womanhood around in their heads. It’s as though we had, like Grenouille in Perfume, distilled the ‘essence of woman’ in our imaginations and this essence is made up of many attributes. ‘Woman’ then, as an idea, might be a ‘cluster concept’.

My own personal idea of ‘woman-kind’ includes an hour-glass figure, a pretty face, clear skin, lustrous hair and a slim neck. Skirts and dresses set the whole thing off nicely.

As regards character, kindness, charm, grace, understanding, patience, an impulse to care for things, good humour, neatness, cleanliness, sensitivity, quick-wittedness and an absence of coarseness and vulgarity all strike me as womanly virtues. The more of these attributes a woman possesses, the closer she is to my platonic ideal of ‘woman’. There may few actual women who possess all of these attributes, though Audrey Hepburn was probably one. Of course, if a woman falls short of this perfection she doesn’t stop being a woman, she is just less like the ideal. Despite differences in culture and race, men broadly agree on what constitutes this ideal woman.

You could also view this ideal not as a cluster concept but as being closer or further away from a centre. Then there would be a bull’s eye for womanhood, just as there is for such things as colours. When I think of red I generally think of crimson or scarlet. This doesn’t mean that carmine, burgundy and maroon aren’t also red. It just means that to my mind they are less red than scarlet and are thus more towards the periphery of red.

Denis Dutton believes that we can use cluster concepts to discuss whether or not something is really art or music. Is Tracey Emin’s work art? Sort of, because it includes one or two of the features that belong to the world of art, like going to art school and exhibiting your work in a gallery. But then again, Tracey Emin’s creations aren’t beautiful, she perhaps possesses less of an eye for composition than Michaelangelo, neither does she have artistic virtuosity acquired through thousands of hours of practice. In short, there is very little skill in her art. Her creations therefore dwell at the outermost regions of the category ‘art’ and tick only one or two of its least important boxes. On the other hand, the works of artists like William LogsdailWinslow Homer, Arthur Rackham and N.C. Wyeth tick all of art’s boxes and therefore have a greater claim to being called ‘art’. Some people think that because Emin claims her work is art that then makes it so. However, I could equally well claim that I am making music when I fart in the bath yet my claim doesn’t make it true.

Many things have definitions that are fuzzy at the edges, like colours, or which exhibit less than the full range of attributes, like art. However, both colours and art are well enough defined at their centres or when they posses the whole suite of attributes.


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