Jean-Paul RIOPELLE, L'hommage à Rosa Luxemburg, 1992 (détail)[ * ]

What Is the Role of the Arts and
Aesthetics in Wittgenstein’s Philosophy?


Béla Szabados

There is a tension between the conventional reception of Wittgenstein's remarks on aesthetics on the one hand, and the way he viewed his own work in relation to aesthetics, on the other. The conventional view is that aesthetics is on the periphery of Wittgenstein’s philosophical concerns; his own view is that only aesthetic and conceptual problems are at the forefront of his interest. In this prelude I sketch an argument and provide textual support for the neglected view that for him aesthetics was a focal concern biographically and philosophically. The essays that follow, in their own way, elaborate or lend additional support for this view.

Wittgenstein is conventionally read as providing a powerful critique of the whole project of traditional aesthetics as well as recommending a family resemblance approach to philosophical reflection on aesthetic concepts. [1] On this reading Wittgenstein's lectures on aesthetics fall into place as mere applications of the big themes of the Philosophical Investigations with its lessons about meaning and mind. Thus we have the themes of anti-essentialism, anti-reductionism, and anti-scientism applied to fundamental questions about the nature of art and beauty, of aesthetic experience and aesthetic appreciation.  It is almost as if Wittgenstein, having arrived independently at his philosophical methods, was curious about how they might work when applied to questions of art and aesthetics. Viewed this way, it seems natural to say that Wittgenstein's concerns with art and aesthetics “did not lie at the center of his philosophical interest,” but rather on its margins, since for him the hard core of philosophy had to do with questions of language and understanding.

 While a wealth of excellent work was done under the umbrella of this perspective, there are remarks throughout Wittgenstein's Nachlass which suggest a deeper and more fruitful way of approaching Wittgenstein's relationship to art and aesthetics. Consider a 1949 entry from his notebooks suggesting a central role for aesthetics: "I may find scientific questions interesting, but they never really grip me. Only conceptual & aesthetic questions have that effect on me. At bottom it leaves me cold whether scientific problems are solved; but not those other questions." [2] Some earlier entries are characteristic of the same attitude, yet more specific about the nature of the relationship. In a 1937 entry he wrote:  "The queer resemblance between a philosophical investigation… and an aesthetic one. (E.g. what is bad about this garment, how it should be, etc.)” [3] Even earlier in his 1933 lectures Wittgenstein draws out further affinities between the methods of aesthetics and those of philosophy. Reasons in aesthetics are "of the nature of further descriptions": e.g. you can make a person see what Brahms was driving at by showing him lots of different pieces by Brahms, or by comparing him with a contemporary author; and all that aesthetics does is "to draw your attention to a thing, to place things side by side" to make another person see what you see… and that the same sort of reasons were given also in philosophy. [4]

In philosophy too one gathers and describes relevant facts, arranges them in such a way as to get a person to look at something in a new way so as to appreciate a phenomenon or a concept and to make the problematic with its associated unease disappear. Another striking similarity between aesthetics and philosophy is that in both we are trying to bring something “nearer to an ideal” despite the fact that there is no ideal that we want to copy. The ideal is expressed not by articulating it directly but by giving concrete examples, drawing comparisons or contrasts. Such examples may be other works in the history of the same genre, or in another genre, or even invented for the purpose. Wittgenstein does precisely this with Mendelssohn and Brahms. He discerns the occasional weakness in Mendelssohn, but can’t precisely put his finger on what is amiss. Eventually he manages to identify it clearly, but only when he puts the Mendelssohn side by side with Brahms, who expresses with clarity and power--at least so says Wittgenstein--something that Mendelssohn just managed to hint at. Consider: "There is definitely a certain kinship between Brahms and Mendelssohn; but I do not mean that shown by the individual passages in Brahms's works that are reminiscent of passages in Mendelssohn but the kinship of which I am speaking could be expressed by saying that Brahms does with complete rigour what Mendelssohn did half-rigorously. Or: Brahms is Mendelssohn without the flaws." [5] Hence when blind-spots prevent us from seeing a work of art in the proper way, or from seeing how a concept works in the stream of life, then a perspicuous presentation of the relevant facts, giving parallel examples, fresh similes or analogies, may help us to appreciate the work of art or remove the illusory picture that veils the workings of the concept.

When invidiously read these remarks seem to assert the primacy of art and aesthetics over philosophy. In them Wittgenstein reminds us that the methods characteristic of aesthetics, such as attention to particularity, to similarities and differences, to background and foreground, to cultural context, are also required to do philosophy. Aesthetics and the arts would then lie at the very center of Wittgenstein’s philosophy. This reading of Wittgenstein’s remarks has the undesirable effect of returning us to the ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry that Plato in his Republic picks and fights on behalf of philosophy, the only difference being that it inverts Plato’s view about the respective standings of philosophy and poiesis. [6] Now arts and aesthetics are on top. Perhaps a deeper interpretation of Wittgenstein’s relation to aesthetics and the arts is not that of making Plato stand on his head, as it were. Rather, the very picture of “at the center or at the margins” is declined, and art, aesthetics and philosophy are to be seen as collaborative companions, co-workers in the culture. According to this picture, Wittgenstein’s work on aesthetics and its significance for us is not merely an application of methods and perspectives that had already been arrived at through work on meaning and understanding in the philosophy of language and mind. Rather, reflection on works of art and aesthetic concerns played an important role in the very forging of those fresh philosophical methods and perspectives.

If Wittgenstein’s work on aesthetics is not to be regarded as a mere application of his philosophical toolbox or a routine contribution to a peripheral branch of philosophy, then a broader and deeper view opens up. We can now see Wittgenstein’s philosophical activity through the lens of art and aesthetic concerns and the other way around. What is more, his practice of philosophy shows this to be so. His very critique of language as having an essence is motivated by the metaphor of language as a cluster of games. The very re-orientation of philosophy that he urged was possible only if we come to look at things with different eyes: through the eyes of a poet, of a composer, of a painter, and so on. Style, metaphor, analogy, the aspect of things, the face of concepts, examples - whether concrete or fictitious - become a part of the toolbox of the creative philosopher. The depth of philosophical problems may be seen as the depth of a joke and the discussion of humor in many passages acquires philosophical salience. Then there is the fact that his writings on questions of language, both in the Philosophical Investigations [7] and the Tractatus [8] , have recurring allusions to music: reflections on the meaning and understanding of sentences are put side by side with reflections on meaning and understanding musical themes, meaning blindness is compared to being tone-deaf etc.

What is more, Wittgenstein had an absorbing and abiding interest in the arts that included music, architecture, sculpture, and literature. He practiced most of these: he designed a house for his sister, he sculpted a bust of Drobil, he performed Schubert songs, and he wrote a spiritual autobiography of the crucial years between 1930 and 1932, and 1936 and 1937.  It is also noteworthy that his anonymous contributions to the financial support of outstanding Austrian poets and artists, among them Georg Trakl, Rainer Maria Rilke, Oskar Kokoschka and Adolph Loos, made the conditions for their creative work less strenuous. Yet Wittgenstein realized, sometimes ruefully, that in his own artistic endeavors he had only good manners but no creative genius [9] .

These biographical facts together with philosophical preoccupations show that Wittgenstein had an extensive and sustained 'hands on' engagement with the arts and culture. And we neglect at our peril the fact that he regarded the arts not as entertainment but as a mode of understanding. He remarked: "People nowadays think, scientists are there to instruct them, poets, musicians etc. to entertain them. That the latter have something to teach them; that never occurs to them." [10] The reduction of art to mere entertainment would be seen by him as a symptom of an alarming deterioration in our culture and sensibility.

If this deeper perspective on Wittgenstein’s relation to the arts and aesthetics is right, then a reassessment of his work in aesthetics and its significance for his philosophy is needed. To begin such a reassessment and explore neglected aspects of his work, Claude Savary, Steven Burns, Alice MacLachlan, Garry Hagberg, and Evan Cameron were invited to participate in a symposium at the 2003 meetings of the Canadian Society for Aesthetics in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The result is the group of essays you are about to read.

In “De la philosophie comme thérapie linguistique à la poésie” (“Philosophy as a Talking Cure to Poetry”), Claude Savary takes up and creatively elaborates what Wittgenstein might have meant by his scattered remarks alluding to philosophy as poetry. Consider such neglected remarks as the following: "I believe I summed up where I stand in relation to philosophy when I said: really one should write philosophy only as one writes a poem. That, it seems to me, must reveal how far my thinking belongs to the present, the future, or the past. For I was acknowledging myself, with these words, to be someone who cannot quite do what he would like to be able to do." [11]   "Kleist wrote somewhere that what the poet would most of all like to be able to do, would be to convey thoughts in themselves without words. (What a strange avowal.)" [12] As to the poet's relation to truth: “The poet too must always be asking himself: 'is what I am writing really true then? - which does not necessarily mean: 'is this how it happens in reality?'” [13] .

In “Getting It: On Jokes and Art,” Steven Burns and Alice MacLachlan explore, in a Wittgensteinian spirit, the analogy between appreciating jokes and works of art. In this connection we might recall a passage in the Philosophical Investigations where Wittgenstein compares the depth of philosophical problems to that of a grammatical joke. “Let us ask ourselves: why do we feel a grammatical joke to be deep? (And that is what the depth of philosophy is.)” [14] Also there are allusions to humor and jokes in Culture and Value which link humor and community, and suggest that a breakdown in the former may show the fault-lines in the latter. "Humour is not a mood but a way of looking at the world. So if it is correct to say that humour was stamped out in Nazi Germany, that does not mean that people were not in good spirits, or anything of that sort, but something much deeper and more important." [15]   Again: “What is it like when people do not have the same sense of humour? They do not react properly to each other. It is as though there were a custom among certain people to throw someone a ball, which he is supposed to catch & throw back; but certain people might not throw it back, but put it in their pocket instead." [16]   What a striking example of “not getting it”—or perhaps a refusal to get it.

 “From Plato to Socrates: Wittgenstein’s Journey on Collingwood’s Map,” is Evan Cameron’s sustained treatment of the questions ‘How can I learn and help others to do so?  How can I learn and help others to learn to say, do and make things that will serve better as means towards of a kind that I and they would like to realize?’ In the course of addressing these questions, Cameron emphasizes the primacy for learning of how to do things with particulars, as well as the crucial albeit neglected role of history and biography for philosophical understanding. In doing so, he strengthens the case for Georg von Wright’s claim that Wittgenstein was a more historically conscious thinker than is commonly realized, that for him “philosophy was not a historical constant.” Cameron also argues that since a philosophical problem or theory is embedded in a cultural epoch, insofar as possible we need to sympathetically recreate that epoch for understanding that problem or theory and learn what remains of value for us. What is more, by surprisingly juxtaposing Ludwig Wittgenstein and Robin Collingwood, two thinkers rarely thought of together, Cameron sheds light on both.

While music was an important part of Wittgenstein's life, we may find it strange that he thought it important for his philosophical activity. In “Wittgenstein the Musical : Notes toward an Appreciation,” I gather the available material on the music Wittgenstein listened to and the role music played in his life. Besides situating this music and its appreciation in a Viennese setting, I also address, albeit tentatively, the question of the relevance of music to Wittgenstein’s work in aesthetics and philosophy.

 Unfortunately, Gary Hagberg's paper on pictures of the self and their role in autobiographical self-investigation could not be included. All the other papers of the symposium are printed here in a revised or expanded form. I am grateful to Heather Hodgson for discussing, co-editing and arranging the papers with me. Our hope is that others come and continue this work of retrieval and reassessment.



[1] For a concise and informative summary of the conventional reception, see Malcolm Budd, “Ludwig Wittgenstein” in A Companion to Aesthetics, edited by David Cooper, Malden, Massachusetts: Basil Blackwell, 1992, 444-47.

[2] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1980/1998, 79/91.

[3] Ibid., 25/29

[4] G. E. Moore, “Wittgenstein’s Lectures 1930-1933,” in Philosophical Papers, London: Allen and Unwin, 1959, 315.

[5] Culture and Value, 21/18.

[6] See Plato, Republic, Book X.

[7] See Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, translated with revisions by G. E. M.  Anscombe, Basil Blackwell, 2001.

[8] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, translated by C. K. Ogden, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, second edition, 1933.

[9] For further details see the following biographies of Wittgenstein. Ray Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, New York: The Free Press, 1990; Brian McGuinness, Wittgenstein: A Life. Young Ludwig, London: Duckworth, 1988.

[10] Culture and Value, 36/42.

[11] Ibid., 24/28.

[12] Ibid., 15/23

[13] Ibid.,40/46

[14] Philosophical Investigations ,par. 111

[15] Culture and Value, 78/88.

[16] Ibid., 83/95.


Previous article /

Article précédent


Top / Début

Table of content / Table des matières
Next article /

Article suivant