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The philosophy of the face and 20th century literature and art

Bernard J Rhie, University of Pennsylvania


This dissertation explores the importance of the human face in modern literature, philosophy, and all. “Meaning is a physiognomy,” wrote Wittgenstein—quite literally, if somewhat cryptically—in the Philosophical Investigations. My project takes this remark seriously and begins, in chapters one and two, by reading Wittgenstein's discussion of aspect-seeing alongside recent work in cognitive science and the philosophy of mind in order to explain how we perceive mentality in the appearance of a human face. I then trace the surprising ways in which our ability to understand facial expressions informs not only the way we understand language, but also other minds and the concept of personhood itself. Chapters three and four extend these findings into an analysis of visual portraiture, focusing on the paintings of Francis Bacon. Regarding the sense of injury often associated with Bacon's violently distorted likenesses, I ask why such “magical” feelings arise at all with respect to images of human faces. Reading Wittgenstein along with Gombrich and Wollheim, I find that the mind naturally responds to images of faces as expressive of mentality: we not only see faces in images but also to an extent see the images as persons. My final chapter looks into the ethics of physiognomy, asking what difference it makes whether we see the mind as a private substance or, as John Ashbery has suggested, a “visible core.” This chapter reads two narratives about faces that dramatize the solipsistic consequences of a Cartesian commitment to mental privacy: that of the faceless woman in Rilke's Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge and the Magistrate's dreams about the tortured woman in Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians . I next consider Levinas' ethics of the face, an ambivalent critique of Husserlian phenomenology that tries, but ultimately fails, to escape this Cartesian predicament. In the end, the convergence of ethics and physiognomy may explain the face's importance to the modern imagination: perhaps, as Wittgenstein's writings suggest, faces grip us so because they call upon the same powers of pattern recognition that enable us to grasp the reality of other minds and moral values as well. ^

Subject Area

Literature, Modern|Art History|Philosophy

Recommended Citation

Rhie, Bernard J, "The philosophy of the face and 20th century literature and art" (2005). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3179794.


Since January 03, 2006