Tuesday, August 22, 2006

How to Write Concepts Down (1)

The philosophical remarks in this book are, as it were, a number of sketches ... Very many of these were badly drawn or uncharacteristic, marked by all the defects of a weak draughtsman. And when they were rejected a number of tolerable ones were left, which now had to be arranged ...

Ludwig Wittgenstein
Preface to the Philosophical Investigations

I've noted my admiration for the prose of accomplished artists before. Josef Albers' Interaction of Color and Michael Andrews "Notes and Preoccupations" are dependable sources of literary pleasure for me. This weekend I found a less famous example in a little book by Oliver Senior called simply How to Draw Hands (Studio Publications, 1944). It is about just that. The very first sentence announces that "This is an instruction book."

What I like about this sort of writing is the excess of experience that supports the text. The author is telling us in words how to do something that he is obviously very capable of doing with his hands. (Senior drew the pictures in the book. They are very good.) He is also making a very simple assumption: that we are reading his book in order to learn how to do it ourselves, and not in order to learn "how it is done" (by others). Under that assumption is another: that we will only learn this particular art by trying to follow his instructions. That is, the book is only the tip of the iceberg. The clarity of this basic relation, which in fact obtains between any text and the experience it addresses, is the main attraction for me in the way artists write about their work.

In his own words, Senior "assumes authority to propose ... a course of study ... together with directions, explanations and comment based upon his experience and observations." He describes the hand as "a familiar yet highly complex piece of physical mechanism" and correlates "the notorious difficulty of drawing hands" with "the mental equipment by which [the student's] vision may be directed, extended and refreshed."

The better draughtsman has more "on his mind" concerning his subject; and, by embodying his knowledge and understanding in each purposeful line or passage of his drawing, achieves with apparent--or even real--ease an expression of form, character, action--whatever may be his immediate object--that the novice, lacking such equipment and relying on vision alone, finds beyond his power.

It was this "better draughtsman" that reminded me of Wittgenstein and the quote in the epigraph. Immediately after making his famous remark about writing philosophy in the manner of poetic composition ("Philosophie dürfte man eigenlich nur dichten") he noted that this only showed that he was "someone who cannot quite do what he would like to be able to do" (Culture and Value, p. 24). I, of course, think he did it better than anyone else. He knew how to write concepts down, i.e., how to arrange descriptions (sketches) so as to render a concept perspicuous, locating "its place among the concepts of experience" (PI, part II, xi, p. 193).

His main strength was the eschewal of philosophical jargon and special "philosophical propositions", theses, or theories. (That, to my mind, is the most important difference between Wittgenstein and, say, Heidegger, and marks his genius as being of a wholly different order.) As it happens, Oliver Senior puts this point brilliantly in relation to the difficulty of drawing hands.

If ... the artist finds himself constrained, by any consideration of expression, treatment or style, or by his deference to the peculiar nature and limitations of his tools and materials, to adopt or invent a convention or a symbol and to substitute the semblance of a bunch of bananas or a bent fork for a representation of the human hand, then the particular problem dealt with in this book does not arise.

I feel like this about jargon in philosophy, perhaps symbolism in poetry. It avoids the inherent difficulty and substitutes a technical term, a "technically correct" word, and thereby sidesteps the problem of the draughtsman: to get the subject down on the page.

What the better draughtsman (il miglior fabbro?) has "on his mind" makes him "more alert to respond to the indvidual character of his model, more interested to recognize its unexpected aspects, to seize upon its exceptional grace, or to emphasies its strength." After all, "the better drawing is not the more elaborate attempt to reproduce the visual appearance of its subject, but that which is better informed."

It may be argued that we cannot be as straightforwardly informed about concepts as we can about hands. Fortunately, like Senior, "I am entitled to assume that you are never at a loss for an authentic model to study." Everyone has one or two concepts work with. We are not, as Wittgenstein, pointed out, dealing with a super-order of super-concepts. "If the words, 'language', 'experience', 'world', have a use, it must be as humble a one as that of the words 'table', 'lamp', 'door'." (PI§97)

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