The Treachery of Images

Magritte used art to comment on the distinction between the map and the territory. His The Treachery of Images, likely more commonly known as Ceci n’est pas une pipe, may be the most famous example in art.

Image: Ceci n'est pas un GIF
Ceci n’est pas un GIF

The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture ‘This is a pipe’, I’d have been lying!

— René Magritte

People commonly or at least idiomatically refer to the terrain when they should be referencing the map. Likewise to the film Inception, we can recurse these maps all the way down. This is represented by the image above, Ceci n’est pas un GIF, which is a further reflection of Magritte’s work.


But the precursors of social constructionism predate post-structuralism. In fact, they predate structuralism itself. Although Surrealists like René Magritte were products of the post-structuralist era, there were hints of it at the dawn of the Enlightenment.

In 1772, Denis Diderot uses his story, Ceci n’est pas un conte (This is not a story) to demonstrate that a person’s behaviour is not in itself moral or immoral. Morality is not universal, and therefore it is not revealed either.

The point here is to underscore the difference between the referent and the symbol, whether by visual or auditory means. Dualist, René Descartes in his Cogito even understood this difference when he pointed out the ways each of the senses can be deceived. What he didn’t fully appreciate (or at least articulate) is how this disconnect is more prevalent than he had even considered.

3-4 pointing
Image: Perception is reality

Returning to the modern era, in 1966 Peter Berger published The Social Construction of Reality (PDF).  This theory centres on the notion that human beings rationalise their experience by creating models of the social world and share and reify these models through language.

In closing, this is important because even when discussing facts about the world, we are still mired by perception. The legal system understands that eyewitness accounts of an event are among the least trustworthy. Ambiguity exists in language.

An example I used when I was teaching undergrads was the concept of fairness. Who felt that ‘things’ should be fair or that any person should be treated fairly. Accuse me of argument by anecdote if you must, but I have never encountered a person who disagreed with this notion.

But then the conversation got interesting: What was their perception of fair? Did it need to result in equality of outcome or was equality of opportunity sufficient? I wrote about this last year. Similar conversations happened when discussions arose over justice and so on.

My conclusion: There is no reason to believe humans’ employment of language results in a very precise representation of reality. There is even less reason to believe that language provides some vector to know moral truths—or any truths, really. The best course of action is to rely on the slight

My parting gift is this classic Annie Hall bit with Woody Allen and Diane Keaton.



Alvy Singer’s Therapist: How often do you sleep together?

Annie Hall’s Therapist: Do you have sex often?

Alvy Singer: [lamenting] Hardly ever. Maybe three times a week.

Annie Hall: [annoyed] Constantly. I’d say three times a week.

Absurdism: Myth of Sisyphus

I am re-reading Albert CamusThe Myth of Sisyphus, but it’s not as I remember all those years ago. My first comment is that it is a product of its time. Even though some people still believe that without some inherent ‘higher’ meaning, chaos would ensue—the same who believe that atheists will behave this way and that anarchists will smash windows and resort to hedonism.

I think that Camus chose suicide because people at that time would have a ‘natural’ propensity to feel that a life without meaning would necessarily result in suicide. It’s especially humorous given that ostensibly there is no meaning. Of course, the larger question is why people appear to be hard-wired to search for meaning. Secondarily, even if there were some higher meaning, as Camus suggests, there would be no objective way to confirm it.


« If the only significant history of human thought were to be written, it would have to be the history of its successive regrets and its impotences. »

Back to reading… (less typing and more reading)

« The absurd depends as much on man as on the world. For the moment it is all that links them together. »


« I don’ t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it. »

When Camus cites Nietzsche,

It clearly seems that the chief thing in heaven and on earth is to obey at length and in a single direction: in the long run there results something for which it is worth the trouble of living on this earth as, for example, virtue, art, music, the dance, reason, the mind—something that transfigures, something delicate, mad, or divine“,

he also nods to the reader his accord with Nietzsche’s adherence to virtue ethics praising how he ‘elucidates the rule of a really distinguished code of ethics‘, and therein lies the rub. Why should any of these be any better than any other thing?

Nietzsche and Camus were both products of their age, and as Descartes was before them, as brilliant as they each were in their own rights, they were blinded by their age: Descartes by God, and Nietzsche and Camus by virtue.

The Myth of Sisyphus is an interesting exposition, but, try as it may, it falls short.

Anarchy, State, and Utopia

I’ve been reading Robert Nozick‘s Anarchy, State, and Utopia because it was recommended by Ian Shapiro. Although I am only about a quarter way through, and he seems to have tried to hit all the angles; unless I missed it, perhaps hits these bits later on.

He thoroughly raises issues and works to resolve them, but, as with Descartes with his Discourse, Nozick seems to exogenously accept certain aspects in an appeal to tradition sort of way. With Descartes, he stripped all belief in the truth of his senses, but then he injects God into the equation from out of nowhere. For Nozick, he just takes property and value as given.

I understand that the Western Enlightenment tradition has a thing for life, liberty, and property—especially Libertarians—, but these are just philosophical notions derived from nowhere. (Wittgenstein, stage left) That he uses utility theory instead of prospect theory as a foundation can be forgiven, but that is shaky ground, too.

And so it goes…

Workmanship Ideal or Convenience?

One of the biggest issues I have with modern, Western political theory is Locke‘s so-called ‘workmanship ideal‘, a concept stemming from the Enlightenment belief that a maker of something should be the rightful owner of something. The Age of Enlightenment (AKA Age of Reason) was supposed to have divorced science from other rationale, whether divine rights (as ascribed to kings) or something else. The problem—the same problem Descartes had in his Discourses—is that God (even if vis-a-vis ‘nature‘) is injected exogenously and irrationally into the works. Philosophers even into the 21st century, if barely, have concluded that this concept breaks down when we attempt to secularise it, but we are subjectively comfortable with the notion. Of course, the more our beliefs lean towards ‘higher powers‘, intelligent design and the such, the more comfortable we are apt to feel.

I was originally inspired to write this when researching Rawls and happening upon Ian Shapiro‘s Yale open course, The Moral Foundations of Politics. James Murphy has this to say in his essay, The Workmanship Ideal : A Theologico-Political Chimera?