Drawing comparisons: Aesthetic Understanding and Philosophical Activity

Dawn Wilson


In this essay I discuss one of the methods that Wittgenstein introduces in the Philosophical Investigations: a method of drawing comparisons. Understanding a passage from a work of literature, a theme in a work of music and the objects depicted in a still-life drawing all feature as examples in Wittgenstein’s remarks. Wittgenstein draws our attention to the ways that we actively engage with art to arrive at an aesthetic understanding of a particular literary passage, musical theme or painted figure. He notes that we sometimes draw a comparison between the object of our study and something else, in order to see features of the work that we might otherwise overlook. Drawing a comparison does not simply involve noting similarities between two objects, but also acknowledging differences. Noting only similarities would serve to narrowly reinforce our preconceptions, but noting differences can confound our preconceptions and open us to new possibilities. Thus being willing to invent and imagine a wide range of objects of comparison is important for aesthetic understanding. I consider a passage of text to discuss how we would read the text if we encountered it in a scientific journal and how we would read the same text if we encountered it in a novel. I use this difference to illuminate Wittgenstein’s account of how we generate philosophical confusion when we attempt to penetrate to the essence of phenomena rather than direct our attention to the possibilities of phenomena. In this respect Wittgenstein’s conception of philosophy is selfconsciously akin to aesthetics rather than natural science. He suggests that we become trapped in philosophical confusion when we adopt a narrow, sharpened and idealised understanding of a particular form of expression, leading to metaphysical theorising and philosophical ‘superconcepts’. To dispel confusion we must be prepared to explore widely varied, everyday applications of the forms of expression that we seek to understand. Wittgenstein emphasises that philosophy is an activity. I will suggest that the activity he endorses involves the inventive, imaginative and comparative techniques that we rely on when we seek to understand works of art. In philosophy, faced with a phenomenon that puzzles us, we are inclined to construct a ‘picture’ from terms and concepts that are available in our ordinary discourse. The picture seems plausible to us when we compare it with similar forms of expression that have an application in our language-games. But drawing the analogy with familiar forms of expression may prevent us from seeing that the picture lacks application in any actual language-game. If instead we draw comparisons with a wider range of pictures – which have their applications in the context of a variety of different language games – we may be able to confound our philosophical preconceptions and remove the powerful misunderstanding and confusion that is characteristic of philosophical problems.


philosophy; Wittgenstein Ludwig; 20th century philosophy; aesthetics; literature; philosophical method


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