Charm and Strangeness: The Aesthetic and Epistemic Dimensions of Derek Jarman's Wittgenstein

Kieran Anthony Cashell


Wittgenstein (1993), Derek Jarman’s biopic of the Austrian-born Cambridge philosopher is a fascinating – if perplexing – film.  In equal measure aesthetic and didactic, its status is ambiguous, and not only because didacticism in the philosophy of art is often assumed to diminish aesthetic value.  Nothing, however, of the film’s aesthetic is depreciated by the intention to instruct.  Even if the objective was to teach, the film is also highly aestheticised.  Composed of a series of richly theatrical set-pieces, Jarman’s film aspires to a painterly aesthetic.

This paper examines the aesthetic and epistemic dimensions of Wittgenstein.  The consensus among professional philosophers is that the film, while idiosyncratic and stylised, nevertheless says something important about Wittgenstein’s philosophy.  It is as if he has used the project to innovate ways of translating Wittgenstein’s philosophy to aesthetic form.  The resultant representational strategies are best understood with reference to the picture theory developed in Wittgenstein’s early philosophy.  In the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922) Wittgenstein characterised the proposition as an articulation of elements that, by virtue of shared logical form, corresponds to the disposition of objects in a possible fact.  Under Jarman’s direction, cinematic tableaux are transformed into propositions in the Wittgensteinian sense.  In this film, therefore, Jarman has refined his cinematic process into what, following the picture theory, I have called tractarian montage.  It is because the philosophy is embedded in the film as a structural component of its form (and not just presented didactically) that Wittgenstein seems oddly right to Wittgensteinian viewers.  The aesthetic and epistemic consequences that result from Jarman’s approach are precisely what make the film philosophically interesting – indeed they provide a valuable opportunity to reflect not only on the development of Wittgenstein’s philosophy but also, uniquely, on the relationship between his philosophy and his life.


Jarman, Wittgenstein, Tractatus, Philosophical Investigations, Aesthetic, Form, Proposition, Picture Theory, Epistemic Dimension, Plato, Cinema, Pain

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