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December 12, 2011

This review was published in: Canadian Philosophical Reviews XI (1991), no. 5, p. 339-42.

Stephen Mulhall: On Being in the World. Wittgenstein and Heidegger on Seeing Aspects. New York, London: Routledge, 1990, ix + 206 pp.

This is an important book. It gives a clear exposition and an interesting comparison of Wittgenstein's and Heidegger's theories concerning the human relationship to the world. In addition to this it is of special interest for a certain breed of aestheticians. I believe the central problem of philosophical aesthetics is the following: whereas for cognitive claims to be legitimate the reports of other people may be sufficient evidence, for aesthetic evaluations we demand that the object has been experienced. Many aestheticians have fulfilled this demand mostly unwittingly, by stressing the role of perception in aesthetic experiences. But it is not clear at all how perception alone could account for the distinctiveness of the aesthetic, since we do not have aesthetic experiences continuously, although we perceive all day long. This observation has led some philosophers to the conclusion that what is involved in aesthetic experience is not normal perception. In this context the relevance for aesthetics of the Wittgensteinian notion of aspect-perception has been stated several times. However, although our understanding of this phenomenon has advanced a great deal over the years, we still seem unable to account adequately for what is distinctive about the aesthetic.

With the publication of Stephen Mulhall's On Being in the World this discussion of Wittgenstein-minded aesthetics will be furthered quite a bit. Not only does he explain in a very clear manner Wittgenstein's use of the relevant notions of aspect-perception, aspect-dawning, and continuous aspect-perception; and of the primary and secondary meanings of words, but he also relates these to daily life, and compares Wittgenstein's practices in this respect with Heidegger's totality of references. Wittgenstein's view of philosophical investigation as consisting solely of remarks on grammar is most important for Mulhall's critique of Heidegger's metaphysical commitments.

Mulhall starts from Wittgenstein's discussion of the duck-rabbit picture and points out that the dawning of an aspect seems to involve a paradox. Although we see exactly the same our thoughts accompanying our vision are different. We express this by using different sentences or gestures to explain what we see. E.g. we compare the picture with living ducks, or we point to what we now see as the duck's beak. It is this linguistic or gestural report that changes and which should be analysed. But what is even more important about the dawning of a new aspect, is that it implies that we already see things as something. Wittgenstein calls this phenomenon "aspect-regarding" or "continuous aspect-perception". Its most important feature is familiarity: whenever we see a picture, we see it at once as a picture of something, and we are inclined to treat it as if it were the represented object itself: that is why we call them sad or gay. It is not normal to have to interpret the colour stains and structures in order to understand a picture as a portrait of your neighbour.

These considerations involve a view of 'normal' perception. To illustrate this view Wittgenstein analyses the case of the aspect-blind, i.e. people unable to perceive the duck-rabbit alternately as a duck or a rabbit. All they perceive is a black line on a white background. Of course they may learn to know it is a duck, or a rabbit, or even both alternately, but this will involve interpretation on their part whereas for people perceiving normally the changing of aspects takes place with great ease and without hesitation. This is parallelled in our experience of the meaning of words as is exemplified in the loss of meaning as a consequence of repeating a word many times. We then perceive only bare sounds, which is quite anomalous: normally we do perceive the meaning through the sounds, and do not have to infer it. The third domain that seems to unfold analogously to aspect-perception is our ascription of mental states to other minds. Wittgenstein criticises the view that the mental exists of entities that are privately accessible only. The relevant criteria are public: they concern the context in which the person is said to have the mental state. However, this does not exclude the existence of an internal life. So the objects of our psychological concepts may be compared with dawning aspects in that they both are public and enigmatic.

Now Mulhall connects this analysis of continuous aspect-perception with a criticism of Donald Davidson's theory of understanding. Davidson is said to show his own aspect-blindness by his allegedly cramped theory that understanding is a case of interpretation, as is our understanding of a sentence in a foreign language. According to Mulhall, Davidson is starting from the wrong examples. But I wonder if Davidson's theory may be rejected as easily as that. Aspect-blindness rather seems the essential counterpart of aspect-perception: seeing one aspect necessarily excludes the perception of another one. Everyone will sometimes be blind to some aspect, and will then be obliged to interpret his vision in terms of the descriptions or gestures of a person who does see the relevant aspect.

Subsequently Mulhall compares the views of Wittgenstein and Heidegger, who are shown similar in that they show that we are already at home in the world, but dissimilar in that Heidegger gives a metaphysical account for this homeliness, whereas Wittgenstein's investigations are confined to the grammar of our relevant expressions. Mulhall finds Heidegger's metaphysical commitments redundant. And it is with this verdict in mind that he analyses Heidegger's aesthetic opinions, as well as George Steiner's that reflect these. According to Steiner iconicity is the essential feature of works of art. With this term he refers first to their irreducibility, i.e. their absolute uniqueness, and secondly to their inexhaustibility, i.e. the fact that we may never stop when trying to understand them: little seems irrelevant for our assessment of the aesthetic value of a work of art. The work's iconicity emerges on the one side from the fact that it carries meaning and, on the other, from its being seemingly identical with this meaning: in understanding it we experience the work as it is in itself. In his lectures on aesthetics Heidegger describes the aesthetic value of a painting by Van Gogh representing muddy farmer's shoes by referring to the countryside and to the farmers' labour as exemplified by the way the shoes are worn and by the stuff they are made of. Now in Heidegger's terminology in this painting there is a strife between 'world' and 'earth'. With 'world' he refers to the totality of references that make out the way people - farmers - experience their surroundings: we hardly ever perceive bare objects for which we must then invent a functionality; we already know their purposes; to us objects are like tools. The totality of their interrelations make up the world of the farmer, and Van Gogh's painting carries this as its meaning. But contrary to this world in a work of art there is 'earth' too, with which Heidegger refers to the materiality of the work (Steiner's 'irreducibility'). In our aesthetic experience we are confronted with meaning as well as with a facet of the work that remains hidden in itself. Works of art make us feel this strife.

According to Wittgenstein, works of art make us experience the dawning of aspects, which is to say that we are inclined to describe our aesthetic experiences in terms of something changing and staying alike at the same time. We explain the new aspect by referring to its cultural surroundings, and at the same time we are interested in the way the work enhances our experience. Wittgenstein compares these two features with gestures: we experience their meaning by way of their context, and at the same time we identify this meaning with the particular configuration of the gesture itself: any change in the gesture will change its meaning, as is the case with works of art. Now the irreducibility Heidegger and Steiner ascribe to great works of art suggests an experience of the object as it exists in itself. Wittgenstein's grammatical account does not lead to such metaphysical conclusions: according to him the work of art is like a gesture: it is through references to its context that we try to describe it. These references may include an indefinite part of the surrounding culture. Since what is at stake in an aesthetic experience is our perception of some aspect of the work of art, and since this perception is experienced as if we experience the object represented by the work, the more concepts we inform our experience with, the more determined the work seems to be, and the closer we seem to get to its object.

Wittgenstein and Mulhall are certainly correct in denying the metaphysical claim that an aesthetic experience is an experience of the thing as it is in itself. But their arguments also involve an assimilation of aesthetic experiences into our everyday experiences of aspect-dawning, as a consequence of which we seem to loose grip on the distinctiveness of the aesthetic. I feel a little uneasy about this. Now Mulhall also gives a preferential treatment of aspect-perception over aspect-blindness in his criticism of Davidson's interpretation view. But surely this implies an unjustifiable metaphysical claim concerning what is most essential in our perception, because both facets of perception seem just as important. Perhaps in acknowledging this fact one could account for the distinctiveness of aesthetic experiences. Mulhall's analysis and comparison are very illuminating, but his conclusion that aesthetic experience just is a part of normal life may indeed not be the one to draw. It is for this very reason that I advice everyone concerned about the distinctiveness of aesthetics to read this book.

The investigations were supported by the Foundation for Philosophical Research (SWON), which is subsidized by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO).

© Rob van Gerwen