Brennan & Griffin | April 12 – May 24, 2015
When an old master painter shows someone reading, it’s natural to wonder: what is that document? So, for example, when we view the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Johannes Vermeer, “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter” (1663 − 1664) we may speculate: is this a love letter, a note about practical business, or perhaps something even less exciting? Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) is a very famous, ferociously difficult book, one that every philosopher like myself who is trained in the analytic tradition has studied. With numbered sections, the text describes the relationship between our representations of the world and the world itself; it doesn’t contain any discussion of visual art. The Tractatus had a complicated history. Wittgenstein, who was born in Austria in 1889, came to Cambridge University just before the Great War to study philosophy with Bertrand Russell. During that war he served in the army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He then returned to England where he soon renounced his early philosophy and by stages developed the arguments of his Philosophical Investigations (1953), which was published posthumously—he died in 1951.
Wittgenstein was a philosopher with a mystique. Everyone who encountered him thought him a genius, and so his arguments have inspired an enormous body of exegesis—not just because he was a gay Austrian of Jewish extraction, but also because it’s hard to cite another absolutely first-rate philosopher whose later writings frontally critique the earlier claims which made him famous. He rejected, for example, the claim that philosophy could (or should) spell out the logical structure of language. Unlike, say, Friedrich Nietzsche, another philosopher who also became a cultural hero, Wittgenstein was not the sort of scholar who is accessible to a broader audience. Often enough I have found his books in the libraries of visual artists. But unless you understand his place in the history of logic, you cannot make much sense at all of his arguments.
What then are we to make of Arthur Ou’s 14 photographs of photographers reading the Tractatus, with captions indicating what passage they are perusing? We learn that Annette Kelm is reading 3.001, “‘A state of affairs is thinkable’: what this means is that we can picture it to ourselves”; Noritoshi Hirakawa, 6.373: The world is independent of my will”; and Eileen Quinlan, 5.61:
Logic pervades the world: the limits of the world are also its limits. So we cannot say in logic, "The world has this in it, and this, but not that." For that would appear to presuppose that we were excluding certain possibilities, and this cannot be the case, since it would require that logic should go beyond the limits of the world; for only in that way could it view those limits from the other side as well. We cannot think what we cannot think; so what we cannot think we cannot say either...
In an obvious way, these images are a philosophical joke. From a mere photograph, you cannot infer what text a scholar is reading. There is no way just by looking at someone who is reading to know what philosophical thoughts (if any!) they are entertaining. For all we can know, these photographers simply opened the text at random. Indeed it’s possible that they don’t understand this technical text at all. As Wittgenstein says: “A picture is a model of reality” (2.11). He doesn’t, I hasten to add, understand “picture” in the common sense terms of an art critic. For him, language consists of statements, propositions, “which picture the world,” as one commentator, philosopher Anthony Kenny, says. So, for example, if I claim “David is taller than Phong,” I have produced such a statement. According to Wittgenstein, logic, and also ordinary language, make a statement—which is true or false—because it has some relationship to what it depicts. What, by contrast, is obviously true about Ou’s photographs is that they have no such relationship to what they depict. They are smart philosophical jokes, which is to say that what they claim to show, photographers contemplating the Tractatus, cannot in fact be depicted in a photograph. Or quote Witggenstein, again out of context:
When the answer cannot be put into words, neither can the question be put into words.
The riddle does not exist.
If a question can be framed at all, it is also possibleto answer it. (6.5)
Sources: Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Trans. D. F Pears and B. F. McGuinness (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961), 15, 149; Anthony Kenny, Wittgenstein (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1973), 4.
David Carrier is writing a book about the historic center of Naples.