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On Pointing

by William Eaton Warner

In both its English and German versions, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations overflows with pointing. Pointing with a finger (or glance) at something, and arrows that point, and points themselves (tiny dots and purposes and points of arguments). There is pointing with a gun and pointing at examples and to possible uses; points of view and points of light; to make a point of (reading slowly); to bring someone to the point of; to be to the point or point out; a needle point; a pointer. In the German version, all this activity involves the verb zeigt and the nouns Witz (aim, goal, purpose) and Zeitpunkt (point in time, moment). In the English translation, the word “point” and variations thereon are used almost 100 times— to the point where I have wondered if Wittgenstein or Elizabeth Anscombe (his student and translator) were having some fun seeing how many times and different ways they could use the word “point.” Or were they, more seriously, offering “point” as a leading example of Wittgenstein’s anti-Platonic argument that the meanings of words do not stem from some core idea, but are rather like a collection of family members who resemble one another in various ways? There is no essence of pointing or ideal point; there are all the different ways we have used this particular configuration of letters and the new ways we may use it in the future (and perhaps alter the configuration, the spelling, along the way).

What I will explore in this essay, however—and in the hope of discoveries, not answers—is the activity of pointing, rather than die Familienähnlichkeiten (the family resemblances) of words. I will begin with section 454 of the Investigations:

How does it come about that this arrow >>>––> points? Doesn’t it seem to carry in it something besides itself?—“No, not the dead line on paper, only the psychical thing, the meaning, can do that.—That is both true and false. The arrow only points in the application that a living being makes of it.

How does it come about that this arrow >>>––> points to the right and not to the left? And what about the times when an arrow seems to point to the left but actually points to the right? Or the times when we are sure that it points to the left and yet this somehow means that we are to go right? An obvious example is when a road sign gets turned or when an old sign has not been removed, and thus misdirects us. Or we, not fooled, go the right way—what seems to be the right way?—by reading the sign as pointing backwards.

We are just getting warmed up. Apparently, crucial to the development of relatively simple writing systems was the supplementing of logograms with phonetic symbols. An example offered by Jack Goody and Ian Watt in “The Consequences of Literacy” is the Sumerian sign for an arrow (ti), which, by what is called “phonetic transfer,” came also to stand for the homonym ti, meaning life, a concept not as easy to express pictographically. Thus one might ask: is this particular arrow pointing at the object, the weapon we call an arrow, or is it pointing at life—or pointing simultaneously at the life in death, the death in life?

Parents point their children in certain directions, and often the children realize that if they are going to survive, let alone thrive, they need to go in an opposite direction. Ludwig’s father Karl made a point of forcing his first sons to go into the family steel business in central Europe. After these boys committed suicide, Ludwig pointed himself in another direction—to English philosophy.

Some women (and some men) dress in ways we call “sexy,” and this—say, the revelation of a goodly portion of a woman’s legs or breasts—may put thoughts of sex in a man’s head (or a woman’s), and s/he may think that this particular person would be a good person to have sex with. And yet a woman wearing a short skirt or lowcut dress may be pointing in the direction of sex without having the least intention of herself heading that way. With some (many?) “sexy” women and men, it may be that the ability and willingness to dress in a sexy fashion is linked to, indeed depends on, disinterest in the activity that the look calls to mind.

Similarly, there are politicians and actors who are in private quite shy, uncomfortably shy, tongue-tied, and this may be in part why they have chosen to make their lives in the public eye, showing scripted emotions, pressing the flesh. They point away from who they are and toward who they not only wish to appear to be, but also wish they were—toward who they would be in spite of themselves. (Investigations, §366: “This is the point at which I go wrong.”)

Another example, to bring to yet another plane this discussion of how we can have difficulty knowing what to make of what seems to be indicated—ostensibly, ostensively, by pointing or by what may seem to be the point. One day when I was working on this piece I got into a taxi, on the backseat of which someone had left a cell phone. This led me (with silly pride) to tell the driver that I did not know what to do with this abandoned phone—how to contact the abandoner—because I myself had no cell phone. “Oh,” the driver said, “then you must have no worries.” (He later told me how throughout his workday his wife would call him with one concern after another.)

“No,” I replied. “It’s just the opposite.” (The arrow only appears to be pointing right.) “People with cell phones are constantly distracted from their real worries. But me, I have to live with mine.”

In fact, I quickly realized, perhaps the arrow was pointing right after all. If my “real worries” were all that great, or if I lacked the inner resources to accept these worries into my consciousness and to deal with them more or less successfully at that level . . . Well, I would have a cell phone (or drink a little more wine than I do, or play the ponies, bite my nails). That I have few diversions besides writing and philosophy (and the New York Giants) is a sign that my worries are not that great. As befits a man in good health, with a permanent contract and a defined-benefit pension.

In any case, it seems to me that we now have a good idea of the problem with arrows—or, better, with our life in language, symbols and cell phones and worries and many other phenomena included.


The less philosophically inclined might step off here (feeling well satisfied or well jostled, I hope, and not inclined to regret what they might be missing by not persisting). My own next step is back to Wittgenstein, to note that, in addition to points, the Investigations is full of similes, analogies, invented language games that all seem to be pointing toward phenomena that Wittgenstein would like us to pay more attention to: telling aspects of our life in language. But the question one may ask is whether Wittgenstein is indeed pointing toward the phenomena that seem most important to him, or is he, at least in some cases, pointing away from what he considers important? This may be as a mother or father bird flies away from its nest—trying, via misleading, to protect her or his young (i.e., in the human case, fledgling ideas). Or it may be an example of the more exclusively human behavior of conveying impressions and feelings we do not quite feel, and this to mislead ourselves at least as much as anyone else.

One of the many, many books on Wittgenstein reports that in his youth—and would one have to be young to say such a thing?— Wittgenstein apparently told an editor that the Tractatus, his first book, consisted of two parts: the written part and the unwritten part. “And it is precisely this second part that is the important one.” That is, what was important was not what could be said about logic, or logically, but all that could not be said in any way about ethics. Or what was important was the fact of this inability—the human inability— to speak in meaningful ways about ethics. As if most everything the book seemed to be pointing toward, and that generations of scholars have taken from it—the truth tables we learned in school, for example—All this was not the point.

My attention was brought to this matter of pointing by a scholarly article, Steven Affeldt’s “On the Difficulty of Seeing Aspects and the ‘Therapeutic’ Reading of Wittgenstein.” Affeldt is interested, and for somewhat different reasons than mine, in the discussion of the language game Wittgenstein offers in the very first section of the Investigations. Here is Wittgenstein’s text:

Now think of the following use of language: I send someone shopping. I give him a slip marked “five red apples”. He takes the slip to the shopkeeper, who opens the drawer marked “apples”; then he looks up the word “red” in a table and finds a colour sample opposite it; then he says the series of cardinal numbers—assume that he knows them by heart— up to the word “five” and for each number he takes an apple of the same colour as the sample out of the drawer.—It is in this and similar ways that one operates with words.—“But how does he know where and how he is to look up the word ‘red’ and what he is to do with the word ‘five’?”— Well, I assume that he acts as I have described. Explanations come to an end somewhere.—But what is the meaning of the word “five”?—No such thing was in question here, only how the word “five” is used.

Notwithstanding the phrase that I have underlined, Wittgenstein himself, in section 2, points out that what he has, at least ostensibly, been pointing at with this first example is not human language. Many readers may have thought that the word “language” was pointing rather directly at human language, but no. “That philosophical concept of meaning,” Wittgenstein writes in reference to the apples example, “has its place in a primitive idea of the way language functions. But one can say that it is the idea of a language more primitive than ours.”

So a reader—and particularly a reader who was not caught up in the discussions of language and meaning going on at Cambridge University when Wittgenstein was a student and teacher there—may find herself asking why Wittgenstein bothered to develop and present this misleading, artificial, apparently not-analogous analogy. As with a blatantly unreliable narrator in a work of fiction, Wittgenstein’s opening gambit increases readers’ skepticism and anxiety. This may be the gambit’s overarching point. As Wittgenstein recognizes, explaining by false analogy is a curious proceeding at best. In a footnote that appears a little later in the Investigations, Wittgenstein asks:

Could one define the word “red” by pointing to something that was not red? That would be as if one were supposed to explain the word “modest” to someone whose English was weak, and one pointed to an arrogant man and said “That man is not modest”. That it is ambiguous is no argument against such a method of definition. Any definition can be misunderstood. But it might well be asked: are we still to call this “definition”?

In the subdivision I have come to in my own Wittgenstein studies, it is possible that the language games he invents are akin to various other kinds of language games with which highly verbal people like to amuse themselves: e.g., devising palindromes or believable-though- false definitions for obscure words. But this is not the answer to my question about Wittgenstein’s tactics that I wish to write about. Rather I would focus on Affeldt’s answer, which seems to me much richer than my own gut response.

Wittgenstein [in §1, with the apples] has deliberately crafted a jarring example in which language use appears lifeless and mechanical, and has done so, at the opening of his investigations, precisely to call to mind (by contrast) the vitality of our life with words . . . He aims to call all of this to mind for at least two reasons. First, it must form a touchstone for any adequate philosophical reflection on language. But second, and for present purposes more importantly, he wants to allow us to recognize the reality of our life with words as remarkable.

What, for my present purposes, interests me most in these phrases is the “call to mind (by contrast).” This suggests that, at least in this case, at the outset of the Investigations, Wittgenstein is pointing toward or at something (the lifeless, mechanical example) in order, in fact, to have us look away from it, toward life-full, nonmechanical, human language. But this is also to say that in seeming to point in one direction, Wittgenstein is in fact (like our twisted road signs and scantily clothed women) pointing in another.

Cf., the Investigations, section 185: “Such a case would present similarities with one in which a person naturally reacted to the gesture of pointing with the hand by looking in the direction of the line from finger-tip to wrist, not from wrist to finger-tip.” Or imagine that you, traveling, a visitor, a stranger, asked a local resident how to get somewhere, and he gave you quite detailed directions, and you were to know from this that you were to do the opposite of what he had just described. (How? From the level of detail? From something in his tone of voice or the way he was looking at you?)

“But wait,” an attentive reader objects, “Wittgenstein himself, in section 2, as you have yourself described— Wittgenstein himself tells you that his ‘detailed directions,’ as you call them, are wrong, or will not get you where you want to go.”

“Yes,” I say. “So you ask a man for directions and he takes some care to give you directions, detailed directions, and then he tells you that they will not get you where you want to go.” Here we have arrived at the paradox Wittgenstein’s mentor Bertrand Russell made so much of. “The Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies!” wrote Epimenides, a Cretan. But, with Wittgenstein and the Investigations, at least, the matter is taken a step or two further. More not-analogous language games are offered, and the number of words devoted to these is rather greater than the number devoted to saying what human language is like. So it is as if you, the stranger in our example, were to ask for directions and were given directions and then told these were not quite right, or worse, and then you were given more directions, similarly qualified.

I am reminded of the old “Down East” (Maine) comedy routine “Which Way to Millinocket?”

Narrator: “I was standing outside Sutherland’s IGA store one morning, when I heard a flivver approaching down the street toward me.”
Sound effects of an old car sputtering to a stop, then a visitor’s, stranger’s voice: “Which way to Millinocket?”
Narrator: “Well, you can go west to the next intersection, get onto the turnpike, go north through the toll gate at Augusta, ’til you come to that intersection . . . well, no. You keep right on this tar road; it changes to dirt now and again. Just keep the river on your left. You’ll come to a crossroads and . . . let me see. Then again, you can take that scenic coastal route that the tourists use. And after you get to Bucksport . . . well, let me see now. Millinocket. Come to think of it, you can’t get there from here.”

But we are not trying to get completely lost. And so I would come back to Wittgenstein’s question, “How does it come about that this arrow >>>––> points?” At various moments in the Investigations, Wittgenstein proposes that this is something we just know; this is a given of our “form of life.” For an example, we might look at the following footnote in the Investigations, the lines in the book that have become central to my understanding of it:

I see a picture; it represents an old man walking up a steep path leaning on a stick.—How? Might it not have looked just the same if he had been sliding downhill in that position? Perhaps a Martian would describe the picture so. I do not need to explain why we do not describe it so.

On first reading, these words may well feel comforting. It would seem that what Wittgensteinians call our “life in language”—here our life in visual language—offers us certainty, even where skeptical examination might lead us to think there was none. There is something zauberhaft (magical, enchanting) or even unheimlich (eerie, uncanny) in how we are able to understand things—pictures, words, concepts, arrows—that on closer examination do not seem so clear. We might hear in Wittgenstein’s last sentence echoes of the dismissive remarks of self-described realists, realist philosophers included. Of course if we wanted to waste our time we could wallow in skepticism, wonder if the guy was really walking uphill or if the African-American ex-con whose gun was found near the scene of the crime really was the murderer, or if instead of the sun going round the earth, the earth went round the sun. But, in fact, wouldn’t all this wondering be perverse, or just a waste of time? We are not really confused until we insist on being confused—or until, in a time of crisis, in the midst of a divorce, say, we really are confused, we don’t know if we’re going uphill or down, we can’t “find our feet.” Investigations, §142:

It is only in normal cases that the use of a word is clearly prescribed; we know, are in no doubt, what to say in this or that case. The more abnormal the case, the more doubtful it becomes what we are to say.

The Investigations is an interior dialogue. One of the voices is the voice of common sense, a voice that scorns doubters and would stay clear of abnormal cases. But there are other voices (including subtle ones, like the one that supplies this “only,” in “It is only in normal cases . . .”). And particularly, and particularly for our present purposes, there is this other voice that goes beyond simply disagreeing—that goes beyond suggesting, as I have just done, that the old man might well be sliding downhill. This other voice tells us—through examples such as the shopkeeper with the apples and also directly—that pictures and pointing are deceptive. Investigations, Part II, vii:

What is to be done with the picture, how it is to be used, is still obscure. Quite clearly, however, it must be explored if we want to understand the sense of what we are saying. But the picture seems to spare us this work: it already points to a particular use. This is how it takes us in.

It couldn’t be more obvious: The old man is heading uphill? (See Heraclitus: “The path up and down is one and the same.”)


“I am often afraid of madness,” Wittgenstein wrote in one of his notebooks. “Do I have any reason for assuming that this fear does not spring from, so to speak, an optical illusion: taking something to be an abyss right at my feet, when it’s nothing of the sort?” The story is told that in a bathroom in Wittgenstein’s childhood home, in his father’s palace in Vienna, some plaster had fallen from the wall, and as a child Ludwig saw this pattern as a duck, but it frightened him because it also looked like a monster in a Hieronymus Bosch painting.

In addition to language games and pointing, the Investigations is full of optical illusions (e.g.: a drawing that could be either a duck or a rabbit, something Wittgenstein calls a “double cross”—a white cross on a black background that could as easily be a black cross on a white background). The Investigations is also—like most every text?—full of sentences that might be thought of as functioning like optical illusions, with their meanings capable of being turned inside out, and then outside in again. A famous one is §109: Die Philosophie ist ein Kampf gegen die Verhexung unsres Verstandes durch die Mittel unserer Sprache. “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” This could be interpreted—has been interpreted—as meaning either that philosophers use language to combat bewitchery, or that philosophers battle bewitchments caused by language itself. (To those interested in the optical-illusion-like quality of human behaviors, I recommend various works of the British child psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, including, for example, “On Success”: “In psychotherapy one always has to remember that anyone who is failing at one thing is always succeeding at another. . . . If I fail as a student to have a girlfriend, I succeed at keeping myself as someone who loves only in the family. . . . If I can’t write my essay, I can show myself to be capable of refusing a demand by a figure of authority.”)

And so, I propose, for the child Ludwig—and for the child Ludwig who, like all our child selves, lives on in the adult’s mind— the old man with the cane was yet another such frighteningly dual, unstable image. He was sliding downhill, and he was, stick in hand, leveraging his way uphill. (And going uphill is often harder, if less frightening, than sliding downhill.) From a child’s perspective, the reason we do not need to explain why we do not describe the man as sliding downhill, or even talk about it, is obvious (painfully obvious, the expression is). I can hear the voice of my young son saying to me in response to too-probing questions—once the questions were about a nightmare, another time about a conflict, a humiliation at school—“This is not something I would like to talk about. Can we please talk about something else?”

And so, let us adults return to Wittgenstein’s note about the old man again and, with courage, pause at the assertion that the picture could have looked just the same if the man were sliding downhill. And we might reflect further about how at times, and not just in the midst of personal upheaval, we are fooled, disappointed—and not only by pictures, but also by people who appear honest, trustworthy, loving, and so forth. By philosophers quoting other philosophers, or by bankers peddling mortgages, for example.

And why are we deceived by such people—by, say, the headinguphill impression we may have of a colleague? Sometimes it is because we are told to believe, or because everyone believes and we do not want to stick our necks out. Often it is because we so want to believe, and we certainly wish human behavior were not so relentlessly self-interested. We wish we could trust absolutely the people we work with, and sleep with. We wish to be able to relax in happy and easy agreement with our fellow men and women, and with “nature,” the larger world around us. We wish to find pure love. We wish to find peace—“the peace of repose, the peace of the Sabbath, the peace which has no evening,” as Augustine, one of Wittgenstein’s many father figures, put it. “The real discovery is the one that . . . gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions,” as Wittgenstein himself wrote.

I am reminded of a boy I knew when I was growing up. He used to take a stick or pencil and jab it repeatedly at a wall or tree trunk, with his back to the rest of the world. His family called this “pointing,” and it was thought to be essential to this boy in some way—to his psychic equilibrium, to help him organize the various bits whirling in his mind perhaps.

Could it be a desire for the peace of questionlessness—the peace of pointing and of similarly focused activities?—that led Wittgenstein to say there was no need for him to talk about the possibility that the man was sliding downhill? For Viennese Jews of Wittgenstein’s generation, sliding downhill—if not being pitched headfirst off a cliff—was the standard experience. Grappling with, trying to get his mind around this experience, around experiences of his childhood (e.g., three of his four older brothers committing suicide) and around human experience more generally, Wittgenstein came up with the particular, peculiar, extraordinary rhetorical strategy of pointing readers in a misleading direction—as if thereby to create a special, quiet space at the back of the brain for silent, deeper contemplation. Like the stillness, the vacuum behind a runaway train. Or can Wittgenstein’s refusal to explain why we (mis)understand painfully obvious pictures or illusions be considered a failure of nerve on his part? Or does he refuse because it is not a philosopher’s or a therapist’s job to lead us into the empty, electric box of high anxiety, but simply to help us appreciate its existence and how frightened it can make us feel?

Apparently Wittgenstein thought of using as the epigraph for the Investigations a famous line from one of Bishop Butler’s sermons on morality: “Everything is what it is, and not another thing.” (We now have a colloquial variant: “It is what it is.”) As regards the old man with the stick, it would seem that what is is that he might be headed up or down. We are deceived by what Descartes called la précipitation et la prévention: by judging too hastily while not discounting our prejudices (e.g., our wishful thinking, our eagerness to deny, ignore). To put this another way: on account of our prejudices and hasty judgments, our wishful thinking, we go through life in a fog, misunderstanding; and without our prejudices, hasty judgments, and wishful thinking, we would never escape that electric box, we would be paralyzed, unable to go through life at all.


Language, Wittgenstein proposes, gives us pictures, arrows and points included. And so, I might add, do the media, celebrities, politicians, essay writers. What is to be done with these pictures, how they are to be used, remains obscure and must be explored if we should wish to understand what is being said (to include what we ourselves are saying). Again:

But the picture seems to spare us this work: it already points to a particular use. This is how it takes us in.

“Takes us in”: tricks us. (Or are we so many stray cats?) Language is tricking us. Pictures, analogies, artifacts, fantasies: like magicians they trick us with their pointing, by directing our attention to the wrong thing, to what is, at best, irrelevant, or to only one part of quite another, larger whole. In pointing at something—or at more than one thing—they make it more difficult, much more difficult, for us to see what is really going on.

In the very first section of his Investigations, for example, in the space of four paragraphs, Wittgenstein uses language and variations on pointing to mislead his readers at least twice. He points to a section in Augustine that he quotes out of context and for all—or because—this is not one of the sections of the Confessions that really speaks to him (i.e., on a psychological level). Then, as I have detailed, he offers a language game of his invention—an engaging, intriguing game—in order, it would seem, to say above all that this game has little or nothing to do with language.

And so, if Wittgenstein’s arrows, as many another’s arrows, are not pointing at what they seem to be pointing at, can we know at what they are in fact pointing? (E.g., could they always be pointing directly backwards, toward the feathers? This seems hard to believe.) Can arrows like Wittgenstein’s tell us—call attention to—anything at all? Or, to put this another way, if arrows are not, or are not consistently, really pointing at what they are pointing, when can they be thought to be pointing at anything at all?

In 1519, Fernão de Magalhães and 236 sailors set out to go east by going west. It is conventional to say, in history books, that no one but Magellan had a map or knew where the ships were headed. But insofar as Magellan’s idea of the world’s geography was what we might call a fantasy, and insofar as his map was quite wrong . . . What matter! Three years later eighteen people had made it back to Spain, Magellan not among them—killed in an unnecessary battle, and much of his crew dead of starvation. And it had become a little easier for Western Europeans to rape, exploit, subjugate other parts of the globe, infecting tens of millions of unsuspecting foreigners with one or another deadly disease, leaving destitute and disoriented the few surviving members of great civilizations, civilizations that might otherwise be sharing their wonders with us today.

From one perspective, the point at which we have arrived in our own voyage is simply that of students struggling to understand a difficult text, and sorely tempted to conclude that the reason we cannot understand the text is because it makes no sense, and life in general is absurd. But what makes our dilemma more interesting—more disturbing— is that we are not simply talking about Wittgenstein. Life is another book in which we human beings have not been able to find the answer.

Bringing us back to our armchair, dialectical voyage, I will quote at length, and in order to disagree with, Affeldt’s “On the Difficulty of Seeing Aspects and the ‘Therapeutic’ Reading of Wittgenstein”:

It is a central part of Wittgenstein’s ambition in Philosophical Investigations to reveal not only that we recurrently turn toward emptiness, but concretely and specifically why we do so. He wants to bring to light and depict in as compelling a manner as he is able the various human drives, cravings, anxieties, fantasies, perversions, wishes, and the like that lie behind and are manifest in the turn to philosophical emptiness. Surely part of why he wants to do so is that he seeks to understand and depict at least some of the complexities of our human nature as currently constituted. (This is not a merely intellectual interest in a type of philosophical anthropology. A man as tormented as Wittgenstein must also have been seeking to better understand himself.) However, more importantly, Wittgenstein must work to bring to light the aspects of our nature manifest in the emergence of philosophical emptiness because they are exactly what must be treated in genuine Wittgensteinian therapy. His therapy, that is, cannot merely treat symptomatic emptiness. It must treat the aspects of human nature that recurrently produce this emptiness.
Accordingly, while Wittgenstein does want to calm the restless and tormented voice of philosophical emptiness, he must also provoke it, call it forth. He must do this, in part, because it is his only means of discovering and investigating the aspects of human nature requiring his treatment. But he must also provoke the voice of philosophical emptiness because it is in and through that voice being called forth from each of us, in the encounter with Wittgenstein’s text, that we discover ourselves to harbor the drives, cravings, anxieties, and the like that its emergence reveals. It is only in and through the voice of emptiness being called forth from us that we recognize our need for Wittgenstein’s therapy and that it can begin to work upon us.

Affeldt is a more optimistic Wittgenstein reader than I. Elsewhere in his article he indicates that for him the old man with the stick is going uphill, whereas, as I see it, the old man and Ludwig Wittgenstein and all of us humans are both going uphill and sliding back down and are only in normal cases sure which is which. For me, in the complexity and confusion of his own pointing, Wittgenstein is pointing up the complexity and confusion and even desperation of all of our pointing, and is thereby helping us get in touch with our confusion—our inevitable confusion. And thus, in my more pessimistic reading, this idea of a Wittgensteinian “therapy”— for all that recent decades have given birth to a therapeutic reading of Wittgenstein, and for all that he himself was much taken with the work of his Viennese contemporary Sigmund Freud— It’s a false lead.

In the English translation of the Investigations the word “therapy” appears only once, in §133: “There is not a philosophical method, though there are indeed methods, like different therapies.” In his biography of Wittgenstein, Ray Monk writes that his subject, by then middle-aged, suggested to a young friend who was training to be a psychiatrist

that the two of them might practise together as psychiatrists. Wittgenstein felt that he might have a special talent for this branch of medicine, and was particularly interested in Freudian psychoanalysis. . . . Wittgenstein’s feeling that he would have made a good psychiatrist seems to rest on a belief that his style of philosophizing and Freudian psychoanalysis required a similar gift. Not, of course, that they are the same technique. Wittgenstein reacted angrily when his philosophical method was dubbed “therapeutic positivism” and compared with psychoanalysis. When, for example, A.J. Ayer drew the comparison in an article in the Listener, he received from Wittgenstein a strongly worded letter of rebuke. However, Wittgenstein was inclined to see some sort of connection between his work and Freud’s. He once described himself . . . as a “disciple of Freud”, and at various times summed up the achievements of both himself and Freud in strikingly similar phrases. “It’s all excellent similes”, he said in a lecture on Freud’s work; and of his own contributions to philosophy: “What I invent are new similes.” [My underscoring.]

That Wittgenstein had an extraordinary gift for similes—or rather, for analogies, including misleading ones—is certain (or as certain as . . . ?). But this other, not really Wittgensteinian idea—of there being a philosophical therapy or a therapy for philosophy— participates in a larger fantasy: that where and when problems are identified, solutions may—no, must—be found. (“I’m not worried about the country’s long-term future,” Steve Jobs apparently once told Barack Obama. “What I’m worried about is that we don’t talk enough about solutions.”) The yet larger fantasy is that a rich way of viewing the human predicament is through the lens of problems and solutions, of diseases, therapies, cures.

To bring this back to Wittgenstein’s old man with the stick (or is it now my old man, my shtick?): we fantasize both that we can decide whether the old man is heading uphill or down, and that it must be one or the other. Or we might say of the many cures that continue to be proposed for the confusions and challenges of human existence, and of the uncertain directions we daily confront: we are like a weather vane on a barn roof, spinning and pointing as the wind wills, and, additionally, we imagine that the will of the wind is our own.


I will close with an Emily Dickinson poem that I believe offers a telling picture not only of where we have arrived at the end of this piece, but also of how we move through our world, through a dense forest of seemingly decipherable signs. One might say that young people live in clearings, in charming, blinding light, and that, by contrast, Dickinson’s picture is that of an older person, someone closer to my own age, someone who has appreciated how many of her or his arrows have reached quite different targets than s/he had expected them to reach, someone who continues to read and reflect but no longer expects to find answers, therapies, a right way to think or live, a right direction to head.

We grow accustomed to the Dark—
When light is put away—
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Goodbye—

A Moment—We uncertain step
For newness of the night—
Then—fit our Vision to the Dark—
And meet the Road—erect—

And so of larger—Darknesses—
Those Evenings of the Brain—
When not a Moon disclose a sign—
Or Star—come out—within—

The Bravest—grope a little—
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead—
But as they learn to see—

Either the Darkness alters—
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight—
And Life steps almost straight.

I like to think that it is the duality, the ambivalence of Dickinson’s “almost straight”—only in normal cases—that Wittgenstein would have liked most of all. And I would note, too, that, as mariners, chaos theoreticians, and essay writers know, even the slightest deviation in one’s course can quickly bring one into uncharted waters. With our Augustines, Dickinsons, and Descartes, our Magellans and Wittgensteins; with all our philosophy, our poetry, and our maps, and all our feverish pointing, we are ever lost and discovering, discovering and lost, directed and misdirected at one and the same time. We cling to our compasses, our magnetic norths. Without all these arrows and points, how would we know which way to go?

Seven notes for avid readers

The example of the sexy dressers came to my mind after I read about an interview with Lady Gaga. This led me to read the interview itself, which had been published in Vanity Fair. “I have this weird thing that if I sleep with someone they’re going to take my creativity from me through my vagina,” the former Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta said. That is—for publicity purposes, cognizant of marketing surveys that showed her fan base to be prepubescent girls?—she was confessing to being afraid of sex. And yet to me, in my highly limited knowledge of Lady Gaga, she is someone who intentionally appears in public in sexually provocative, outrageously revealing outfits. Sex seems to be at the very tip of her point.

In his famous discussion of the dance of bees, Jacques Lacan proposed that what makes human language language is that it can be misunderstood. The processes of expression and understanding involve translation, censorship, bad faith, distraction, . . . all of which create gaps between what we, rather approximately, call the said, the meant, the heard, and the understood. By contrast, Lacan’s bees, if not bees more generally, avoid all this complexity and confusion because the nectarous location danced correlates exactly (and immutably?) with the location of the nectar. And they avoid the additional confusion caused by thinking that there might or might not be a correlation between signs and what they signify.

Grand ideals offer another example of the ambiguity of pointing. See, for example, the Declaration of Independence’s “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” or one of the famous lines in Matthew: “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Such statements might be said to be like arms that point toward the stars, and an eye might follow the path backwards, from the stars to the human beings, and discover things at least as true as the constellations: e.g., the dedication of Americans and the United States to the pursuit of money, and often at all costs; or the problem of keeping one’s soul (being true to one’s ideals) but not having enough to eat or becoming alienated from one’s less scrupulous fellow citizens. In line with Wittgenstein’s interest in optical illusions, we might think of ideals as a species of verbal illusion. Like a flashlight, they both illuminate a way forward and leave in greater darkness those holding the light or following behind.

“The Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies!” is from a poem by Epimenides (circa 600 BC), often known by the Latin translation of the title, De oraculis/peri Chresmon, and preserved through history above all on account of the quite other use that the apostle Paul, in his Paulish way, made of the poem, e.g., in Titus 1. There the poem is quoted in 1:12, but the moral drawn in 1:15: “Unto the pure all things are pure: but unto them that are defiled and believing is nothing pure; but even their mind and conscience is defiled.” Here the arrow points from inside out, and not vice-versa. We are not corrupted or beatified by our circumstances; good and evil come from within.

“Picture” is the standard translation of the German Bild, one of Wittgenstein’s favorite words and concepts. Cf., the translated titles of Hans Christian Andersen’s Billedbog uden Billeder: in German, Bilderbuch ohne Bilder, or Picture-Book without Pictures. Other translations of Bild are certainly possible. In Wittgenstein’s Vienna, Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin trace Wittgenstein’s use of the word back to Viennese cultural debate and German science, proposing that a Bild “is for Wittgenstein something which we make, or produce, as an artifact. . . .” Toward the conclusion of “The Availability of Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy,” Stanley Cavell, in comparing Wittgenstein’s and Freud’s work, proposes translating Bilder as “fantasies.” Both Wittgenstein and Freud, Cavell writes, are “intent upon unmasking the defeat of our real need in the face of self-impositions which we have not assessed, or fantasies (‘pictures’) which we cannot escape.” Thus, we might think of our certainty that the old man with the stick is heading uphill (or only uphill) as an artifact of our minds (and of our language, our culture), or as a fantasy. Or imagine a child building with different colored blocks. Our artifacts and fantasies are the materials with which we make up an understanding of our world.

I owe my “dense forest of seemingly decipherable signs” to the first verse of Baudelaire’s “Correspondences”: La Nature est un temple où de vivants piliers Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles; L’homme y passe à travers des forêts de symboles Qui l’observent avec des regards familiers. A gloss: Nature is a temple in which the living columns sometimes release jumbled-up messages. We humans pass through these forests of symbols, who watch us as if they knew us, or we them. Among other things, this verse has helped me gain a better sense of the Manhattan Island that I walk and bicycle through in my daily rounds. A forest of symbols who watch my son and me as if they knew us, or we them.

Philip Roth’s American Pastoral dwells on the problem—or fact— of the deceptiveness of the Bilder, the pictures, that we develop of other people and of ourselves. Here from two separate parts of the novel (in reverse order): “The picture we have of one another. Layers and layers of misunderstanding. The picture we have of ourselves. Useless. Presumptuous. Completely cocked-up. Only we go ahead and we live by these pictures. . . .” You get them [people] wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. . . . The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong. . . .


William Eaton Warner is an essayist and writer of philosophical dialogues. "On Pointing" emerged as he was writing And Now, I Think, We Can Say, a fictional conversation about Wittgenstein and many another subject between a librarian and a labor lawyer. The conversation was, ostensibly, overheard and copied down in a Barnes & Noble café by a curious professor who then goes on to provide his own extensive commentary on what he has overheard. (updated 4/2012)

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