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The Photography of Ludwig Wittgenstein


Philosophers have often ruminated on the aesthetics of photography. Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida begins with a poignant memorialization of his mother, as remembered through her photograph. Pierre Bourdieu’s Photography: A Middle-Brow Art wondered why and how the medium became so widespread that “there are few households, at least in towns, which do not possess a camera.” And Jacques Derrida’s posthumous Athens, Still Remains, a travel memoir accompanied by the photographs of Jean-Francois Bonhomme, begins with the mystical phrase “We owe ourselves to death.” For Barthes and Derrida, photography was a medium of suspended mortality—every photograph a memento mori. For another philosopher, the cryptic, polymath, and notoriously surly Ludwig Wittgenstein, photography was a concrete expression of his preferred means of perception. As he famously wrote in the Philosophical Investigations, “Don’t think, look!” For the unsentimentally cerebral Wittgenstein, a photograph is not a memorial, but a “probability.” The philosopher’s archive at the University of Cambridge includes the photograph above, a true “probability” in that it does not represent any one person but is a composite image of his face and the faces of his three sisters, made in collaboration with the “founding father of eugenics,” Francis Galton. The four separate photographs that Wittgenstein and Galton blended together are below.

Of the composite image, keeper of the Wittgenstein archives Michael Nedo writes that “Wittgenstein was aiming for different clarity expressed by the photography of fuzziness.”:

Galton wanted to work out one probability, whereas Wittgenstein saw this as a summary in which all manner of possibilities are revealed in the fuzziness.

Fuzziness is a word rarely applied to Wittgenstein’s thought—at least his early work in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus where his only goal is a clarity of thought that supposedly dissolves all the “fuzzy” problems of philosophy in a series of elliptical aphorisms. The philosopher also called himself a “disciple of Freud,” in that he sought to “think in pictures,” and reach beyond language to the images produced by dreams and the unconscious, “to enable us to see things differently.” Wittgenstein’s photographs are as strangely detached and mysterious as the man himself. Salon has a gallery of the philosopher’s photographs, which includes the portrait of him (below), taken at his instruction in Swansea, Wales in 1947. It’s an iconic image; Wittgenstein half-sneers disdainfully at the camera, his steady gaze a challenge, while the blackboard behind him shows a riot of scratches and scrawls. In the upper right-hand corner, the word RAW hangs ominously above the philosopher’s head.

Wittgenstein’s grim portrait presents a contrast to the warmer recent photographic portraits of philosophers like those in Steve Pyke’s new book of philosopher portraits Philosophers. We’ve previously featured Pyke’s portraits of philosophers like Richard Rorty, David Chalmers, and Arthur Danto. For much a much less formal series of portraits of contemporary philosophers as everyday people, swing by the Tumblr Looks Philosophical.

Josh Jones is a doctoral candidate in English at Fordham University and a co-founder and former managing editor of Guernica / A Magazine of Arts and Politics.

Open Culture 

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