Jul 11, 2011

The tragedy of Wittgenstein's photographs

Wittgenstein, maybe more than anyone, wanted out of philosophy.

He gave it up repeatedly: he found ways out.

He would be an architect, a peasant, a brick layer, a teacher. He would be an ascetic somehow, like Tolstoy his hero, giving it all up as he gave up his fortune, going away, finding the stern peace he was looking for, the religion he compared to the silence at the depth of the sea, which would remain silent no matter how high the waves on the surface would be.

He wanted to do exactly what Bertrand Russell accused him of doing, to pull off "an abnegation of his own best talent." Abnegation like a monk.

Of course, his philosophy itself was about this -- about making it possible to give up philosophy. He used the simile of a lock: philosophy is like a lock. He used the simile too of a combination for a lock: philosophy is the thing that opens the lock that is philosophy.

Making philosophy both the lock and the combination isn't a slip, either. The one image + the other is actually right. It's the point, for him, and exactly the problem. If the key is also the lock, then the act of unlocking also locks, as that which unlocks the lock is also itself a lock -- even the lock -- and thus the problem reasserts, the solution being another instantiation of the problem.

And this ends up being, for him, philosophy.

There's tragedy in this. The tragic life of Ludwig ... it's as if philosophy has infected him, has infected everything about him.

He found ways out, but "out" was still always in.

Which is what happens with his photographs.


I didn't know Wittgenstein did photography, but apparently he did. The photographs are out now, coming out of the archive at Cambridge, archives that are apparently yielding works of Wittgenstein we didn't know were there until now.

So now we have his photos.

So now we connect those photographs to his philosophy, reading them as examples of what he was working on, reading the photographs as part of his philosophy. As being significant philosophically.

The Cambridge press release gives a philosophy epigram to the picture work, quoting Wittgenstein the philosopher to elucidate Wittgenstein the photographer: "Don’t think, look!"

Salon does the same thing: using a quote from the late Wittgenstein's work as a cut line for a set of family photographs.

And of course there are multiple points where Wittgenstein's work lends itself to this. He has, for example, a "picture theory" of language, early on. So in that sense of course this is philosophical, and of course the pictures show too what he was thinking and how he was thinking and can be understood simply as a different sort of example.

I have to wonder, though, if this reading isn't tragic if it isn't wrong. If this isn't a prime example of exactly the problem of Wittgenstein's therapeutic philosophy, the philosophy that was when applied supposed to dissolve itself, which was supposed to be scaffolding that came down. It seems likely, at least to me, given my relationship to photography, that he picked up a camera and showed and interest in pictures not because of the connections to his thinking, but precisely because it was something different.

For me, my life is words and words and has been for a long time -- I have had stretches where my dreams were all in text, and my nightmares involve a world made of words where the words start to slide, slip, and fall out of place, like rain on a window, like stars sliding down the sky.

Photography worked exactly to be something completely different. It's art, and engaging, but not obsessive for me. It's different and relief.

Though, of course, perhaps expectedly, the words came back, the other kind of thinking came in, and I ended up with words about photography and thinking and writing about pictures in exactly the same kind of way I was thinking and writing about everything else already.

I suspect this is true too for Wittgenstein. I don't know, of course. I suspect, though, that photography was for him a game, was something different. Was peaceful, a kind of silence, a wovon man nicht sprechen kann and darüber muß man schweigen.

If, then, it's true that these photographs of Wittgenstein, these pictures coming out of the boxes in the archives with his notebooks of philosophy, are philosophical, then that's tragic. That's his failure again. Trying to get out and escape and get beyond philosophy, but still always being stuck inside.