Previously, I posted here the abstract of the conference paper Kai and I will present in Taipei in December. After discussion, we decided not to write this paper. Instead, we have submitted the abstract below.

The Subtle Face: Understanding Without Translation []

Simon van Rysewyk (世新大學語言中心講師賴仕維)

Kai-Yuan Cheng (國立中正大學助理教授鄭凱元)


The human face is recognizably expressive. The expressiveness of the face is the felt quality of the life that impresses itself upon us in human facial expression and which the face thus seems to personify (Wierzbicka, 2000). We are impressed by what the face expresses, we let it impress itself upon us, and we convey this in phrases such as ‘That face has meaning’ or, ‘Now that is significant’ without meaning them as a preface to a ‘namely…’. What a facial expression means is understood by recognizing the expression, so to speak, in the face, not something extraneous to it. This introduces the intransitive concept of expression, developed in philosophy by Wittgenstein (1958, 1966). According to Wittgenstein, a facial expression is typically understood by a spontaneous act of recognition, and does not consist in surmising the state of mind revealed in it (e.g., a translation). On reflection, however, it seems that understanding facial expression is not confined to the intransitive conception (Scruton, 2004). For example, understanding sometimes means “I understand it like this“, with the phrase “like this” representing a translation of what I perceive in the face into a description. Letting a facial expression make an impression on us may therefore consist in a statement about the general state of mind of the impression.


Scruton, R. 2004. “Witgenstein and the Understanding of Music”. British Journal of Aesthetics 44 (1): 1-9.

Wierzbicka, A. 2000. “The semantics of human facial expressions”. Pragmatics and Cognition 8(1): 147-183.

Wittgenstein, L. 1958: Philosophical Investigations, 2nd edn. Oxford: Blackwell.

Wittgenstein, L. 1966: Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Freud and Religious Belief, ed. Cyril Barrett. Oxford: Blackwell.