Wittgenstein and Aesthetics: What is the Language of Art?

Brooke Lundquist
Gustavus Adolphus College
May 1999

In this paper I will attempt to say that there are two ways in which art can affect us. The first is that art can be symbolic of things in the world that we name. Emotional issues, political issues and personal issues can all be reflected in a work of art. There are two theories about such a translational theory of art; the first says that the feeling or meaning of the work came first and the work was then created to represent that meaning. Somehow it produced a “thing” inside us which cannot be linguistically referred to. Here is where there is a parallel to Wittgenstein’s private language argument. Like a private language, art is a medium through which inner sensations are "named". My point of contention with drawing such a parallel, however, is that a private language by definition is a linguistic concept, whereas aesthetics is not meant to be so. Although it will be proven that a private language cannot exist, I do not think that a non-linguistic aesthetic meaning also cannot exist. The other translational theory claims that meaning is inherent in a work of art and that a sensation is produced, but that sensation is not independent of the work itself. Wittgenstein rejects the idea that the meaning lies outside aesthetics using reasoning similar to that with which the Referential Theory of Language is rejected. In some way art must have ostensive definition.

The second way in which art can affect us is in a way that we cannot talk about. This idea is paradoxical and difficult to grasp because although it exists, it is not really comprehensible in terms of our minds.

The Symbolist Movement in art is comparable in many ways to the Referential Theory of language. It relies on a translational model for interpreting a work of art, similar to the picture theory of meaning. In the translational model the medium is subordinate to the emotion it is trying to portray. Creating a work of art begins with an idea, an inner emotional experience, and the painting, music, poem, dance or whatever form then becomes a symbol for that experience. As a result of this model we do not look at the creation, but look for the underlying “emotive significance” (Hagberg, 115). The physical creation of art becomes the evidence for the inner aesthetic meaning and our task is to interpret this meaning.

Wittgenstein plays with the idea of the possibility that a person could have a private language whose meaning was known only to the inventor. There are many avenues which support the idea on first glance. No one would deny that as an individual he or she has thoughts which are private and which do not manifest themselves in any public way. Yet this is not the sort of private language Wittgenstein envisioned. This is only the concept of having private thoughts in the sense that they are not thoughts the individual chooses to share publicly. They are not necessarily private meaning comprehensible to that individual only. So what about those images or nebulous flashes that are pre-linguistic? Surely most people have had the experience of having a thought that they cannot articulate. Is this private? Certainly it is and it is these pre-linguistic ideas that are the candidates for use in a truly private language.

In the Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein uses the example of a “genius” who invents names for his private sensations which are intelligible to him only. The point is partially dismissed if the genius is naming things, such as pain, that are comprehensible to all of us. If this is all he is doing he may as well call it pain because “what is supposed is the existence of the grammar of the word ‘pain’; it shews the post where the new word is stationed.” (PI 257) So, Wittgenstein says, imagine the case where every time a person experiences a certain sensation (one for which no definition can be formulated) he records the sign “S” in his diary. Ostensive definition is given by pointing (not in the conventional sense, but by concentrating) inwardly so that one “impresses on oneself”(PI 258) the meaning.

Here is where the problems of the private language argument begin to pile up. The first is that because “S” cannot be defined, it becomes instantly subjective. When one focuses on the sensation he termed “S” how can he be sure the next time he has the same sensation that it is, in fact, the same sensation? Furthermore, it seems to be rather paradoxical, because once the sensation is understood, so that the person having it then knows what “S” stands for, it has become defined and can no longer be thought of as private, except in the sense that its holder chooses not to share it with the public. Lastly, just referring to it as private language instantly makes it something linguistic and language is a public concept. The terms “has” and “something” belong to our common language and so to even conceptualize a private language takes it out of the realm of the private and puts it into the realm of the public.

The premises of the private language argument can be extended to the study of aesthetics. Art seems to be a paradox; it merges the private, phenomenologically internal objects called emotions with physical objects located in the public, observable world. By this definition the concept of art can hardly exist ontologically and yet works of art exist empirically in the world. Here we make reference to the concept expounded in the private language argument: that the artist can have an inner mental entity private to her that she expresses through art (which becomes the private language in this case).

In his chapter titled “The Silence of Aesthetic Solipsism,” Gary Hagberg presents an analogy between the artist and the speaker. The artist is a speaker with thoughts but no language or vocabulary. She “names” these thoughts through her art. This presumes that there is something in the work of art which is separable from the physical object itself. It is a “dualistic schema [that] demands the separability of the ‘cause’ of the work of art, the inner object, from the physical work itself.” (Hagberg, 124) Not only does the analogy have this demand, but it also requires that the “cause” precede the outward work. If we rely on such a notion that art and language always reflect definable entities, we run the risk of “construct[ing] our idea of the inner on the model of the outer, or constru[ing] the mental on the model of the physical.” (Hagberg, 130)

Wittgenstein makes a transitive/intransitive distinction in which he seems to take the position that art is intransitive. Something that is intransitive requires no further explanation to the question “What do you mean?” because nothing apart from the phenomenon can be captured by further description. A transitive description can lead one to be misled by the surface grammar of its expressions because it requires further explanations and descriptions of the “particular feature” being enunciated. Wittgenstein argues that we are led to think that “in trying to explain what we mean by ‘This face [in a drawing] has a particular expression,’ we could point to something other than the face. ‘But,’ he adds, ‘if I had to point to anything in this place it would have to be the drawing I am looking at.’” (Hagberg, 106)

In his lectures on aesthetics Wittgenstein makes it clear that he does not think that aesthetic meaning is something that can be enunciated in a clear linguistic form. Instead, it is something that can be sensed. When recognizing an artist or someone who is an appreciator of art, it is not that the person can make wonderful interjections which describe through language the beauty of an artistic creation, but that "by the way he chooses, selects…how he acts, etc.” his preferences are made known. (Lectures, 19-21) He gives the example of the tailor who will “look pleased when the coat suits him.” (Lectures, 13) Gestures, looks, practices (such as wearing the coat often) all show appreciation for the tailor’s art much more than any words attempting to quantify the excellent job performed.

Who is the artist, though? The way that one becomes an excellent artist is the same as one becomes a great thinker or speaker or scientist, and yet, because the artist work in a medium that is impossible to translate into language, it is more difficult to define him. Artists learn a vocabulary much the same way that we learn our language-through imitation, practice, and eventually study of its structure. Only after gaining an understanding and developing skills can one begin to create truly meaningful art. These skills are very public and are not nearly as mysterious to us as the meaning of art because in many cases, the study of technique has been transcribed into words. Technique manifests itself to some extent in bodily functions i.e. how to move the body in certain ways to obtain certain effects. In some sense, art is purely form-it is physical structure which can be described, rightfully in terms of our language. In this way art can fit in some way into the logical positivist’s view which says that the only things in the world which we can talk about are those to which we can point.

Hagberg draws a parallel case between trying to elaborate on aesthetic questions which attempt to elucidate a linguistic answer, like asking the person who described a Beethoven symphony as sounding triumphant, "What feeling of triumph did you experience?" and the senseless linguistic curiosity, “What sentence is formed by this sequence of words?” Neither question can really be answered. Asking specific questions to try to get under the initial reaction or gesture produced by a work of art “demands logico-linguistic room for its asking that the circumstances do not allow, i.e., it is a question that asks about the precise nature and function of a nonexistent identity.” (Hagberg, 108) Rather than ascribe the meaning in a work of art to a pre-conceived notion of some emotion or feeling that can be linguistically described, it is the “unleashed materials themselves which lead the artist to the desired content.”(Hagberg, 110). Sometimes artists discover rather than create the meaning in their art (Hagberg, 113). This elucidates another key concept-that the meaning is in the art, not independent of it. This points out a flaw in the transitive argument, because were it usable, the questions attempting to find the underlying motivation would be the questions in criticism and the attempt to understand a work of art. Instead the question arises how does one put emotion into an artistic object? “How,” in the words of Louis Arnauld Reid (Hagberg, 121), “does a body, a nonmental object, come to ‘embody’ or ‘express,’ for our aesthetic imagination, values which it does not literally contain? Why should colors and shapes and patterns, sounds and harmonies and rhythms, come to mean so very much more that they are?”

Going to Wittgenstein’s analogy of the beetle in the box we see that things do not acquire their meaning through reference to an inner object. Wittgenstein is asking the question of how we come to generalize the meaning of terms. He says to suppose that everyone has a box and inside that box is something each person calls a “beetle.” Think of this beetle as being analogous to the inner sensation supposedly felt by the artist. The contents of the box are only for the person holding it to look at so it is quite possible that although everyone has what he or she calls a “beetle,” each beetle is really something entirely different from anyone else’s beetle. Although the word functions in the language of this group of people, it does not have a consistently corresponding meaning and therefore does not play a part in their language game, “not even as a something; for the box might even be empty.” (PI 293) Therefore, although the word "beetle" may have meaning to each box-holder, it does not acquire that meaning through reference to what is actually in the box. In the same way, Wittgenstein would claim that a work of art has meaning, but it does not acquire its meaning through reference to the inner sensation.

Because our world is rooted in language and linguistic explanations of the things we observe, there is a need that is fulfilled by talking about art in terms of reference. This is the way we have cultivated explanation, and while it may represent authentic meaning, it is our public and accepted way of explaining the world around us. While it may sound rigid, there are analytic philosophers such as W. V. Quine who are comfortable with admitting that there is not fact of the matter to translation; it is indeterminate. Quine accepts that there is ostensive relativity, meaning that several hypotheses for meaning could all be correct even if they are incompatible with one another. This is especially relevant to the discussion about whether or not art is translatable because, where Wittgenstein wants to argue that it is not translatable, Quine’s theory accepts this and yet says that regardless of whether genuine translation is possible, we as a society are going to attempt to translate art. When we do so, it seems that the only way to accept a linguistic translation is on the model of indeterminacy and ostensive relativity. People’s articulations of the meaning of art will be different, but since the “true” meaning cannot be translated anyway, there is not a right or wrong linguistic interpretation.

The problem arises not in trying to say that artistic meaning is not a private language, but in trying to draw certain parallels between the two and use the same arguments against artistic meaning that are used against private language. There is something that makes art its own game entirely different from any other. This is uncomfortable because we want to be able to talk about art, and in some sense we can, but to do so is to try to translate something that is not translatable. The best we can do with language games is to contextualize art in terms of parallels to other things in the world for which we have words, but to truly “talk” about a work of art one would have to respond somehow in the same medium or possibly on some sort of intuitive level. This is a game that our culture does not work towards developing (and indeed it may be that only certain people-“artists”-have this capacity.) Wittgenstein was closest to genuine aesthetics in the Tractatus-we just can’t talk about the things that really affect us and still give credit to their true meaning. It’s fine to give linguistic meaning to things and to draw parallels-this is the intellectualization that is accepted by our society and it is our way of quantifying experience. As long as we understand that this way of doing things is not necessarily authentic-there is something underlying aesthetics that is undefinable, incomprehensible and impossible to conceptualize through the mind. It must be passed over in silence.


Grayling, A. C. Wittgenstein. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Hagberg, G. L. Art as Language: Wittgenstein, Meaning and Aesthetic Theory. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995.

Rhees, Rush, Yorick Smythies, and James Taylor. L. Wittgenstein: Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief. Ed. Cyril Barrett. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Trans. G. E. M. Anscombe. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall Press, 1958.
---. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Trans. D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness. New York: Routledge Press, 1961.

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