Keeping Score: Some Lessons for Artists from the Later Wittgenstein

Keeping Score: Some Lessons for Artists from the Later Wittgenstein

Nickolas Calabrese


This text rounds up a few lessons fashioned after the idea of keeping score as it relates to the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein. These lessons are emphatically related to the production of art, so this text might be at its best in the hands of an artist. They all loosely demonstrate the normative dimension of aesthetic production, which amounts to the claim that one is committed, by the act of production, to a communal endorsement for why an artwork ought to exist at all. The final part of this text will expand on this principle of normativity, but it should be kept in mind as one goes through the lessons that precede it. This particular aspect of Wittgenstein’s legacy might help better acquaint artists with why we make things: the epistemological groundwork for why an artist feels compelled in the first place.

Key Words
aesthetic production; analytic philosophy; Robert Brandom; idiolectic; language games; normativity; pragmatism; private language; Ludwig Wittgenstein


1. Keeping score in a game of aesthetic production

“Normativity pervades our lives.”[1] Anything we do is shaped by the decisions we believe are correct, of what we ought to be doing. But normativity holds a controversial place in language and epistemology in general, and in notions of meaning in particular. The metaphor of scorekeeping in a language game is a useful way to think about normativity as it relates to meaning. [2] It shows how one participates successfully in the game, based in part on outcome and in part on following rules. “Language games,” a phrase once endemic to Wittgenstein’s later philosophy, must be played all the same. There are correct and incorrect ways to speak a language. You keep score for others by ascribing meaning to their words and endorsing that it is actually so, and by acknowledging their commitment to the claims they make. Moreover, they do the same for you, even when these acknowledgements are not fully conscious endorsements. By keeping score in a language game we are playing the game of giving and asking for reasons. Normativity in thought, language, and epistemology is best viewed as scorekeeping in a language game, something that you can do better or worse, successfully or unsuccessfully.[3]

This text will round up a few lessons fashioned after the idea of keeping score as it relates to the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein. These lessons are emphatically related to the production of art, so this text might be at its best in the hands of an artist. They all loosely demonstrate the idea that there is an explicitly normative dimension involved in the production of art. Broadly speaking, the normative dimension of art is the claim that one is committed, by the very act of production, to a communal endorsement for why an artwork ought to exist at all. Hence, one cannot make art just for themselves. The final part of this text will expand on this principle of normativity, but it should be kept in mind as one goes through the lessons that precede it. It is my hope that this particular aspect of Wittgenstein’s legacy might help better acquaint artists with why we make things: the epistemological groundwork for why an artist feels compelled in the first place.

Some artists have dealt with Wittgenstein’s legacy, such as Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs, which is no doubt an important work but one that demonstrates a more literal translation of the type of problems being posed.[4] Unfortunately, these works were often more influenced by the austerity found in his earlier published work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which Wittgenstein came to reject as mistaken in his later works.[5] But minimal and conceptual art’s ostensive engagement with analytic philosophy’s emphasis on language and logic didn’t go very far beyond Wittgenstein’s more celebrated earlier work. It is my aim to reintroduce some important aspects of his later work in an attempt to address some recurrent problems in aesthetic production.

Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations is a work of vast imagination, using a range of metaphors and plain language to scrutinize what it means to know something. This is putting it mildly, but through these inquiries Wittgenstein questions the bedrock of knowledge, truth, certainty, the use of language, and what we might have in common with other speakers of our languages. The conclusion that he comes to is that language is something predicated upon rule-following, and that there are better and worse ways to do it, endorsing a pragmatic version of what truth is. This is the normative upshot of his writing: there are ways you ought to use language and there are ways to justify what we do, whether or not we can verbalize those justifications. It would be mistaken to claim that there is only one reading of Wittgenstein; interpretations of Wittgenstein of both high and low quality are plentiful. The version presented here follows a neopragmatic strain of philosophy that Wittgenstein was no doubt a part of, even if he would never have admitted to, with additional support from some of his most notable critics.[6]

There are numerous issues to gather from a close reading of the Investigations, but the core of what I am going to discuss relates to normativity and communication. In speaking of normativity as it relates to artworks or aesthetics, it is probably as helpful to say what is not meant as much as what is meant. By normativity, I do not mean to offer procrustean rules for how art ought to be made, and especially not of how things ought to look. Instead, I want to say that the epistemic and indeed semantic underpinnings of aesthetic production can similarly be understood as language: as a way of figuring what to say, what is the correct response to a question or a statement, and how that is justified, not explicitly through a verbalized enumeration of worthiness, but through the communal way in which we follow rules and patterns of behavior to indicate belonging. This is what is meant by scorekeeping in a language game. We are accountable for what we say as to its appropriateness, and, moreover, we hold others accountable.

I’m not sure this kind of understanding will help anyone to better acclimate themselves to criticism of particular artworks, nor do I think it will help anyone become a better artist. What, then, is to be gleaned from Wittgenstein for an artist? Simply put, a way for understanding why they want to show the things they’ve made to other people. This is, after all, what artmaking and consuming consists of: Somebody makes something and shows it to somebody else. Everything else that goes along with it is a secondary quality: what it’s worth (financially and emotionally); whether or not you like it; whether or not you think it’s good; how to speak about it; how to think about it; and so on. The very first qualification, however, is that the artist is compelled to make a thing. This very act demonstrates a normative requirement: the artist did not need to make this object, but through their own volition they thought that it was better that this object entered the world rather than be left out of it. Whether or not anybody else actually wants to see the thing doesn’t matter. This is what qualifies an artwork as such ab initio.

2. Lesson 1: A private language is not possible in artworks

Recall the first lines of John Donne’s celebrated poem, “No Man is an Island,” and the rudiment that he’s signaling: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…”[7] The message rings loud and clear: there’s no way to be in this thing yourself because you inherently belong to several greater communities just by virtue of existing. This same principle, with some adjustments and a little chafing, could be the bedrock that forms Wittgenstein’s argument against private language. In fact, Wittgenstein’s argument against private language might be his single greatest contribution to the philosophy of language. This is also the most significant lesson for artists.

What exactly is Wittgenstein’s private language argument? Found in the sections that roughly span §§243–315 of Philosophical Investigations, the private language argument undermines the possibility of one having a private language that only they speak and nobody else speaks. He poses the scenario of someone having a personal language that refers exclusively to their inner or perceptual experiences:

But is it also conceivable that there be a language in which a person could write down or give voice to his inner experiences – his feelings, moods, and so on – for his own use?…The words of this language are to refer to what only the speaker can know – to his immediate private sensations. So another person cannot understand the language.[8]

That this language is incapable of being spoken (and thus understood) by anyone else is key to the argument. For Wittgenstein language has a necessarily communal feature. He is targeting empirical philosophy in the argument, but his argument was more immediately inspired by the ordinary language philosophers that were his peers at Cambridge, people like G.E. Moore, who strongly relied upon their own sensations—for example, my hand is here, it exists because I know it to exist (I feel it), and this fact is sufficient proof of an external world—to verify certain truths, sparking internal sensation language or at least romanticizing its possibility.

Wittgenstein thinks that a private language would necessarily be unintelligible to the one who created it in the first place because it would be impossible to establish independent meaning. He asks the reader to consider someone who has created a private language and has invented a name for a specific pain by himself, “But then, of course, he couldn’t make himself understood when he used the word. – So does he understand the name, without being able to explain its meaning to anyone?”[9] Conveying in language is a native feature to a shared and learned language, as all languages are. “A definition serves to lay down the meaning of a sign, doesn’t it?”[10] One of the main issues with a private language is that there would not be any difference between thinking one is using a word correctly and actually using that word correctly, which is circular and incoherent. If you are the judge, jury, and executioner, the logic falls apart. How is a definition invented if it cannot be independently tested, if there’s no authority to verify it? How would the inventor know they are using it correctly?

Well, that is done precisely by concentrating my attention; for in this way I commit to memory the connection between the sign and the sensation. – But “I commit it to memory” can only mean: this process brings it about that I remember the connection correctly in the future. But in the present case, I have no criterion of correctness.[11]

His suggestion that we need authority in order to justify means that it cannot consist in an autocratic authority, where if one says it’s true, then it’s true: “justification consists in appealing to an independent authority.”[12] When language is acquired, it is through learning how to name some given thing—an object, a sensation, a phenomenon, and so on. This acquisition of language happens when one learns how to follow the rules of language. If one uses a word correctly, one can communicate successfully; if used incorrectly, they are unsuccessful.

John McDowell rightly points out that the community aspect of Wittgenstein’s understanding of the rules for language use is what his argument hinges on. “In his later work, Wittgenstein returns again and again to trying to characterize the relation between meaning and consensus. If there is anything that emerges clearly, it is that it would be a serious error, in his view, not to make a radical distinction between the significance of, say, ‘This is yellow’ and the significance of, say, ‘This would be called ‘yellow’ by (most) speakers of English.’”[13] That is because the verifiability of consensus forces one to acknowledge that correct use is the only way to know a thing, in the way that we say we know such and such. That “this is yellow” is an ontological statement about a thing’s quality, which is an inference from how we might come to know that it is to be called “yellow” in the first place. Or, as Norman Malcolm reflects on the argument, when we speak of perceptual impressions, “we understand something that is either accurate or inaccurate; whereas there would not be, in the private language, any conception of what would establish a memory impression as correct, any conception of what ‘correct’ would mean here.”[14]

The significance for discussing this Wittgensteinian lesson in relation to the artist is because when discussing artworks, artists and critics alike sometimes have the tendency to refer to things such as an internal or independent logic or artists inventing languages.[15] This is usually used to refer to novel form or coding objects as yet-unused metaphors. But claiming they are inventing a new language or using an independent logic should immediately raise flags. Not only is this nonsensical and impossible but it entails the kind of hubris that accompanies the worst of modern myth-making and cults of personality. It seems to stand in defiance of the fact that a person cannot speak a language clearly or coherently without sharing it with others and indeed having learned from others the principles that they now wield.

To make an artwork is to engage a community. Symbolic meaning is acquired, not invented, and there are rules that govern communication as a matter of course. Artworks are not mystical exceptions to how communication works, even if they sometimes are treated as such. If an artwork consisted of an invented language or logic, then it wouldn’t be intelligible even to the person who made it, raising the question of why it ought to exist at all if it serves no intelligible function? Surely some will argue that an unintelligible form could actually yield something worthwhile. But again, the logical inconsistency of creating something that possesses an independent private language is not only nonsense but impossible, because the speaker of the language wouldn’t know how to speak the language or even invent the invented language.

Language is essentially shared. It is important to recognize that the shared activities that form the foundation of language acquisition and the correct use are normative features, things like teaching, explaining, and following rules, and so communication is normative. The same extension can be made to art. A shared language is a normative feature of art, so to make a private artwork, one just for yourself, is to make nonsense: meaningless things, strictly speaking.

This is, of course, the upshot of learning from Wittgenstein: To make an object is to engage a community by virtue of its invention. When one makes an artwork, they do not switch off all that they have learned and lean into a negative space where no prior influence exists. To believe some version of this would be mistaken. When one produces an artwork, they are necessarily endorsing beliefs, propositional attitudes, and the very form of language that they have learned how to use. Of course one can still produce a brand new object, the likes of which nobody has ever seen, but it is still necessarily in dialogue with and the product of a body of learned knowledge.

3. Lesson 2: Idiolectics of art, or universality is meaningless in artworks

An idiolect is a privatized version of a communal language. Let’s say you call your television’s remote control the “clickstick”—this is an idiolectical use of language. It is specific to you, but it has meaning that is derived from testable language, language that is independently verifiable by a community of peers. This example uses language in a novel manner. The novelty of it is an extended understanding of what the term can mean, not what it does mean. There are other, more rigid ways to understand idiolect. One of these ways is quite similar to Wittgenstein’s idea of private language; this is not how idiolect is being discussed in this section. Another way is Noam Chomsky’s now-classical linguistic distinction between E-languages and I-languages.[16] The E refers to “extensional” (or grammatical, as in words and sentences) and the I to “intensional” (syntactic or semantic principles that guide how language is used). As Richard Heck describes it, “E-language is to I-language as product is to process.”[17]

By separating language into product and process, Chomsky is making an appeal for studying the principles of language rather than the product of language. He’s certainly not alone in approaching linguistics this way, but for present purposes he’s thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Thinking about visual art, the idea of an idiolect or extensional language is a particularly useful tool for speaking about and thinking about the production of art and how to understand it. This is interesting because there sometimes seems to be the insinuation that art acts as a lingua franca, the common language that transcends our various vernaculars. But I say is that there is no common language in art: art cannot communicate universally. Going a step further, the various dialects found within art are, in fact, more rarefied than those of spoken dialects because they respond not only to geographical location and point in time but to class, race, gender, interests, and even whim.

Ruth Millikan, arguing against Chomsky’s dichotomy, suggests that “public language is not just some property shared by Smith and Jones. It is not discovered, for instance, by averaging over the idiolects of people in ‘the community.’”[18] Echoing Wittgenstein, Millikan says that “learning language is essentially coming to know various public conventions,” which engender particular idiolectic uses of necessarily shared language.[19] However, she is clearly saying that it would ‘e a flagrant error to understand the term ‘public language’ as identical with ‘universal language.”

So if the first lesson was saying that a meaningful visual arts produced by and intelligible by only one would amount to gibberish, then this second lesson is saying that universally meaningful visual arts would be so benign that, even if it were possible that it could be commonly endorsed by all visual arts audiences (which it would not), it would hold little to no value for anyone who attempts to interact with it. What would a universal art look like?[20] A visual Esperanto? It may be well-intentioned but universality is the language of impoverishment, a dumbing down to make something understood on a very fundamental level, like speaking to a baby, “boop-boop-da-doop.” In other words, nonsense or, at the very least, senseless.[21] An idiolectics of art would instructively help one to understand why certain aspects of artworks are inaccessible to them or to help the artist understand why appropriating another’s language or imagery can be crossing an invisible line of good taste and indeed sensibility itself.

There is an example in the Philosophical Investigations where a master builder yells the word “Slab!,” which indicates a language-game wherein his assistant understands it means to bring the builder a slab.[22] If I were to yell “Slab!” while placing a sandwich order at my deli, the deli worker would look at me curiously. In the case of the builder, “Slab!” is an idiolectical language-game known to the builders working on the construction site. Hannah Ginsborg points out how the assistant

…understands that ‘slab’ means slab in virtue of taking it that ‘slab’ ought to be applied to slabs, where his taking it that ‘slab’ ought to be applied to slabs in turn consists in his being disposed, when he applies ‘slab’ to a slab, to take his use of  ‘slab’ to be appropriate or correct or as it ought to be.[23]

Notice the distinct normative dimension of how one ought to use the term ‘slab’ in the instance of the construction site. Meaningful discourse is a matter of using language correctly, not only in the general sense of what words mean in the dictionary but in the idiolectic sense of what words mean within the context of a particular moment.

Returning to extensional and intensional languages, or to grammatical sentences and the structure of language, we should be careful not to go wholesale into the metaphor of visual art as language.[24] The way that spoken or written language is being compared with visual art is strictly metaphorical here. Visual art does something similar to language insofar as it does things like communicate, denote, refer, and so on. But it doesn’t actually do any of these things. Visual art is a lot dumber and objects are far more muted than words. They do not express, nor do objects have feelings or opinions; they are proxies for expressions, thoughts, and feelings that go on in an artist that they believe might be of some use to the world. A better approximation for what artworks are is something like a vessel for commitments, leaving it to an audience make sense of the elements juxtaposed therein, figuring out whether or not they ought to endorse it.

4. Lesson 3: Pragmatism, and why artworks work

What does it mean for an artwork to work? Idiolectic limitations, such as color, form, ideas, structure, and whatever else, that are intrinsic to artworks mean that it ought to be good or even something like true if it is going to work. If an artwork isn’t any good, does it work? Probably not. This might sound familiar—it readily borrows from the pragmatic philosophies of William James and C.S. Pierce: That truth, in a nutshell, is what works.[25] If some statement satisfies conditions for how truths functions, as opposed to falsehoods, then that statement can be considered true, even if it isn’t logically provable, like on a symbolic logic truth tree. This idea of truth was unpopular among logical positivists who followed the pragmatists, and who wanted a principle of verification for how one defines and assigns the property of truth to statements.

But calling an artwork true, per se, is more problematic because it is not making a specific statement that can be measured for truth. That is why a concept like working might be more accurate regarding an artwork’s value. Wittgenstein was engaged in a version of pragmatism, though one less recognizable than James’ version and more closely aligned with Pierce’s version. For him, the criterion of truth was also evaluated by its consequences. When describing the neopragmatism of Wilfrid Sellars, who will be discussed in the next section, Robert Brandom describes this newer strain of pragmatism as follows:

By ‘pragmatism’…I mean that the project of offering a metalinguistic reading of framework-explicating nondescriptive concepts such as modal, normative, and ontological ones is conducted in terms of pragmatic metavocabularies: vocabularies for talking about the use of expressions, about discursive social practices.[26]

There’s a tidal wave of information in that sentence, but a few things stand out as key components of the neopragmatic project. First, meaning is not only socially derived but socially conceived. For something to mean something else, it has to be endorsed by a majority of speakers and justified by those endorsers. Second, this act of justification and endorsement is necessarily normative, not at a practical level of what we ought to do or not do but at the fundamental level of how our propositional attitudes are developed in the first place. Third, they are interested in metalinguistics, or how we use conceptual language in communal settings. Brandom is certainly influenced by the later Wittgenstein’s approach to thinking about language as a social project, positioning several Wittgensteinian ideas into a more coherent systemic philosophy, and so the following discussion will more acutely focus on Brandom’s take on Wittgenstein’s ideas than on Wittgenstein himself.

What are the norms that articulate meanings? Wittgenstein held that the norm of meaning is pragmatically synonymous with the use of language. “For a large class of cases of the employment of the word ‘meaning’—though not for all—this word can be explained in this way: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.”[27] This thought is the starting point for Brandom’s treatment of Wittgenstein in his opus, Making It Explicit. Brandom says that the thesis that intentional states have an “essentially normative pragmatic significance” can be found in Wittgenstein’s later work:

The starting point of his investigations is the insight that our ordinary understanding of states and acts of meaning, understanding, intending, or believing something is an understanding of them as states and acts that commit or oblige us to act and think in various ways. To perform its traditional role, the meaning of a linguistic expression must determine how it would be correct to use it in various contexts. To understand or grasp such a meaning is to be able to distinguish correct from incorrect uses.[28]

We understand how to wield meaning by using it. Wittgenstein’s thesis of meaning-as-use is clarified by McDowell when he notes that “there is a way of grasping a rule which is not an interpretation.”[29] This is derived from Wittgenstein’s suggestion that “every sign is capable of interpretation; but the meaning mustn’t be capable of interpretation. It is the last interpretation.”[30] That meaning is traced socially and then expressed through use is the core of what he is saying.

The upshot of meaning being expressed through use is that there is a way, non-linguistically, in which we could say that meaning is true or correct. There are normative ways that we obey the rules of language that cannot be translated into some further regressive language-based interpretation. The final interpretation cannot be interpreted without falling into an endless regress: It is the core of what we call meaning. This is a noteworthy idea for artists. Of course there is no way to guarantee the truthfulness of an artwork, given its ordinarily singular presence (created by one person with a mind full of ideas, attitudes, assumptions, emotions, and so on), so the best we can say is that artists have grasped the rules for communicating meaning. They enact a certain spirit of trust generated from their participation in a sapient community of fellow speakers of their language.

“Intentional states and acts have contents in virtue of which they are essentially liable to evaluations of the ‘force of the better reason.’”[31] The force of better reason is the understanding that, as members of a community with particular experiences, they are able to justify their production though the experiences they’ve had in those communities. “This ‘force of better reason’ is a normative force. It concerns what further beliefs one is committed to acknowledge, what one ought to conclude, what one is committed or entitled to say or do.”[32] The commitments and entitlements alluded to are the socially learned meanings that one has gathered and mastered.

The intentional state is especially important for artists. What is an act of production other than an intentional state? If one is going to understand “Wittgenstein’s pragmatism about the normative, assessing must be understood as something done; the normative attitude must be construed as somehow implicit in the practice of the assessor, rather than explicit as the endorsement of a proposition.”[33] It is less useful to try to verbalize meaning than it is to use language correctly. It can often be difficult to describe what an artwork means. The main problem with aesthetic discourse is precisely here: The most valid way to prove an artwork’s meaningfulness is to do it correctly, but to do something correctly when it has never been done before takes at least a little bit of faith.

For those who have been thinking about, writing about, and making art for long enough and well enough, they can look at an artwork and see if it works, almost instinctively. It is an impulsive assessment. Often people, myself included, will know if they think an artwork is any good almost instantly, spawned from all prior experiences one has had with artworks of all sorts. This, too, may seem obvious to the reader, but is worth mentioning. When an artwork works, it is because the artist has been endorsed by their peers and audience, which proves why it ought to exist at all and why it might mean something to others. When Brandom says that “norms explicit as rules presuppose norms implicit in practices,” he is really motioning towards what Wilfrid Sellars called “the myth of the given.”[34]

5. An artwork is a commitment

Now a very generalized question for, or in consideration of, the artist: Who do you make art for? For some the answer is an audience or many audiences, and for some the answer is something like, “I make art for myself.” That sounds true enough. After all, we make many things for ourselves—we make dinner for ourselves, and so on, so why not art as well? I will argue that this claim does not stand scrutiny from the lessons outlined above. In fact, it seems doubtful that it is ever possible to make art for just oneself. Given the normativity of meaning and everything discussed so far, aesthetic production is in a similar position to language and meaning. Normativity, in intentions, actions, semantic content, and so on, is a way of thinking about meaning and action in terms of commitments to beliefs. To say that a belief is a commitment is to say that you are endorsing a claim that is held among some community of like-believers. If you ask Jones what he thought of the play and he responds, “sausage camera rug,” then he is clearly not following the rules of language. There are set ways that one is supposed to use language and knowledge in order to prove they understand it and can use it appropriately. When one deviates, they risk entering the realm of nonsense.

If one makes an artwork, it is because they chose to do so. That is, they wanted to see it exist in the world. Even if they keep it locked in a closet and never show it to another person, they wanted this thing, which hadn’t previously existed, to now exist. That is a radical idiolectic gesture. It is the God-like impulse to bring something into existence because you believe yourself capable of doing so! The normative content of bringing something into the world is unmistakable. An artwork is ballasted by its semantic content, that is, by an intentional expression of some thing. As such, it is something that one is compelled to make, some X that one believes ought to exist and of which they are the one qualified to make it.

I think that the normativity of an artwork’s existence is uncontroversial. I have not seen a convincing argument otherwise. But the harder half of this initial question is whether you have made the artwork in question for yourself or for a community or audience. Can you make work for yourself? If we are considering aesthetic production in the terms of, say, making yourself dinner, then on the one hand, yes! Of course you can make dinner for yourself. After all you are the one choosing ingredients and consuming it. But on the other, when you make dinner for yourself, you are consciously, subconsciously, and unconsciously consulting the norms of what you’ve been exposed to, whether you’ve grown up in an Italian American family, a Turkish neighborhood, the Chinatown of your city, the 1850s or the 1990s, and so on. Your production of dinner for one is actually an exercise in a life of learned experience. Remember John Donne’s poem: You are not an island.

So when you produce some artwork, it is made under the general counsel, conscious or not, of what your community has provided you. As Wittgenstein and any psychologist worth their salt have noted, the child is necessarily a mash-up of external influences (family, friends, and generally anyone they come into contact with in any significant manner throughout the developmental period (and after)). The creative “you” is a legion of influences. This isn’t to say that the conceptual framework through which you filter your influences and learnings isn’t idiosyncratic to you, but there is an underlying causal chain through which you are fundamentally consulting the communities that have had a hand in developing you. So this artwork that you have presumably made by yourself, for yourself, is so much more Gordian than the proposition would have you believe.

An artwork is a commitment insofar as an artwork necessarily invokes the intentional content that thought, belief, judgment, and the like entail. Occasionally the supposition is made that when a person makes a thing, it is the product of a purely personal experience, an expression of some singular thing that dwells in an artist. This is partly mistaken. An artwork is a commitment to everything that you consciously or subconsciously endorse. It is the product of keeping score in a modified language game, a commitment in the sense of saying that you think it ought to be intelligible to other people. The artist is endorsing a thing’s manifestation when they produce that thing. Certainly not all artworks are good commitments. An artwork might be a shitty commitment, such that it might be speaking someone else’s experience, instrumentally destructive, or just misinformed. But this alone is not an instance of an artwork that is not a commitment.[35] It is a poorly carried out commitment, an erroneous commitment, or an ill-intended commitment. How well it does these things obviously depends upon the skill level of each artist.

In speaking of artworks as commitments, what, if anything, does an artwork owe you? For instance, does it owe you clarity of a concept? Does it owe you a different perspective from your own on some topic? As I see it, the process of making and viewing art is synonymous with the process of providing and asking for reasons and making sure those reasons are justified (or keeping score in this modified language game). We have a responsibility for making sure our contribution counts towards something. An artwork is produced, like anything else, from a collection of information that finds its foundation prior to or at least coextensive with the person or persons producing it. Coextensively the artwork has a responsibility to specific communities. An artwork owes something because it endorses certain beliefs and, if done well, carries out its commitments. We don’t need to begin to describe what these commitments physically look like, but there are surely better and worse versions and these are usually apparent for a number of reasons (form matching up with content, excellence in aesthetic choices and design, a robust knowledge of the work’s inspirations and motivations, and so on).

When you make art, the thing produced is predicated upon your specific subjective experiences. There is really no way around this: you logically cannot produce work outside of yourself. But the self that has been outlined here is one rich with external input. The inability to produce outside of oneself suggests nothing more than that one is the author. Authorship implies responsibility as a matter of course. Good reasons for making an artwork in the first place simply illustrate that one cares about the outcome. If you give a damn about what you’re doing, then your product is more likely to be worth a damn. Keeping score in the game one is playing is how we stay on track. Sure, some might cheat their way to a victory, but that’s a risk in any game. The pursuit of mastery is what compels one to make art in the first place—mastery of the languages we share with like-minded groups, and mastery of communicating the conventions of language and thought through unconventional means. Every artwork is a group effort.


Nickolas Calabrese

Nickolas Calabrese teaches studio art at New York University in New York. He is an artist and writer. Earlier this year he was an artist-in-residence at the Rauschenberg Residency on Captiva, Florida. He is the assistant editor and provided translation for Word Book, which is the first English translation of Wittgenstein’s Wörterbuch für Volksshulen, published by Badlands Unlimited in November 2020.

Published on December 1, 2020.

Cite this article: Nickolas Calabrese, “Keeping Score: Some Lessons for Artists from the Later Wittgenstein,” Contemporary Aesthetics 18 (2020), accessed date.



[1] Christine M. Korsgaard, Introduction to The Sources of Normativity, edited by Onora O’Neill (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), xi. This is the opening sentence of Onora O’Neill’s introduction to Christine Korsgaard’s inimitable work on the subject, The Sources of Normativity.

[2] This metaphor has its origins in Wilfrid Sellars’ interpretation of Wittgenstein’s later work in his essay: Wilfrid Sellars, “Some Reflections on Language Games,” Philosophy of Science, 21, 3 (1954), 204-228. Also see: David Lewis, “Scorekeeping in a Language Game,” Journal of Philosophical Logic, 8, 1 (1979), 339-359, and Robert Brandom, Making it Explicit: Reasoning, Representing, and Discursive Commitment (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998); among many other texts.

[3] Of course, one needn’t speak King’s English to speak it successfully, as subcultural variations of any given language are equally appropriately spoken.

[4] One and Three Chairs is a seminal work by American artist Kosuth, which consists of a wooden chair, a photograph of that chair, and a dictionary definition of the word chair. The piece is meant to investigate what meaning is and what an object is, because all three instances of the artwork are apt descriptions of a chair despite being formally very different (a sculpture, a photograph, and a text, respectively).

[5] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1922). This work was largely concerned with outlining what has come to be known as the “picture theory” of language. The main working idea is that every object in to world corresponds to a word, and that propositional sentences, with all of their parts, designate how the world is or isn’t. He famously claimed in the book that topics like ethics, god, and so on—topics that don’t have physical counterparts in the world—should just be omitted from language entirely, since we cannot describe them with any degree of accuracy or truth. He later rejected this view.

[6] The main figures in this discussion are Wilfrid Sellars, John McDowell, and Robert Brandom, who are informally referred to as the “Pittsburgh School,” as they align on many issues or are each other’s fiercest critics. Though Sellars has since passed, Brandom and McDowell carry on the tradition of philosophically blending seemingly at-odds works, from Kant and Hegel to Anscombe and Kripke to Rawls and Habermas. Their works are incredibly nuanced, raking from all corners of Western thought in pursuit of understanding how normativity inflects and creates our realities.

[7] John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1959), 108–09.

[8] Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, p. 95, §243.

[9] Wittgenstein, p. 98, §257.

[10] Wittgenstein, p. 99, §258.

[11] Wittgenstein, p. 99, §258.

[12] Wittgenstein, p. 100, §265.

[13] John McDowell, “Wittgenstein on Following a Rule,” in Mind, Value, and Reality (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), p. 234.

[14] Norman Malcolm, “Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations,” The Philosophical Review, 63, 4 (1954), 534.

[15] Viz, “Has its own logic:” I was recently watching a documentary that consists in Carroll Dunham explaining a 2014 body of work to critic Roberta Smith in his Connecticut studio. He kept describing the way that each painting has its own internal logic. I think this is curious. We have this tendency to try and make sense of nonsensical things by claiming they have an “individual logic” as if this pardons them from some higher order scrutiny.

[16] See, for instance, Noam Chomsky, Reflections on Language (New York: Pantheon, 1975) and Noam Chomsky, Knowledge of Language: Its Nature, Origin, and Use (New York: Praeger, 1986).

[17] Richard Heck, “Idiolects” in Content and Modality: Themes From the Philosophy of Robert Stalnaker, ed. Judith Jarvis Thomson and Alex Byrne (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 61-62.

[18] Ruth Garrett Millikan, “In Defense of Public Language” in Chomsky and His Critics, ed. L.M. Antony and N. Hornstein (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), p. 216.

[19] Millikan, “In Defense of Public Language,” p. 216.

[20] What would a universal art look like? The closest thing I can think of is something like the work of Olafur Eliasson: pretty, distracting meditations on air, sun, water, and such. But this too fails the test of being universally applicable, because surely the scale, formal sculptural elements, and so on place this kind of work within a tradition of sculpture that has a community footprint, one that could not in totality be understood and appreciated by everyone.

[21] Gottlob Frege was the first to implicate this distinction as having some import in philosophy in his essay, “Über Sinn und Bedeutung.” It is worthy to pursue the discernible difference between the terms “nonsense” and “senseless.” The former refers to having no meaning or simply the state of being unintelligible, whereas the latter refers to lacking meaning, even if something else is present, but allows the possibility of not being totally bereft of meaning, even if it is used incorrectly. This distinction is like making something that isn’t dinner and calling it dinner versus making something might be edible but is a disgusting mess that nobody would voluntarily eat. See: Gottlob Frege, “Sense and Reference,” The Philosophical Review, 57, 3 (1948), 209-230.

[22] Wittgenstein, 11, §19.

[23] Hannah Ginsborg, “Meaning, Understanding and Normativity,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 86 (2012), 137.

[24] Viz, someone like the great Nelson Goodman did exactly this in his ambitious, sometimes brilliant, yet deeply flawed book, Languages of Art.

[25] To quote Hilary Putnam, “any philosophy that that can be put in a nutshell belongs in one.”

[26] Robert Brandom, From Empiricism to Expressivism: Brandom Reads Sellars (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015), p. 5.

[27] Wittgenstein, p. 25, §43.

[28] Robert Brandom, Making it Explicit: Reasoning, Representing, and Discursive Commitment (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), p. 13.

[29] McDowell, “Wittgenstein on Following a Rule,” 239.

[30] Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Blue and Brown Books (Oxford: Blackwell, 1969), 34.

[31] Brandom, p. 17.

[32] Brandom, p. 17.

[33] Brandom, p. 33.

[34] Brandom, p. 20.

[35] A good recent example of the infamy caused by speaking someone else’s experience is Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till, titled Open Casket (2016). For a good discussion on this particular example and others, see: Aruna D’Souza, Whitewalling: Art, Race, & Protest in 3 Acts (New York: Badlands Unlimited, 2018).