Degas at home, Plato on holiday. Keeping ourselves talking about, living in and responding to this remarkable world.

Degas: "La classe de Dance"
 READING: From §38 of “The Philosophical Investigations” by Ludwig Wittgenstein (his emphases)

This is connected with the conception of naming as, so to speak, an occult process. Naming appears as a queer connexion of a word with an object. — And you really get such a queer connexion when a philosopher tries to bring out the relation between name and thing by staring at an object in front of them and repeating a name or even the word “this” innumerable times. For philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday. And here we may indeed fancy naming to be some remarkable act of mind, as it were a baptism of an object. And we can also say word “this” to the object, as it were address the object as “this” — a queer use of this word, which doubtless only occurs in doing philosophy.  

The clinical psychologist Lois Shawver comments on this passage as follows:

This sentence “For philosophical problems arise when language ‘goes on holiday’,” is a famous sentence in Wittgenstein. It means that when language is taken out of context and philosophized about it becomes “confusing”.  It reminds me of a time when I was a child and I said “butterfly” over and over.  Isn’t it strange, I thought, that we say “Butter-fly” as though butter were to fly away, or “but -er -fly” and by the time that I had said this fifteen times or so, the word no longer seemed to mean “butterfly” in the simple, ordinary way it had. Often when one philosophizes about a concept [we find] the concept has “gone on holiday”.  We have lost our grounding in concrete examples. We know very well how to use the word “virtue” in a sentence, for example, but when we scratch our heads and wonder what “virtue” really means, then the word “virtue” is on holiday. We are just thinking about the word, not using it in the natural way that our language allows us to use it.


Degas at home, Plato on holiday. Keeping ourselves talking about, living in and responding to this remarkable world.

An enduring human desire is “to look behind the scenes.” One can cite many memorable examples of this in our culture as a whole but one of the most striking expressions of this that I know is to be found in the famous ballet paintings, drawings and sculptures by Degas (1834–1917) some of which can be seen in a special exhibition (Degas: A Passion for Perfection) at the moment in the Fitzwilliam Museum.

They were popular with Degas’ customers because they answered meaningfully to this desire and made available to their owners a new perspective from which they could gain an enlarged understanding about the world of ballet — one that was not available to them merely as paying members of the audience. Degas’ two and three-dimensional representations of backstage or rehearsal scenes are important not simply because of their obvious artistic merit but because they help us see these dancers are professionals doing their job, and a hard and difficult one at that.

A more modern expression of this desire may found in the fact that when releasing the DVD of a new film it is, today, de rigour to include on the disc a plethora of extra features showing various backstage goings on. This is most clearly seen in the mini-documentaries often included called “The Making of Such and Such.”

In both cases, ballet and film, we begin with, in it's own terms, the fulfilling perspective of someone sitting in the audience experiencing the show as the choreographer, filmmaker and/or director presents it to us. After this experience, if we are both minded to (and have the opportunity), we can then look behind the actual scenes and, in so doing, we suddenly have access to another perspective upon the ballet or film where we can see revealed something of the hard work and technical know-how required to produce an apparently easy and seamless performance. Perhaps, at a later date, inspired by what we have seen both on stage and screen and behind them both, we may choose to learn how to dance or operate a camera ourselves and these activities will add a further, genuinely, behind-the-scenes perspective to our knowledge of ballet and film.

When our desire to look behind the scenes remains this worldly, as it does here — in which there really is an actual scene behind which one can look — it seems reasonable to say that this kind of activity “deepens” our understanding and appreciation of ballet and film-making and it allows us meaningfully to say that we have moved towards a “truer”, more rounded and profound estimation of these domains than we had whilst we were sitting in the audience blithely unaware of what was required to make this ballet or this film possible.

All well and good so far. But some two-and-a-half thousand years ago a profound problem arose when the language of “behind the scenes” began to be used by Plato in the increasingly abstract and far-from concrete realms of philosophical thought and conjecture.

Before we go on let’s remind ourselves of the story in which this happens, Plato’s famous and unimaginably influential “Allegory of the Cave” found in Book VII (514 a, 2 to 517 a, 7) of “The Republic” written sometime around 380 BCE.

In his dialogue Plato has Socrates describe to Glaucon (Plato’s brother) a group of people who have lived their entire lives chained to the wall of a cave facing a blank wall. All they can see are the shadows projected onto this wall by puppeteers passing in front of a fire which lies behind them. Plato suggested that these shadows (and the projected sounds also made by the puppeteers) were as close as the prisoners ever got to viewing reality.

For Plato the true philosopher was someone, like him, who, by clear thinking, had been freed from his chains and so able to turn around and see behind him a scene behind which he could venture. Of course, this was no easy task because, as Plato has Socrates say, whenever any of the prisoners were able to turn around and look up toward the light this could only be done with much pain because the brightness of the flickering fire would blind them and in the first instance they would be able to see nothing. What is true of the fire in the cave is, according to Plato, even more true of the sunlight outside the cave. But our hero, the true philosopher, perseveres and as their eyes become accustomed firstly to the brightness of the fire and then to that of the sun, their eyes would slowly become accustomed to the light and, wonder of wonders, they would begin to see not only the puppeteers and their models, or the things on the surface above the cave, not as dim reflections or shadows but as  the things in themselves — as the pure, true Forms that have and always will be informing the world known to the cave dwellers. This is Plato’s realm of the Good, the True, the Beautiful, of Truth, Love and Justice etc..

Having achieved this exalted vision the philosophers duty was then to bring this good news of the really real world, the world of the Forms, back to the prisoners in the cave and give them access to true knowledge, true security and well-being (true knowledge is here understood to be salvivic). But this return journey was as fraught with almost as many difficulties as the ascent for, as you will all know, when you come back into a dark room after being out in the bright sunlight, once again, you discover you cannot see. Consequently, when you first get back to your fellow prisoners to tell them the good news all they can see is a blinded man stumbling about and so the philosopher’s good news is received with ridicule. Under these circumstances, Plato says, would not the prisoners let the philosopher know in no uncertain terms that he had turned round and gone up only in order to come back down into the cave with his eyes ruined and that this proved the futility of entering upon such a foolish course of action themselves: “No thank you. We’ll stay in the dark if you don’t mind.” Plato has Socrates darkly conclude: “And if [the prisoners] can get hold of this person who takes it in hand to free them from their chains and to lead them up, and if they could kill him, will they not actually kill him?” His dialogue partner Glaucon replies: “They certainly will.”

Now what we need to notice clearly about the “behind the scenes” idea in Degas’ hands or those of a documentary film-maker is that, unlike Plato, they are NOT trying to show us another world. I cannot emphasise this enough: they are NOT trying to show us another world.

The language (visual or verbal) they use to describe things “behind-the-scenes” is all keyed tightly to showing us actual  things — such as dancers or camera men and women — behind actual scenes and, in doing this, we eventually discover that what we are really being shown is the *same* world we see whilst sitting in the audience but seeing it *differently*, under other aspects, from different perspectives. When these are placed alongside other overlapping perspectives we have about the world together they enable us to gain a broader, fuller estimation of not just ballet and film but the world itself and its possible meanings. In all this the language of behind the scenes does not , to use Wittgenstein’s term, “go on holiday” because it remains tightly keyed to actual things things in this actual world. 

But in Plato’s hands the language of behind the scenes goes resolutely on holiday. Plato thinks there is another world, a strange world of abstract Forms, of Goodness, Truth and Beauty, a world which in Christian hands became the realm of an omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient God with its heaven, hell, purgatory and much more besides. When you really come to think about it you will see that his language about this other world is not keyed to anything we actually know about but only to things which nobody has seen or could in principle know anything about — at best all his words “refer” to, to borrow a famous phrase, unknown unknowns.

To see how crazy this is try this little experiment. First imagine an unknown unknown . . . . and then, secondly, try to talk about it meaningfully. This is what Plato is doing.

I hope you can see that this is impossible and down this route lies madness and delusion for every single word you utter about this unknown unknown will be on the mother of all holidays. In short, all of Plato’s words, although on the surface they may seem to be making sense and follow all kinds of grammatical rules they are, in truth all on permanent holiday, slipping and sliding crazily about and never coming to land anywhere firm or anywhere meaningful.

But countless people like me — that is to say platonically inspired Christian religious and philosophical professionals of all kinds of stripes (although I hope I am no longer one of them) — have for two and a half millennia stood up in front of you (people thought to be poor benighted and chained-up cave dwellers) and, using language on holiday, have told you various behind-the-scenes stories about a world that is supposed to exist behind our everyday world. You, perhaps thanks to people like Degas and documentary film-makers, knowing how much you can learn by going behind a real, actual scene think, “Oooo, that sounds interesting or attractive” and, were I a persuasive enough figure like Plato, you might even be tempted to start believing in the behind the scenes description of another world I’m offering you.

But stop and think about it. I can, right now, take you behind the scenes of the ballet or a film and it will be apparent that the words we use together to describe aspects of this or that are not on holiday at all — they are being used in their everyday senses. (In passing, but very importantly, this is not a claim that, thereby, we remove all mystery, ambiguity, poetry, interpretation from the world but it is to say that we should keep our language answering to things occurring in THIS world and not an imagined other one). But what I cannot do, and no one has ever been able to do, is take you behind the scenes of the actual world in which we live and, because of this, every word uttered about it is sure to be on holiday and should, therefore, be distrusted. 

So, with as much gentle strength as I can muster, I would urge you in your religion to remain resolutely with this world (which includes its mysterious and often veiled qualities) and not believe Plato, nor Socrates, nor any other religious professional who offers you words about what they claim is a true behind the scenes world. The truth is that the chances are extremely, even vanishingly high, that they are selling you a pig in a poke, i.e. they are asking you to buy a sack in which they tell you is a pig but, since it’s a sack inside of which you can never get, there is no way to check if their claim is true. What all religions are doing when they talk about another world is always to be selling a pig in a poke.

So my advice — which you are, of course, always free to ignore — is to stick with the many extraordinary (and sometimes mysterious) things of THIS world (whether in front of or behind actual scenes) and leave all other transcendental religious or philosophical worlds well alone. So, go on, treat yourself to a visit to the Fitzwilliam because Degas’ behind the scenes paintings will always be telling you more about goodness, truth and beauty than Plato’s eternally holidaying words about them ever could.