“How many million times she had seen her face, and always with the same imperceptible contraction! She pursed her lips when she looked in the glass. It was to give her face point. That was her self-pointed; dartlike; definite. That was her self when some effort, some call on her to be her self, drew the parts together, she alone knew how different, how incompatible and composed so for the world only into one centre, one diamond, one woman […]” – Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
In 1776, German art dealer Adam Ludwig Wirsing published Marmora et adfines aliquos lapides coloribus suis exprimi, a collection of illustrations depicting marble tiles (see header image). For the Public Domain Review, Hunter Dukes writes: “today, Wirsing is best remembered for the quiet elegance of his illustrations. Composed in numbered squares, six to a page, these images are colorful and complex odes to stone. In some, the patterns look like landscapes in miniature, abstract anticipations of artists such as Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, who shared Wirsing’s marbled pallet. Squinting at other squares, marble’s limestone origins appear preserved within the vivid plates: archaic lifeforms, transformed under geological pressure, swirling and circling just out of sight. Long after the last copy of Wirsing’s Marmora crumbles between a careful reader’s fingers, his object of study will remain unfazed, graceful, and awaiting rediscovery.”
On the Eastern Front of World War I, less than a decade before Mrs. Dalloway’s publication, another Ludwig was designing a philosophical system built around the idea that language is nothing more than a scale model of reality. In the Tractatus Philosophico-Logicus, Wittgenstein explains that propositions, made of combinations of irreductible facts, have the same logical form as the reality they express. To be meaningful, a proposition must be a plausible picture of the real world, what he calls a possible state of affair. Such depiction of language consequently draws a clear line between respectively truth and falseness, and sense and nonsense. According to Wittgenstein’s first philosophy, propositions that paint a picture of how the world really is are true, unlike those that discuss how the world could be but is not. Similarly, propositions that do not reflect possible states of affairs, such as sentences about morality or religion, lack sense.
Reflecting on the crystalline simplicity of the Tractatus worldview, solely built on logic, Ludwig Wittgenstein famously qualified his first philosophy of an ice field, “where there is no friction and so in a certain sense, the conditions are ideal”. Wittgenstein and Virginia Woolf address, each in their own way, the view that key elements of our inner lives, hereby identity and language, resemble ice, diamond, or marble: monolithic, static and pure materials. Yet, unlike Woolf, Wittgenstein embraced this position unconditionally. After the publication of the Tractatus in 1922, the only book he published in his lifetime, the Austrian philosopher thought he had solved all of philosophy’s problems by showing how they arise from language misuse. He left the academic world for what he thought were more meaningful activities.
When Wittgenstein came back from exile in 1929, he was a celebrity. On his arrival at Cambridge, John Keynes, the most influential economist of the XXth century, told his wife: “God has arrived. I met him on the 5:15 train”. During his time away from philosophy, Wittgenstein has grown increasingly skeptical of the Tractatus project. When he was teaching school kids in rural Austria, he became fascinated with the way children play with words and sentences, constantly twisting their rules and structures – a phenomenon at odds with the Tractatus rigid and logical linguistic conceptions. He reproached the ice of his first philosophy to be too smooth; his theory was so pure that it would fail to encompass the ordinary ways we use language. Enough of the ice, let’s go back to the rough grounds!
The second Wittgenstein, as scholars call it, envisions our linguistic practices as a game whose rules go by the name of “grammar”. Unlike games like chess, language rules are not fixed but malleable. The rules are fluid. They emerge from social practices, themselves grounded in what he nebulously calls forms of life. In the Philosophical Investigations, published posthumously by one of his students, Wittgenstein explains that “in most cases, meaning is use”. Logic is not sufficient to capture the way we manipulate words and form sentences in natural language, because it cannot aggregate language’s anthropologic dimension. Such departure from his earlier thesis makes Wittgenstein’s case unique in the intellectual world, as he is one of the few thinkers who revolutionised his discipline twice thanks to radically contradicting ideas. Yet, this time again, Wittgenstein’s philosophical constructions find an echo in Virginia Woolf’s words. She writes in Sketches of the Past: “One’s life is not confined to one’s body and what one says or does; one is living all the time in relation to certain background rods or conceptions”. According to the second Wittgenstein, the most intimate thing one possesses, language, is more akin to a sponge than a marble block.
In a way, New York-based philosopher Kathleen Wallace is walking in Wittgenstein’s step. Her works aim at breaking away from the reductionist view of selfhood by recognizing its multifaceted, network-like aspects. Wallace argues that one’s identity is a holistic network of interlinked traits and characteristics that bind it to the outside world, defining who someone is. There is no single way to define Hellen Keller – Hellen Keller is Anne’s pupil, Helen is from Alabama, Hellen is funny but clumsy at times, Hellen has four siblings, Hellen is a political and disability activist. Some of these traits are related to others, some regrouped in clusters, some are more prominent than others. As Josiah Royce puts it, quoted by Wallace, “by nature, I am a sort of meeting place of countless streams of ancestral tendency”.
The network theory of identity poetically paints us as living landscapes, where the relevance and relative prominence of specific traits is evolutive and context-dependent. In an essay for the platform Aeon, Wallace writes:
“It might seem strange at first to think of yourself as a process. You might think that processes are just a series of events, and yourself feels more substantial than that. Maybe you think of yourself as an entity that’s distinct from relations, that change is something that happens to an unchangeable core that is you. You’d be in good company if you do.”
Which directly relates to the lag between the perception of our own identity and of other’s, elegantly captured by Bauman:
“Seen from a distance, [other people’s] existence seems to possess a coherence and a unity which they cannot have, in reality, but which seems evident to the spectator. This is, of course, an optical illusion. The distance (that is, the paucity of our knowledge) blurs the details and effaces everything that fits ill into the Gestalt. Illusion or not, we tend to see other people’s lives as works of art. And having seen them this way, we struggle to [make our lives] the same.”
Wallace’s conception of the self as a network is evocative of Wittgenstein’s theory of family resemblance. Try to answer the following question: is it possible to find a sufficient and necessary condition for something to be a game? Some games imply physical activities, others do not; some require cards or balls, others do not; some require skills, and some others luck, and so on – there only seem to be clusters of similarities among them, yet no unifying feature to unite them all. The quest to understand selfhood is facing the same challenge; for centuries, Western philosophers tried to isolate the essential and differentiating feature that makes a self what it is. Instead of attempting, vainly, to look for a characteristic common to all games, Wittgenstein writes in paragraph 66 of the Philosophical Investigations:
“[…] if you look at [games] you will not see something that is common to them all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that”
He then adds:
“I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances”; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way.— And I shall say: ‘games’ form a family.”
From this insight stems a textural revolution. Instead of thinking of concepts as rigid entities defined by a rigorous set of sufficient and necessary conditions, like in what is commonly referred as the classical theory of concept, Wittgenstein views them as parts of clusters of entities, linked by an intertwined network of common features. Chess is more closely related to checkers than to hopscotch, despite them all being games. Because they are defined by their position in a network of family resemblance, the substance of concepts remains open to indeterminacy. Wittgenstein’s former friend Friedrich Waissman calls this characteristic indetermination open texture. Open texture is different from vagueness, the fluctuating use of a word; if “‘vagueness can be remedied by giving more accurate rules, open texture cannot. […] open texture, then, is something like the possibility of vagueness”. The concept of tallness, for example, is vague but not open-textured, since one could give a precise threshold above which someone would be considered tall.
Art, on the other hand, is the embodiment of an open-textured concept. Art is irreducible. It knows no definition, no boundaries. It is impossible to give a single definition of what is, and what is not, art. For analytic philosopher Morris Weitz:
“Art itself is an open concept. New conditions (cases) have constantly arisen and will undoubtedly constantly arise; new art forms, new movements will emerge, which will demand decisions on the part of those interested, usually professional critics, as to whether the concept should be extended or not.”
As a result, the frontier between art and non-art is as thin as it can get – a common criticism from contemporary art detractors. The borderland between what art is and what art is not represents a liminal playground for artists like Maurizio Cattelan, famous for his workpiece Comedian – that you probably know as “the banana duct-taped on the wall”.
The notion of open texture found an unexpectedly important role in law, after Herbert Hart, who worked alongside Waissman at Oxford University and is considered as one of the most important legal philosophers of the previous century, applied it to his field. In a lecture given at Harvard University, he famously asked:
“A legal rule forbids you to take a vehicle into the public park. Plainly this forbids an automobile, but what about bicycles, roller-skates, toy automobiles? What about airplanes?”
Such diversity of applications makes us wonder: aren’t all our concepts open-textured? Many abstractions central to our daily lives are indeed open-textured. We’ve already discussed money earlier. For many of us, it is nothing more than a number on a screen that can be exemplified by physical tokens like bills or coins – in the same way that, for many of us in the Western world, the concept of art is exemplified by a classical painting or a Greek sculpture. Yet, the cypherpunks developments at the root of cryptocurrencies, or the archeological investigations that uncovered the use of rai stones, these stone disks up to four meters high carved by the Yapese people and used as currency, raise the following question: can these entities be rallied under the flag of the concept we call “money”, in the same way that the public and art critics asked themselves if we can consider a banana duct-taped on the wall “art”. When asked a similar question, namely, “what is an intellectual?”, Gilbert Ryle invites us to not get carried away, to keep our feet on the ground in a very Wittgensteinian way:
“But, after all, does it matter if all attempts at giving a hard-edged definition of ‘intellectual’ and ‘thought’ break down somewhere or other? We know well enough how to distinguish urban from rustic areas, games from work, and spring from summer, and are unembarrassed by the discovery of undecidable marginal cases.”
By stretching Kathleen Wallace’s theory, one’s identity seems to be an open concept. The open texture of identity for instance resurfaces when one exclaims, after witnessing someone’s action, “It’s not like them to do this!”. But open texture also manifests at levels of abstraction closer to the senses. An anecdote is sometimes more telling than words. In her autobiography, Hellen Keller, who lost sight and hearing at 19 months, wrote about the first time her tutor took her to the ocean. When she tasted seawater for the first time after being mistreated by the strong waves of the East Coast, her first reaction was to ask her teacher Anne Sullivan: “who put salt in the water?”. Such a sweet example is a reminder of how omnipresent the categorization of concepts and entities is in our lives, at each level of conceptualization. In an accelerating world where grouping, labeling, classifying, carving nature at its joints, is sometimes a game, sometimes a matter of life or death for humans and non-humans, it is capital to try to grasp the mechanisms and power relations at play in these processes. The ability to decide if an entity is part of a specific concept is likely to be concentrated in the hands of a particular group of people, a group of people who were themselves categorized, for example as authorities on the matter. Art critics get to decide what is art and what is not; judges get to decide what is a vehicle, central banks get to decide what is money. Adopting a granular framework of thought that does not balk, like anthropologist Veena Das says, at descending in the ordinary, in the rough ground, seems like a pertinent approach to modulate our natural desire for delimiting concepts boundaries.
The constant preoccupation with the ordinary, with the way things are in reality, with boundaries, is a key component of Wittgenstein’s second philosophy. The inherent fuzziness of language uncovered by Wittgenstein and Waissman awoke a century’s years-old philosophical ghost: the ideal language, a hypothetical language in which all thoughts could be expressed perfectly, more rationally and quicker than with existing natural languages. Descartes evoked the idea in a letter. As early as 1664, John Wilkins attempted to divide all of the universe into a few dozen categories and subcategories in order to create a Dewey-like system of knowledge classification. During his lifetime, Leibniz imagined the ambitious characteristica universalis, a pictographic formal language isomorphic to reality – echoing the smooth grounds of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. None of these projects succeeded. An ideal language should, by design, be free of any ambiguity. Yet, if ambiguity is itself a component of the way we think and experience life, no formal representation would be able to tame reality. Hanoch Ben-Yami comments:
“The idea of perfect order was like a pair of glasses fixed on our nose through which we saw whatever we looked at. The perfect order was never in linguistic reality but in our mode of representation of that reality, in our logical constructions.”
Ithkuil, a fascinating constructed language carefully crafted in secret for decades by John Quijada, is the closest thing to a practical ideal language. According to its author, it is “a cross between an a priori philosophical language and a logical language”, not intended for everyday use like Mandarin or Arabic but made for exploring how languages could function – a possible state of affairs, one could say. Ithkuil is known to be dense and complex. Even John Quijada does not master it, and relies on a notebook to translate concepts from English to his conlang. One could furtherly question the need for an ideal language with insights from information theory; the natural ones sit at an optimal trade-off between information density and practicality, shown in the comparable information rate across all major languages of around 39 bits per second. Perhaps fuzziness is a feature, not a bug.
According to ordinary language philosophers, the obsession to isolate language from reality is superfluous – per Wittgenstein, philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday. Against any temptation of dispensable conceptualization, the very notion of family resemblance and open texture only makes sense against a phenomenological understanding of the lived world. To know that the concept of game entails entities as varied as hangman or hide-and-seek, a child has to grasp both an intuitive understanding of the linguistic concept of game and experience the common traits linking these abstract processes. The complex weaving between these two forms the necessary hinges on which the door of our everyday experience swings. A moving inventory of reactions from children with cortical visual impairments is able to highlight the relationship between experience and conceptualization :
- A boy thought “going home” meant the feel of a bumpy road and a series of turns in the car
- A boy experiencing snow for the first time thought it was ice cream and asked for chocolate
- A girl touched a wet leaf and signed “cry” (it felt like tears)
- A girl thought food came from a mysterious place up high (it was always set down on the table from above)
- A young man didn’t know, even after many years, that his family’s pet cat ate (he had never seen it or touched it as it ate, and no one had ever told him).
Social and phenomenological conceptions striking to some are, on second thought, anything but natural. If a textile’s texture derives from “bringing together many threads and, as such, represents ordered complexity”, one missing thread, all else being equal, affects the whole weaving. The threads of the lived life, the threads of our concepts and our language, the threads of our identities, themselves all networks on their own, are the constitutive material of the self. We tend to think that what we are is hidden somewhere, that this complexity arises from unlocalized dark depths, manufactured by biological black boxes. Impenetrable, well-defined, unchanging, monolithic – possibly because of complexity bias, we think of ourselves as we think of marble tiles, losing sight, as Wittgenstein says, that the aspects of things that are the most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity.
Yet, the impressionist landscapes painted separately by thinkers like Waissman, Wallace and Wittgenstein suggest otherwise. Complexity can as well emerge from liquid networks of interwoven features and processes. While many, in these troubled times, challenge their most dearly held assumptions, such an ode to fuzziness and fluidity is reassuring. Nothing is written in stone.