Seeing The Familiar More Clearly and The Unfamiliar More Fairly

Excerpt: Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

Don’t take it as a matter of course, but as a remarkable fact, that pictures and fictitious narratives give us pleasure, occupy our minds.

(“Don’t take it as a matter of course” means: find it surprising, as you do some things which disturb you. Then the puzzling aspect of the latter will disappear, by your accepting this fact as you do the other.)

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Third Edition, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe (New York: Basil Blackwell & Mott, Ltd., 1958), p. 142e, section 524.


It is a bit of common wisdom that the things that are most familiar are sometimes the things we see least clearly. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein has put it this way: “The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something—because it is always before one’s eyes.)”1 To help us counter that tendency, Wittgenstein suggests that we try to be amazed by things that we usually take for granted. This outlook gives us a more complete view, not only of familiar, comfortable things, but also of unfamilliar things that make us uncomfortable.

As an example of a familiar, everyday experience that tends to go unnoticed, Wittgenstein asks us to consider the fact “that pictures and fictitious narratives give us pleasure, occupy our minds.” Of course that is part of what it means to have an imagination: we can get wrapped up in a novel, or become emotionally involved in a film, feeling concern for the characters and hoping for a particular outcome to the fictitious events. Somehow, we can get engrossed in stories that we know are made up. We may cry, or feel joy, or our pulse may be racing--the same reactions we have to real-life events. We might never have wondered how that could be, but once we think about it, it does seem a bit strange—a “remarkable fact” as Wittgenstein puts it.

Countless other aspects of life, perhaps every aspect of normal life, could be similarly surprising--it all depends upon our perspective. One way to notice things, to become awakened to the amazing aspects of familiar experiences, is to imagine what it would be like to be seeing or doing something for the very first time. Certain types of meditation help us experience things in this way, with "beginner's mind."2 The experience of losing and then regaining something that we used to take for granted can also have this effect, as Olympic figure skating gold medalist Tenley Albright has commented about her childhood polio: “Maybe when I was diagnosed with polio, getting through that, being one of the lucky ones who did get through it, was what changed it for me and made me appreciate things. It made me realize, wow, it’s amazing, we can put one foot in front of the other, we can run up stairs.”3 It’s that perspective of wonder that Wittgenstein is encouraging us to find, to be amazed by normal things.

Wittgenstein points out that we already do this with things that disturb us—we tend to find those things surprising, or puzzling. Wittgenstein claims that if we could bring the familiar, everyday, comfortable experiences of our lives out of the background, and see that they too can be surprising, then we will actually be able to see certain unfamiliar things without being shocked. The idea seems to be that once we learn to shift our perspective from accepting something as normal to seeing it as strange or puzzling, then we will also be able to go the other way, and shift from finding something strange to seeing how it could be normal.

Consider, for example, how a person who is used to eating beef might be terribly shocked by the practice in certain societies of eating dogs. By going through Wittgenstein’s exercise, this person would try to see his own food choice as surprising. He might think about cows and try to focus on them as animals that can feel pain. Taking the exercise further, he could try to see cows as animals that could be loved as pets, or deeply valued in some other way. According to Hinduism, for example, a cow is a sacred animal. From these perspectives, it suddenly becomes at least a little disturbing to kill and eat a cow. And, keeping these considerations in mind, the practice of eating dogs might no longer seem so absolutely puzzling. If a person can see, and yet somehow accept, "the puzzling aspect" of his own practice, then a different practice may no longer seem unacceptable just because it too has a puzzling aspect. Even if the puzzling aspect of the foreign practice does not "disappear" for us, and we are still disturbed by it, we might gain some understanding or tolerance towards it. This kind of reasoning would not justify every practice, it only helps us avoid a double-standard: If we find something puzzling in a disturbing way, the question is, are there other, similarly puzzling things that we accept or take for granted, perhaps only because we are used to them?


1 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Third Edition, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe (New York: Basil Blackwell & Mott, Ltd., 1958), p. 50e, section 129.

Posted: November 2004

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