Between Indefinability and Usage. Towards a philosophical understanding of Populism

  • Maura Ceci
Keywords: Populism, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Family Resemblance, Meaning as Use


Populism has become a buzzword within the political arena of the twenty-first century. It is near omnipresent in our discourse, most of the time without being tied to any particularly defined conceptualization. This proliferation of populist and meta-populist discourse results in the meaning of the term populism becoming taken for granted without ever resulting in its user’s need to feel it necessary to expand on its actual meaning. The aim of this paper is to try to shed some light on the definition of the word populism and its usage. I adopt and apply some tools proposed by Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, namely his idea of family resemblance and meaning as use. Firstly, I will consider populism as a family resemblance term. Instead of trying to entangled populism within a framework of fixed and essential features, populism should be seen as contingent and contextual intertwining of different characteristics which make us immediately recognize a phenomenon as populism. Secondly, I will propose three different uses of populism within academic literature – populism as a classifier, as an admonition and as a descriptor - in order to show how the meaning that we attributed to the term might change according to the usage we make of it. Consequently, each theory of populism advanced should be conceived in light of the scope of the analysis and the specific use we make of the word within political debate. This approach would allow us to maintain the word populism in spite of its lack of a central definition, while allowing a plurality of overlapping and conflictual meanings.


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How to Cite
Ceci, M. (1) “Between Indefinability and Usage. Towards a philosophical understanding of Populism”, Rivista Italiana di Filosofia del Linguaggio, 13(2). Available at: (Accessed: 26September2020).