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Wittgenstein, Ethics and Aesthetics: The View from Eternity.

TILGHMAN, B.R. Wittgenstein, Ethics and Aesthetics: The View from Eternity. State University of New York Press, 1991. xiv + 193 pp. Cloth, $49.50; paper, $16.95--The purpose of this book is to show how Wittgenstein's work, early and late, is relevant to aesthetics and to show how art provides "an experience not to be obtained by any other activity: it shows the meaning of life" (p. 178). The book is interesting because it relates the early and later Wittgenstein to a topic not typically treated by Wittgenstein scholars--art and the aesthetic--and because it tries to reinterpret some of the Tractatus in light of the Philosophical Investigations without losing a kernel of truth in the early work.

Tilghman notes the isolation of modern art from common life which began with the eighteenth century creation of the aesthetic as a sui generis dimension of human experience, and he correctly notes that this has not always been the case--for example, in the Platonic rejection of poetry. He is interested in the ethical and therefore human dimension of art and so takes with great seriousness Wittgenstein's claim that aesthetics and ethics are one. But what can that mean and what can be preserved of that if we drop the requirements of the Tractatus? Tilghman discusses several provocative passages from the Notebooks, the most interesting of which is, "The work of art is the object seen sub specie aeternitatis; and the good life is the world seen sub aeternitatis. This is the connection between art and ethics." To see the world sub specie aeternitatis is to see it as totality--as a limited, given whole. (Notice what Tilghman does not: that this is the way the world presents itself in the Tractatus.) Similarly, "art selects an object . . . and makes that object stand still to be contemplated and in doing so treats the object as if it were a world unto itself." (p. 54). Ethics in the Tractatus is not, then, a matter of right action but of "how to look at the world." (p. 60). The solution to "the problem of life" is "simply to accept the world as it is and to live in the knowledge that this is what it is" (p. 60).

Tilghman complains that it is difficult to know exactly what Wittgenstein means here because he gives us no examples. But this implies that it is particular works of art that "show" us something about the human situation, and this betrays a serious misinterpretation of Wittgenstein. What is revealing about art is that each work, by being a work of art, presents us with a model of the good life. We must see the world just as we see a work of art: as a given totality from without. Thus, nothing can be learned from an examination of particular examples. As already noted, the Tractatus is an example of "seeing the world under the aspect of eternity" (p. 66), and thus its point is ethical, as Wittgenstein himself claimed.

Tilghman turns to the later work by reinterpreting the passages from the Notebooks in light of the Philosophical Investigations. The stress is on examples and on the fact that giving reasons in both aesthetics and ethics is a matter of "placing things side by side." "If, however, the other person does not then see it as you see it, that is the end of the matter" (pp. 81-2). We move away from principles to cases and to the circumstances in which those cases exist. Tilghman sees all this in light of the showing-saying distinction of the Tractatus. Placing things side by side shows what cannot be said in both ethics and aesthetics.

Tilghman next takes up Wittgenstein's rejection of classical mind-body dualism, but that is not as clearly relevant to the overall project of the book as one would like. We are told that just as our understanding of others has been distorted by dualism, so has our understanding of art, and as Wittgenstein's later work displaces the first understanding, it also displaces the latter. Again the focus is on practices in which we jointly participate and not on beliefs that we are supposed to acquire. There are no theoretical difficulties to discerning the humanity in another human being and there are no theoretical difficulties in discerning the art in a work of art. Both are a matter of shared practices and our participation in them, not of theories true or false.

Finally, Tilghman takes up modern art and its movement to abstraction, which is taken by many to exclude the human. He says, "The likening of abstract painting to an uninterpreted formal system that conveys no 'information', then, amounts to the contention that abstract painting has no connection with the world and a fortiori, with whatever of the human the world contains" (p. 147). Perhaps we should "switch the question from what it is to discern the humanity in a work of art to the question of how art can make humanity discernable," and this leads to the artistic problem of space. He says, "Doubtless some artists have explored space for its own sake, but it seems to me that the original intent of the investigation of space was to provide a place for people to interact with one another and that is what gives point to the artistic concern for space" (p. 166). Whatever the merits of this claim, how is Wittgenstein relevant to it? There are simply two activities here similar in some ways and different in others. These can be described, but how can we go on to recommend one over the other, and who would the "we" be that would do that? No doubt Tilghman's distinction in the Afterword between the aesthetic (a sui generis value) and art (that which selects an aspect of the human situation for contemplation) reflects his desire that art be more relevant to human life, but it surely does not record the use of the word in the language-game. Tilghman is more in tune with Dewey here than with Wittgenstein.
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Author:Hodges, Michael
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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