Aesthetics, Art and Wittgenstein: the life and work of Cyril Barrett

Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ, National Gallery of Ireland (WikiCommons)
Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ, National Gallery of Ireland (WikiCommons)

Much of Wittgenstein’s writing was, at one remove, about aesthetics: questions of meaning, perception and emergence of sense. Yet there was little available explicitly about his aesthetics until notes from his lectures given by him in 1938 were collected and published in 1966 as Wittgenstein’s Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology, and Religious Belief (Hagberg, SEP). The notes, taken by students Rush Rhees, Yorick Smythies, and James Taylor, together with notes on conversations about Freud and lectures on religious belief were edited by Cyril Barrett. Given the protective attitude Wittgenstein’s students had to his work and legacy, this was not a trivial task and the volume is probably his most enduring contribution to philosophy (eg see The Herald, The Times (paywall)).

What might surprise some is that this work was done by an Irish Jesuit. Born on 9th May 1925 in Dublin, Cyril Barrett graduated from UCD in 1947 with a first in Latin and History. Barrett entered the Society of Jesus in 1942 and was ordained in 1956. After teaching in various institutions he became one of the two founding members of the philosophy department in Warwick University in 1965, where he stayed until his retirement as reader in philosophy in 1992. After retirement he was a tutor in Oxford. He kept writing up to his last days in Milltown Dublin, where he died on 30th December 2003.

As well as Wittgenstein’s Lectures and Conversations, in 1990 Barrett published a commentary on Wittgenstein’s works, Wittgenstein on Ethics and Religious Belief. In this he argued that questions of value (ethics and religious belief) were of prime importance to Wittgenstein, and “intimately interwoven” in his thought.

He also argued that despite appearances, Wittgenstein’s ideas about questions of value did not alter, putting forward the Tractatus as essentially a book about ethics rather than language. This ran against the common belief that the Tractatus and the Philosophical Investigations marked two distinctly different phases in Wittgenstein’s thought. Barrett proposed that, for Wittgenstein in both religion and ethics the essence lies not in words but in praxis; the lived life. Silence therefore does not entail neglect.

Barrett wrote on many other topics, the most important being art and aesthetics. His first publication was Collected Papers in Aesthetics (1965), an anthology of papers in the area of aesthetics and art criticism. He also wrote An Introduction to Optical Art (1970), and various articles on modern and on Irish art, including a chapter on visual arts in 20th century Ireland for A New History of Ireland. He was involved in curating exhibitions ranging from Op Art to 19th century Irish art. He donated forty paintings to the Warwick University art collection.

The painting that heads this piece might be seen as the one that got away. It hung in the Jesuit House in Leeson St where Barrett lived and worked. Yet he never noticed that that painting was a Caravaggio.

Sources and Further Reading

Barrett, (Denis) Cyril by Patrick Maume in the Dictionary of Irish Biography
Barrett, Cyril by Thomas Duddy in the Dictionary of Irish Philosophers, pp. 12-13.
Barrett, (Denis) Cyril by Stephen Watt in Dictionary of Twentieth-Century British Philosophers (Stewart Brown, ed)

Obituaries: The Tablet, Herald of Scotland, and The Times (paywall).

Wittgenstein’s Lectures on Religious Belief (2001), and God and Moral Authority (James Rachels) on both quote from Wittgenstein’s Lectures and Conversations as does Wittgenstein’s Lectures on Aesthetics.

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