Originally published jun 22, 2009
Not so long ago, The Name Inspector’s younger son got his first pair of shoes at Nordstrom. As a little lagniappe, he also got a plush toy named Nordy, whose head is shown on the right above. This is definitely The Name Inspector’s favorite plush toy inspired by a sketch by a famous philosopher of language.
Nordy is an ambiguous toy. Aside from the dot for an eye and the protuberances vaguely suggesting snouts and/or head-tops, it has no facial features. If you look at it one way, it seems like the bigger protuberance represents ears, and the smaller one a little bunny-ish nose. If you look at it another way, the bigger protuberance looks like a proboscis, and the littler one suggests the top of a head.
In other words, Nordy looks like a stylized version of Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit, pictured in the middle. Wittgenstein was interested in ambiguity and in the phenomenon of “seeing as”–what we experience when we first see the drawing “as a duck” and then see it “as a rabbit” (or vice-versa). What did he conclude from the duck-rabbit? Well, that’s not entirely clear. But the duck-rabbit is cute, right? Apparently some plush toy designer, perhaps a frustrated (or happy?) philosophy PhD unable to land an academic job, thought so.
Wittgenstein got the idea for his duck-rabbit from an American psychologist named Joseph Jastrow, who probably saw the picture at the left, which appeared in Harper’s Weekly in 1892. Harper’s, in turn, seems to have swiped it from a German publication called Fliegende Blätter. To learn more about the provenance of the duck-rabbit, take a look at John F. Kihlstrom’s page on the topic.