The Power to Depict

Once again I feel the desire to return to the inspiration for The Literacy Bug: the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein

By this stage, it lies in the distant past that this website was once known as Wittgenstein on Learning, but despite the passage of time Wittgenstein’s influence remains ever present.

The man was preoccupied by how we are able to express anything whatsoever through language. And in his flawed masterpiece Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein presents us with a conceptualisation of language which encourages us to be amazed by our ability to transfer pictures of the world through our utterances. From this perspective, a function of language is to express propositions of the world to one another. That is, language is powerful because we can use it to propose states of affairs to one another through a system of sounds (to which we attach shared meaning). By propositions, we can take it to mean “sentences on the world”. 

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Through the lens of the Tractatus, each proposition (or sentence) paints a picture of a state of affairs, and that state of affairs is open to consideration and contemplation (as long as the speaker and the listener share some form of language). In other words, language permits people to generate, communicate and examine possible states of affairs, whether real or fictitious ... declarative or speculative ... true or false. I can convey and receive pictures through language, and there is no necessity that I am able to experience these pictures directly for me to understand them and draw meaning from them. 

The Tractatus is flawed only in the sense that our human language consists of a greater variety of propositions than merely descriptive sentences. We tell jokes. We ask questions. We talk about abstract things. We create rules and so on. Even these paragraphs - the ones you are currently reading - are valuable in that they present a picture of abstractions - languages, propositions, sentences - that may influence your future perception of “how certain things work”. In Wittgenstein’s own words from a later work,

"This picture has a double function: it informs others, as pictures or words inform -- but for one who gives the information it is a representation (or piece of information?) of another kind." (Philosophical Investigations, 280)

If we take a moment to consider descriptive sentences, there is an elegant and meditative quality to the acts of writing and reading. In the acts of writing and reading, we are builders. We are builders of experiences. We are speculators on cause and effect. We are builders of how our concepts are meant to fit together. In writing, we may chisel out an unfolding picture as we lay sentence after sentence onto the page with the aim of describing how something occurred or how something works. We must have the patience, motivation and care to find this recording process beneficial and - in fact - important to how we live our lives. That is, we must find some value in recording an observation for ourselves and others to return to. In reading, we must find some benefit in encountering and constructing a mental image of a state of affairs as we come to navigate texts. Some texts may be more accessible, whilst other texts may be “harder to crack” because they are more difficult for a particular reader to generate pictures from them.

Implied in all of this is a substratum to language: our ability to experience, perceive, notice, visualise, critique and represent aspects of the world or possible words. And whilst we have all read mechanically (focusing merely on decoding) at least once in our lives, we have also had to reread a section of text to get a proper image of what we failed to grasp in the first place. And if I am to demonstrate my comprehension, I’d be compelled to represent my understanding in some way (either in words, images or schematics). And we share these representations with others to determine whether our understanding of a text is shared by others. Have we extracted the right image?

So … amidst The Literacy Bug’s recent focus on the alphabetic principle, I feel it is important to splash a bit of paint on the purpose of our reading and writing, since the acquisition of literacy is a means to an end - not an end in itself. We want learners to become dexterous with the written word so they can discover, debate, and develop knowledge of the world, of themselves within it, and of people around them. And the learners should be deeply motivated to do so, and it is our role as teachers - in whatever capacity we serve - to foster this compulsion to examine, express and explore. This sentiment is elegantly captured by Mr. Stanley Cavell,

"The pupil must want to go on alone in taking language to the world, and that what is said must be worth saying [and writing], have a point (warning, informing, amusing, promising, questioning, chastising, counting, insisting, beseeching, and so on) … If it is part of teaching to undertake to validate these measures of interest, then it would be quite as if teaching must, as it were, undertake to show a reason for speaking [writing and reading] at all." (Cavell, 2005, pg 115)

So … please imagine, explore and enjoy! The path to discovery involves many patient moments of illumination.


References

Cavell, S. (2005). Philosophy the day after tomorrow. In Philosophy the day after tomorrow (pp. 111 – 131). Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Wittgenstein, L. (2001a). Philosophical Investigations (3rd ed.). Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing.

Wittgenstein, L. (2001b). Tractatus logico-philosophicus. London: Routledge.

Could things be other than we see them to be?

From "Google Glass: Artificial Unconscious?" by Neuroskeptic in Discovery Magazine (25 May 2013)

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60 years ago, Ludwig Wittgenstein famously wrote:

Where does this idea come from? It is like a pair of glasses on our nose through which we see whatever we look at. It never occurs to us to take them off.

The “idea” in this case was a particular philosophical theory about language. Wittgenstein saying that other philosophers were making use of this idea without realizing it, unconsciously – so he chose the metaphor of glasses, which are always right before us, filtering what we see, even though we’re rarely aware of them.

Read more at http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/2013/05/25/google-glass-artificial-unconscious/#.UaH1HJWCg-Z

“Don’t think, but look!”

From "Don't think, but look!" - The most common misconception about Wittgenstein" in Recollecting Philosophy

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"The potential practical use of Wittgenstein’s philosophy is that it makes you see alternatives, which can help you make better decisions. When you are dividing between two bad alternatives, it can be a great relief to be offered a third better alternative. (However, when a person continues without much reflection to spit out a forth, fifth, sixth, seventh… etc alternative, then he has turned himself into a menace.)"

The Manipulated Image


When I look at a genre-picture, it ‘tells’ me something, even though I don’t believe (imagine) for a moment [what] I see in it really exist, or that there have really been people in that situation. But suppose I ask: ‘What does it tell me, then?’
— Philosophical Investigations, #522

The flower above did not exist in the state it appears in the photograph. Like many photos, it has been altered. Can I still not find beauty in it?

Words matter. They are the vehicles of thinking

From "Land-based spells brings crisis" by Reuven Brenner in Asia Times Online.

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Note: The article explores the current economic instability. In doing so, it highlight how our description can have a funny way of confusion the facts. In other words, we can convince ourselves (though our language) that a unstable economic idea can and will work, even though experience and the facts would prove otherwise.

"Words matter. They are the vehicles of thinking: while they can shape accurate perceptions, they can shape misperceptions too. As it turns out, and not for the first time in history, there is not much "real" about this asset class. The question is, what do you do with it?

"John Law and followers, who come up with theories based on 'real' estate', or 'real' bills' doctrines (unconstrained by having a "unit of account" too), make implicit assumptions that they know what is 'real'. But as one can readily see, many things perceived "real" can melt into thin air in a flash. Perhaps we would be far better from now on using the French word for 'real estate' - 'immobilier'. 

"... Ludwig Wittgenstein, the philosopher, was right when he stated that: 'Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.' Indeed, 'real estate' 'QE,' 'bubbles' ( attributed to random variations in people's mood rather than any concrete laws and regulations), erecting statues to heroes of subsidized 'immobility' (unread, unwatched, not listened to statistical 'cultures' being a good example) have all 'bewitched' many for centuries, though 'bothered and bewildered' a few." 

We can also imagine a case where someone goes through a list of propositions and as he does so keeps asking “Do I know that or do I only believe it?” He wants to check the certainty of each individual proposition. It might be a question of making a statement as a witness before a court.
— Wittgenstein, On Certainty, 486

Passion for looking, not thinking

From "Ludwig Wittgenstein’s passion for looking, not thinking" by Ray Monk in the New Statesman on 25 August 2013.

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"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."

Is the world really the case?

From "What do Lindsay Lohan and Wittgenstein have in common?" by Sarah Nardi

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"And that, patient reader, brings us to Wittgenstein, who began the Tractatus with the proposition "The world is everything that is the case." It sounds simple enough on its face but think about it long enough and it's a devastating mindfuck. How can we ever know with certainty what is or is not the case? Language? Language is a social construct. If you and I agree that the sky is blue, is it necessarily the case that the sky is blue? What is blue, really? It's a sound we've all agreed to make in reference to a visual phenomenon. But because what we've all agreed to call blue can only be perceived on an individual sensory level, how can we know with certainty that we're all perceiving the same thing in the same way? Follow this thinking long enough and you may end up where Wittgenstein once did, believing that we can never know with certainty anything beyond ourselves. We can't know anything of the external world because we can't confirm anything as objectively being the case.

I often think of Wittgenstein when considering photography because much in the way we assume words correspond to reality, we think of photographs as representations of objective truth. Photography is the medium of documentary, after all. And though we all know it can be staged and manipulated according to the photographer's point of view, we assume that photography, to a significant degree, captures elements of reality as they objectively exist. But does it? Is there any such thing as an objective reality or does everything in our world rely on the context that we ourselves create?"