The Photography of Ludwig Wittgenstein

Philoso­phers have often rumi­nat­ed on the aes­thet­ics of pho­tog­ra­phy. Roland Barthes’ Cam­era Luci­da begins with a poignant memo­ri­al­iza­tion of his moth­er, as remem­bered through her pho­to­graph. Pierre Bourdieu’s Pho­tog­ra­phy: A Mid­dle-Brow Art won­dered why and how the medi­um became so wide­spread that “there are few house­holds, at least in towns, which do not pos­sess a cam­era.” And Jacques Derrida’s posthu­mous Athens, Still Remains, a trav­el mem­oir accom­pa­nied by the pho­tographs of Jean-Fran­cois Bon­homme, begins with the mys­ti­cal phrase “We owe our­selves to death.”

For Barthes and Der­ri­da, pho­tog­ra­phy was a medi­um of sus­pend­ed mortality—every pho­to­graph a memen­to mori. For anoth­er philoso­pher, the cryp­tic, poly­math, and noto­ri­ous­ly surly Lud­wig Wittgen­stein, pho­tog­ra­phy was a con­crete expres­sion of his pre­ferred means of per­cep­tion. As he famous­ly wrote in the Philo­soph­i­cal Inves­ti­ga­tions, “Don’t think, look!” For the unsen­ti­men­tal­ly cere­bral Wittgen­stein, a pho­to­graph is not a memo­r­i­al, but a “prob­a­bil­i­ty.” The philosopher’s archive at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cam­bridge includes the pho­to­graph above, a true “prob­a­bil­i­ty” in that it does not rep­re­sent any one per­son but is a com­pos­ite image of his face and the faces of his three sis­ters, made in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the “found­ing father of eugen­ics,” Fran­cis Gal­ton. The four sep­a­rate pho­tographs that Wittgen­stein and Gal­ton blend­ed togeth­er are below.

Of the com­pos­ite image, keep­er of the Wittgen­stein archives Michael Nedo writes that “Wittgen­stein was aim­ing for dif­fer­ent clar­i­ty expressed by the pho­tog­ra­phy of fuzzi­ness.”:

Gal­ton want­ed to work out one prob­a­bil­i­ty, where­as Wittgen­stein saw this as a sum­ma­ry in which all man­ner of pos­si­bil­i­ties are revealed in the fuzzi­ness.

Fuzzi­ness is a word rarely applied to Wittgenstein’s thought—at least his ear­ly work in the Trac­ta­tus Logi­co-Philo­soph­i­cus where his only goal is a clar­i­ty of thought that sup­pos­ed­ly dis­solves all the “fuzzy” prob­lems of phi­los­o­phy in a series of ellip­ti­cal apho­risms. The philoso­pher also called him­self a “dis­ci­ple of Freud,” in that he sought to “think in pic­tures,” and reach beyond lan­guage to the images pro­duced by dreams and the uncon­scious, “to enable us to see things dif­fer­ent­ly.” Wittgenstein’s pho­tographs are as strange­ly detached and mys­te­ri­ous as the man him­self. Salon has a gallery of the philosopher’s pho­tographs, which includes the por­trait of him (below), tak­en at his instruc­tion in Swansea, Wales in 1947. It’s an icon­ic image; Wittgen­stein half-sneers dis­dain­ful­ly at the cam­era, his steady gaze a chal­lenge, while the black­board behind him shows a riot of scratch­es and scrawls. In the upper right-hand cor­ner, the word RAW hangs omi­nous­ly above the philosopher’s head.

Wittgenstein’s grim por­trait presents a con­trast to the warmer recent pho­to­graph­ic por­traits of philoso­phers like those in Steve Pyke’s new book of philoso­pher por­traits Philoso­phers. We’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured Pyke’s por­traits of philoso­phers like Richard Rorty, David Chalmers, and Arthur Dan­to. For much a much less for­mal series of por­traits of con­tem­po­rary philoso­phers as every­day peo­ple, swing by the Tum­blr Looks Philo­soph­i­cal.

Josh Jones is a doc­tor­al can­di­date in Eng­lish at Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty and a co-founder and for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of Guer­ni­ca / A Mag­a­zine of Arts and Pol­i­tics.

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Comments (3)
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  • Great resource!

    I’ve learned a lot.

    Thanks for shar­ing.

  • Paul says:


    Great post. I have two ques­tions: 1) The title sug­gests a pho­tog­ra­phy was “released”. Which pho­tog­ra­phy? What do you mean by “released”? There are no men­tion of a “release” on the Cam­bridge web­site the post links to (only of an ongo­ing exhi­bi­tion). 2) What are the sources for the two first images used in this post (also from ?)? The Cam­bridge Wittgen­stein Archive does not offer large for­mat repro­duc­tion of the pho­tos belong­ing to its col­lec­tion. Only thumb­nails are avail­able through its cat­a­logue.

    The first two pho­tos were also post­ed online by back in the sum­mer of 2011. Did the repro­duc­tion used here come from this source?

    Best regards,


  • Nancy Yousef says:

    The pho­to­graph is fas­ci­nat­ing, but please cor­rect the claim that it was pro­duced in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Gal­ton, who died in 1911 and whose aims would have been anath­e­ma to Wittgen­stein. Moritz Nahr, an artist asso­ci­at­ed with the Vien­na seces­sion­ists, was W’s col­lab­o­ra­tor on this odd project.

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