Rationem ex vinculis orationis vindicam esse. [Reason must be released from the chains of speech.]

-- Memorial plaque to Ludwig Wittgenstein in Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge

“Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language,” proclaimed the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations, the second of his two books, in which he repudiated most of what he had written in the first. Anyone who has read much philosophy might be tempted to substitute “befuddlement” for “bewitchment” of our intelligence. However, I think Wittgenstein was getting at something more fundamental than the clarity of its prose -- and the implications extend well beyond mere philosophy.

The point Wittgenstein was making is that we should not assume language points to anything real, and that many philosophical problems, when exposed to the clear light of day, turn out not to be about anything at all. He cautioned that "philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday." Wittgenstein was like a stern Zen master who beats his novices with a bamboo stick if they dare some abstruse answer to the question, “What is Buddha nature?” “Buddha nature” sounds profound but may make no more sense than the famous Marx Brothers comedy routine, “Why is a duck?”* At least a duck is something tangible.

We assume language plays a more-or-less passive role in describing the world without realizing the extent to which it shapes our reality. "Swifter than light the world converts itself into that thing you name," Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his journal. Words are the brick and mortar with which we lay the foundation of our world. For example, there is no way to make a statement that does not place itself in the past, present or future, even if there is no direct reference to time, because time is embedded in the grammar of our speech. Does linear time exist in nature? It’s impossible to say, because we literally can’t think about the world any other way. We like to think we see the world as it is, but mostly we see the world as we think it is. Or as the philosopher Owen Barfield put it: “The perceptual world comes over its horizon already organized.”

Once our thoughts have been segmented in time and space, self and other, inside and out, how do we regain the pristine awareness that Buddhists call “clear seeing?” Wittgenstein supplied an answer that will warm the heart of any photographer like me: “Don’t think, look!” For a philosopher whose medium is words, this requires a bit of mental ju-jitsu. "God grant the philosopher insight into what lies in front of everyone's eyes,” he wrote. For the photographer or other visual artist, the task is essentially the same: to put a frame around what is already there in the world for everyone to see.

*In the Marx Brothers routine from Cocoanuts (1929), Chico misunderstands when Groucho talks about a viaduct, and asks, “Why is a duck?”

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