Ludwig Wittgenstein was an Austrian born philosopher who spent the majority of his studies and teaching career at Cambridge University. One of the earliest proponents of what is now called “Analytic Philosophy”, he wrote two major books in his lifetime, The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), and Philosophical Investigations (published after his death in 1953).
In the Tractatus, he sought to organize language formally, using principles derived from Bertrand Russell’s new developments in predicate logic. Upon the completion of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein believed that he had solved all of the problems of Philosophy.
All that the Tractatus has to say about Aesthetics can be summed up in it’s famous last proposition, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” If anything carried over to Wittgenstein’s later work in Aesthetics, it is this.
In 1929, after nearly 10 years of retirement, Wittgenstein realized that he had not, in fact, “solved” philosophy, and returned to Cambridge to teach and begin his language work again. During this period, he came to realize that his attempts to formalize language were absurd. Language already had a rule system – that system given it by its speakers. It makes no sense to take a word (lets use “to be”) and assign it a new, formalized meaning apart from its daily use (as most western Philosophers had redefined "to be" to fit their metaphysics). The mere fact that a word is used by English speakers every day tells us that it has a set meaning of a sort which makes it intelligible to all fluent English speakers. From this point on, Wittgenstein advocated what he called “Ordinary Language Philosophy”, which is the concentrated study of language as it is used in daily life. From this, comes his 1938 “Lectures on Aesthetics”.
“Lectures” is the best window into Wittgenstein’s Aesthetic theory that we have. He never explicitly wrote on the topic of Aesthetics, though it was of particular significance to him in his day to day life. “Lectures” is in fact a compilation of his students’ notes on the summer of '38 lectures, which allow us to gain some insight into what was said in the classroom at Cambridge, along with his replies to student objections.
Wittgenstein begins by asking the question he always asked, “How do we talk about aesthetics and aesthetic judgments?” The sentences we usually use go something like this – “The tree is beautiful”. Clearly, beautiful is being used as an adjective; it would then seem that beautiful is some quality that the tree possesses. That, Wittgenstein explains, is clearly incorrect. “Beautiful” is not something about the tree the way “green” is. It has more to do with our reaction than the object itself or some will bestowed upon the object by it’s creator. In this regard, he stood in direct opposition to many of his early twentieth century counterparts (e.g.: most of Heidegger’s major works had been released in the 15 years prior to Wittgenstein’s lectures, and Wittgenstein himself was very much conscious of and involved in, though not in agreement with the Bauhaus school of design and early “International Style” of architecture).
Wittgenstein contends that, in assuming that “beautiful” is being used as a property descriptor, we are, in effect, trying to hammer a nail in with a screwdriver. Beautiful is not actually used as a descriptor at all, but rather as an interjection -- a completely different tool in our linguistic toolbox.
To prove this point, Wittgenstein asks us to think of how we learned such words as “beautiful” and “good”. These terms begin as gestures. We learn to associate the word “beautiful” with the gestures of a person seeing something that they find beautiful, or the gestures that we personally make on instinct when presented with something beautiful. The gesture, then, is merely a more primitive language version of the interjection. In fact, the gesture is entirely interchangeable with any number of interjections. The sentence “the tree is green” conveys something that no gesture could. It is, in and of itself the primitive for conveying its message. On the other hand, when we say “wow” or, “the tree is beautiful”, we are really saying nothing more than our gesture could say. For this reason, there is something of a vacuity of meaning in aesthetic statements as spoken language. Here, we see Wittgenstein’s famous proposition from the Tractatus come into play. We truly cannot speak about aesthetic reactions because words serve us no better than primitive gestures.
Aesthetic gestures come largely in the form of approval. If I am fond of a suit, I may say “this is a beautiful suit”, I may say simply “Ah!”, or I may just wear it regularly and make remarks about it to friends. Any way it is done, I am expressing my approval of it. Wittgenstein thinks it absurd to attempt to give a causal reason for the fact that I approve of something aesthetically. Such a judgment has no mechanism, and he charges that everyone who attempts to instill in it a mechanism (e.g.: Kant, with his explanation of why we make certain judgments about what is beautiful and sublime) is simply doing so after the fact in an attempt to make aesthetics governable by the laws of physics. Since aesthetic judgments are psychological phenomena and not physical ones, they are governed by the laws of psychology, of which there are few. For this reason, Wittgenstein believes that aesthetic judgments must be considered subjective, at least until we can assemble a body of psychological laws that allows us to predict human behavior.
While the judgements themselves are subjective, Wittgenstein believes that there is some standard by which aesthetic judgments can be more or less correct. Two men may like the same object, but one may know more about its background and thereby be said to “appreciate” it more. Wittgenstein tells us that appreciation comes from experience of a thing. A white British man may see two statuettes carved by the Maasai in Kenya in the British Museum and be particularly struck by the one on the right. A Maasai may see the same two figures and make the same judgment (preferring the one on the right), but we would say that he appreciates the figure more than the white man because he knows how it would be used, he has seen them made, etc. He has a cultural training that the white man lacks (Cf. Hume). For this reason, we trust his judgment above the white man’s. In much the same way, we trust our tailor’s judgment over our own when considering the proper cut, lapel size, etc. of a suit.
Monk, Ray. Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. Penguin Books, New York (1990).
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Ed.: Cyril Barrett. Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology, and Religious Belief. Basil Blackwell, Oxford (1967).
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Transl.: C. K. Ogden. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Dover Publications, Mineola, NY (1999).