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.