Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Lions & Bats

I do not understand why it is that Wittgenstein's remark, "If a lion could talk, we could not understand him" (from Philosophical Investigations) is so often quoted with ire (by writers on animal minds)*, and yet people gush forth with approval over Nagel's claim that it is impossible for us to know what it is like to be a bat. Often, both are cited without much, if any, understanding of the context of the respective remarks (which in both cases is not about animals). In Wittgenstein's case, I imagine that what has happened is that he has been associated (mistakenly) with some kind of behaviorism by whomever is quoting him; thus, whatever he says about animals must ipso facto be wrong, and cruel. Perhaps also: people don't understand how conditionals work.

* Apologies for not supplying particular examples here. This is something I've encountered several times, and perhaps if I try to work these thoughts into something, I'll go back and do the excavating...


  1. forms of life, man. forms of life.

  2. Exactly. And the sorts of uses of LW's remark that I have in mind never take note of that context (they just repeat the one line, presuming to know, I suppose, what LW was on about), and hold it up as an example of yet another philosopher expounding upon the mindlessness of animals.

    In a way, the student(s) I have who actually think that animals have their own languages that we do not understand, however implausible (or not) that view might be, have a better intuitive grasp of the point that LW was making. But perhaps people are offended by LW's remark because they think that if lions really could talk, we could understand them.

    The best reflection I've seen on LW's remark is in Vicki Hearne's Animal Happiness, entitled, "Wittgenstein's Lion." She's at least done her homework. (It's been awhile since I've read it.)

  3. I don’t know if it’s kosher to interrupt with an extended paragraph from a recent essay of mine on “Wittgenstein’s lion”, but it might fit in. I haven’t had any reaction from philosophers yet. It’s from a chapter in THOREAU’S SIGNIFICANCE AS A PHILOSOPHER”, ed. Furtak, et al, Fordham. I was browsing and caught your thoughts and thought I’d pass it on – Ed Mooney [see my Thoreau blog, mists on the rivers.]

    Wittgenstein announced without elaboration, “if a lion could speak we would not understand him”. This oracular pronouncement belongs with his picture of language at play within forms of life, an image meant to displace the picture of language as a deracinated propositional system. Wittgenstein assumes that we share too little life with a lion to understand him, were he to speak. We’re left with a picture, as if from a children’s book, of a speaking lion who can’t be understood. The image is meant to persuade largely on its own – and on our willingness to improvise stories, as if to a listening child, that might (or might not) give the image more resonance. If such a rapid picture-remark works, Wittgenstein will have left us in philosophical wonder (perhaps always lurked also by shadow and doubts). The remark is something like Kant’s myth of animals obedient to God. If we are annoyed by such images or story-fragments in philosophy’s sanctum, we will be left just plain exasperated: in Wittgenstein’s case, what in the world are lions doing there!

    Provoked by his gnomic remark, I’d add a trailer: “ If a lion could talk, we wouldn’t understand him much more than we already do!” This shift in the picture is a shift from a presumed lack of understanding across species to a plain (if partial) sufficiency of understanding. Thoreau can bound across snow with a fox because he understands it -- quite apart from speech. I understand my dog’s plea for a walk. We already understand the lion who (through instinct, as Kant would say) speaks, voices, gestures, roars: roars, “This turf is mine! Back off!” We bi-pedaled speaking-animals who read this page share ways of life with these felines, and so share understanding, in advance of what Wittgenstein conjures as a lion speaking and our failure to understand. Not unlike lions, we too protect our food and our cubs and occasionally bask in the sun. Some, like Thoreau, will bound after a fox. He enacts, thereby, mutual understanding across species.

    -- Ed Mooney,

  4. Ed:

    Thanks for that. Your "trailer" seems right on track to me.