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WITTGENSTEIN ON AESTHETIC UNDERSTANDING. By Garry L. Hagberg (Ed.). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. 394 p.

This book collects twelve essays concerning Wittgenstein's treatment of aesthetic understanding, broadly construed. Essays discussing very specific issues coexist alongside contributions targeting general aspects of Wittgenstein's view of aesthetic understanding and experience.

The book is divided into four parts. The first concerns the aesthetic dimension of Wittgenstein's work, while the remaining three parts deal with literature, music, and the connection between the experience of art and that of persons.

While most contributions are authored by philosophers, the book also includes essays written by English literature scholars. This interdisciplinary approach is welcome, and it shows that Wittgenstein's writings are able to foster a cooperation between philosophers and other scholars in the humanities--a cooperation that is often missing.

An example of this is provided by the essay by Robert Chodat, who attempts to apply a Wittgensteinian anti-essentialist argument to the concept of narrative. In doing this, Chodat rekindles a proposal that was already advanced with regard to art in general, namely that no rigorous definition of it is possible, and that in fact any attempt to formulate one may be seriously misleading.

When it comes to the scope of Wittgenstein's writings that are discussed, the focus is mainly on the philosopher's late production. An exception is represented by the opening essay, in which William Day reconstructs the Wittgensteinian notion of grammar from the Tractatus until his late writings, arguing that aesthetic understanding is paradigmatic of the way philosophical grammar works.

Various essays deal with music: in addition to the three essays contained in Part III, devoted to musical understanding, Garry L. Hagberg's chapter also discusses music extensively This is unsurprising, giving Wittgenstein's own artistic sensibility, as well as the wealth of remarks he devoted to this art form. More surprising is perhaps the fact that literature is also extensively discussed, with three essays clearly devoted to it--one of them being Chodat's, discussed above. The remaining two essays are examples of how Wittgenstein's philosophy may inform the interpretation of particular works.

Shlomy Mualem shows how one can make sense of the narrative structure of Borges's "Emma Zunz" through the notion of aspect change, as well as by appealing to some of Wittgenstein's considerations in his Lecture on Ethics. Walter Jost proposes a reading of Elizabeth Bishop's poem "Crusoe in England" through Wittgenstein's philosophy.

Hagberg's essay is an attempt to clarify the relation between musical meaning and cultural context. Hagberg argues that, according to Wittgenstein, musical understanding is always dependent on connections we draw between the musical structures we hear and various elements that are only apparently extraneous to such structures, especially spoken language. The implications of this are wide-ranging. First, music is a culturally embedded phenomenon, and our capacity to understand music from an extraneous cultural context depends crucially on whether we manage to develop a "period ear" that renders us sensitive to the connections that endow music with its meaning. Second, any attempted generalization from musical structures to musical meaning is bound to fail, as musical meaning only exists in a network of highly specific cultural practices. Third, music and language share an essential feature: they only make sense because they are embedded in such a network.

The insistence on the relation between music and language is certainly a central topic in Wittgenstein's reflections on music, and it is not surprising to find it again in Gary Kemp's essay contained in Part III. The chapter makes an interesting point about the privacy of aesthetic experience. Kemp points out that Wittgenstein at times describes aesthetic experience as being too rich to be expressed in language. On the basis of this, Kemp argues against the interpretation of Wittgenstein according to which the private simply does not exist. While we cannot refer directly to it, the inexpressible character of our aesthetic experience constitutes the background on the basis of which our language games evolve over time, or are substituted by new ones: it is exactly the attempt to capture what is left out of the intersubjectively expressible that prompts us to gradually change the way we use words.

Alessandra Brusadin offers an account of Wittgenstein's anti-psychologism about aesthetic understanding. According to Wittgenstein, understanding is mastering a skill. Our ability to produce aesthetic judgments is also described on that basis--aesthetic judgment cannot simply be the evidence of an internal state. These claims are then put to the service of an elucidation of Wittgenstein's claim that psychology cannot explain aesthetic understanding.

While they belong to the book's part devoted to musical understanding, the main interest in Kemp's and Brusadin's essays lies in the claims they make about Wittgenstein's views about broader aspects of his philosophy.

Beth Savickey's essay also makes a general and fascinating point regarding Wittgenstein's late works. The pervasive invitations to imagine hypothetical scenarios found in these writings are best construed as improvisations, requiring the active participation and interaction of the reader. This interaction, she argues, is similar to our interaction with works of art.

In one of the most original essays in the collection, Bernhard Rhie argues that Wittgenstein holds a unique position in the philosophy of the face. Against a pervasive Cartesian prejudice, according to which an expressive face is simply an outer sign of an inner state, Wittgenstein can be interpreted as arguing that the face is in fact the place where expression is constituted, rather than simply manifested. Among other things, this means that, in looking at an expressive face, we do not make inferences as to the emotional state of its bearer, but rather directly see that she is in such a state.

While it is understandably found in the musical section of the collection, Eran Guter's essay also concerns Wittgenstein's remarks concerning the understanding of other persons. According to Guter's reconstruction, Wittgenstein construes musical understanding as a form of Menscherkenntnis, in that it is rooted in the mastery of language games related to human expression. This essay is one of the richest in the collection, and it is also remarkable because of its discussion of how Wittgenstein's musical thought was influenced by figures such as Schopenhauer, Spengler, and Schenker.

David Goldblatt's essay is the only one in the collection devoted to the aesthetics of film. Goldblatt uses Wittgensteinian tools in order to shed light on what he calls "inside/outside" movies: when a star is acting, we often do not simply see the character she is portraying, but also the star herself.

Constantine Sandis closes the collection with an essay that is devoted to the general problem of aesthetic understanding. Particularly, Sandis observes that the Wittgensteinian model of understanding is inimical to the view that the understanding of art could be reduced to an understanding of its content, that is, of what the artwork says, or the ideas it conveys. Much like in the case of Wittgenstein's infamous talking lion, understanding requires more than mere decoding of a message, as it presupposes a capacity to understand why such a message was produced in the first place. The essay then connects this issue to the current debate on empathy. In this case too, Sandis argues, the understanding of others has been incorrectly described as an access to the other person's mental content. The Wittgensteinian alternative to this view is an account of empathy that is grounded in shared, public practices.

With regard to the possible didactic uses of the book, most of the essays deal with questions that are likely to be too specific to be suitable for introductory purposes, although some chapters could certainly find a place in a course on Wittgenstein's thought on aesthetics and the arts.

Overall, this book represents a valuable contribution to the study of Wittgenstein's thought on aesthetic understanding, and more broadly, on the relation between art and human life.


School of Arts, Peking University
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Author:Ravasio, Matteo
Publication:Journal of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2019

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