Russell and Cubism

In my upper-level History of 20th C Philosophy course, we're currently reading Our Knowledge of the External World. Readers of OKEW will recall Russell's logical construction of "thing" (at an instant) in Lecture III: the set of aspects that would normally be said to be aspects of that thing. Aspects are sense-data. (These aspects include not only those actually perceived, but also those sense-data that would be perceived if a perceiver were there.) So, in other words, a thing (at an instant) is defined as the set of all the ways the thing would look (and smell, and feel, etc.) at that instant.

What struck me was how similar this is to the essential aim of cubist painting, which aims to capture multiple perspectives or aspects of an object simultaneously, on a single canvas. How far can this comparison between Cubist objects and Russellian ones be pushed? There's at least one difference: Cubist paintings (so far as I know) do not attempt to capture every perspective, just multiple perspectives -- whereas Russellian things exhaust all perspectives.

Also, someone else must have thought of this comparison before. Any references?


At 30/9/09, Blogger Chris Pincock said...

I am not sure, but my guess is that there is some kind of common cause here. Russell is influenced by 19th century views of spatial perception, like those developed by Helmholtz. Hopefully if we looked up how Cubists were thinking about spatial perception we would also find some influence from Helmholtz.

At 30/9/09, Anonymous Anonymous said...

An interesting parallel. I am not sure that's it was really a zeit geist, though. Didn't Mill have similar ideas about what constituted a thing?

At 1/10/09, Blogger Greg Frost-Arnold said...

Thanks for the comments. A further question for each of you:

Chris: do you have a reference for Helmholtz's influence on Russell's conception of thing, or a Helmholtz piece where H says proto-Russellian stuff about 'thing'?

Anon: Do you have a reference for Mill saying that? (And I'm not committed to this parallel between cubism and Russell being the result of a greater Zeitgeist that affected them both; but is there some positive reason you have for doubting it?)

At 3/10/09, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I seem to remember Hintikka making a similar comparison in one of his articles I read years ago. Though I'm not sure if he mentioned Russell explicitly. Unfortunately I don't have the exact reference. He mentioned it in a book written in Finnish. But at least some (maybe all) of the articles in the book were translations from English.
Come to think of it maybe Hintikka was actually comparing cubism to phenomenology. I'm certainly no expert on the matter but I think there were some similarities between Russell's and Husserl's theories of perception.

At 5/10/09, Blogger Chris Pincock said...

Greg, sorry for the delay in following up. There is a clear point of influence of Helmholtz on Russell in Russell's fellowship essay (1897). A place to start is section 4.3 of Torretti's book. The basic idea is that the geometry of a space is determined by the group of transformations which preserve features of objects.

It is a big jump from this to _Problems_ or _OKEW_, but I think there is some kind of story to be told here. We construct a representation of things in space by coordinating our visual experiences with our sensations of motion as we move around an object and then label as 'real' what is preserved under these transformations. I guess the cubists did not take this last step, but I think there are interesting similarities in how they are thinking about perception.

At 10/10/09, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was going to mention Hintikka's comparison as well; but I know for a fact that his comparison of phenomenology to cubism (expression of multiple aspects etc,and indeed similarin Husserl and Russel) was never published in English, only in other languages. However, the piece does exist in English (I don't have it - but Hintikka will probably be happy to share).

At 11/10/09, Anonymous Anonymous said...

the last anon here again, taking back what i said about it not appearing in English - although i once heard it from Hintikka himself - look at this link, and the reference in the end.

At 11/10/09, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Picasso and Braque, the orginators of Cubism, were lead in that direction by the late paintings of Cezanne--who held that
incorporating timeless geometric shape into depictions of the world
would make the paintings timeless
also. His approach to this tended to bring forground and backround together--to integrate all in the painting into one unified plane and to include in each object the shifts in human perspective around an object. It is these tendencies that were modified and developed by Braque and Picasso. It has nothing to do with Helmholtz.
Each cubist painting attempts to
meld into one coherent composition
in a flattened picture depth aspects of an object or scene. There is no attempt whatsoever to include all perspectives--the aim is only to create a composition that has impact and strength; to use these element to create a new artistic experience is the priority, not some didactic message about what a "thing" is.
Russel was not so naive, I think,
as to assume that one could exhaust
all perspectives---unless you defined the task very narrowly indeed, too narrowly to be useful.

At 11/10/09, Blogger Greg Frost-Arnold said...

Penultimate/ antepenultimate anonymous --

Thanks very much for that link. I knew someone else must have thought of this before; I really appreciate you tracking it down. I'll post again later if it prompts any further thoughts from me.

ultimate anonymous --

Thanks for that further background. I know basically nothing about cubism.

I did not mean to say (and I'm pretty sure Chris P. never meant to say) that developments in science and scientific philosophy caused Picasso, Braque, or Gris to undertake their projects. I also did not mean to say that they were trying to convey "some didactic message about what a thing is." And in the original post, I agree with your claim that "there is no attempt to include all perspectives," just more than one.

I must disagree with you about Russell, however. His (re)definition of 'thing' unequivocally includes all perspectives. If you'd like to see the text, you cna find it at


See especially p.89 in the pdf version of the file.

At 18/10/09, Anonymous P.D. said...

[I was the first anon above.] Mill defines matter as the permanent possibility of sensation; I'm not near a book, but a google search for 'Mill "permanent possibility of sensation"' turns up several references. The possible sensations are all the perceptions one might have of the material objects, which is what makes me think he's on board with Russell.


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