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  • Wittgenstein and the Craft of Reading:On Reckoning with the Imagination: Wittgenstein and the Aesthetics of Literary Experience, By Charles Altieri

Charles Altieri's Reckoning with the Imagination: Wittgenstein and the Aesthetics of Literary Experience addresses a perceived problem in literary theory.1 That problem is how to reintegrate practices of "close reading" in a field dominated by "grand theory": deconstruction, postcolonial studies, queer studies, New Historicism, and other regimens. Unlike the New Criticism that controlled the reading, writing, and teaching of serious literature in the United States through the 1940s and '50s, in which intricate analysis of text as text was all, Altieri does not begrudge conceptual space to more expansive social-theoretical approaches. But he does deny their trump status, i.e., the idea that their forms of cultural understanding are either necessary or sufficient windows onto the experience of literature.

Altieri's proposal deploys a schema with two principal parts. The first part consists in resources for an expressivist aesthetics he finds in Kant and German Idealism (pp. 3–21, 97–110, 180–1). Kant's theory of productive imagination, Schiller's aesthetics of Schein, and Hegel's loosening of the determinacy of concepts by means of the process-oriented [End Page 236] dialectical model of rationality token a domain of experience in which single objects have significance that is at the same time superabundant and noncategorical. That is, the meaning of such objects does not submit to classificatory understanding, and yet, such objects have generality of content: they are singular, but not simple. What makes them complex, and deeply so, is what Kant called art's "indemonstrability." Art is for Kant representational, but the way it is so does not, indeed cannot, depend on determinate modes of discursivity. Art is not primarily descriptive nor is it a species of knowing; rather, it is a form of expression by means of representation, in which the art object is a "display," "presentation," or "portrayal" (Darstellung) of the genius of the maker. So conceived, art is a form of communication that does not intrinsically deal in the transfer of information. Rather, at the base of art is the display of the particular mind of the artist in the mode of the work in all the work's detail. Of course, narrative works (among others) do deal in propositional interchange in order to see the fictional world as real enough to support the reader's immersion in it. But that such a world is that world is a function of the imagination of the author in making it—an imagination distributed across the entirety of the work as an integrating expressive force.

With the aesthetics of German Idealism comes—well—idealism, i.e., unwieldy, unwanted, and unnecessary metaphysical schemes. Altieri wishes to detach what he prizes in this German line of thought from its metaphysics. Here one comes to the second component of the schema: a proposal as to how to integrate the expressivist aesthetics of Idealism with an account of reader response more acceptable by contemporary lights. Wittgenstein is pressed into service. The idea that one makes Idealist theories comestible by organizing the dinner around Wittgensteinian precepts may seem to some as bordering on the quaint. Philosophical interest in Wittgenstein is decades past its zenith in Anglophone circles. There was a time in its reception-history that Wittgenstein's work seemed a good place to unearth nuggets of philosophical argumentation on what were taken to be pressing contemporary problems in the philosophy of language and mind. When it was realized that his approach to philosophical questions—and the questions themselves, as he understood them—was idiosyncratic and demanding in ways that were impossible to ignore and just as impossible to paraphrase, interest waned. But perhaps matters are otherwise with literary theory. In any case, the two primary aspects of Wittgenstein's thought that Altieri mobilizes to update German Idealist views on the experiential role of imagination, [End Page 237] expression, and display are: (1) its treatment of first-person avowal, and (2) its account of aspect seeing.

"Avowal" translates as Äußerung or Ausdruck, and it might have suited Altieri's purposes better to render those terms more simply and directly as "expression" or "manifestation." ("Avowal" is the term used to refer to the phenomenon of first-person utterances of psychological states in British ordinary language philosophy from the 1940s and '50s. Altieri's default to the word signals a confluence of Wittgenstein and Oxford-style linguistic philosophy that is contestable, but is indicative of, say, Stanley Cavell's approach to Wittgenstein, as well as that of Cavell's epigones.) Wittgenstein characterizes some first-person utterances pertaining to psychology—for instance, "I am in pain"—as nondescriptive. Such utterances are not reports of private, inner mentality. Rather, utterances of this sort are manifestations of the pain itself, impressed into verbal form. Accordingly, when rendered in sentential form, such utterances are not statements at all; they are expressive in the way that gesture, posture, or mien might manifest emotion (for pain: a hand moved quickly to the forehead; doubling over at the waist; a grimace) (pp. 96–112). Utterances of this sort are linguistic correlates to natural display, for instance, the cry "I am in pain" for crying.

Wittgenstein was not alone in promulgating this view; R. G. Collingwood and Gilbert Ryle also emphasized the expressive nature of such language. This account of inherently expressive speech suggests that literature might be considered not merely as a symptom of authorial intent but rather as an expressive prosthesis for the artist's imagination. This would serve the interest of close reading, since the work itself would be the expression and not merely representative of prior expression. Works, like facial expressions and avowals, function to hold their authors open to a form of understanding that is perceptual and imaginative. It is perceptual because, once one is outfitted with the requisite training in recognizing an expression as expressive in the particular way it is—say, knowing that grimaces are expressions of pain and not smiles—one needn't engage in an extra cognitive step in order to "read" the expression.

The role of imagination in avowal is harder to see. Imagination has many functions in humans: dreaming, wishful thinking, crafting hypotheses, posing counterfactuals, creating fictive contexts, etc. In academic philosophy propositional forms of imagination receive special, one might even say exclusive, attention. But Altieri's point is that the apt response to an avowal is not analysis, knowledge based in observation, or even [End Page 238] interpretation. Rather, it is adjusting one's full range of uptake to meet the avowal on its own terms. If one wished to put the point in terms familiar to a certain range of views about the imagination's role in communication, one might say that imagination here operates empathically.

Imagination may be taken to figure more prominently in Wittgenstein's discussion of aspect seeing (although Wittgenstein, tellingly, does not approach the phenomenon with the concept "imagination" in hand) (pp. 71–81). The phenomenon of aspect seeing, or seeing-as, has attracted a substantial secondary literature. It is impossible here to do justice to all the intricacies of the idea, but in order to see what Altieri finds helpful in it, a serviceable, general understanding suffices. The first thing to note is that Wittgenstein does not view aspect seeing as a single phenomenon, nor as a general one. Not all visual phenomena exhibit aspects. Even among those that do, the ways that they do can differ substantially and, so, call for significantly different philosophical treatment. For instance, Wittgenstein suggests that perception of some cases of aspect change is propositional in that having an aspect present to one presupposes possession of the concept that individuates the aspect. Other cases of aspect seeing might not require possession of the concept under which the aspect falls. (Wittgenstein suggests this of the "double cross" design; one might well think this of the Necker cube as well.) Likewise, tracking some switches in aspect might require imagination, while others might not. Aspect seeing is not one thing. The term "aspect seeing," or "seeing-as," is based in what Wittgenstein calls a family resemblance.

The basic question that concerns Wittgenstein is how to correctly characterize aspects: do they fall, so to speak, on the objective or the subjective side of the ledger? The answer is: on the subjective side. But this raises the further question: in what manner subjective? What are the resources for having an aspect dawn on one and whence do they come, i.e., for the aspect to be present now, when it was not so before, even though nothing has changed about the diagram? Wittgenstein considers a number of visual cases, but the most famous is certainly the duck-rabbit. The figure of the duck-rabbit is constant: it is what one sees. One may see it as a duck, as a rabbit, but not as both simultaneously. (Why not simultaneously? This is a case of propositional aspect change, in which Wittgenstein seems to hold that seeing it one way so determines the whole of the visual array under a description that the other way of seeing it is ruled out.) One sees the overall design—the duck-rabbit—and sees it, first, as a duck and, then, as a rabbit. Seeing [End Page 239] simpliciter and seeing-as are revealed to be discrete perceptual modes, and perception is shown to be a nonunitary phenomenon. Seeing-as requires grasp and application of perceptual resources ulterior to the diagram. It requires imagination, the making present of what is not present. Standard perception does not.2

Wittgenstein's interest in these cases is anchored in his concerns in the philosophy of perception, but he seems also to have thought that the proper understanding of the phenomenon of aspect seeing might have implications for the philosophy of language. The extent to which one may transfer these results from the nonlinguistic to the linguistic context is, however, unclear. To complicate matters, some interpretations of Wittgenstein forward the idea that, for him, all seeing is seeing-as; that the availability of multiple ways to resolve the visual figures are merely express cases of a more general process embracing all perception. In the duck-rabbit design the ambiguity is patent; in other visual phenomena it is latent. This is a mistake. As previously noted, Wittgenstein is clear that it is not the case that all seeing is seeing-as, that all visual cases harbor the kind of ambiguity that triggers the requirement of shifting descriptive resources. I don't see this fork as a fork; I simply see this fork (similarly, I don't see this fork as this fork). What advocates of an across-the-board application of the treatment of seeing-as perhaps are trying to capture is that Wittgenstein is no sense-datum theorist: one never sees meaning-neutral "bits," which one then, at a slight remove, implicitly interprets by means of concepts. Nor is he a B-Deduction Kantian for whom all perceptual knowing is categorically mediated. Wittgenstein's point is that these are not the only alternatives—sense data or conceptual interpenetration. The third option is that one sees things preinterpretatively as having meaning in virtue of "grammar." Altieri early in the book offers Richard Wollheim's notion of seeing-in as an example of the right sort of view, a view in which the "as" (or in this case the "in") is a component of the seeing, not a result of the interaction of something unconstructed with a constructive mental force (pp. 9–10). Seeing-in is not the same thing as seeing-as, of course, as Wollheim was concerned to make clear. The first involves two-fold perception, not "aspects" in Wittgenstein's sense. But Altieri is right in offering the analogy: both forms of seeing are preinterpretative.

The point of the foregoing is that judging how far one may extend Wittgenstein's views on aspect seeing in both the theory of perception and philosophy of language is a touchy business. Ambiguity is philosophically important for him as, ironically perhaps, it brings out in a [End Page 240] particularly sharp way the everyday, nonreductive aspects of mind and experience. This is in keeping with Wittgenstein's devotion to extirpating what he took to be the prime philosophical sin: simplification of plurality by means of idealizations unmoored from experience. One might say that art is the special province of ambiguity, in which ambiguity is not deficiency, as it would be, say, in the statement of a logical theorem. Artworks invite audience address that will see fertility in ambiguity—the provision of aspects that express the working of a sensibility. Take the opening lines of John Donne's "The Flea":

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,How little that which thou deniest me is;It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;

(ll. 1–4)

The words do not change; the aspects opened by the poem signal alterations in subjective modes of address, on the part of both poet and reader. Ambiguity is an invitation to engage in the work imaginatively through its aspects, not in order to resolve the ambiguity but rather in order to engage with the sensibility responsible for the construction of the work.

At this point the overlap between Wittgenstein's treatments of expression and aspect seeing becomes evident. Altieri is suggesting that a literary work is an aspect-laden expression; it is an extrusion of artistic sensibility, the perception of which requires no recourse to biography or psychoanalysis. The appropriate audience state relative to such expression is "appreciation," which is precisely not interpretative, at least not in its basic form (pp. 30–31). For interpretation brings with it the self-conscious reader, and explicit self-awareness threatens to compromise the integrity of the text by mixing the audience's intent with the artist's too early in the reader's experience. Interpretation is properly consequent to and dependent on appreciative reading of the work.

Whether this account of literary experience convinces will depend on how much one credits the idea that a plurality of properly perceptual responses is native to humans, one of which is pertinent to literary expressivity, although perhaps not limited to it. Specifically, one will have to find plausible the claim that there is a difference of structure or quality in human perception between that directed toward nonhuman and human objects. Literature is of course artifact; more than that, it is an artifact that counts on its having been made by humans to condition approaches to it. In perhaps the point's strongest formulation: art [End Page 241] demands a response as of personhood. Unlike Marjorie Perloff, who also argues for the precedence of a certain kind of poetry on Wittgensteinian grounds, Altieri is after nothing less than a general account of the aesthetics of the experience of reading and, with it, a general argument for why that should matter most of all to literary theory and the philosophy of literature.3 Over and against Perloff's intention to construct a philosophical undergirding for William Carlos Williams's "no ideas but in things," Altieri wants an account of art's "ways of talking about concreteness that emphasize meaningfulness rather than the materiality of the medium" (p. 6).

In the end, I am not sure how much this distinguishes Altieri from at least some forms of New Criticism. True, as mentioned at the outset, Altieri does not intend his account to disallow more expansive approaches to literature, as New Criticism is often taken to mandate. In fact, critics like John Crowe Ransom or Cleanth Brooks had no quarrel with Edmund Wilson or Lionel Trilling, so long as the latter recognized that what they were writing was sociology of literature or literary history and not first-order criticism. This also seems to be Altieri's view. And, to be fair, perhaps that is the intent, to underwrite close reading on a more secure philosophical basis. Still, one can imagine the New Critic asking: what need is there to better secure the reader's acuity? Altieri's answer must be that New Criticism fares rather poorly along the dimension of performativity, about which it has little to say.

How does the book fare in elucidating Wittgenstein's philosophy of art? Here I think Altieri has done rather well. It is well known that Wittgenstein was chary of speaking philosophically about art due to his extraordinarily high regard for it (and a comparatively low regard for philosophy as it was typically done). One might venture that for Wittgenstein art is to philosophy as the photographic print is to its negative. He struggled to show that philosophy could not be expressive; at best it could discern the limit where representation must stop and expression begin. This is tantamount to saying that philosophy cannot show the sensibility of the philosopher; it can merely be a symptom of an attempted sensibility. Philosophy's task is to evade the dangers of idealization and crude simplification, to undercut its own pretension to be expressive at every turn and turning. Can evasion itself be expressive? When Wittgenstein at times suggests that one should practice philosophy as if practicing art, this may be what he intends. [End Page 242]

Fred Rush
University of Notre Dame


1. Charles Altieri, Reckoning with the Imagination: Wittgenstein and the Aesthetics of Literary Experience (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015); hereafter cited by page numbers.

2. At one point Wittgenstein uses the term "internal relation" to capture the dependence of aspects on external resources. This term was prominent in British Hegelianism, denoting a certain understanding of the structure of concepts, in which the elements of the concept make reference, within the concept itself, to its relations to all other concepts (which in turn were related to it in such a way). It is odd that Wittgenstein would appeal to this idea, found in F. H. Bradley and J. M. E. McTaggart (C. S. Peirce also uses the term) and a primary point of contention in Bertrand Russell's rejection of Idealism.

3. Marjorie Perloff, Wittgenstein's Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999). [End Page 243]

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