David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Wittgenstein’s Lectures on Aesthetics

Aesthetics as self-defeating enterprise: how theories of aesthetics make it their goal to exclude the aesthetic from consideration.

7. A characteristic thing about our language is that a large number of words used under these circumstances are adjectives -‘fine’, ‘lovely’, etc. But you see that this is by no means necessary. You saw that they were first used as interjections. Would it matter if instead of saying “This is lovely”, I just said “Ah!” and smiled, or just rubbed my stomach? As far as these primitive languages go, problems about what these words are about, what their real subject is, [which is called ‘beautiful’ or ‘good’.-R.] don’t come up at all.

8. It is remarkable that in real life, when aesthetic judgements are made, aesthetic adjectives such as ‘beautiful’, ‘fine’, etc., play hardly any role at all. Are aesthetic adjectives used in a musical criticism? You say: “Look at this transition”,Z or [Rhees] “The passage here is incoherent”. Or you say, in a poetical criticism, [Taylor]: “His use of images is precise”. The words you use are more akin to ‘right’ and ‘correct’ (as these words are used in ordinary speech) than to ‘beautiful’ and’lovely’.

23.    We talked of correctness. A good cutter won’t use  any words except words like ‘Too long’, ‘All right’.  When we talk of a Symphony of Beethoven we don’t talk of correctness. Entirely different things enter. One wouldn’t talk of appreciating the tremendous things in Art. In certain styles in Architecture a door is correct, and the thing is you appreciate it. But in the case of a Gothic Cathedral what we do is not at all to find it correct-it plays an entirely diferent role with us. The entire game is different. It is as different as to judge a human being and on the one hand to say ‘He behaves well’ and on the other hand ‘He made a great impression on me’.

24. ‘Correctly’, ‘charmingly’, ‘finely’ , etc. play an entirely diferent role. Cf. the famous address of Buffon-a terrific man -on style in writing; making ever so many distinctions which I only understand vaguely but which he didn’t mean vaguely-all kinds of nuances like ‘grand’, ‘charming’, ‘nice’.

25. The words we call expressions of aesthetic judgement play a very complicated role, but a very definite role, in what we call  a culture of a period. To describe their use or to describe what you mean by a cultured taste, you have to describe a culture. What we now call a cultured taste perhaps didn’t exist in the Middle Ages. An entirely different game is played in different ages.

26. What belongs to a language game is a whole culture. In describing musical taste you have to describe whether children give concerts, whether women do or whether men only give them, etc., etc.’ In aristocratic circles in Vienna people had [such and such] a taste, then it came into bourgeois circles and women joined choirs, etc. This is an example of tradition in music.

35. In order to get clear about aesthetic words you have to describe ways of living. We think we have to talk about aesthetic judgements like ‘This is beautiful’, but we find that if we have to talk about aesthetic judgements we don’t find these words at all, but a word used something like a gesture, accompanying a complicated activity.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Lectures on Aesthetics (1938)

What Wittgenstein seems to elide, mostly, is the modern emphasis on deviancy, aka creativity. Application of positive aesthetic terms today requires a certain sense of originality or integrity in the work, some way in which a new work is not a recapitulation of extant instantiations of the positive aesthetic terms, but an elaboration on them or new development of them. This is not to say that these terms are qualitatively any different from “correct” and “nice” and “lovely,” or that there actually is a sense in which these “original” works are original in any substantive way, just that these terms make the sort of game that Wittgenstein is talking about considerably more neurotic.

[See also F.R. Leavis Remembers Wittgenstein for Wittgenstein interpreting William Empson’s poetry.]


  1. It might be a bit typical of anything Wittgenstein has written that different readers highlight different things. I took these passages to be about the partial truth of different metaaesthetical (like “metaethical”) theories. On the one hand he seems to be saying that the approach of emotivism or expressivism just doesn’t cut it, on the other hand theories who analyze aesthetical talk to be about certain standards (something counts as “beautiful” if it adheres to those standards) do not get it right either. Now he only presents sketches of arguments, so in 7-8 which seems to be directed against some sort of expressivism he just points out that we cannot replace these words (fine, lovely) with what we normally would take as expressions of appreciation (saying “ah”, smiling), and that in normal discourse we seldom seem to bother about what the referent of “beautiful” or other words are (these questions “don’t come up at all”). At the same time the words which are typically analyzed in expressivist theories (“this is beautiful” is a good example) are seldom used in ordinary aesthetic judgments, the words we use there are rather more like the words we use when we judge something to adhere to a certain standard (i.e. correct or incorrect). The emphasis here should perhaps be on “are more akin to” (at the end of 8), because W. is not going to say that they are very much alike in other respects. Now this is what I gather from 7 to 23. I really do not know what to make of the rest of the text. 35 seems to be the usual lebensform talk.

    Does this seem to be about right? I am not particularly good at this part of Wittgenstein, and Wittgenstein’s texts always gives me the impression of being a work in progress.

  2. David Auerbach

    10 March 2011 at 16:54

    Thanks for your commentary. I think we are on the same page, more or less, but, like you say, Wittgenstein . I took 7-8 to be drawing an equivalency between naive/expressive/affective expressions of aesthetic appreciation and other simple language games or forms of expression (“Slab”, rubbing my stomach, etc.). On the other hand, aesthetic theories discard this sort of game in favor of one in which the “rules” have been made explicit.

    Except that 24-25 seem to portray a situation of the second kind: aesthetic judgments were made based on shared standards that were nonetheless implicit, as one had to be embedded in the culture of the time. So is the difference between the expressive vs. theoretical case just one of degree, not of kind? 35 seems to *boost* the expressive case and thus link the two together, despite the initial contrast.

    So I am inclined to lean toward that interpretation, but reading over the whole set of notes, I do not think that Wittgenstein is making a conclusive statement on the matter.

Leave a Reply

© 2024 Waggish

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑