Friday, 29 April 2016

Duck, Rabbit? Rabbit, Duck?

I’m sure you’ve all seen the illusion below before. It’s a duck’s head. Or is it a rabbit’s head? It has been reproduced in so many books and magazine, even since it first appeared in 1892.

But how does this illusion help us to understand the philosophical ideas about reality, interpretation and language?

The duck-rabbit was used by the gay philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) to illustrate just that. Basically, what he said was that the duck-rabbit can be interpreted in the mind as two different things – a rabbit or a duck – but never as both. To do so would mean coming up with a new interpretation of the image in our mind that is neither, a new image called a duck-rabbit. All we are doing by using the new name “duck-rabbit” is creating a new way to describe it, but the image itself hasn’t changed.

Until “duck”, “rabbit” and “duck-rabbit” can all define the image perfectly, none of them can. So, according to Wittgenstein, it is pointless trying to describe it at all. That’s what he originally believed about philosophy itself. It can’t be described perfectly, so that it encompasses all philosophical beliefs. That means there’s no point in philosophising. Yes, he talked himself out of his own job! Later he modified his views to concentrate on language and logic.

Wittgenstein said that that some sentences can be interpreted differently at different times by different people in different circumstances, just like the duck-rabbit can be interpreted differently. He used the duck-rabbit image to represent philosophical concepts such as consciousness, morality, justice and equality. Our mind interprets these differently depending on the context in which we use them. For instance, justice for some may be vigilantism to others, depending on the context. Neither is adequate to define justice with ultimate precision.

In another little puzzle Wittgenstein asks us to imagine a group of people carrying one box each. Inside each closed box is an object which the carrier refers to as a beetle. But how do we know that each person uses the word “beetle” to describe what is in everyone else’s box? Only a common consensus on the definition of “beetle” which agrees with what is contained in their own box can make them all say that they all have beetles in their boxes, even if they can’t see them. Once the definition of “beetle” has been agreed they can all imagine a beetle in every box.

Wittgenstein used these language-games, as they are called, and others, to explain how he believed concepts cannot be described if there are no precise words to describe them. He emphasised the role of context. If I say “rose” you’ll immediately imagine something in your mind which you perceive as “rose”. Is it the same thing as I am imagining? Without knowing what context I imagine “rose” to be it is impossible for everyone to know what I mean. Actually, “rose” is the colour of the table-top I’m sitting at as I write this. Were you right? Wittgenstein would say that it doesn’t matter whether what you imagined was the same as mine, because your definition is still correct as far as you perceive it.

Language-games are the stock in trade of comedy, and thanks to Wittgenstein we realise how good jokes work. In the end it doesn’t matter, for example, if the duck-rabbit is just a duck or just a rabbit. The concept behind comedy, particularly double-entendres and puns, is that we perceive jokes differently in different contexts. Unlike Wittgenstein’s early views on philosophy, we can define the joke to make it understandable to all.

This leads me on to one of the classic sketches in British comedy. In fact, it was voted the best comedy sketch of all time by BBC viewers. It explains Wittgenstein well in that it displays how our perception and definition shifts as the context of the words change. This sketch may be difficult to understand if English isn’t your primary language. But that in itself explains Wittgenstein. Comedy, like philosophy, only works if there is a universally accepted logic behind the use of words.

This sketch pays tribute to one of the men in it. Ronnie Corbett, one of the UK’s greatest and best-loved comedy actors died recently and was buried last month. He’s the shopkeeper in this sketch. The other man is another much-missed comedy great, Ronnie Barker, who wrote this sketch.

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