Ludwig Wittgenstein is the only non-fiction writer I know whose outlook on life is systematically—and rousingly—askew of mine. Still, we should consider what value his way of seeing and speaking holds.

Fat Wednesday: Wittgenstein on Aspects by John Verdi (Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2010, 270 pages)

I’ll reveal my own predilections and aversions up front: I trust Socrates—without completely believing him—and I distrust Ludwig Wittgenstein, without thinking him completely wrong. In fact, I’m in some respects terminally puzzled by both, but more so by Wittgenstein, whose main book, as John Verdi tells us on the first page of Fat Wednesday (the title will be explained below and has a purely coincidental relation to “Fat Tuesday,” Mardi Gras), contains 784 questions of which only 110 are answered, and seventy of those wrongly—on purpose. Now 744 unanswered questions seems to me an overplus of perplexity; I am especially sensitive to such erotetic overload (from erotesis, “question”), since I have heard it said of our college that we accept students who know nothing and graduate them now knowing that they know nothing. So I was a grateful member of a faculty study group on this question-laden work, the Philosophical Investigations, which John Verdi led in the spring of 2009, as he was writing his own book, with the resigned calm of a man who does believe in this author and is, for that very reason, unwilling to proselytize. Under his guidance and in conversation with my colleagues I learned a lot, enough to formulate two judgments. One concerned the reason for my near-constitutional incomprehension of Wittgenstein’s project: He is the only non-fiction writer I know whose outlook on life is systematically—and rousingly—askew of mine. The other judgment was that Dr. Verdi’s book would likely be a most trustworthy introduction to this strange thinker’s upending of all that seems humanly sensible. And so it proved.

In Fat Wednesday, John Verdi approaches Wittgenstein through two notions central to his later thinking: aspect—seeing and experiencing the meaning of words. The first three chapters explicate these, while the last two introduce Dr. Verdi’s own development and applications of these two topics. So his book introduces us both to Wittgenstein and to the world his work implies. It seems to me that, considering Wittgenstein’s relentless the-proof-is-in-the-pudding attitude toward human mentation, this organization is faithful to Wittgenstein’s intention, since it shows what one can do with his way of seeing and speaking.

What then is aspect-seeing and why is it crucial to Wittgenstein? Such “seeing” is based on an ineradicable ambiguity: One shape, objectively self-same, is seen alternately in one way and in another. Since such ambiguity arises primarily in the absence of context, deliberately devised drawings instigate it best. The most famous of them (Dr. Verdi illustrates several) is the “duck-rabbit,” a figure showing two forked protrusions, devised to look now like a duck’s open bill, and then again like a rabbit’s laid-back ears. The picture is one, but the aspect “goes about hither and thither” (Dr. Verdi points out that this is the etymology of the word ambiguity), so that we cannot help “seeing” the picture flip between resembling a duck and resembling a rabbit. This raises the question: What is resemblance?

Here I confess that I have two misgivings of my own about Wittgenstein’s project. One is that aspect-seeing is not a novel notion, as Wittgenstein seems to suggest, but is related, rather, to an old, old question—the one-over-many problem in metaphysics, where it is precisely the aspect (a fair translation of eidos, that is, looks or form) that is one, and the appearances, the phenomena, that are many. (So why, incidentally, does Wittgenstein write as if philosophical investigation began with him?) The other misgiving, less born of irritation, is that I have little faith in basing inquiry on special and devised cases, which are essentially distinct from the ideal cases that I would rather look to. These ideal cases may go fuzzy at the edges, but are probably substantial at the center. But then, it is just this center that, as Dr. Verdi confirms, Wittgenstein wishes to attenuate.

Wittgenstein’s aim is to establish the centrality of resemblance: family resemblance is to replace essence. Dr. Verdi [12]* quotes Wittgenstein’s account of this point:

[F]or the various resemblances between members of a family…overlap and criss-cross in the same way. [W]e extend our concept…as in spinning we twist fibre on fibre. And the strength of the thread does not reside in the fact that some fibre runs through the whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibres (Philosophical Investigations, §67).

So we are not to ask, “What do the phenomena to which we naturally give one name have in common?” Instead, we are to look for a sequence of resemblances; the first and last of these must perforce be quite unlike each other or there will be, after all, a thread of sameness. In the old ontology (set out in Plato’s Sophist) resemblance or likeness is sameness conjoined with otherness. But, true to his program, Wittgenstein does not engage in nailing down centralities but in clarifying concepts: “Conceptual (linguistic) questions ground casual questions, not the other way around” [5].

(This is the late Wittgenstein. I want to take the opportunity here to express a personal fascination. Wittgenstein recanted—how deeply is a matter of debate—his early Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, a hard-edged view of a world consisting of logically connected facts exactly pictured by our language, which is similarly structured, so that reality is explicable by a logical analysis of language. To me it is an absorbing question whether there are systematic differences between thinkers who develop by absorptive tweaking and those whose maturity comes through degrees of self-refutation. Is the latter a mark of unflagging vigor or of suspect instability?)

The crucial word of Dr. Verdi’s sentence is in parentheses: Wittgenstein seems to equate the terms conceptual and linguistic. A concept is not, as we were brought up to think, a cognitive entity.

As resemblance was construed anti-essentially, so concept is understood anti-cognitively—if cognition is thought of as an internal eventuation: Conceptual questions do not ask for interior states discerned by introspection, but demand observation of the external phenomena of linguistic usage—just enough such observation to discern how people actually use words. This notion establishes the transition from Dr. Verdi’s first chapter, “The Aspects Family,” to the second one, “Aspects and Words.”

“Seeing,” for example, has two uses [25]. One use can be accompanied by pointing to the picture of the ambiguous duck-rabbit. But pointing is not possible for the second use, for a duck-rabbit is not a this, but rather it flips from a this to a that. Something similar holds for any seeing of resemblance. You can’t point to a resemblance, though you can point it out, that is, make useful observations in words.

Wittgenstein means something much more radical than to say that words can be useful. He invites us to “think of words as instruments characterized by their use” [44]. In fact, the analogy is to a toolbox; the “functions of words are as diverse as the functions of these objects” (Philosophical Investigations, §11).

Here are my misgivings on this point. This way of analyzing language should depend not only on a receptive ear for the phenomena of speech, but on conceding our fellow human beings’ primary competence to know what they mean. I have long had my doubts about Wittgenstein and his language-analytical progeny in regard to the first point. As for the second, there is little doubt that Wittgenstein means to correct my sense of which meanings are acceptable and to control my claim that overt words express interior events, that I often have a thought or feeling for which I subsequently labor to find the word, and moreover, that this language is really only residually private, because I cherish a faith (and, finally, what else is there?) that human souls, with all the particularity that embellishes their being, are ultimately alike—even when they willfully plead ultimate diversity. Or to express it in the relaxed logical mode of real thinking: We have our privacies in common. These opinions of mine are questioned in form, but proscribed in effect, by Wittgenstein.

Privacy and sociality are central issues for Wittgenstein, since we operate, he thinks, with words as if we were playing language-games. These games are governed by socially established rules that we must learn; the rules tell me what the words, the game-pieces of language, do and what moves are permitted, just as the rules of chess govern that game. “One would not say,” as Dr. Verdi neatly puts it, “‘I know what a bishop does. Now tell me what it really is’” [45]. It is a neat formulation because it raises the question-hackles. Does it mean “would not” or “should not”? I for one would ask, meaning I might like to think about, “What, really, is a lusory bishop, a piece of ecclesiastic anthropomorphism (like a nautical nun-buoy)? What causes its possibility, beyond its being enmeshed in a game?” Can I be talked out of that predilection?

The rest of John Verdi’s second chapter fleshes out, in lucid detail, Wittgenstein’s disabling of the “what is it?” question—not in terms of an argument against it, for that would be an admission of its admissibility, but by the circumscription of an alternative way of being in and with our world. It is a way that consigns the inner human being to terminal opaqueness, for which it then compensates by undertaking a persistent and critical analysis of behavior, both gestural and linguistic. This way of abstemious philosophizing has at least one tremendous virtue: It raises our sensitivity to how we learn and what we say [106]. In particular, it attunes our ears to distinguishing how people speak before misguided ratiocination has tempted language into useless utterance.

Here Dr. Verdi stops to consider the very condition I touched on before, that there might be a real division among people’s experiences, and that some people might be “aspect-blind.” In the third chapter, he considers a group of true pathologies that afflict patients with the inability to see ambiguities. They are literalists of vision and language, and so miss crucial aspects of the world. They lack experiences of meaning.

“Fat Wednesday” itself is an example of such an experience [150]. “Fat” here is not a metaphor, since there is no sensible relation of obesity to Wotan’s Day. Unless it seems perfectly nonsensical to you, it will evoke a meaning, an “emergent” meaning. I think of it as a meaning-aura, a strong one for me. For in the Nazi Germany of my childhood, Wednesday was the day of mandated one-pot suppers (the resultant savings to be dropped into the collection can of a visiting storm-trooper)—and one-pot meals tend to be greasy. This “secondary meaning,” this emergence, is a startling development since it seems to be an overt intimation of interiority. As words have emergent meanings, so aspects can emerge; the inside will be outed.

Emergent meaning governs the fourth chapter, “Aspects and Art.” It begins with a reflection on a portrait of Descartes by Franz Hals, a reflection addressed to the basic ambiguity of all picture-viewing: That there is, in one aspect, a piece of canvas with splotches of paint that we can point to, and in another, a likeness of something, here the man, that we can’t reach by following the laser line from our index finger. (I might point out here that this analysis of physical images was an abiding preoccupation of Husserl, his student Fink, and Sartre, but I also want to retract my complaint about Wittgenstein’s willful aboriginality. Much better not to be too entangled in conceptual indebtedness!)

Here Dr. Verdi puts his Wittgensteinian sensibility to work on objects ranging from paintings (Dr. Verdi “sees” some arresting alternative aspects in well-known works) to music, to—and here it becomes wonderful—wine tasting, in the section entitled “Emergent Meaning and Wine.” Dr. Verdi plucks out, from notes on wine tasting in Wine Spectator Magazine, a group of enologically descriptive words that are candidates for emergence, including “velvety, chewy, taut” [201]. He observes that these terms of praise can’t be metaphorical. Who wants to run his tongue over something velvet-like? Instead the words carry emergent meanings, which are shared by other people and, he implies, widen our sensibility. If I don’t get it, I am (non-pathologically) aspect-blind. If I do, “I can better make my way in the world of wine-tasting and describing” [203].

The last chapter, provocatively entitled “Ethics and Aesthetics Are One,” is a real culmination. It considers the discovery of new science as a form of aspect-shift, and the letting-be of others’ religion as a form of aspect-seeing. The latter case exemplifies the chapter title. Dr. Verdi is as far as possible from the despicable central European aestheticism that once permitted murder by day if only the nights were spent listening to Schubert Lieder. Doing right and seeing multivalently are one, to be sure, insofar as we must be aesthetically (that is, sensorily) adroit in order to be ethically (that is, morally) good. The former is not, however, so much a condition for the latter as it is the same with it—an attitude realized in a skill. Both are our very own; both are acquired by attentive learning. Dr. Verdi calls this disposition “active tolerance” [259]. Just as he is far removed from mere aestheticism, so too is he worlds apart from the essentially disrespectful, because inattentive, tolerance of “I’m OK, you’re OK.” Active tolerance is a subtle, sophisticated version of the ability to see both—or even many—sides of an issue. Where Socrates says, “Virtue is knowledge,” Dr. Verdi’s Wittgenstein says, “Ethics is aspect-seeing,” an ingrained appreciation of alternate possibilities and the respect that goes with it.

Let me indulge in a final cavil, then, one which I’ve already intimated. Wittgenstein’s probing, pushing, and pulling feel to me like a clearly offered and cagily retracted condemnation: Statements of absolute value are respectfully denominated nonsense by him [242]. So is Dr. Verdi’s deeply liberal conclusion still Wittgenstein, or has it become more Dr. Verdi? If the latter, I would, at risk of paining him, take John Verdi over Wittgenstein anytime.

If Wittgenstein has got under your skin, or if you want him to, read this book.

Republished with gracious permission from The St. John’s Review (Volume 52, No. 2, 2011).


* Numbers in brackets refer to Fat Wednesday. 

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