The other name of Ludwig Wittgenstein
Being the starting point of this text the use of the qualifier “R/romantic”, it should be noted from the beginning that its use does not intend to make direct and strict reference to the European cultural movement of the late 18th century, whose definition according to The Longman Dictionary of Literary Terms is as follows:
1. An insistence on the value of nature, as opposed to the value of rationality and scientific inquiry: Romanticism posits a vision of nature and spirit shrouded in sublime mystery and therapeutic power. […]
2. An emphasis on the individual ego: Romantic figures postulate their own private being as a special entity transcending the normal run of humanity. […]
3. On the other hand, Romanticism is a sensibility of pure imagination, an attitude rendered clearly in the letters of Keats. […] To have a life of sensations rather than of thoughts is the height of inspiration.
4. In aesthetics, Romanticism takes the solitary creative imagination as the source of art. Art is primarily an expression of one person’s vision and experience, and tradition and authority are to be subordinated to the real lives of individuals and the transcendent scope of the artist.
5. In politics, Romanticism insists upon an egalitarian vision of society, despite its elevation of the artist-figure. The central political event of Romanticism is the French Revolution, which Romantics hailed as the downfall of aristocracy and the promise of democratic reform. […]
Its use does not strictly refer either to the commonly used adjective as described in the Oxford Dictionary:
1. Conducive to or characterized by the expression of love.
‘a romantic candlelit dinner’
1.1 (of a person) readily demonstrating feelings of love.
‘he's very handsome, and so romantic’
1.2 Relating to love or to sexual relationships.
‘after their romantic relationship ended they became great friends’
‘her romantic adventures’
2. Of, characterized by, or suggestive of an idealized view of reality.
‘a romantic attitude to the past’
‘some romantic dream of country peace’
3. Relating to or denoting the artistic and literary movement of romanticism.
‘the romantic tradition’
Thus the use of the term should rather be understood as a derivation from its initial context towards a much broader and more irregular spectrum fostered by popular culture in the 20th century, and in what is diffusely called Postmodernity. As seen from this perspective, the romantic can include a great variety of characteristics, from fields as different as pop music, advertising, cinema, video clips, fashion or graphic literature.
If Romanticism is Dionysian and opposes Apollonian, we could state that Postmodernity is closer to the former, and it is in this context that a rereading in an iconic and mythical key conforms meaning and poses questions. After the extinction of the great Enlightenment metanarratives, the postmodern rescues and reworks in a mosaic of fragments, allusions, family resemblances (of course) and creation of micro-narratives those problematic and dysfunctional elements that never quite fit into the cultural puzzle, highlighting and celebrating their fault-lines rather than looking for a flat and homogeneous surface on which to build again. It is in this landscape of ruins in which a possible re-reading of Ludwig Wittgenstein as a postmodern icon is based, in which his achievements in the field of logic, that of engineering, and his strictly intellectual personality, give way to the romantic fascination that his persona emanates. That emanates to us, who can read him from this prism, with the broken glass that multiplies the image in the viewfinder. From the present time, we are attracted by the contradiction, the emotion that is sensed under the thick layer of rationality, the mystery of messianic words that we miss so much, the physical image projected by the old black and white photographs with the eternal appeal of a human face close-up, by all impossible missions in general.
Given this nuance in relation to the use of the adjective romantic that is being discussed, it is relevant to go back to its canonical definition for a moment in order to situate Wittgenstein and the German movement in time. A historical connection between Romanticism and Wittgenstein is depicted in an article by M. W. Rowe published in the Philosophy magazine of the University of Cambridge in 1994, with the title Wittgenstein's Romantic inheritance. The article offers a valuable historical starting point to link Wittgenstein with the Romantic and beyond, reaching a religious trail, this being a fundamental issue to enter the concept of mysticism in Wittgenstein.
Rowe points out the fact that the central problem of German Romanticism is how to staunch the wound caused by the fracture between Nature and the experience of the individual. It was believed that this fracture had been caused by the use of analytical thinking in man’s relationship with the world, as well as by the rise of physics, which divided the world into Cartesian subjects on one side and matter on the other.
Three of the most important representatives of the Romantic movement, Hölderlin, Schelling and Hegel, met as students of theology in Tubingen at the end of the 18th century. Precisely these studies led them to conceive this problem in terms of fall and redemption. According to this pattern, the original unity of man and nature corresponds to Eden, the attempts to analysis are the original sin, the separation of man from himself, from nature and society is the fall, from which only a superior philosophy will be able to save him. Likewise, those theological roots made that the form to express their points of view when putting it in writing were the Christian spiritual autobiography. In fact, many of the characteristics found in the Confessions of St. Augustine can also be found in Hegel, that is, the subjective narrative, the inner dialogue and the process towards the transcendence of the self. Rowe quotes Wittgenstein directly in order to point out that his suspicion towards science is characteristically Romantic: “It is not absurd to believe that the era of science and technology is the beginning of the end of humanity; that ... there is nothing good or desirable in scientific knowledge and that humanity, in seeking it, is falling into a trap...”; “Almost all my writings are private conversations with myself. Things that I tell myself tête-à-tête.”
In the Philosophical Investigations there can be found the mentioned pattern of the will to achieve peace in the search for unity with the world: in fact, the aim of philosophy is not theory or understanding but peace - “The real discovery is the one that makes me able to stop philosophizing, the one that gives peace to philosophy so that one stops being tormented by the issues that arise...”. “Thoughts in peace. This is what the philosopher pursues.” The conception of the philosophical method is very close to Wittgenstein's conception of Christianity: both describe, do not theorize, and both point not to a transcendental aim but to a clear vision of the world.
Like the Romantic philosopher, Wittgenstein is only interested in communicating his vision of the natural world, and therefore sees himself not as a metaphysician or a theologian but as an artist: “Things are before your eyes, not covered by any veil - this is where art and religion separate.” This idea continually flies over the area in which Wittgenstein circumscribes his work. In the preface to the Philosophical Investigations he describes his work as just “an album” of “sketches”; “Everything that crosses my path becomes an image”; “After all I am a painter, often a very bad one”; “I think I have summarized my attitude towards philosophy when I say that it should be written only as a poetic composition.” Rowe fully enters into literature when referring to the subgenre of the Romantic initiation novel, the Bildungsroman, in which the metaphor of the trip is apparent, often a circular trip, in an experience of education and self-discovery. In fact, there are many parallelisms between Wittgenstein and Goethe in metaphors related to the temptations that are presented to man in false images and “fog constructions” and that he must overcome in order to arrive at a clear visualization of things. For Wittgenstein, to assume that words such as “being” or “reality” refer to things greater than those commonly understood by them is in itself one of the most tempting illusions of philosophy.
As it appears in the religious confessional tradition, in Wittgenstein there is a connection between life and work, confession and explanation. Rowe makes reference to a letter sent to his friend Paul Engelmann in 1920, in which Wittgenstein notes: “... I have undertaken a kind of ‘confession’, in which I have tried to recall a series of events in my life, in every possible detail during one hour. With each event I tried to clarify how I should have acted. Through this panoramic the confused image was simplified a lot. The next day, according to this new knowledge, I reviewed my plans and intentions for the future.” Philosophy for Wittgenstein is a natural extension of this process: “no one can tell the truth if he has not known himself”; “Working in philosophy is really a work with oneself. The interpretation of oneself. One’s own way of seeing things.” This use of confessional techniques in philosophy aims to achieve not a theory or hypothesis but, in Goethe's own words, an Übersichtliche Darstellung [clear representation].
In the scientific tradition of philosophy, as in the case of Russell, his great friend-opponent with whom he maintained a stormy relationship for years, scientific knowledge is a network of true propositions supported by an argument. Taking into account this understanding, the biographical interest for a philosopher is, at most, something supplementary to his philosophy, and, in a derogatory sense, trivial and contingent gossip. In the confessional tradition, on the contrary, the personal vision, the inner transformation, is everything. Anything that can allow us connection and empathy is philosophically valuable, and as Wittgenstein underlined in his Lectures on Aesthetics, this will often be information about the context of the writer and his culture. It is therefore a mistake to regret that Wittgenstein's personality and his way of thinking have had such an impact on those who have read him, or that his life has exerted so much fascination. Far from distracting us from his philosophy, it helps us to locate its queer centre.
And in this centre, a determining factor is its private textual production. Assuming that Wittgenstein's theoretical writings are a source not only of intellectual material but also of considerations about his time, his transcendence in the evolution of Western culture and also in his person, as we have seen, the focus of this paper is, however, the textual production considered marginal by his heirs and curators of his legacy, reaching the point of hiding much of that production from public opinion for years. They are in fact Wittgenstein's diaries that constitute an authentic collection of aphorisms, often born out of despair and loneliness, that can be understood as a purely literary, poetic production, and what therefore makes him instantly the artist that he himself sensed to be, connecting with the Romantic tradition and distancing him once more from established academic and social patterns.
The diaries is the place where the hypothesis exposed until now of the philosophical investigation united to and inextricable from the so-called confessional production, that is, personal diaries, is better appreciated. In them, Wittgenstein unburdens himself, recounts the events of his life, analyses, demands, regrets, remembers, quotes, and in all of this he elaborates his theoretical production little by little. But what an attentive reading sees in them is also the most tangible expression of an intellectual who is transcended by his own fascination as exerted on others, that is, not himself but his persona. It cannot be known what Wittgenstein would think of him being transformed into a kind of icon of what has come to be called contemporaneity and/or postmodernity, whether he would see it as another frivolity of the consumer society that he did not see at its peak, cursing that all his efforts in establishing major advances in the field of logic should be left in the background. The rational failure builds the aura of the impossible, with its irresistible beauty. It is difficult to put this gold mine aside, think of Wittgenstein and focus on logical formulations.
Approaching Wittgenstein directly through his diaries, trying to put aside the details of his biography and even more his theoretical writings, is surely a reduction, but is at the same time an authentic aesthetic experience, in which the mechanisms to be put in operation will be those of evocation, relationships, sensory perceptions and other intuitive gestures, much like the first time one faces a work of art whose historical context, the style in which an author is inscribed and the used technique are unknown.
One of the first things that are noticed when starting the reading of the diaries are the continuous references to God. In a total of 133 times the word “God” is repeated and exclamations are read like “May God help me!”; “May God give me strength!”; “May God be with me”; “God is with me!”; “God help me!”; “May God give me reason and strength!!!”; “Do not forget God, this is the only thing.” At first this is an element that clashes with the conception of the logical scholar one could have in mind. The fact that in a totally personal and intimate writings he reveals himself as a believer, practically a devotee, appears as an element very little akin to the rebellious and unconventional reading that has been done perfunctorily at first. Rather than posing it as a problem to be solved based on his theoretical corpus, it is possible to link it with the historical context initially exposed about the confessional writing in Romanticism.
And it is in fact in the entry of 2 September 1914 when it is mentioned for the first time one of the works that were going to leave a mark on Wittgenstein in this sense: “... Yesterday I began to read the commentaries of Tolstoy to the Gospels. A magnificent work.” The work in question is The Gospel in Brief, the re-reading by Tolstoy to the Gospels with the intention of founding a new religion, as he explains in his diaries of 1855: “Yesterday a conversation about the divine and the faith led me to a great, immense idea, to whose realization I feel capable of consecrating my life. This idea is to found a new religion according to the development of humanity: the religion of Christ but stripped of faith and mysteries, a practical religion that does not promise future happiness, but gives men happiness on earth…”
With such approach in favour of praxis it can be understood that Wittgenstein would be fascinated by the work, since in the hard days volunteering in the Great War the words of Tolstoy probably resonated as a moral and theoretical support to his own internal disquisitions. The book will accompany him throughout this period, being his constant spiritual guide to dip into in the continuous moments of general discouragement. In addition to the remarkable hyperbole that constitutes wanting to found a new religion, it is not only this point an element of romanticism in the lax and contemporary sense that interests to rescue here. In one more event of the series of atypical events in the life of Wittgenstein, the datum that has the greatest interest in relation to this work by Tolstoy is a tangential one: how the Kurze Darlegung des Evangeliums came into his hands. Wittgenstein had volunteered for the army, requesting to enter the most dangerous unit, that of the explorers. Before being assigned to it, he spent several months aboard the warship Goplana patrolling the Vístula, where he was basically responsible for the deck reflector. The book that ended up in the hands of Wittgenstein was a double volume included in the Universal-Bibliothek of the Reclam publishing house. He was in the town of Tarnow and found a shop that seemed to only sell postcards. However, upon entering, he realized that a book, a single book, was also for sale. It was the one he bought and the one who revealed itself as his great shield throughout his time of service in the war, which in his own words in a letter to Ficker “virtually kept me alive.”
In addition to the aforementioned constant of citing God and commending himself to him, a second constant soon appears which, in view of the first, is at least paradoxical: his bad relationship with the people around him. So much so, that negative expressions towards his fellow sufferers are very frequent, with certainly heavy words: “The crew of the ship is a band of pigs! Enthusiasm, none, and incredible their rudeness, their stupidity and their evil! Therefore, it is not true that the great common cause necessarily ennobles people.”; “Again: the stupidity, insolence and evil of these people knows no limits. Any task becomes a torture.”; “The commanders are rude and stupid, the comrades are stupid and rude (with very few exceptions).”; “They often appear to me, not as people, but as grotesque masks. Vulgar scum. I do not hate them, but they disgust me.”; “Wherever I look, tackiness. As far as my eye can see, NOT ONE sensitive heart!!!” Although it is true that in the context of the army Wittgenstein could feel very far from his colleagues, due to an unavoidable separation of class, education, manners, etc., the complaining and angry attitude of Wittgenstein when writing about them is outstanding. A further contradiction between his idealistic spirit, his Christian faith and his willingness to connect to the primary and earthly, with his inability to establish links with those around him. Not only is the main contradiction his intellectual insistence on finding “the redeeming word” and ending in the silence of “what cannot be said”, but also its round trip between the meetings of intellectuals that filled the family home in Vienna and the seclusion in the wooden house in the Norwegian fjord.
In the same way, his relationship with his fellows is anything but fluid. In fact, in his second attempt to put aside the privileges of his wealthy context, having shared his inheritance among his brothers and needy artists and writers (such as “poor Trakl”, whose death he learns about while still in the front, when he was going to visit him at the hospital in Krakow), he will try again to descend to the most earthly level without success, when he works for a while as a gardener, and when he starts teaching children and gets a job in a small town, which will later quit due to disagreements with the parents of his students.
Wittgenstein’s ways of relating to the other appear as rather precarious ones, the intense activity of his libidinal energy represents a separation wall and make him a marginal character, who cannot help but feel distanced from those around him, something that generates a great deal of frustration in him. Not only is it in contexts where he is surrounded by people who do not belong to his social class that Wittgenstein does not succeed in joining his fellows. Even in his times being an intellectual in Cambridge, there usually are misunderstandings with his colleagues, in this case due to controversies based on theoretical questions. An analysis from a psychoanalytic and queer perspective would give rise to another writing, but it is worth pointing to what can be suggested by the textual material of the diaries in relation to that impossible search of something that “cannot be said”, that could allude with greater or lesser clarity to a psychic knot in the construction of a non-canonical sexual identity.
As already briefly mentioned, when his father died and he inherited the family fortune, Wittgenstein got rid of it, given the incongruity of his possessions with the practically ascetic path that he had drawn for his life. In addition to sharing the inheritance among his brothers, he acted as patron of artists and writers such as Rilke, Kokoschka, Loos, as well as the Austrian poet Georg Trakl. He was never able to make use of the 20,000 crowns donated by Wittgenstein, since he would die on the front shortly afterwards due to cocaine overdose. In his diary Wittgenstein notes: “Ficker has sent me poems of poor Trakl today, which I consider to be great, whilst not understanding them.” He probably refers to the texts belonging to the book Sebastian in Dream, published at the end of 1914, being To the boy Elis one of them:
Elis, when the blackbird calls from the black woods,
That is your perdition.
Your lips drink in the coolness of the blue rock spring.
Leave be, when your brow quietly bleeds
And dark deciphering of birdflight.
Yet you walk with gentle step into the night,
Which hangs full of purple grapes
And you move your arms lovelier in blueness.
A thorn bush sounds,
Where your moonlight eyes are.
O, how long, Elis, have you been dead.
Your body is a hyacinth
Into which a monk dips his waxen fingers.
Our silence is a black cavern,
From which at times a gentle animal appears
And slowly shuts its heavy eyelids.
Onto your temples black dew drips,
The final gold of vanished stars.
[Translated from German by Alexander Stillmark]
Wittgenstein therefore declares that he considers Trakl’s literary creations to be great, but claims not to understand them. It is this other point where the ambiguous relationship between rationality and irrationality, between logos and instinct comes into play: that adolescent gesture where one is fascinated by the stimuli received by the senses, omitting any kind of intellectual analysis, allowing oneself to be affected by the unknown. As if this were possible, as if one was composed of watertight compartments, as if entering into the knowledge of things would irremediably imply the destruction of its mystery and, therefore, its beauty.
The binary opposition becomes truly extreme in Wittgenstein when he reaches the point of consciously seeking death, enlisting as a volunteer to fight on the front of World War I. He writes: “In eight days we will march to the position of fire. I wish I would be able to put my life on a difficult mission.” In fact, he being a volunteer creates many mistrusts in those around him: “With few exceptions, the troop hates me because I am a volunteer.” But Wittgenstein could only go to the limit of the matter, so very soon he requested to participate in the most difficult mission of all: “Maybe tomorrow I will join the explorers, at my request. Then the war will begin for me. And maybe life too! Perhaps the closeness of death will bring me the light of life.” Being an explorer was the most dangerous task in the war, which everyone wanted to avoid at all costs, since they had to advance in no man’s land to get to know the attack positions of the enemy and thus guide the troops in an accurate manoeuvre. Wittgenstein seems to need this moment to obtain from it a catharsis that allows him to go on: “It is death, and nothing else, that gives meaning to life.”
In fact, a few days later he writes: “Colossal fatigues during the last month. I have meditated a lot on everything divine and human, but, curiously, I cannot establish the connection with my mathematical reasoning.” The next day: “But that connection will in the end be established! What cannot be said, cannot be said!” It is thus in this self-imposed situation in which, literally between life and death, one of the works whose validity endures in contemporaneity, beyond its strictly theoretical value, as a deeply human deed, with all its inherent weakness and at the same time its strength of spirit, the sweet desperation of the void and the impossible, is born. The experiment seemed to have taken effect, since less than two months later Wittgenstein writes: “We are being shot. And with each shot my soul shudders. I would like so much to continue living!”
If the diaries written between 1914 and 1916 are affected by the circumstances of Wittgenstein’s life at the front and are usually hyper-synthetic, repetitive and without too much literary elaboration, those that belong to the periods 1930-1932 and 1936-1937 give an evident sign of a change in how the author expresses his inner world in writing: the entries are much longer, he often writes dreams in detail, neglects to systematically date each entry and generally narrates the events of his life, often for several pages. It is in these texts that the creation of a character is set. It is possible from this point - and from the present time - to observe what this attraction is, the product that he becomes, how he creates an image of himself, with his theoretical and personal audacity. If the theoretical starting point in Wittgenstein is: “What is interesting in philosophy is shown, it is not said. It is shown with art. The mystical is beyond language.”, then the research work can be carried out in the personal diaries, where Wittgenstein “is shown”, constituting these his “artistic production”.
Wittgenstein devotes himself to literature in each entry, telling his inner worries often in a very visual way. We see that he continues to search inside himself, turning over the accumulation of questions and doubts that incessantly accompany him throughout his life, and making more and more of himself what he says he does not want to be, a hero of abandonment: “But that something (is it the heart?) I feel it as if it were leather & it cannot melt. Or am I too cowardly to let temperature rise enough?”; “I tend somewhat to sentimentality. But nothing of sentimental relationships. - Neither with language.”; “Me, for example, I am a mean guy, a liar & yet I can talk about the greatest things.”; “‘I can lie in such - or such a way - but perhaps the best way I do it is by telling the truth in all sincerity.’ This I often say to myself.”; “I cannot (that is, I do not want to) renounce enjoyment. I do not want to give up enjoyment & I do not want to be a hero. That’s why I suffer the lacerating & humiliating pain of abandonment.”
Far from the trench, Wittgenstein is now in an environment that a priori should be infinitely more related to him, that of Cambridge, one of the centres of the world intelligentsia. Still, as noted above, his interpersonal relationships are far from fluid. In fact, he always points out problems similar to those during his time in war: “In general, I am more respected than loved. (And the first not rightly, of course) while there would be some reason to be fond of me.”; “Whenever you talk to people who do not really understand you, you feel that you have made a fool of yourself, at least I do. And this happens to me here all the time. The choice is between total strangeness & this ungrateful experience.”; “I speak too lightly. - By means of a question, an objection, I can be induced to a torrent of words. Sometimes while I talk, I see that I am in a disgusting navigable water: that I say more than I think, that I speak to amuse others, that I introduce irrelevant things to impress, etc. I then try to correct the conversation, redirect it to a more decent way. But I only veer a bit and not enough, out of fear - out of a lack of courage - & I keep a bad taste in my mouth.”
If the logician becomes a creator, how does art appear in his work? How the different fields through which Wittgenstein transits intertwine in a final personal and, without a doubt, artistic creation? In the diaries of this period the depth that Wittgenstein has reached in his reflections on “everything divine and human” becomes more apparent: “In art too there are people who believe they can force the attainment of their eternal life through good works & others who throw themselves into the arms of grace.”; “The task of philosophy is to reassure the spirit with respect to questions that have no meaning. Who is not prone to such questions does not need philosophy.”; “Who in the end is not able to leave in the hands of the gods what is most beloved but always tries to condition it no matter what, that one lacks true love for it.”; “In the correctly written proposition, a particle of the heart or brain comes off & appears as a proposition on paper.”; “The desperate one is like the whimsical child who wants an apple. But you do not usually know what it means to break the whim. It means breaking a bone in the body (and making an articulation where there was none).”; “A soul that walks more naked than the rest, from nothingness, through the world, to hell, makes a greater impression to the world than bourgeois dressed souls.”; “White is also a kind of black.”; “The pure one has a hardness that is difficult to bear. That is why the warnings of a Dostoevsky are more easily accepted than those of a Kierkegaard. The former still squeezes you when the latter already chokes you.”
The inevitable product of this process could only be the creation of the legend. With the more or less obscure intention of locating Wittgenstein in a personal milieu, dislodging him, making him valid, pertinent outside philosophy. Rescuing from him all that could be labelled “banal” from the prism of philosophy and logic, everything “insignificant”, not to elaborate a pseudo-biographical human aspect, not to “understand” him, but to expose Wittgenstein as a romantic artist. Once again in his own words: “In a horrible state of mind: without ideas, blind, my work does not tell me absolutely anything & here I am, in the desert, without meaning nor purpose. As if someone had made a joke with me, had brought me here & here had left me sitting.”; “There is no one here: & yet I speak & I thank & I beg. But is it a mistake then to speak and thank & pray?! One could rather say: that’s the strange thing!”; “There is nobody here: but here there is a magnificent sun & a bad person.” As it could not be otherwise, Wittgenstein has already a vision of his own legend, which in his own words takes an anti-heroic nuance that makes him precisely more contemporary than ever: “If my name survives it will only be as the terminus ad quem of the great Western philosophy. The same, so to speak, as the name of the one who burned down the Library of Alexandria.”
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Thesis for the MA program Pensar l’art avui: Estètica i Teoria de l’Art Contemporani [Thinking Art Today: Aesthetics and Theory of Contemporary Art]
Department of Philosophy. Autonomous University of Barcelona - Fundació Joan Miró