March 21, 2005

Wittgenstein and Looney Tunes

Last night I was struck by the resemblance between the famous duck-rabbit and the equally famous Duck Season! Rabbit Season! If Wittgenstein had published the Investigations earlier, then Daffy and Bugs could just have made one duck/rabbit season poster, to be rotated back and forth as the argument progressed.

(In fact the duck-rabbit seems to be originally noted by Joseph Jastrow rather than Wittgenstein, based perhaps ultimately on an 1892 cartoon in a German humor magazine.)

Posted by Matt Weiner at March 21, 2005 10:31 AM

It also appears in Art and Illusion (from 1956, so after PI), and IIRC Gombrich doesn't refer to Wittgenstein when he introduces it.

Oddly last night I was thinking about the duck-rabbit w.r.t a sequence in some Mother Goose-themed Pogo collection in which most of the animals are more or less the Politburo of a Soviet-like nation (the theme wasn't hewed to closely) and one of them complains that the cigar he's smoking is terrible, is informed that it's actually a sausage, and comments that for a sausage it's not a bad cigar. I can't remember how the duck-rabbit entered into the picture but somehow it did.

Posted by: ben wolfson at March 21, 2005 11:27 AM

That graphic has always bugged me, kinda, because it doesn't look like a duck or a rabbit, much. I don't understand why the beak/ears are pointy. Makes no sense, as both ducks' beaks and rabbits' ears are rounded.

Posted by: bitchphd at March 21, 2005 12:26 PM

The article about Jastrow I linked has Art and Illusion from 1960, citing Wittgenstein (as well as the original German mag). Witters did have rounded ears. Bug's ears are pretty pointy, though not in the way of the original duck-rabbit.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at March 21, 2005 01:38 PM

Huh. My memory deceived me, then (and clearly I didn't follow the link, people). I think the lectures on which A&I is based were in 56, then.

Posted by: ben wolfson at March 21, 2005 02:08 PM

Ok, well, shows what I know about philosophy.

Posted by: bitchphd at March 21, 2005 04:17 PM

B, no worries, that's a perfectly valid point; the shape of the specific duck-rabbit that Wittgenstein drew isn't considered a critical point in philosophy :-). Also, when I said "Bug's ears" I meant "Bugs's ears," as a reflection on the shape of the ears of Bugs Bunny. We've already established that I'm not too good with rabbits (I am confident, however, that the animal in question is not a duck).

Posted by: Matt Weiner at March 22, 2005 07:39 AM

It can't look too much like either a duck, or a rabbit, else the perception won't be bistable; if it looks closer to one than the other, the reversal requires too much effort. So changing a piece, like the ears/beak, to be more accurate could ruin the trick. Sometimes, the inaccurate representation can be more suggestive than an attempt at literalness. This would be an old but interesting question in aesthetics if anyone studied aesthetics anymore.

It can't be close enough to look like a literal representation of both a duck and a rabbit, of course, because ducks don't look like rabbits. Can someone confirm for me that ducks don't look like rabbits? I've been locked in a basement at Stanford with my eyelids held open force-reading blogs as part of some kind of psychological study run by Alberto Gonzalez, and I haven't seen either a duck or a rabbit for a while now. (On the bright side, the words "Andrew Sullivan" now trigger my gag reflex. Oh wait, they already did that.)


Posted by: Alex at March 22, 2005 07:23 PM

Nice fake e-mail address! Besides the rabbit fiasco mentioned above, I am also known for my insistence that geese are ducks, so don't ask me.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at March 22, 2005 11:41 PM

No one studies aesthetics anymore? Crap.

Posted by: ben wolfson at March 24, 2005 10:47 AM

Not true, Ben, not true! I was done out of a job by an aesthetician just the other day.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at March 24, 2005 01:28 PM

Yay! I mean, I'm sorry to hear that.

Posted by: ben wolfson at March 24, 2005 02:06 PM

Great minds think alike - but if minds think alike, does that mean they're great?

Posted by: DF Maier at March 28, 2005 02:24 PM

You certainly have dibs on this joke. As for your question, contemplate my most recent post and consider the consequent affirmed.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at March 28, 2005 03:18 PM

Five minutes after posting that comment, the post to which "most recent post" links ceased to be your most recent post. It had to happen eventually but don't you think that was a little egregious?

Posted by: ben wolfson at March 30, 2005 09:36 AM

Psssh. The sequence of events can be retraced with exactitude--because I have timestamps.

(It is with some distress that I note that the running jokes from Unfogged are taking over this blog.)

Posted by: Matt Weiner at March 30, 2005 12:11 PM