WAB: "Fragments" | The following contribution is an excerpt from Kristóf Nyíri: "Wittgenstein’s philosophy of pictures", in: Alois Pichler and Simo Säätelä (eds.): Wittgenstein: The philosopher and his works, Working Papers from the Wittgenstein Archives at the University of Bergen no. 17, Wittgenstein Archives at the University of Bergen (WAB) 2005, pp. 281-312. Publication on WAB's website with kind permission from the author and the editors (2005.4.7).

Kristóf Nyíri: Wittgenstein’s philosophy of pictures

Wittgenstein’s philosophy of pictures

Wittgenstein’s philosophy of pictures is commonly regarded as comprising two contrasting positions. The Tractatus is taken to argue for a picture theory of meaning, summed up by Wittgenstein’s dictum: “The proposition is a picture of reality.”1 The later Wittgenstein is interpreted as holding a use theory of pictures, according to which pictures by themselves do not carry any meaning; they acquire meaning by being put to specific uses and by being applied in specific contexts. Those uses and contexts are defined by language; pictures are subservient to words, and indeed not even mental images mean by virtue of their resemblance to some external reality.

Now of course neither the early nor the later views of Wittgenstein on picturing are as straightforward as common opinion suggests. Recall the Tractarian notion of the abbildende Beziehung, or “pictorial relationship”,2 a relationship consisting of “the correlation of the picture’s elements with things” (TLP 2.1514). This “pictorial relationship” has exactly the same function as the later concept of a “method of projection”: the idea of convention is there in the Tractatus, too. Nor is the idea of resemblance missing from the Investigations.

The standard opinion did not go uncontested. In 1973 already Kenny emphasized that “the picture theory needs supplementing rather than [being] false … the theory of meaning as use is a complement rather than a rival to the picture theory.”3 The discontinuity view, however, remains predominant. In his Picture Theory W.J.T. Mitchell writes in reference to Wittgenstein of “a philosophical career that began with a ‘picture theory’ of meaning and ended with the appearance of a kind of iconoclasm, a critique of imagery that led him to renounce his earlier pictorialism …”4

Wittgenstein’s later philosophy of pictures has been taken note of in the so-called imagery debate. Fodor in his 1975 The Language of Thought paraphrases insertion (b) at § 139 of the Philosophical Investigations when he writes: “A picture which corresponds to a man walking up a hill forward corresponds equally, and in the same way, to a man sliding down the hill backward.”5 By omitting the second half of the passage – “Perhaps a Martian would describe the picture so. I do not need to explain why we do not describe it so” – Fodor fosters the one-sided image of an unequivocally propositionalist Wittgenstein. Fodor’s interpretation is taken up by Stephen Kosslyn, for many years the main protagonist on the “images exist” side of the imagery debate, in his 1994 book Image and Brain.6 For him, too, Wittgenstein stands for the view that pictures without a verbal interpretation cannot carry meaning.

Beyond the boundaries of the imagery debate Wittgenstein’s later philosophy of pictures has not received much attention. Thus from the very extended discussions surrounding Goodman’s Languages of Art,7 Wittgenstein’s name is practically absent,8 even though one of the first reviewers of the work, Richard Wollheim, did to some extent rely on Wittgenstein.9 My suggestion is that the relative lack of interest in Wittgenstein’s later philosophy of pictures is not independent of the fact that his full Nachlass was, until the publication of the Bergen Electronic Edition, not actually available. The printed corpus only partially conveys the richness, complexities, continuities of, and changes in, Wittgenstein’s ideas on pictorial representation.10 And it fails to convey the significance of the later Wittgenstein’s method of explaining philosophical points with the help of diagrams – his Nachlass contains some 1300 of them. This method would have made no sense if he had really adhered to the position that images do not have a meaning unless interpreted verbally.11




1Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 4.01, Ogden transl. As Wittgenstein then goes on to explain: "In order to understand the essence of the proposition, consider hieroglyphic writing, which pictures the facts it describes. - And alphabetic script developed out of it without losing what was essential to depiction. - This we see from the fact that we understand the sense of the propositional sign, without having had it explained to us." (TLP 4.016, 4.02, the sentence "And alphabetic script ..." rendered in the Pears-McGuinness transl.)
2Pears-McGuinness translation. Ogden has "representing relation".
3Anthony Kenny, Wittgenstein, Penguin Books, 1973, p. 226. - Recent contributions arguing against the standard view are Anat Biletzki and David Berlin, "The Logic of Making Pictures", in R. Casati - G. White, eds., Philosophy and the Cognitive Sciences, Kirchberg am Wechsel: ÖLWG, 1993, pp. 47-50; Judith Genova, "Wittgenstein on Thinking: Words or Pictures?", in R. Casati - G. White, eds., Philosophy and the Cognitive Sciences, pp. 163-167; Judith Genova, Wittgenstein: A Way of Seeing, London: Routledge, 1995.
4W.J.T. Mitchell, Picture Theory, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994, p. 12.
5Jerry A. Fodor, "Imagistic Representation", in Ned Block, ed., Imagery, Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1981, p. 68. This text in Block, ed., is taken from Fodor's The Language of Thought (1975). The remark appears again, quite disfigured by then, in Zenon W. Pylyshyn's Computation and Cognition: Towards a Foundation for Cognitive Science: "As Wittgenstein points out, the image of a man walking up a hill may look exactly like the image of a man walking backward down a hill; yet, if they were my images, there would be no question of their being indeterminate - I would know what they represented" (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1984, p. 41).
6Stephen M. Kosslyn, Image and Brain: The Resolution of the Imagery Debate, Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1994.
7Nelson Goodman, Languages of Art, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1968.
8Compare my "The Picture Theory of Reason", in Berit Brogaard - Barry Smith, eds., Rationality and Irrationality, Vienna: öbv-hpt, 2001, pp. 242-266.
9The review, published in The Journal of Philosophy in 1970, utilized arguments previously formulated in the reviewer's book Art and Its Objects (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), the book itself heavily relying on both Part I and Part II of the Philosophical Investigations. Compare also Wollheim's lecture On Drawing an Object (London: H.K. Lewis, 1965).
10As Hintikka has put it: "discussions of whether Wittgenstein 'gave up the picture theory' in his later philosophy offer an instructive example of the confusion one inevitably runs into if one does not distinguish the different components of the syndrome that usually goes by the name 'Wittgenstein's picture theory'." (Jaakko Hintikka, "An Anatomy of Wittgenstein's Picture Theory", 1994, here quoted from Hintikka, Ludwig Wittgenstein: Half-Truths and One-and-a-Half-Truths, Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1996, p. 21.)
11This is the point Andreas Roser makes in his important paper "Gibt es autonome Bilder? Bemerkungen zum grafischen Werk Otto Neuraths und Ludwig Wittgensteins", Grazer Philosophische Studien 1996/97. An earlier version of Roser's paper was read at the conference Wittgenstein y el Circulo de Viena, organized by the Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha with the collaboration of the Forschungsstelle und Dokumentationszentrum für Österreichische Philosophie, at Toledo, November 3-5, 1995. Roser's main argument, very briefly, is that one could not speak of different applications of the same picture if one did not distinguish between the picture and its application.



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