Facts and Ethics

mickyates Coursework, Critical Research Journal, Ethics, ICWeek3, Ideas, Informing Contexts, Philosophy Leave a Comment

Was chatting yesterday about Wittgenstein with a friend of mine who is a Professor of Inter-Disciplinary Applied Ethics at Leeds.

Wittgenstein wrote, in the Tractatus, that ‘The world is the totality of facts, not of things‘. He changed his mind about word meaning when he wrote Investigations, from language built on a conceptual/logical system, to the meaning of words defined as we actually use them. Still, this has always struck me as a useful comment about reality.

Wittgenstein isn’t denying that there are ‘things’, but he is saying that the totality of facts is something over and above the collection of things.

In a constructed or manipulated image, there are many symbols and ‘things’ represented. All images are constructed, when one considers the apparatus of photography (thank you, Vilém Flusser). I’ll skip the debate on icons. The ‘facts’ in the image will relate in some way to what was actually there when the image was created – the congruence of reality to the constructed image before our eyes. We use our best judgement and experience to decide on that congruence as ‘factual’ or otherwise.

A picture of a green unicorn might have multiple problems for the viewer (or grey foxes on a red/orange background), whilst Jeff Walls’s Grave image might at first appear to have no problems. It might seem to represent ‘facts’.

Jeff Wall. 1998-200. The Flooded Grave.

If the viewer perceives the Grave to be factual, then, the issue is ethical.

To what extent did Wall wish to deceive, or was he just challenging the viewer’s thought processes/politics/emotions etc? And to what extent do we feel lied to?


Header: Ben Richards/Wittgenstein Archive, Cambridge. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Swansea, Wales, September 1947


Flusser, Vilém. 1983. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. 2000 Edition. London: Reaktion Books.

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

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

Week Two Reflections

mickyates Coursework, Critical Research Journal, Critical Theory, ICWeek2, Informing Contexts, Philosophy, Photography, Reflections, Webinar Leave a Comment

Whilst I am enjoying the research and writing, I admit to an increasing unease with some of the academic theories of photography. Hence my posts on ‘index and icon‘, ‘congruence‘, ‘cultural context‘ and, in earlier days, ‘interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary‘ thinking.

Photography impacts so many disciplines – science, history, anthropology, ecology, art, cultural studies, business and so on … maybe even all disciplines, today. Yet somehow there appears to be a stream of attempts to ‘constrain’ photography, academically. I understand the desire to get at ‘photographic essence’, but this all seems rather paradoxical.

Andrew Brown’s post hit the nail on the head, starting with the quote from Snyder and Allen:

The poverty of photographic criticism is well known. It stands out against the richness of photographic production and invention, the widespread use and enjoyment of photographs, and even the popularity of photography as a hobby‘. (pg 169)

Snyder and Allen go on to say, however that:

‘To end this poverty we do not need more philosophising about photographs and reality, or yet another .. definition of “photographic seeing,” or yet another distillation of photography’s essence or nature‘. (pg 169)

That I do not agree with, and I suspect that Andrew does not, either.

Instead, I think that we need to take a more multidisciplinary approach to researching and writing about photography. My current personal fear is that I am spending too much time on the theory, and not enough taking photographs. Yet, I do still hanker for a broader view of the field, driving academic theory and actual practice.

As reference, my response to Andrew’s post is here:


Andrew, this falls most definitely into the category of ‘posts that I wish I had written’.

I totally agree with you, and, as usual, you present a well-researched and argued case. I find Barthes and Sontag both depressing, in the sense of an almost pervasive negativity about photography, which, despite the undoubted intellectual capability of both, comes from their rather lacklustre research on the subject.

It seems to me that photography impacts so many disciplines – science, history, anthropology, ecology, art, cultural studies, business and so on … maybe even all disciplines, today. Yet somehow there appears to be a stream of attempts to ‘constrain’ photography, academically. I understand the desire to get at ‘photographic essence’, but it does seems paradoxical, and I need to think through that some more. For a later post.

Thanks for your comment on Argyris – I was lucky to work with him at Oxford; a great mind, and a real inspiration, though he was sometimes a bit of a cantankerous so and so. Another story! Your post prompted me to edit my original by adding this quote from Chris:

There are three tests for the validity of advice. If implemented correctly, it leads to consequences that it predict will occur; its effectiveness persists so long as no unforeseen conditions interfere; and it can be implemented and tested in the world of everyday practice‘. (Flawed Advice, pg 8)

I am also reminded of what an old friend, Richard Pascale, said about change, that:

… we are more likely to act our way to a new way of thinking, than think our way to a new way of acting’. (Leader to Leader, 1998)

At the beginning of the MA, I wrote Roland Barthes – Camera Lucida – an ultimately depressing book, though you do a far better job on deconstruction. I attempted to show that Barthes’ book, despite his undoubted debt to Sartre, veered significantly away from the existentialist project of personal freedom and imagination.

I imagine you have read Peirce, and I find it intriguing that his work on signs was largely driven by analysis of drawings and sketches, rather than photographs. I can feel another post coming on – though frankly my fear right now is spending too much time on critical theory and not enough taking photographs!


Tomorrow I am giving a lecture at the University of Leeds on Leadership, Ethics and Manipulation, and I do reference some photography. For anyone interested, here is the presentation.

Then, on Wednesday, I fly again to Cambodia.

I need to continuously review how to best reconcile my need for theory and action, across disciplines.


Header: Mick Yates. 2016. London at Night.


Argyris, Chris. 2000. Flawed Advice and the Management Trap. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Buchler, Justus. 1955. Philosophical Writings of Peirce. New York: Dover. Available at http://www.urbanlab.org/articles/language/Peirce%201955%20-%20philosophical%20writings.pdf. (Accessed 04/02/2019).

Pascale, Richard and Miller, Anne. 1998. Act Your Way into a New Way of Thinking: Leader to Leader, vol. 1998, no. 9, pp. 36-43. Available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1002/ltl.40619980910. (Accessed 10/02/2019).

Snyder, Joel and Allen, Neil Walsh. 1975. Photography, Vision, Representation. Critical Inquiry, Vol 2, No 1 (Autumn 1975). Chicago: University of Chicago. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/1342806.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A5d2fe2ba92403c052f1d6ca1fe6af6aa. (Accessed 02/02/2019).