The later Wittgenstein’s notion of a ‘picture’

Howard asked:

Hello there. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on what exactly a picture was for the later Wittgenstein. It is a term he draws on very often, but as is characteristic, doesn’t seem interested in giving an exhaustive definition. What would you say is a good way of approaching the notion? Thanks.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

In order to answer your question, Howard, I need to say something about what a ‘picture’ was for the early Wittgenstein in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Wittgenstein’s theory of an elementary proposition as a ‘picture’ of a state of affairs was inspired by a court case, where models were used to describe a traffic accident. Crucial here is the notion of ‘logical multiplicity’, where the possibilities of combination of linguistic elements map onto the possibilities of combination of the ‘objects’ in the world that the individual elements ‘name’. It’s a notion we are all familiar with, e.g. in the debate between analogue and digital recording. Some information is lost in a digital recording, the only question is whether this loss is above or below the threshold of the human ear.

In his later writings, e.g. in Philosophical investigations, Wittgenstein scorned the idea that meaning could be accounted for in terms of ‘picturing’, on the grounds that there are many linguistic ‘games’ and describing or ‘mapping’ states of affairs is only one of them. His use of the term ‘picture’, however, is almost exclusively concerned with the contrast between a picture and a meaningful thought, or ‘move in the language game’. Some uses of words only look like moves in the language game, whereas in reality, ‘one turns a wheel although nothing turns with it’.

A couple of non-philosophical examples illustrate the idea. A question Wittgenstein once posed to his students goes like this: Imagine a rope tied around the Earth (or, if you prefer, a sphere the size of the Earth). Now add one yard to the rope and stretch it tight, using stilts to hold the rope above the ground. How high are the stilts?

Most persons, without thinking, would say that the stilts must be tiny, since the Earth is very large compared to the one yard of added rope. Wrong! Believe it or not, the stilts are approximately six inches. If you don’t believe me, do the calculation yourself, using the formula, Pi x 2r = c, where r is the radius (the distance from the surface of the Earth to the centre) and c is the circumference (the original length of the rope around the Equator).

Here’s another example, also from Wittgenstein. In a classroom discussion, a student remarked that ancient peoples believed that the Sun goes around the Earth because, ‘that’s the way it looks’. Wittgenstein then asked, ‘And how would it look otherwise?!’ Try this for yourself. How would things ‘have to look’ if it looked as if the Earth goes round the Sun? Maybe what you ‘picture’ is the sensation of going around a roundabout in a car. But that fails to take account of the sheer scale of the solar system’s ’roundabout’.

On the philosophical front, a particular focus of the later Wittgenstein was the way we use (or, rather, misuse) terms suitable for describing material objects for mental ‘states’ and ‘objects’. The classic example is Descartes’ ‘theatre’ of the mind, where mental ‘objects’ pass along the ‘stage’. A certain way of thinking appeals to the imagination (the ‘picture’) which blinds us to the way these terms actually function in the real world, their ‘use in the language game’. However, the same error can also arguably be found on the opposite side, as illustrated by Bishop Berkeley’s description of external objects as mere ‘perceptions in the mind’.

Once you start looking for ‘pictures’, you see them everywhere. Not surprising, because so much of language — particularly, the language we use to describe our mental states — is more or less metaphorical. There’s no harm in this, Wittgenstein would say, provided that we keep this in mind when we do philosophy.

One thought on “The later Wittgenstein’s notion of a ‘picture’

  1. Very interesting discussion. I wonder if the author and Geoffrey might be interested in the idea of ‘inner representations’ as discussed via a range of means and ways in neuro-linguistic programming. The internal representations we ‘come up with’ are – subjective notions. That is, via the senses, we create inner representation. These are, we might say, a product of being sentient, that is, our ‘inbuilt’ faculties in being human or, probably animal also, create these inner representations. What are these based on? They are based on our senses, sight, sound, touch, taste smell and the mind at a lower level (cognition). The great thing is, we can work on these. In doing this we change our ‘subjective notions’ im a way which can mean alignment with how reality actually is(!). And what is reality we might humbly ask. Well, we could say it is reality, as it is, minus human subjective interpretation. We can, for example, come more into alignment with what other humans or beings are processing, in order to create better communication among each other. This, surely, is a worthy goal!

    One, really interesting aspect of this is that we might come to see subjective notions, including inner representations as a wonderful and valid aspect of life but one which may be transcended by, for example Will. Here, we can perhaps greet Immanuel Kant and the understanding that senses alone are not sufficient to know/experience Reason.

    Surely inner representations can be a portal for us to a Higher Reality!

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