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The Being Of A Thing and Its Meaning In Social Communication


Chuyên-luận sau đây trình-bày tại John Moores University, Liverpool, UK, tháng 7, 2012, đã được chấp-nhận xuất-bản trên International Journal JATH.
On April 18, 2013 – it is exactly after one year and ten days; I have finally received an exhaustive report of some 30 pages on my paper, The Being of a Thing and its Meaning in Social Communication, by referees whose names are withdrawn. I read the report with gratitude. Overall, the evaluation in favor of my paper for publication runs up to 100 percent of approval. I humbly accept such generous responses, and only quote here some select remarks to share with the readers. QN
The area investigated by the paper is significant, timely, important, intrinsically interesting.
The paper is thematically appropriate to the Journal.
The philosopher is a master of conceptualization of philosophical empery.
The article demonstrates the direct applicability, relevance of the object it analyzed. This brightest work enriches new intellectual ground in the non-classical philosophy.
The philosopher understands Habermas’s limits of the theory of verbal language exclusively.
The article is not only theoretical scientific but also applied significance, for the author raises a concrete problem: possibilities of exchanging information via works of art or artistic practice.
The author offers a convincing theoretical position as regards the questions he raises.
The article’s content proves in-depth understanding of the problems this article deals with.
The article demonstrating the author’s position and the factual materials it contains may be used in the teaching and educational practice. Its scientific potential and novelty provisions contribute to thematic and subject-wise deepening of scientific socio-humanitarian knowledge in general.
Dear Dr. Quynh Nguyen,
I am pleased to be able to inform you that your paper, “Being of a Thing and Its Meaning in Social communication” has been accepted for publication in the International Journal of Arts and History. You will soon be offered a Publishing Agreement. You will be requested to upload a final version of your paper for typesetting and publication.
Yours Sincerely,
Kelsey Shannon
The International Journal of Arts Theory and History






The Seventh International Conference on the Arts in Society

23-25 July 2012

John Moores University, Liverpool, UK


Since the concept of Visual Art has welcome everyday objects as authentic form and meaning I have found that Heidegger’s Was ist ein Ding? / What is a thing? (1967), and Habermas’s Communication and the Evolution of Society (1976), can be theoretically used in some extent to support and illustrate the reason of existence and creation by using such objects as genuine constructs of artworks and daily dialogs. On social communication, I understand Habermas’s limits of his theory to verbal language exclusively, but I would like to follow his guidelines only to explore the possibility of semantic or non-verbal representation that links individuals with community, a sort of communication without speech. To strengthen my thesis, I will begin evaluating Heidegger’s discussion on the essence of “thing” to deepen human consciousness of living in the world. I will also use visual images to further evaluate communication based on concrete and probable realities.
A. Metaphysical and Pragmatic Question
B. “Was ist ein Ding”, an Ontological Question of Communication
C. A Thing as Social Being
D. The Being of a Thing as Art in Communicative Action





THEMATICALLY, “What is a Thing” a discourse advanced by Heidegger, aims at a deeper investigation of knowledge following the original idea of Kant’s Ding an sich. Such an investigation passes over to Hermeneutic strategy for deeper understanding. Yet, “Was is ein Ding?” as a broad topic, deals with many different meanings and objectives in terms of thought and practice. Therefore, it envelopes a great deal of subjects concerning human beings, things and even the cosmos. In area connecting with human communication we will sometimes review the issue of rationality and emotion; so called the grass roots of techniques and strategies exhaustively discussed in Husserlian Cartesian Meditations.

In reality, the phrase “Universal Pragmatics” in Habermas’s Communication and Evolution of Society has triguered my curiosity to write this essay, not to critique but to investigate, the core of Habermas’s thesis to see if there is room for artworks to be included in social communication. Habermas makes it clear in Communication that his project sets aside (not exclude) the language of arts or non-verbal communicative action, such as painting, sculpture, and music. So, why should I waste my time? Following Stueber, concerning intersubjectivity strickly in empathic mode, we wonder if communicative action makes it possible only through rationality or grammatical modes? (Stueber 2006).

At the outset of Communication Habermas briefly defends his thesis of pragmatic communication based on “consensus speech actions” and “general presuppositions” as follows:

a) A statement must be clear about what is understandable;
b) So that the speaker and the audience have mutual understanding.

However, to which and for the purpose of communicative action I would like to add two presuppositions, for the non-verbal language [if] where and when appicable. Here are my points:

a) Show a work of art that is understandable, so
b) The artist and the audience have mutual understanding.

Although Habermas’s communicative framework is not applicable to arts, in reality, today visual culture in the vogue, has both peculiar and universal impacts in social communication as did Husserl observe in his Logical Investigations, 1900. Certainly, we are not discussing this issue in scientific light as we are aware of the boundaries of different subject matters that yield to the variety of knowleges.

With respect to the art of speech, when the speaker desires to address a topic to the audience, he must be sure of the content of the subject and anticipate the right kind of public who can attend to (or bebenefit). Husserl has this for us that although the artist’s experiences are concrete, it is hardly to the public that such experiences make sense to them (Logical Investigations), save the case of commercial art. However, the intent thematically requires serious investigations, although it appears clearly on the surface. This sort of game-playing does not look like the chest-game under each of whose pawn exists no motif at all.

Thus, could it be possible to have a communication between artist and public? And could it be possible for a pragmatic understanding of sense, not meaning, in any sort of communication? In reality, problem of pragmatic communication still arises, as observed Harbemas himself, owing to many shortcomings of speech, for example:

a. There are still so many presuppositions in thought expression;
b. There are so many syntactic explanations in grammatical logic. Therefore, thought is unclear;
c. Analysis of basic idea does not follow logical form, and
d. Incoherence of thought expression resulting in poor communication between the speaker and the public.

Of those four points, issue (b) shows that syntactic explanations are not always “clear” and not always “understandable”, due to grammatical form. Like all logical forms, those of grammar do not have specific content. Like the organic structure of our body the form of logic does not speak of the content, our communication like the soul, speaks of the rational, and the emotional, therefore, only content can stand up to juridictions. Furthermore, invariants in communication must be tested against truth because the worldliness of the world mainly consists of variants as is clear in the Fifth Meditation of Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations.





“Was is ein Ding” or about idea (eidos), a metaphysical question for an extensive research of true knowledge or epistemè. It becomes a sub-theme of Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit. The discussion includes all things (Dinge) or ideas on the natural, emotional, irrational, concrete, abstract, active, inactive, uncanny as well as numbers, weathers and unfinished projects (werbehaftete Dinge). Following which we may venture to investigate a thing in terms of the beauteous aspects, such as laughter, smile, and even body language inherently in daily circumstances.

One can violate a thing but cannot do so to its essence or depth that remains uncanny to our knowledge. From Kant’s “Ding an sich” comes Heidegger’s “Ding für uns” about our perceptions of a thing. “Ding für uns”, precisely the perceptual or perceived thing has its attributes; which to represent them linguistically successful demand us a great deal of communicative skills. Representation of a thing may follow Heidegger’s strategy of limited or unlimited “ratio”, following the ancient Greek concept, in the vertical order as follows:

This house is red
This house is tall
This house is smaller than the one of the next-door
This house is by a stream dotted with pine trees
This house is one of the 18th century architectural styles.

Heidegger calls the deterministic characters of the house “ratio” that rationally reflects the idea of “Vernunft” in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, whereby a thing is decidedly demonstrated as follows:

1. The meaning of a thing is what it appears to us;
2. The meaning of a thing is what we name it;
3. The meaning of anything (ein Etwas), either concrete or abstract.

For Habermas, to know the clear deterministic characters or attributes of a thing we must be able to show our understanding (verstehen) that although grounded in concrete experiences, the understanding requires further radical investigation called ‘empirical-analytic method” or better known as “reconstructive sciences”. This empirical analytic strategy ultimately demands “interpretation” and “observation” of a thing to finally pass such an empirical analysis to speech by means of which communication is possible in three phases:

Habermas’s idea of “reconstructive sciences’ reminds us of Heidegger’s thought when the latter argues that the substance of science rests in our understanding of everyday things, both universal and singular or simply TRUE or FALSE. As such our understanding of a thing in front of us is limited if not superficial (Vorhanden). In fact argues Heidegger only successfully grabbling (grasping) a thing’s essence would lead to our transcendental knowledge of the observed target; namely the “thingness/Dingkeit” of a thing. Moreover, Husserlian advanced Cartesian meditation or doubt to a sort of transcendental knowledge of a thing by continuously questioning the subjectivity, again and again. To support and clarify Husserl’s remark, Heidegger argues that doubt is legitimate since we are but egos to which all knowledge is represented subjectively; if our knowledge still falls short of subjective analysis. Due to the return to subjectivity, some scholars have misunderstood Husserl and mistakably associated it with solipsism.

That only a thing can show its own essence supports Heidegger’s central theme that the essence of mathematics is manifest by mathematics exclusively, as he follows the ancient Greek definitions:

1. A thing is born and it follows its own natural process;
2. If a thing is a man’s product, then it reflects exactly man’s desire;
3. When a thing is used by man, it is always subject to man’s will;
4. Beyond the concept of morality and application, a thing is pragmatically in man’s use.

About the first definition (1) or “Thing in itself” (later we discuss “art in itself), Heidegger poses a legitimate question: “In what way?” This question clearly leads us to investigation of the Being (Sein) of mathematics, beginning with numbers that Heidegger questions if it is “true that numbers are mathematics?” and “Why numbers must be mathematical?” For common readers, the answer would probably means “yes” and “no”. I am delighted to hear G.H. Hardy, the purest mathematician of the twentieth century, who succinctly points out that “mathematics concerns “things” in the world, and not “numbers”. In the same token, theorems indisputably display the beautiful concepts for numbers that satisfies proofs and evidences, and thus mathematical functions require techniques and strategies that can only be apprehended by basic skills. However, in reality, such techniques and strategies cannot prove the essence of mathematics.

For Hardy, a serious theorem contains significant “idea”. Thus, idea itself in general term has nothing to do with number, instead it shows shallow (trivial) theorems and deeper theorems. Regardless the different degrees of significance of different theorems, one thing makes theorem as idea that all theorems must relate to each other. This answers Heidegger’s question on the essence of mathematics on the ground of metaphysics. Hardy wisely concludes, “I believe that mathematical reality lies outside us, that our function is to discover or observe it, and that the theorems which we prove, and which we describe grandiloquently as our “creations”, are simply the notes of our observations.” (Hardy 1993). This may spurs our attention to Heidegger’s central idea that all things must gear to humanism, a noble ideal, not idea. Hardy may have no problem with Heidegger on humanism he sees art and science different in substance but common in terms of the beautiful of human intellect, that like a painter and a poet, a mathematician is a maker of patterns (Hardy 1993). We tend to think of art as something beautiful, do we think theorems are beautiful or ugly? While the functions and idea of making patterns greatly differ from mathematics to poetry and painting, Hardy enjoys the fact that “the mathematician’s patterns must be beautiful. (Hardy 1993). I agree. Concerning the perseverance of the beauty of idea, Hardy finds that while the beauty of the idea of verbal pattern seems “hardly” affected by “poverty”, that of mathematics “lasts longer” (Hardy 1993), for instance the Pythagoras’s theorem or the ratio 66 in Babylon’s culture.

For Heidegger, that the system of number is the depth or essence of mathematics can be taught and comprehended according to different levels. But it goes against epistemology if one holds that mathematics could be formulated into logical equations. One of the great logicians of the 20th century Willard van Orman Quine poignantly shows that the “certainty” of mathematical propositions and proofs do not work with logic due to the concept/idea and doctrine of mathematics. Mathematical doctrine sees that mathematical proofs must stand on their own ground. (Quine 1969). In the same fashion, Wittgenstein, author of Foundations of Mathematics, cautions that Mathematical logic distorts mathematicians’ and philosophers’ thinking by charging: “The disastrous invasion of mathematics, by logic.”





More than half the title CES of Habermas vigorously investigates the communicative actions and evolutions in human society, abandoning the concreteness but limitation of grammar “pragmatic communication” in favor of pragmatic society. First, Habermas recognizes the significance of labor that already existed before the birth of language. His argument begins with Marxist Historical Materialism that sees the important role of labor in society. So, labor as a thing means the essence or the depth of working life, in terms of production and procreation, or the existence of human life, not that with Hominids.

a) Social communication requires pragmatic and continuous participation of all social members through mutual empathy;
b) The foundation of society constitutionally manifests that it includes all social members with their temporal and limited horizon, so that the production and society strongly complement each other; and
c) To help the social members understand the values of labor and social contracts against those who do not participate in political organizations supporting working force.

In principle, Habermas follows Marxist Historical Materialism, with one exception that he feels at odd with Marx’s concept of Superstructure. For Habermas, the Base (Infrastructure) supports the Superstructure. Therefore, the Superstructure only exists in a short period of state emergency that appears inherently for social evolution or transformation (my word). As such Habermas concludes the concept of the Superstructure cannot interpret the needs of society ontologically, but only provides leadership temporarily sanctioned by economic structure. Habermas quotes Karl Kautsky’s Marxism, Revolution & Democracy, to support his premise (Kautsky 1994) and I paraphrase it as follows:

“Only at the final analysis comes the play of legislature, the politic and the ideology that assume the higher role of the Superstructure over that of the Infrastructure economics. It follows that Marx’s concept of Infrastructure and Superstructure only makes sense at the new epoch of history.” (Walterstein1974).

Although Tractatus impresses us with terse and economic strategy to elucidate both language and thought by its doctrine in daily communication endorsing “justice” and “legitimation” it may sometimes either slowdown or halt discourse due to the deficit of vocabulary, admits Wittgenstein. As the result, we must employ gesture and body language that inherently enter the language game to warrant the continuity and smoothness of communication.

In Wittgenstein and Justices (1972), Pitkins picks up one instance from Plato’s Republic in which Socrates used Normative or Standard for the issue on Justice. Thrasymacus, a Sophist counter-argued that Justice must be based in experiences that go well with human way of life, similarly to the notion of Beauty and Truth. Then, Thrasymacus suggested that the notion of Justice should lie between Normative and Experience. To achieve the mid-point position for Justice, there needs to alter the definition or meaning of Justice suggests Habermas. To such arguments, Pitkins adds that such a mid-point for Justice should avoid arbitrary-ness accidently from either Socrates or Thrasymacus viewpoint. Although way of human life in terms of social communication includes grammar and custom, in reality it truly makes strong impact on rational thinking that bears on the representation of content and context of everyday communication topics.

Furthermore, communicative action, according to Dilthey, should make use of Hermeneutics strategy; namely the interpretation that clarifies life as it is, in terms of facticity, by participation, approaching, extension, and investigation. When connecting Hermeneutic approach to language and grammar, we should look into Ontological Reality and Other Essays by Quine (1969). In this volume Quine discusses facts or things in verbal propositions for better communication having two basic sentences:

a) Declarative sentence
b) Eternal sentence

Declarative sentence focusses on the meaning either TRUE or FALSE. However, if a declarative sentence gets a typical meaning, then the rule of TRUE or FALSE does not apply. A typical meaning depends on the verb’s cases and tenses, and also on pronouns and adverbs, including dates, person and place names.

Eternal sentence on the contrary is demonstrative and fixed; namely the TRUE or FALSE remains forever. Therefore, eternal sentence expounds the cognitive meanings, such as the conscious, the sensual, and the intuitive. As such to describe the accuracy of events, we should only consult the logical forms as but applicable guidelines. As for the eternal sentence, we should be able to see in it the conditional of the words and objects based on a language parameter.





We have learned so far that all types of communications – scholarly or non-academic – rely on verbal language for the acquisitions of meaning that clearly demonstrate linguistic ability and comprehensive ability. While art appears as the subject of discussion, its language, a dichotomy of form and content takes on no grammatical logic role as a means to the communicative vehicle for pragmatic purposes. However, visual language has proven that its significance to clarification and augmentation of picture of reality shows itself in discourse. Art gained by our recognition, inherently by its attraction and permeation to our sense, not meaning, has determined its presence in social communication action. Thus, conflicting and contradictory as it seems to be, we should look into art as a thing in communicative action. I have found Hegel’s remarks on the Aesthetics in Art (Vorlesungen über die Aesthetik) some idea worth thinking.

According to Hegel an artwork is a man’s product manifesting the spiritual of the artist in the process of making art. This idea reveals the reason that motivates man to make art because artwork reflects man’s higher needs for existential ambition of the most universal for all (Weltanschaugen) that signifies man’s belief and religious thinking, too. Why? It all begins with the fact that “man is a thinking consciousness”. Man pictures himself as any objects in front of him, as the spiritual (Geist/geistige). The ability of self-representation as such demonstrates man’s consciousness. Therefore, making art would mean to enable the consciousness manifest. It does not simply manifest an individual’s consciousness, it does so for man’s sake that the consciousness becomes the most universal for all, and ultimately for freedom. To manifest or to make one’s consciousness shown requires one’s courage of breaking the focus or appearance.

Once the confine evaporates man becomes enlightened so that man’s need of making art stands for man’s intellect, and whereby man realizes for himself he attains his “becoming-being”. For Hegel, to recognize and vitalize the inner feelings means to bring them back to the origin (Füsichseyn), and more importantly, it intuits the inner feelings. A work of art shows us the sense, not meaning. The experiences of it come from our sensuous sphere. Concerning experiences of every subject tells us the significance of education, whether by way of schooling or by way of self-teaching; hence the more intuited inner feelings, the richer the sensuous sphere.

In art what makes this happen argues Hegel, comes from the power (Bestimmung) of the work of art? Indeed, the power of the work of art does not come from heaven. The concrete nature of a work of art made by man greatly differs from that of nature, and by man’s education and experience each work stands for a case and some degree of creativity that probably escapes daily communication in which many subjects in sensuous sphere suffer distortions simply for the polarization of the rational and the emotional.

If we pay close attention to The Birth of Tragedy, we would understand Nietzsche’s ambition to get a complete knowledge of human being by the union of the Apollonian type and the Dionysian one. Furthermore, through man’s experience, man becomes conscious of his hidden conflicts, which are the roots of tragedy. To understand such conflicts by means of communication requires experience and education that we might ask for, but we might not succeed. Therefore, pragmatic communicative approach might just be too idealistic in reality.

In some case, communication by way of speech and writing needs illustrations, for instance a map. Many scientific essays of Einstein include diagrams or schematic drawings to augment comprehension. Newton’s Philosophiea Naturalis Principia Mathematica problems make use of all but the discipline of geometry - not calculus, one of Newton’s chief contributions, in fact some of Newton’s claims did not happen in the laboratory, asserts Einstein. This reminds us of Wittgenstein’s observation that we have to wait until having a proof in order to realize a false proposition. (Wittgenstein 1978).

The effective-ness or satisfaction of communicative action via verbal language needs help from visual language for both practical experience and education. We may skip the early traditional history of the book illumination established by the Book of Durrow and the Book of Kells in the seventh century and go directly to the Manuscript Painting of the fifteenth century where Limbourg Brothers, Pol, Jean, and Herman co-authored a series of wonderful works for the book entitled Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, 1413-1416, also known as the calendar pictures. January (picture 1) in which the duke presides over a New Year’s reception. As a magnanimous host he looks like a holy figure receiving the peasants to the table with plenty of food. The court setting is highly decorated with the sumptuousness and extravagance that are unmistakably the cultural custom details of the time and unequalled by verbal and written language. Paintings, in this case, not a mere eye-witness, provide the accuracy that is worth thousands of words.

Picture 1. Limbourg Brothers, January,
from Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, 1413-1416
Ink on vellum, 8.2/8” x 5.3/8”. Musée Condé, Chantilly.

Unlike the socio-political reality of January, Hieronymus’s center panel of Garden of Earthly Delights, 1505 – 1510, (picture 2) a mixture of fantasy and life, showcases the universal love by which all beings and races harmoniously co-exist. It looks uncanny to reality marred by distortions and depressions; the painting speaks for a model of the would-be paradise on earth. Any verbal description of such a theme would be inconceivable for it shall show no visual cues at all.

Picture 2. Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights, 1505-1510
Oil on canvas, center panel, 7’ 2.5/8” x 6’4.3/4”. Museo del Prado, Madrid

The Mughal artist Bichitr of the seventeenth century educates the audience at least of three points of historical relevancies. His Manuscript painting Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaykh to Kings (1615–1618) (picture 3) illustrates: a) within the traditional Muslim pictorial pattern and format, flat and decorative, symmetrical and calligraphic all characters obey linear perspective that demonstrates the make-believe three-dimension; b) the soft contour defines forms, weight and action to highlight the circumstance of anecdote; and c) picture of King James I of England based on the king portrait of the British painter John de Critz, a gift to King Jahangir. Other personalities depicted at the moment are the Turkish Sultan, and the artist Bichitr himself to show the sway of the traditional painting in the East, and the presence of artistic influences from the West. In sum, this is a testimony of positive politic and diplomacy, culture and art.

Picture 3. Bichitr, Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaykh to Kings,
ca. 1615 – 1618. Opaque watercolor on paper, 1’6.78” x 1’1”
Freer Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C.

The fourth instance coming from a street alley in the running-down section in down-town El Paso, TX audaciously and solitarily testifies the resilient, perseverant and unflagging voice from the street life, perhaps across the USA (picture 4).

Picture 4. Unknown artist, Untitled, ca. 2010-2012,
Oil on wall. Left section, 30’ x 9’. Downtown El Paso, Tx

We are and always are confronting the popular graffiti pattern making, the color, and interestingly linguistic-art interplay, not originated from some studios, but from public spaces where unknown and un-schooling artists exercise their thought. Over four decades, graffiti art, at the outset, mixed with vandalism seriously troubled the public’s eyes and mind. Slowly, its bearing or direction has revealed messages from the faceless individuals who live in the margin of society, but who deny to be invisible. The artistic quality of some graffiti works magnificently demonstrates skill and expression as it grows to maturity. We do not question about what kind of artists gets into the museums worldwide, but we may sometimes wonder if many artworks in public collection would match with some best pieces of street art.

If social communicative action only focuses and is based on dire (cautionary/indicative) grammatical logic, then verbal expressions only work for daily greetings and business transactions on shallow levels. In every moment of life in social context we see and perceive things as numbers, colors, shapes, sounds and movements, because life presents itself dynamically and kaleidoscopically not the frozen and isolated facticity. The use of visual language in communication has proven effectiveness in transmitting idea. In public education, some projects like the 60-Minute on television have made use of arts, not just visual art, to enhance the quality of subject and accessibility universally that cannot be denied.


Quynh Nguyen, Ph.D., Ed. D.
April 8, 2012


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