Monday, April 04, 2016

A picture on the wall

In his Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein writes: “we regard the photograph, the picture on our wall, as the object itself (the man, landscape, and so on) depicted there.” (Part II, xi) Note that Wittgenstein italicized the word “regard” (“betrachten” in German). However, when you look for this quotation on the Internet you’ll see that often the italicization has been omitted. This is not correct, for there is a difference in meaning. Without the italicization the quotation seems to say: For us the photo on the wall is the same as the actual object, while in Wittgenstein’s version the quotation says: We often do as if the photo on the wall is the object represented, although we know that it’s a representation of the object. The latter interpretation is in keeping with my idea that a picture is an interpretation of the object. It makes also possible such questions as whether the picture really depicts the object as it is or whether it is an imagination of the photographer (a modern photographer might have photoshopped it; a photographer in Wittgenstein’s days might have used certain chemicals for getting a certain effect). We couldn’t call a photo surrealistic in case we didn’t italicize “regard” for then we suppose that the picture is as the landscape is and not maybe a distortion of the reality of the original landscape.
Anyhow, in practice we often behave as if the image is the same as the object represented in the image, for example because it is the most direct relation we have to the object represented. We have a photo of our dear on our desk. We place a picture of the deceased next to the book of condolence. We cry when we see a picture because it evokes memories. Could we do otherwise? Although we know that the picture is not really what it represents, it helps concretize and direct our thoughts.
That’s also why we use symbols. A symbol is actually nothing but a thing or a picture that stands for another thing, person, idea or whatever it may be. The shape or appearance of the symbol needs not to have any relation with what it is a symbol for. A road sign that tells you to stop and to give priority to the traffic on the road that crosses yours is just a sign, but every road user knows its meaning.
Symbols have an important function in life. I mentioned already traffic signs. Flags are used for symbolizing a nation, national unity or national proud. It’s so even in that way that flags are also used for arousing the idea of a nation, national unity or national proud.
Attacking or destroying symbols can hit people in their hearts. It can make people react and feel that they have to do something against the attack on the symbol. Gandhi was a master in using nonviolent symbolic actions for undermining the British rule over India. His action of breaking the British salt laws in India might not have been a factual threat for the British government, but he knew that any breaking of the law would be a challenge to the British authority and he judged also with right that many Indians would follow him in breaking just this law. This made the action, which was “only” symbolic, a great success. What is important in my context is that it shows that symbols are not simply signs but that they have sense.
A symbol is more than thousand words. It stands for something real. Even more, it is real. That’s why people react to symbols, especially when they are damaged on purpose. For we regard the symbol as the object itself that it represents, even if we know that actually it is not more than a few lines of paint, a piece of cloth or a mere handful of crystals; just as a photo is nothing more than some ink on a sheet of cardboard.

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