Thursday, March 9, 2017

Three lions

Kelly Jolley visited VMI yesterday and gave an inspiring talk on "Wittgenstein: Philosophy as Poetic Composition." I spent most of the talk trying not to sneeze and may have misunderstood, but here are some thoughts that grew out of his presentation.

Much of the talk was about the line, "If a lion could speak, we could not understand him." Usually I think this is taken as having to do with a distinction between word meaning and speaker meaning. So if a lion could speak we might understand his words, but would not understand him. Winch says that understanding another culture might be said to involve "understanding the inner maps according to which people of that culture navigate and the destinations they are trying to reach." If we think in these terms, then on a standard interpretation Wittgenstein is suggesting that we could never understand a lion's inner maps.

Wittgenstein makes a distinction between understanding him and understanding his sentences in TLP 6.54 ("My propositions elucidate by whoever understands me perceiving them in the end as nonsensical..."). On the other hand, in the conversations with Bouwsma, assuming that Bouwsma and my memory are reliable guides, he rejects the distinction between word meaning and speaker meaning. Or at least, if someone says something that I don't understand (e.g. in the middle of a conversation about politics he says that ham sandwiches are the most popular kind) then it is a mistake to say you know what he said but not why he said it. Because you don't know what "ham sandwiches are the most popular kind" means in this context. Perhaps it's a saying you don't know about violations of God's laws, in which case the point might be about politics after all, and the popularity of evil policies, the evils of populism, and so forth. You don't know. 

Kelly's suggestion, if I understood it, is that when we read Wittgenstein's famous lion line we think we understand it (and, indeed, we can't be sure we haven't understood it until we get to the end), and think it means we could understand the lion's words but not the lion. But if we think more slowly, more carefully, more expansively, we might realize that the idea, or perhaps I should say 'idea', of a speaking lion is actually not something we can form. What we cannot understand is neither the lion's words nor the lion himself but the being of a speaking lion. If it's a lion it does not speak, cannot speak. If it speaks, it isn't a lion. So you think you understand the sentence (as long as you don't think too much, i.e. enough, about it), but you really don't. It's like Augustine with time (“What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.”) The result, it seems to me, is not just the pleasure of encountering a clever puzzle. You also get a renewed appreciation for both lions and language, realities that resist combination and, so, are not just more of the same. The world is richer than that.

A second lion that this reminded me of is the one in the Lecture on Ethics. Wanting an example of a miracle, an event linked to what he calls his experience par excellence, namely that of wondering at the existence of the world, Wittgenstein says: "Take the case that one of you suddenly grew a lion's head and he began to roar. Certainly that would be as extraordinary a thing as I can imagine." This would be very unusual, obviously. But the example is stranger than that, I think. Because in what sense could there be a person with the head of a lion? It seems easy enough to imagine. But would this being live the life of a person or that of a lion? If it lived as a lion would its body still be human? Well, say what you choose, etc., but it's worth thinking a bit before making your choice. If the lion tries to run and bring down a gazelle with its claws, only to find itself jogging on two legs and flailing uselessly with fingers, is it a human with a lion's head, or more a badly disabled lion? And if it lives as a human, isn't the head of the body that lives this life at least in some sense thereby a human head, albeit a very badly formed one? Might the lion head try to eat the human body? Or the human body attack the lion head when it sleeps? In that case there is not really one being but two, at war with one another. I don't think we can really comprehend the idea of a human being with a lion's head. It is inconceivable, not just extraordinary.

The third lion is an imaginary one. The motto of the Tractatus is the following quotation from Ferdinand Kürnberger: “…and whatever a man knows, whatever is not mere rumbling and roaring that he has heard, can be said in three words.” The verbs rauschen and brausen don't seem right for lions, but they do mean noise, and not only might a 'speaking lion' and a 'person with a lion's head' produce nothing but noise, but in fact the words 'speaking lion' and 'person with a lion's head' seem to be little more than noise, since we can't (as far as I can see) really imagine anything in connection with them. Or rather, we can't imagine what we might seem to want to imagine. It's easy enough to picture a cartoon or Egyptian god. But this is likely to be only two-dimensional. If we try to imagine a four-dimensional version, living through time, we lose either the lion aspect or the human, linguistic aspect. This loss, though, feels like a gain. All we lose is a fantasy, and what we gain is a clearer, cleaner, refreshed understanding of reality.       


  1. was the talk recorded?

    1. ah that's too bad, thanks for the reporting/reflecting on it.

  2. Why would we understand the lion's words? I.e., you set out three interpretations of the lion line:

    (1) We would not understand the meaning of the lion's utterances.

    (2) We would not understand the lion himself.

    (3) We would not understand the "being" or the idea (or the 'idea') of a speaking lion.

    I've always understood the lion line in way (1). I don't see any reason to think this wasn't what Wittgenstein meant. Indeed, this reading still seems to me to be by far the winner. As I understand it, the underlying thoughts are that understanding a language presupposes a form of life. This idea is then dramatized, on interpretation (1), by considering what would be the case if a lion could speak. What is being held fixed in the intended evaluation of the counterfactual 'If a lion could speak, we could not understand him' is that a lion's form of life is quite different from a human's, so the counterfactual makes the point that understanding a language presupposes a form of life and different forms of life would lead to different language games, which may be unintelligible to us.

    This, I think, fits in a broad way with Wittgenstein's interest in considering alternative concepts and modes of symbolism (which may have been natural in different circumstances) as a way of resolving philosophical problems. Wittgenstein does a lot of detailed work to try to get us to consider how language might go in other circumstances. (E.g. - from memory, it was something like this - when he considers how if we only saw red on the tips of green things sometimes, nothing would be more natural than to consider red as a kind of degenerate green. The lion line, to me, seems to be making the point that such thought experiments - where we manage, using our powers to imagination, to think out a different symbolism we could in principle understand - probably represent only relatively minor deviations from us in possible language space.

    1. That might be the right interpretation. As I remember it the line sits alone on the page, so there's little context to determine its meaning or Wittgenstein's aim in writing it. And I've always connected it with his remarks about not understanding English women, who obviously are not inconceivable in the way I've suggested a talking lion might be.

      On the other hand, I do think that a speaking lion is much harder to conceive of than I had previously realized. In fact it seems inconceivable. But I don't know how to settle a) whether it really is, or b) whether that was Wittgenstein's point, or part of it.

  3. Having attended Kelly's delightful talk, and read through Duncan's and Tristan's comments here, I am still inclined to agree with Tristan's first reading, which, Kelly assured me after the talk, is still the traditional reading (as depicted, for example, in Derk Jarman's film). If nothing else, Kelly's fanciful "man in a lion suit" reading reminded me of this funny story, and in a more serious way, made me appreciate that we shoud probably never feel that we've fully understood even the most simple-looking things that Wittgenstein said.

    Indeed, I found myself at the end of Kelly's lecture wishing that he would continue for a few more hours, expanding on his idea of W.'s writing as poetic composition. For a non-philosopher like me, it is the manner which W. presents his arguments -- especially the straightforward, non-technical discussions in the Investigations -- that makes him such a forceful thinker.

    For example: I think that most philosophers of mind would characterize the opening "Slab" passage of the P.I. as a functionalist alternative to the classical (Fregean, compositionalist) view of language and grammar. (Indeed, I can recall at least one philosopher waving off the passage with "Oh, well, okay, that's just functionalism.")

    Someone like me, on the other hand, trained in Chomskyan linguistics (which borrowed heavily from Frege and Russel's analytical method), would find the "Slab" passage much more compelling for the direct way in which it shows, rather than tells, how language functions in a concrete (perhaps literally concrete!) setting: Slab! does not "mean" Bring me a slab! via some cryptic syntactic transformation or the like; it's meaning is manifest in the actions that take place after the foreman says it ("Nothing is hidden").

    Reading this passage (and many others in the P.I. and Blue and Brown Books), I get something of the same feeling I get reading the poems of Wallace Stevens: instead of "X is really a symbol for Y", you get a direct experience of how something (the jar in Tennessee; the drawer with the missing knobs) works in its immediate surroundings -- with an extraordinary emotional effect.

    So, I hope that Kelly will return and expand on the poetics theme: to me, a novel and compelling insight that deserves to be heard.

  4. "We should probably never feel that we've fully understood even the most simple-looking things that Wittgenstein said." I agree, and I agree that Kelly offered a novel and compelling insight on the poetics theme. It would have been nice to have him expand on this for a few more hours (I agree again), but then it is characteristic of Kelly's thinking that I find it expanding on its own in my mind for hours, if not days, afterwards.