Ludwig Wittgenstein

Two recently encountered passages have provoked my thoughts about the power—and what may be a slow decline in—visual thinking. Ray Monk‘s article in the New Statesman, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s passion for looking, not thinking, points to Ludwig Wittgenstein‘s unique visual orientation. (He is compared with his fellow philosopher Bertrand Russell who, much to his own frustration, was “hopeless at visualising and was more or less indifferent to the visual arts. His mental life seemed almost entirely made up of words rather than images.”) But not so with Wittgenstein.

“Thinking in pictures,” Sigmund Freud once wrote, “stands nearer to unconscious processes than does thinking in words, and is unquestionably older than the latter both ontogenetically and phylogenetically.” There is, in other words, something primordial, something foundational, about thinking visually…

For Wittgenstein, to think, to understand, was first and foremost to picture…

It was fundamental to Wittgenstein’s thinking…that not everything we can see and therefore not everything we can mentally grasp can be put into words. In the Tractatus, this appears as the distinction between what can be said and what has to be shown. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,” runs the famed last sentence of the book but, as Wittgenstein made clear in private conversation and correspondence, he believed those things about which we have to be silent to be the most important…

“Don’t think, look!” Wittgenstein urges…Thus, at the heart of Wittgenstein’s philosophy is what he calls “the understanding which consists in ‘seeing connections’ ”. Here “seeing” is meant not metaphorically, but literally.

In a similar vein, this admonition on the importance of drawing is from architect Michael Graves in his recent opinion in the New York Times, Architecture and the Lost Art of Drawing.

As I work with my computer-savvy students and staff today, I notice that something is lost when they draw only on the computer. It is analogous to hearing the words of a novel read aloud, when reading them on paper allows us to daydream a little, to make associations beyond the literal sentences on the page. Similarly, drawing by hand stimulates the imagination and allows us to speculate about ideas, a good sign that we’re truly alive.

Take out your pencils people. Daydream, associate, imagine, speculate.

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