Wittgenstein's Critical Physiognomy


  • Daniel Kirwan Wack Knox College


Wittgenstein Ludwig, 20th century philosophy, , action theory, philosophy of film, expression, physiognomy, meaning, practical knowledge, form of life


In saying that meaning is a physiognomy, Wittgenstein invokes a philosophical tradition of critical physiognomy, one that developed in opposition to a scientific physiognomy. The form of a critical physiognomic judgment is one of reasoning that is circular and dynamic, grasping intention, thoughts, and emotions in seeing the expressive movements of bodies in action. In identifying our capacities for meaning with our capacities for physiognomic perception, Wittgenstein develops an understanding of perception and meaning as oriented and structured by our shared practical concerns and needs. For Wittgenstein, critical physiognomy is both fundamental for any meaningful interaction with others and a capacity we cultivate, and so expressive of taste in actions and ways of living. In recognizing how fundamental our capacity for physiognomic perception is to our form of life Wittgenstein inherits and radicalizes a tradition of critical physiognomy that stretches back to Kant and Lessing. Aesthetic experiences such as painting, poetry, and movies can be vital to the cultivation of taste in actions and in ways of living.

Author Biography

Daniel Kirwan Wack, Knox College

Daniel Wack is an associate professor of philosophy at Knox College. His most recent publication is “How Movies Do Philosophy”. His research interests include philosophy of action, philosophy of perception, post-Kantian philosophy, and philosophy of film.


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