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Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote no books on art and ethics. A sheaf of student notes rather than prepared lectures are the source of his so-called Lectures on Aesthetics, and aside from miscellaneous private jottings posthumously translated and edited into English titles like Culture and Value he proscribed philosophical inquiry into ethics as meaningless.
Yet Wittgenstein made vaunting claims for aesthetic experience and made ethics, in the form of a consuming conceptual vacuum whereof one may not speak, the fulcrum of his thinking. “Ethics and aesthetics are one” is the audacious equivalence of the Tractatus, from which he never deviated.1 He claimed to get more philosophy from Dostoyevsky and detective fiction than from Hume or Mind. His disciple Norman Malcolm was directed to mail him from the United States not pragmatist papers but Detective Story Magazine. He was just as eager to smuggle out of Anschluss Austria heirloom Mozart and Beethoven holographs as to escort students to screenings of Carmen Miranda musicals. High or low, art remained for him the proper sphere for the kind of reflection mischievously arrogated, in his draconian view, to philosophy. Upon inheriting a portion of his father’s pharaonic estate, he made a munificent anonymous donation not to any Vienna circle of philosophy, but to the architect Adolf Loos, the writer Karl Krauss, and the poets Rainer Maria Rilke, Else Lasker-Schüler, and Georg Trakl, whose suicide he would hasten in vain to forestall while on military leave during the Great War.
Four decades after the landmark essay “Wittgenstein on Consciousness and Language: A Challenge to Derridean Literary Theory,” and several years since his Critical Inquiry manifesto “Tractatus Logico-Poeticus,” Charles Altieri continues to be a trenchant advocate for Wittgenstein’s relevance to literary studies generally and, more locally, as an antidote to the hermeneutic license of some critical theory. In Reckoning with the Imagination he urges the implicit value to aesthetics, ultimately ethical, of Wittgenstein’s thinking.
To do so, he ventures into areas paradoxically prohibited by the puritanical philosopher, who confined conceptual inquiry to the socially grounded specifics of “grammar.” Altieri assigns paradigmatic merit to a philosophy that recognizes epistemic limits without entailing skepticism because, in part, it fully credits the intricately rule-governed nature of our communications. He shows that Wittgenstein champions literary autonomy without sacrificing its embeddedness in the immediacies of those accompanying learned behaviors that constitute what the philosopher called “forms of life” (Lebensformen). By its emphasis on display, example, expression, and avowal, this approach, Altieri argues, can surpass those that, basing understanding on epistemic [End Page 706] evidence, risk subordinating the idiosyncratic vitality of the work of art to worldly instrumental uses, generality, and interpretive legerdemain.
Buoyed by a belief in “reading as an activity that brings the world alive,” Altieri joins those who contest the view that texts instill significant knowledge (218). He praises How to Do Things with Fiction (2012) because Joshua Landy distinguishes “informative fictions” from “‘formative fictions,’ which model ways of disposing the self towards the world” (219). To support these claims Altieri draws on Wittgenstein’s insights into the Gestalt psychology of aspect, such as those stemming from Joseph Jastrow’s analysis, in Fact and Fable in Psychology (1900), of the rabbit-duck puzzle-picture. “I see that it has not changed,” Wittgenstein writes in Philosophical Investigations (1953); “and yet I see it differently. I call this experience ‘noticing an aspect’” (165). The perception of a new aspect paradoxically involves a change where none has occurred, “hence the flashing of an aspect (Aufleuchten eines Aspekts) on us seems half visual experience, half thinking” (168). The dawning of aspect is restless and unresolved; it does not imply the operation of clandestine codes or the logic of infinite deferral; meanings are laminar and thus readily available to an eye trained for the subtleties of surfaces (surely one reason why Wittgenstein read Ellery Queen rather than the Timaeus).
Implicit in this theory of perception is a divergence both from traditional aesthetics, in which some...