How can one learn the truth by thinking? As one learns to see a face better if one draws it.Ludwig Wittgenstein, Zettel §255
This remark, like many of Wittgenstein’s, seems to arise from self-examination. The answer he gives suggests that he is concerned with learning just by thinking, and indeed with the particular kind of learning just by thinking that happens in philosophy (as opposed to, say, mathematics). He seems to be asking how such learning is even possible. What are we to make of his answer?
I remember being surprised when I was taught where to place the eyes when drawing a face seen from straight on. I thought I knew where the eyes went: about three-quarters of the way up. But when I really looked at a face in order to draw it, I saw that I was wrong: the eyes are halfway down the head.
This is the sort of thing one might call “learning to see a face better by drawing it.” I thought I knew how something looked, but to produce a good drawing, I had to really look—and in doing so I discovered that I didn’t know how it looked, after all.
A similar idea lies behind another drawing lesson I was once taught. Having been asked to copy a picture of a still-life painting, I was told that a good method would be to turn the picture upside down, copy what I saw, and then turn the copy around. The idea was that if I looked at the picture the right way up, I would recognise the objects in it and confidently proceed to draw what I thought they actually looked like, not how they were depicted in the painting I was asked to copy. Turning the picture upside down was a way to remove my confidence that I already knew how the painter would have depicted them, forcing me to really look.
The essayist David Searcy has described having a similar experience as a child. He recalls the words of his kindergarten teacher encouraging him to attend to the colors of the grass while drawing an outdoor scene:
Oh, but see if you look at the grass, it isn’t really solid green like that. You know? (Perhaps I knew. Perhaps in a background sort of way, as one knows there is death and history and other imponderables. But of course it’s green. We all know grass is green.) But look. You see? […] Look at the colours. Look at all the browns and yellows. See if you can draw that, won’t you? See if you can draw it as it is.Searcy, p. 110
Searcy’s memory, and my experiences of drawing a face and copying a picture, seem to exemplify the general point that good observational drawing requires relinquishing one’s confidence that one already knows what something looks like, so that one’s drawing can be fully guided by what it actually looks like. If we think of this confidence as akin to arrogance, then we can put this point by saying that good observational drawing requires a certain attitude of humility.
This insight gives us a helpful way to make sense of Wittgenstein’s remark. Learning the truth just by thinking, as one does in philosophy, is analogous to learning to see a face better by drawing it, in at least the sense that they require analogous attitudes of humility.
The first step towards interpreting this analogy is to explain what, in the practice of philosophy, the observational drawing of an object could be analogous to. An answer that chimes with much of Wittgenstein’s later work is that observational drawing is analogous to describing the use of words. Perhaps Wittgenstein is suggesting that this activity requires an attitude of humility in which one relinquishes one’s confidence that one already knows how words are used, so that one’s descriptions of the uses of words can be fully guided by their actual use.
In fact, Wittgenstein explicitly calls for something very like this kind of humility in his discussion, in Part II of the Philosophical Investigations, of the concept of the “state of seeing” something. He exhorts us: “Do not think you knew in advance what ‘state of seeing’ means here. Let the use teach you the meaning” (p. 212).
Why would Wittgenstein ask his reader to adopt this kind of humility? More generally, why might we think that this kind of humility is necessary in philosophy for learning the truth by thinking? An example may help us here.
Suppose we want to understand what it means to be healthy. Since ‘healthy’ is an everyday term, we might confidently believe that we already know how it is used, and we might say something like: to be healthy is to be free from illness or injury. Yet saying this would be like drawing a face without really looking at it first, and placing the eyes three-quarters of the way up the head. As Aristotle noticed (Metaphysics IV.2), not only do we call people healthy; we also apply the term to things that produce health (like certain diets), as well as symptoms of health (like certain complexions). But when we do this, we do not mean that these diets or complexions are free from illness or injury. In our confidence that we already knew how ‘healthy’ was used, we failed to be guided by the actual use of the word.
There is something surprising about the idea that we might need this kind of humility when describing the use of words that we ourselves competently use. How could we fail to know how they are used and yet remain competent users? The analogy with drawing makes this slightly less puzzling: I see faces all the time, yet I still thought the eyes should be drawn three-quarters of the way up the head. In both cases, a kind of familiarity with something is not enough to enable us to make an accurate copy of it, linguistically or pictorially. The question of what exactly is going on in such cases is beyond this discussion, though an answer might begin by noting the aptness of Searcy’s claim to know “in a background sort of way” what he failed to copy.
Another question beyond this discussion is whether the kind of learning we have been concerned with—one that involves describing the use of words—is the only kind of learning that happens in philosophy. Here I merely claim that, at the very least, this is one kind of learning that happens in philosophy. Moreover, the learning that involves describing the uses of words seems to be a common and important kind of learning in philosophy. As Aristotle’s example is intended to show, it would be wrong to think that it is somehow confined to an era of “ordinary language philosophy” that we have outgrown.
Resistance to the thought that descriptions of the uses of words have an important place in philosophy connects with a broader resistance, widespread today, to Wittgenstein’s views on the nature of philosophy. I would like to close with one remark on this.
The resistance is by no means incomprehensible. Many of Wittgenstein’s statements on the nature of philosophy, such as the famous remark that “a philosopher treats a question; like an illness” (Philosophical Investigations §255), seem to present the idea that the most a philosopher can achieve is a kind of “unlearning.” On this view, philosophy has the purely negative value of ridding us of misleading pictures of mind, language, logic, knowledge, and so on, which the surface features of our language suggest to us, and which lead us into confusion. The resistance is comprehensible in that it is hard not to feel dissatisfied with such a pessimistic view, or even to feel that it constitutes something of an insult to the countless creative minds whose efforts over the centuries have come to define the discipline of philosophy.
The remark I have been discussing suggests that this interpretation of Wittgenstein’s meta-philosophy needs to be nuanced. Here is Wittgenstein, apparently in self-examination, seeking to understand, not how he is “unlearning,” but how he is learning. So perhaps Wittgenstein’s position does not deny the genuine achievements in learning that can happen in philosophy. Perhaps he would simply ask us to keep in mind how unusual this kind of learning is.
David Searcy. Shame and Wonder (London: William Heinemann, 2016).
Ludwig Wittgenstein. Philosophical Investigations, ed. G. E. M. Anscombe and R. Rhees, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1953).
——— Zettel, ed. G. E. M. Anscombe and G.H. von Wright, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1967).
The author gratefully acknowledges funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement no. 789270).