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Ludwig Wittgenstein’s passion for looking, not thinking

Ray Monk decodes the philosophy in the philosopher's photographs.

“Thinking in pictures,” Sigmund Freud once wrote, “stands nearer to unconscious processes than does thinking in words, and is unquestionably older than the latter both ontogenetically and phylogenetically.” There is, in other words, something primordial, something foundational, about thinking visually.

Such a view is anathema to many philoso- phers, a good many of whom believe that all thought is propositional, that to think is to use words. For some of the most distinguished philosophers in history, thinking and verbalis- ing were practically the same thing. Bertrand Russell sometimes to his great frustration, was hopeless at visualising and was more or less indifferent to the visual arts. His mental life seemed almost entirely made up of words rather than images. When his friend Rupert Crawshay-Williams once gave him an intelligence test that involved matching increasingly complicated geometrical shapes, Russell did extremely well up to a certain point and then exceptionally badly after that. “What happened?” Crawshay-Williams asked. “I hadn’t got any names for the shapes,” Russell replied.

In this, as in many other respects, Ludwig Wittgenstein was Russell’s opposite. For Wittgenstein, to think, to understand, was first and foremost to picture. In conversation with his friends, he several times referred to himself as a “disciple” or “follower” of Freud and many people since have been extremely puzzled what he might have meant by this. I think Freud’s remark quoted above might provide the key here, that it might have something to do with the emphasis one finds in Freud on the primordiality of “thinking in pictures”.

Like Freud, Wittgenstein took very seriously indeed the idea that our dreams present us with a series of images, the interpretation of which would reveal the thoughts we have relegated to the unconscious parts of our minds. “If Freud’s theory on the interpretation of dreams has anything in it,” Wittgenstein once wrote, “it shows how complicated is the way the human mind represents the facts in pictures. So complicated, so irregular is the way they are represented that we can barely call it representation any longer.”

It was fundamental to Wittgenstein’s think- ing – both in his early work Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and in his later work Philosophical Investigations – that not everything we can see and therefore not everything we can mentally grasp can be put into words. In the Tractatus, this appears as the distinction between what can be said and what has to be shown. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,” runs the famed last sentence of the book but, as Wittgenstein made clear in private conversation and correspondence, he believed those things about which we have to be silent to be the most important. (Compare this with the logical positivist Otto Neurath, who, echoing Wittgenstein, declared: “We must indeed be silent – but not about anything.”)

To grasp these important things, we need not to reason verbally, but rather to look more attentively at what lies before us. “Don’t think, look!” Wittgenstein urges in Philosophical Investigations. Philosophical confusion, he maintained, had its roots not in the relatively superficial thinking expressed by words but in that deeper territory studied by Freud, the pictorial thinking that lies in our unconscious and is expressed only involuntarily in, for example, our dreams, our doodles and in our “Freudian slips”. “A picture held us captive,” Wittgenstein says in the Investigations, and it is, he thinks, his job as a philosopher not to argue for or against the truth of this or that proposition but rather to delve deeper and substitute one picture for another. In other words, he conceived it as his task to make us, or at least to enable us, to see things differently.

The importance Wittgenstein attached to seeing was vividly portrayed – in an appropriately visual form – in the “Wittgenstein: Philosophy and Photography” exhibition at the London School of Economics earlier this summer and, before that, at the University of Cambridge. The exhibition brought together a range of fascinating photographs that included studio portraits of the Wittgenstein family (he had four brothers and three sisters) in their palatial homes in Vienna; pictures of Wittgenstein himself as, in turn, a baby, a navy-suited young boy, a student, a soldier and finally a professor; photographs of the modernist house he designed in Vienna for his sister Gretl; holiday snapshots that Wittgenstein took on a cheap camera he had bought in Woolworths; pages from his photo album containing tiny pictures of his friends and family members; and a series of (frankly rather weird) photographs that Wittgenstein took in a photo booth in which he changed his expression and the direction of his eyes after each shot so that the series might be put together in a flip-book that forms the nearest thing we have to moving images of the great philosopher.

The exhibition began with its most intriguing item: a composite photograph made up of four portraits of Wittgenstein and his three sisters (see above). At first, it looks like a picture of a single person, albeit one of indeterminate sex; a very effeminate man perhaps, or else a rather “butch” woman. But then one notices details of the various component photographs. Around the neck, for example, one sees a strange assortment of accessories: Helene’s scarf com- bining oddly with Gretl’s necklace and the ghost of Ludwig’s open-necked shirt. And yet the eyes, the nose and the mouth look like they belong to the same person, enabling one to see directly the very strong family resemblances that existed between these four siblings.

The notion of “family resemblances” is crucial to Wittgenstein’s later philosophy. It plays a critical role in his attempt to unseat the pic- ture that he regards as the root of most philosophical confusion, namely the “Augustinian picture of meaning”. Philosophical Investigations begins with a passage not from a work of philosophy but from an autobiography: St Augustine’s Confessions. In it, Augustine describes how he learned to speak. “When [my elders] named some object,” he says, “I grasped that the thing was called by the sound they uttered”; thus, hearing words used in this way repeatedly, he “gradually learned to understand what objects they signified”.

This passage, Wittgenstein says, gives us “a particular picture of the essence of human language”, a picture that represents meaning as a relationship between a word and an object. This picture is relatively harmless when we confine ourselves to such words as “table”, “chair” and so on but when applied to the more complex notions that philosophers consider – the mind, the soul, justice, truth, meaning – it leads to confusion. We ask, “What is the mind?” and expect the answer to take the form of identifying some thing that the word “mind” refers to.

To overcome this, Wittgenstein suggests we understand words as picking out not some sin- gle thing but a group of things that need not have anything in common. Rather, like members of the same family, they might have a series of similarities and dissimilarities that overlap and criss-cross in various complicated ways. Some Wittgensteins (such as Ludwig and his sisters) might have the same nose, the same mouth, the same eyes but, say, different foreheads. There need not be one thing that all members of the family have in common. Likewise, there need not be any one thing that all instances of the word “truth” have in common. The philoso- phical task of looking for the essence of truth, then, is unending, not because it is deep but because it is an example of the ways in which we can be captured by a picture.

Thus, at the heart of Wittgenstein’s philosophy is what he calls “the understanding which consists in ‘seeing connections’ ”. Here “seeing” is meant not metaphorically, but literally. That is why, towards the end of the book, he devotes so much space to a discussion of the phenomenon of seeing ambiguous figures such as the duck-rabbit. When we “change the aspect” under which we look at the picture, seeing it now as a duck, now as a rabbit, what changes? Not the picture, for that stays the same. What changes is not any object but rather the way we look at it; we see it differently, just as we see a face differently when we look at it, first as an expression of happiness and then as an expression of pride.

“You don’t take enough notice of people’s faces,” Wittgenstein once admonished his friend Maurice Drury. “It is a fault you ought to correct.” The great merit of “Wittgenstein: Philosophy and Photography” was that it provided us with an opportunity to take his advice.

Ray Monk is professor of philosophy at the University of Southampton and the author of "Ludwig Wittgenstein: the Duty of Genius" (Vintage, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Back To Reality

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis