Day 207: breaking news: it’s a ducking rabbit

Scene: Friday morning, 7:30 am, at the breakfast table.

ME: OK, you guys remember that I have this conference today and tomorrow?

ELDER: Yes. Are you giving a talk today?

ME: It’s tomorrow. Wanna hear my title?

ELDER: Sure.

ME: It’s called “How to Do Things with Ducks and Rabbits.”

YOUNGER: [scrunching up her face] That reminds me of that book which has the picture that kind of looks like a duck and kind of looks like a rabbit.


ME: Yes! The talk is actually about that picture so it’s good that the title makes you think of that—of the duck that looks like a rabbit.

YOUNGER: Well … it’s actually a rabbit that looks like a duck.

ME: [laughing] is it?

YOUNGER: [not laughing]: Yes.

ME: [somewhat condescendingly] Well, I think the point is that you can see it both ways.

YOUNGER: [adamant]: No, if you look at the picture you’ll see that I’m right.

I Google the picture–the one from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, because that’s the version I’m discussing in my talk–on my phone and we all peer at it.

another wittgenstein duck-rabbit

YOUNGER: [triumphantly] Yeah, it’s definitely a rabbit that looks like a duck.

ELDER: No, it’s a duck that looks like a rabbit—because I saw the duck before I saw the rabbit.

ME: Yeah, I think I agree with him—the duck seems more obvious. But the fact that we all see different things is the point!

YOUNGER: [Exasperated by our slowness.] No, look, do you see this [pointing to the indentation that makes the rabbit’s mouth]? Why would the duck have this thing on the back of his head? There’s no reason for it. So it’s a rabbit that looks like a duck!

ME: Huh ….


The more I thought about it, the more I thought she was right. Especially in Wittgenstein’s minimalist rendition of the duck-rabbit, every mark matters. A mark that isn’t doing double duty in contributing to the identity of both duck and rabbit inevitably tips the duck-rabbit more to one side of its identity than the other: in this case, towards the rabbit’s side.

As my friend Elaine recently observed, “the duck-rabbit has to do with a deficit of representation. The deficit allows it to remain ambiguous (if Wittgenstein had draw whiskers and a carrot, it couldn’t be a duck).”

He didn’t draw whiskers and a carrot, of course. But he did draw that tiny gesture of a mouth–and it’s a mark that, in enhancing the rabbitness of the rabbit slightly diminishes the duckness of the duck. Or, perhaps the mark makes us want to create a narrative about the duck; like, he’s a duck who got into an accident and has a scar on the back of his head–but you should see the other duck!

I know that Wittgenstein didn’t originate the duck-rabbit illusion but I found myself wondering how he first imagined the duck-rabbit—that is, how he first drew it.

Reader, you know what happened next. I fell down into a deep, deep duck-rabbit hole trying to find the original manuscript. I discovered that the duck-rabbit first appeared in Wittgenstein’s manuscript notes, later published as “Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology,” which are considered as preparatory studies for Part II of the Philosophical Investigations. Although Wittgenstein produced typescripts based on those manuscripts, and those typescripts are reproduced in the Collected Works, the typescripts didn’t include the original drawings. Anyway, I was desperate to see the duck-rabbit in its natural habitat, as it were, on the lined, scrawled upon note-book page.

Reader, I found it (them?)! Thanks to an absolutely amazing resource,, where you can freely access Wittgenstein primary sources, including manuscript facsimiles and typescripts. [1] And there he is, situated in a nice little clearing of blank page, leaving room for him to quack or … make whatever noise it is that rabbits make, in either direction.

Original duckrabbit

But here’s the thing (and I’ll wonder if you agree with me). This duck-rabbit is even more rabbity than the one in the Philosophical Investigations! I can barely even make myself see this one as a duck! The mouth is much more pronounced—this poor duck has suffered some even more terrible injury resulting in a cleft skull. (There’s got to be a story there.) It almost seems implausible for Wittgenstein to claim, as he does in the manuscript version, that this drawing is, indeed, ambiguous.

I think there are two lessons that we can conclude from this here philosophical investigation.

1. It’s a good thing that Wittgenstein improved his drawing of the duck-rabbit, or else his philosophical reputation might have been very different.

2: The younger is right: it’s a motherducking rabbit. Case closed.



[1] See the notebook page here:



Day 156: one or the other

What is a duck-rabbit hole?

I think of the duck-rabbit hole, like the duck-rabbit itself, as shifting depending on how you squint at it. From some angles it’s a cavernous hollow, fit for burrowing into; from others, it’s a gleaming surface, perfect for floating on.

If the phrase “down the rabbit hole” suggests passage into an obscure subworld, in a duck-rabbit hole that passage is always forked. And whichever path you go down leads to yet another forking.

I say this more in weariness than in wonder.

I wrote in my last post that, in the course of looking up “lights” in the OED, I discovered that the phrase “the living daylights” is a corruption of “liver and lights.”

It is true that this is what I thought I discovered; when I read “to scare the (liver and lights) out of (someone)” listed as a colloquial phrase under the OED definition for lights meaning lungs, I was struck by its similarity to the colloquial phrase “to beat (also scare, etc.) the (living) daylights (also daylight) out of” someone. The gestalt symmetry of the phrases arrested me; and it was the internal likeness between the phrases that persuaded me they were related more than any external evidence.

But after looking a little longer, the gestalt switched, in duck-rabbit fashion. Or, I could say, the path forked. There are several sources that do indeed argue that “living daylights” is a corruption of “liver and lights.” But, the OED argues that the phrase “living daylights” actually derives from the eighteenth-century use of “daylights” to refer to a person’s eyes (“also occasionally: the nostrils”); it cites Henry Fielding’s novel Amelia (1752) as providing the first recorded expression of the phrase to darken a person’s daylights meaning to give someone a black eye (“If the Lady says such another Word to me .. I’ll darken her Daylights.”) “Living” is a general intensifier, said to be an American turn of the century usage.

Both explanations (deriving “living daylights” from “daylights” or from “liver and lights”) require a conjectural leap. The expressions “scare the liver and lights” and “scare the daylights” are both current in the 19th century. Although the first usage the OED cites of “living daylights” is from 1955, a search on Google books shows a few late nineteenth century instances. The point is: there’s no linguistic smoking gun either way to tell us definitively whether the “lights” being scared or beaten out of us are in our eyes or in our chest. (Or both! It’s possible, given that both expressions were current at the same time, that they merged.)

This indeterminacy is difficult for the mind (well, my mind) to accept.

My quickness to leap to the conclusion that “living daylights” is a corruption of “liver and lights” is yet another case of “lights for cats” in the sense (my own, willful sense) of chasing a delusive gleam.

It’s yet another humbling reminder of how difficult it is to fully accept language’s contingency. Even in the immediate wake of having re-learned afresh what is after all common knowledge—that light refers to both buoyancy and luminosity—I somehow couldn’t hold both meanings in my mind at once. Having originally reflexively read “lights” in Barthes’s essay as meaning luminosity, in my exuberance upon discovering it also meant lungs, I simply switched to reflexively privileging the new meaning. It turns out to be as tricky to toggle rapidly between lungs and lights as between duck and rabbit.

I recently read Toril Moi’s new book Revolution of the Ordinary. It’s been a long time since I read a scholarly monograph from cover to cover for the sheer pleasure of it. The fact that I did so in this case is a testament to Moi’s prose (OK, also maybe to the concentrating effects of Adderall), which is luminously clear. The book is about the relationship between ordinary language philosophy—especially Wittgenstein as read through Stanley Cavell—and literary criticism.

After reading Moi’s book, my thoughts turned naturally to Cavell in trying to think more about the kind of literary criticism ordinary language philosophy might encourage, and I found myself browsing through his book Pursuits of Happiness: the Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage. This passage from Cavell’s Introduction speaks to the way that, in my thinking about “lights,” brightness first eclipsed airiness, and then airiness brightness, in quick succession:

“… what he [Wittgenstein] calls ‘seeing an aspect’ is the form of interpretation: it is seeing something as something. Two conditions hold of a case in which the concept of ‘seeing as’ is correctly employed. There must be a competing way of seeing the phenomenon in question, something else to see it as (in Wittgenstein’s most famous case, that of the Gestalt figure of the ‘duck-rabbit,’ it may be seen as a duck or a rabbit); and a given person may not be able to see it both ways, in which case it will not be true for him that he sees it (that is, sees a duck or sees a rabbit) as anything (though it will be true to say of him, if said by us who see both possibilities, that he sees it as one or the other). And one aspect dawns not just as a way of seeing but as a way of seeing something now, a way that eclipses some other, definite way in which one can oneself see the ‘same’ thing” (Pursuits of Happiness, 36).