Beginner’s Mind & Photography

mickyates Art, Falmouth, MA, Masters, Photography Leave a Comment

I first posted a version of this in 2010, on mick’s leadership blog.

It still seems highly appropriate, though this time in a “photographic” context, as I move to the next stage in my MA at Falmouth.

I got a little acquainted with Zen in the 1960’s, part of my own quest for “truth”. And whilst many other philosophies and concepts have entered my mind and been very helpful since, I have never forgotten the Zen Parable of “Beginner’s Mind“.

MusashiHere is one version:

One day an important Samurai, a man used to being in control at all times came to visit a famous Zen master.

“I would like you to teach me more about Zen, to help me gain enlightenment and so become a better sword fighter.”

Zen, a philosophy of action, is inextricably linked with the Samurai Way, so the request was not that unusual.

The Zen master smiled and said nothing. Instead he motioned to discuss the matter over a cup of tea. When the ceremony was complete, the tea was served. The master poured the tea. He poured and he poured. The tea flowed over the rim and began to spill over the hand of the samurai – who jumped and dropped the cup.

The samurai was angry. “I came to be taught, and all you do is spill the tea over my hands. Can’t you see the cup is full?”

The master stopped pouring and smiled at his guest. “You are like this tea cup. You are so full of what you know that there is no room to add anything new. Come back to me when the cup is empty. Come back to me with an empty mind, a Beginner’s Mind.”

This rings so true, and is, in many ways, the key to all learning.Tea Ceremony

It has become clearer to me over the years that the more experience we have, in whatever field of endeavour, the more it’s actually harder to exercise “Beginner’s Mind”.

We spend a long time learning how to use our cameras, studying how others succeed (or fail), wondering how “The Masters” did it, and seeking advice from others.

We might even develop our own signature style, and try to stick with it.

However, to be truly inventive,  just like the samurai, you need to decide what to discard to make room for new things.  Sometimes this just happens, when we “see” something new, and want to capture it a different way.

But, Louis Pasteur was right when he said that “chance favours the prepared mind”. We need to make space for the inventive, and the conscious act of thinking through what it means to us, is a great place to start.

We need to “see” each picture both as a moment reflecting our own knowledge and style, and a new moment, never before seen by anyone, including ourselves.

Critical Theory & Wittgenstein’s Beetle

mickyates Art, Falmouth, MA, Masters, Original artwork, Photography, Psychedelic Leave a Comment

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951) might just be the most influential philosopher of the 20th century.  At Cambridge he was under Bertrand Russell‘s tutelage, essentially being taught that the job of philosophy is to put definitions on everything. Russell eventually believed Wittgenstein to be a genius.

In the only full length book published in his lifetime (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1922), Wittgenstein wanted to show a strictly logical relationship between ‘theoretical’ propositions and the real world. In effect, he believed that by describing the logic of this relationship, he had solved all philosophical problems.

Yet, later in his life, he reversed his position.

Going back in time, Socrates believed that we know what something is because it has some inherent ‘form’, which we all learn. This then gets represented in the real world. So the general ‘form’ of a ‘pencil’ (which we all agree on) allows us to define a specific item as a ‘pencil’ – because it has that ‘form’. Importantly, when we describe that ‘pencil’ to other people, they will understand what we mean.

There were many variants of this approach over the centuries.

It led to the important disciplines of mathematics, logic, language theory, semiotics and so on. Essentially all of these ideas and methodologies are built on an increasingly thoughtful, often introspective approach to the definition of things and ideas.

Ludwig Wittgenstein , schoolteacher, c. 1922
Permission, courtesy of the Joan Ripley Private Collection; Michael Nedo and the Wittgenstein Archive, Cambridge; and the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

However, Wittgenstein turned the philosophy of language on its head.

In ‘Philosophical Investigations‘ (1953), he asked us to consider how we consider ‘pain’, a most personal experience. He writes:

‘Suppose everyone has a box that only they can see into, and no one can see into anyone else’s box: we call it a ‘beetle’. No one can look into anyone else’s box, and everyone says he [or she] knows what a beetle is only by looking at his [or her] beetle.

Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something different in their box. One might even imagine such a thing constantly changing.

But suppose the idea ‘beetle’ had a use in these people’s language? If so it would not be used as the name of a thing’.  My emphasis. (pg 100)

So, if we say that we know what ‘pain’ means, (Wittgenstein later calls this ‘object and designation’) it is actually irrelevant to any objective, definitional meaning of ‘pain’.

It is exactly as if the beetle may or may not be in the box. Introspection cannot control our use of language.

At the beginning of Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein discussed the idea of a ‘game’. We all know how to use the word in everyday conversation –  but it is really hard to pin down one, underlying definition for all ‘games’.

Think football games, chess games, political games, mind games, playing games. So, a ‘game’ is difficult to define. And Wittgenstein goes on to say that ‘conversation’ is itself a kind of game.

Thus Wittgenstein shows that language is not about rigid, private/personal definitions, but is about how we practically and publically use words in real world discourse. This is called the Private Language Argument by philosophers.

To me, this has three implications for Photography and Critical Theory.

  1. There cannot be one, right, ‘objective’ Critical Theory. Even the common definition of terms becomes elusive.
  2. Writers will use more and more words to try to explain their (personal) points and critique others – and it will all become more and more confusing to (public) readers.
  3. Instead, we must consider the real world context of an image and how it is publically discussed to be able to understand and describe it. In essence, we are not only allowed to pick and choose which critical method we want to employ, but we must. And we must do so from the viewpoint of conversation with others, not from some inner, critical self.

By the way, Wittgenstein was a keen photographer!

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1922. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. London: Kegan Paul.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1953. Philosophical Investigations (Trans. G.E.M. Anscombe). Oxford: Blackwell.

Header image: Mick Yates, Ink on Paper, 1967.