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Wittgenstein: Thinking in Pictures

14 Sep


Article by Ray Monk
Published 15 August 2012
The New Statesman

“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 Southhampton and the author of “Ludwig Wittgenstein: the Duty of Genius”


Transfigurations: Art, Consciousness, and Spirituality

25 Aug

Conversation with Ken Wilber and Alex Grey.

Manifesta Journal | around curatorial practices

20 Dec

Manifesta Journal | around curatorial practices.

Anthony Gormley: Two States

20 Dec

You come in from the privileged vistas on the terrace at the back of Harewood house, through a small arch and into a rectangular white walled gallery.

The ritual space is charged. The tension of the massive architecture presses down on the smooth rounded pillars. We are under a wealth of West Indian sugar, a sub-hall beneath a sweet pile of grandeur from the 18th Century. Children have played here. Wet dogs and muddy boots, now clean but still echoing. Servants have walked through, maybe slaves?


And yet this place doesn’t hold the irony of Shelley’s Ozymandias – that collapsed power in the sand. Here it is “look on my works and celebrate”. The Imperial power has surrendered slowly and gently. Out of the sands of the Empire emerge two rusty sentinels. They confront each other respectfully, they recognize their long term decay, they know they will stand for generations before their blocks are broken into the archives of future archaeologists. They are not two states, but one pulsing circuit, carefully balanced magnets in the field of presence.


Anthony Gormley’s work is, like all effective sculpture, about the fine art and craft of tension, the dichotomies within the material, and the relationship of the finished piece to the environment within which it dwells. The ‘Two States’ are not the two figures, but the historical states of the past and the historical states of the present. The stately home and the post-stately guests. Here there is a state of rusty angular blocks, there, at each corner is the state of round pillared stone. The figures are calm, reflective, introvert, contained. The doric columns are proud, reaching up, extrovert, muscular.


Gormley’s work is modernist. In this work the cubism could be criticised for being too literal. I prefer to think of it as a generous cubism. Although on-guard, these two figures are welcoming. All they ask is a certain respect. A longer look does lead to deeper questions. Where did the muscles go? This is a state of structural integrity, a built-up-from-the-ground struggle with gravity. This is abstract bone-work, spinal developmentalism. And therefore human.


A what is common to both states? Dignity. Somehow we stand tall, despite the balancing act of boxes that we are. We look more like these sculptures than we might initially think. Our blood is ferrous. We will one day rust. We will come to see ourselves across the room. We might realise that life has been held up for us: there are pillars in place, built by others, maybe polished by us, maybe maintained, but generally unnoticed.


This is how we stand, without plinth or platform. This is how we are, stripped back beneath the skin and bone, vertically vulnerable. In this room we are pared down to lintels, lines and invisible ligaments. Our body-room is one of compression and load-bearing.


We enter and leave in different states.

Andreas Gursky: Rhine II

17 Nov

Rhine II by Andreas Gursky, 1999 (350cm x 200cm)

This photograph by the German artist Andreas Gursky (b.1955) recently sold for $4.3m (£2.7m) at Christies New York. This sets a new world record for a photograph.

It is initially bleak and minimal, yet I am captured by the composition, at the same time uncertain as to why I like it so much. Maybe it satisfies my appreciation of abstraction: six clean lines of limited tonal contrast. Green and grey comfortable side by side. Easy on the eye – a textless sweep from left to right. To the eye it is simple, restful, a relief. I resist the cliché ‘meditative’ and yet I do feel I could sit and look at the landscape for hours – absorbed in a nowhere place that heightens the sense of somewhere.

I want a large print. I know it is worth paying for, a lot maybe. But that much? Maybe. The photograph presents itself as priceless and like a clever salesman uses hypnotic charm to convince us of value.

In an interview Gursky states “It says a lot using the most minimal means … for me it is an allegorical picture about the meaning of life and how things are.” (see video below). How are ‘things’? Flowing by, bleak, but with the green grass as an allegory of eternal growth, nature gently pushing up despite the ordered human bands of grey. But life is also an image manipulable reality. We are increasingly digitalised, morphed and modified. This photograph has been cleaned up digitally, dogs and walkers have been erased. Yet there is a feeling that anything (dog, bird, plane or boat) or anyone (jogger, walker, pram-pusher) is likely to enter stage left at any given moment. The ‘already there’ is removed and in a sleight of paradox the possibility of repopulating the frame with our own cast is heightened….or not, if we choose to drift into reverie and a break from the image saturated world we currently navigate.

At the back of my mind is Hirosho Sugimoto’s seascape series ‘Time Exposed’. And maybe his photographs are behind this one of Gursky.

Hiroshi Sugimoto - Norwegian Sea (1990-1999)

Sugimoto is closer to the void, Gursky’s photograph just gives us a little more land – half way between a landless ocean and coastal reassurance. And if Gursky’s photograph is trying to present us with a post-industrial landscape (the Rhine surely being on of the most industrial rivers in Europe) perhaps L S Lowry can be invoked. Lowry, painter of the highly populated British industrial North is less known for his empty seascapes.

L S Lowry, Seascape 1950 (Kelvingrove Art Galley, Glasgow)

For me these three images are worth comparing. Maybe they represent a thread of desire, expressed through art, to withdraw from the populated world, from the imaged overloaded spectacle, from the industrial and technological sprawl. I don’t think any of these images are so simplistic, or nihilistic as to negate the phenomena they remove us from. They all are dependent on the busy context they arise from. Yet they all remind us to drop down under, or away from the relentless forms of change we live with. Perhaps Gursky’s allegory is that we live with a need to remove ourselves, to withdraw in order to re-draw.



Guardian Article

Creative Criticism: Notes from an interview with Camelia Elias

14 Nov

Keep it simple.

Write elegantly.

Create correspondences.

If you must write textbooks or introductions to this or that concept –  à la what is most commercially valuable for Oxford and Harvard – then make sure that you won’t be afraid to say ‘fuck’  a few times, provoke the establishment, or show what an idiotic idea the idea the that the democratization of writing means adopting a non-offensive stance is.

Allow yourself to move with ease between beliefs.

Create improbable scenarios, and the sillier the better. We need more laughter.

‘Know thyself.’ Write for yourself and strangers. Don’t write for peers.

Presume nothing. Assume nothing.

Write for the occasion, even if the occasion means that you will be read by no more that 2 people.

Value ‘nothing’, silence, and the usefulness of the useless in creative academic writing.

Think with the heart and the gut.


B: EyeCorner emphasizes creative criticism. What is “creative criticism”? Why is it important in the current lit-crit landscape?

CE: The importance of creative criticism is also politically determined and linked to the need to counter the illegitimate act of measuring, quantifying, and weighing academic discourse in the age of ‘open source.’ The whole idea with peer-reviewing and gate-keeping is becoming more and more abhorring, and of course impossible to maintain, especially when we can all agree that, if there is knowledge in the world, we need to let it flow, rather than barricade it behind concrete walls. Sure, the ones against the ‘everything goes’ philosophy will do anything to hang on to the moribund tradition of ‘we must not let errors into the world,’ but the way I see it, that merely emphasizes the general stupidity that informs such endeavors. To give you an example, I like to read esoteric and hermetic texts, and what amazes me the most is that it is almost always the case, than not the case, that what we come to appreciate in them is the ‘creative errors’ connected to their reception. For instance, people believed that the Zohar originated with the mystic rabbi Simeon bar Yohai some 2000 years ago. The Kabbalist texts have been greatly inspired by the Zohar, and a good deal of brilliant writing and wisdom has been produced throughout the following centuries. The fact that the historian Gershom Scholem proved that the Zohar was written around 1100 did little to remove the Kabbalists’ enthusiasm for the now ‘fake’ text. The same goes for other texts. The Emerald Tablet and the Golden DawnOrder, all claiming mysterious origins for their foundations, have not suffered from dismissal either, when it was proved that they based their claims on inauthentic sources. What we still appreciate is the ingenuity associated with their building up systems of thought that were not imagined before. In other words, such texts and contexts can be said to have produced a lot of creative criticism, which means rigorous thinking that is not deterred by factual knowledge.

EyeCorner Press is interested in another kind of potency, namely, that which leads to a form of insightful criticism that leaves us in a state of astonishment, open-hearted, and in awe of open ends. In other words, to answer your question, we use creative criticism in the same way that Raymond Federman used to talk about what he termed ‘critifiction.’ We follow his ideas to legitimize our own condition for being in the world, the world of a myriad of texts published by all sorts. Here’s what he says:

“The term critifiction is used because the discourse that follows is critical as well as fictitious; imagination is used in the sense that it is essential in the formulation of a discourse; plagiarism [read play-giarism] because the writing of a discourse always implies bringing together pieces of other discourses; an unfinished endless discourse because what is presented here is open at both ends, and as such more could be added endlessly.” (Critifiction, 1993: 49, author’s emphasis)

B: Do you perceive any hostility toward post-structuralist writing/methods/philosophy, and, if so, how do such hostilities manifest?

CE: I like this question, though, I have to make an effort not to answer it without disclosing general dismay at all rationalists, literalists, and positivists who are convinced that what makes their academic life worth living is the idea of exactitude and promptitude in relation to all things ‘fuzzy.’ The reason why there is hostility towards post-structuralist writing is because such writing allows itself to be imprecise. Of course, and as a general rule, all those against it, don’t bother to ask or look for the motivation behind such ‘imprecision’. And why, well, because one takes one’s name at face value, for you see, if you are a rationalist, a positivist, and a literalist, then, you, by definition, are exempted from having to really engage with all that which does not bear your name. But then, also by definition, if you are a realist, a positivist, and a literalist, then, you will also be self-righteous, and see it as your duty to denounce that which you don’t understand. And so it goes. People have been burnt for having contrary ideas. I myself prefer it when precision interacts with how it manifests itself in some higher order, higher even than itself, and then I like to see how this precision relates to a dynamic system of thought that is ever changing. And that’s all, but mind you, people have been burnt for even less.

See: Original Interview of Camelia Elias with Biblioklept

Drawing & Mapping

1 Nov

Dani Child’s Seminar Slides:

Mapping mess. Making sense of chaos.

Map as ownership or control.

The activity of organisation.

Map as a political instrument.

“The map is not the terrain”

Selective information / selective mapping.

Categorizing and re-categorizing.

The eye as a mapping organ.

Map as means to perspective / overview.

Managing multiple inputs.

“There’s a lot of it about” (Alan Bennet’s Mother)

Personal Map (Oct 2011) by Roger Bygott