[lit-ideas] Re: Wittgenstein's Lion
- From: Donal McEvoy <donalmcevoyuk@xxxxxxxxxxx>
- To: "lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx" <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Tue, 9 Jun 2015 11:50:07 +0000 (UTC)
If a lion could talk, we could not understand him. "Wenn ein Löwe sprechen
könnte, wir könnten ihn nicht verstehen.">
This thought is a kind of aphorism, and its sense does not get clearer by
analysing it in terms of logical components or 'logical form' - for at that
'grammatical' level it is straightforward enough.
What is not straightforward is that it seems paradoxical: for surely if we can
understand 'what is spoken' then we can understand 'what is spoken' no matter
who the speaker is? Why would what 'what is spoken' be understandable if said
by a fellow human but not understandable if said by a lion?
The answer is that Wittgenstein is pointing to a particular sense of
"understanding", which as Adriano notes is connected to Wittgenstein's view
that "understanding" arises in connection with "forms of life".
I would add that the key to this sense of "understanding" is the "limits of
language": in posts long ago, for example, I tried to explain how the very
opening of PI is trying to show that it is beyond the "limits of language" to
explain even the naming-relation [i.e. using words to name 'objects'], and to
show that our learning of and use of the naming-relation is not only full of
complexity [not reducible to simple characteristics of words and objects and
simple correlations] but is always something that goes beyond merely 'what is
said'. To appreciate that the sense of language always goes beyond 'what is
said' may be to begin to appreciate that language 'never says its own sense',
and to appreciate that may be to begin to appreciate that the sense of language
can never be 'said' but only shown. And this is Wittgenstein's fundamental
point of view, a view that he thinks can itself be shown.
A creature with a different "form of life", one lacking "objects" of the kind
we identify, might never be able to grasp the sense of the naming-relation.
Conversely, elsewhere I outlined how "brick" and "slab" might be used by
builders not as names but as forms of prayer or remembrance, and this
difference would not be a difference in 'what is said' but a difference in
To understand Wittgenstein properly we need to apply Wittgenstein's
understanding of language to his own use of language (Wittgenstein was
pessimistic that his own use of language would be adequate to show his
understanding of language, so if we didn't share his understanding of language
we would be apt to miss the sense of his writing).
The "lion" 'aphorism' is a good example. It is also an example where
Wittgenstein, typically, does not go out of his way to make explicit how the
sense of the 'aphorism' functions.
For there is another level of understanding which the aphorism is not denying -
the words "Look behind you" are, at this level, understandable whether said by
a human or a lion. Does this "refute" or falsify the 'aphorism' - that we can
conceive a counter-example by way of this kind of understanding? No. Aphorisms
do not function - do not have 'sense' - that leaves them exposed to this kind
of falsification: this is not because of their logical form but because of
their 'use'. We use 'Too many cooks spoil the broth', but the truth this
expresses is not falsified by creating a situation where many cooks made an
unspoilt broth. We use 'Many hands make light work', but the truth this
expresses is not falsified by creating a situation where many hands failed to
make light work. These last two aphorisms express opposed tendencies of
thought, and in ordinary life it is a question of judgment whether either
aphorism applies - i.e. whether we have a 'too many cooks' situation or a 'many
hands make light work' situation: but situations where either aphorism is apt
are not falsifiers of the opposed aphorism.
This applies to the lion-aphorism: a situation where we could conceive
understanding a talking lion does not falsify the truth of the aphorism, which
is to 'point us' to situations where we could not. Consider a lion in the wild
that, apparently randomly, emitted sounds that corresponded to phrases in our
own language: the lion would be akin to the famous lyrebird (which mimics heard
sounds). If a lyrebird mimicked overheard tourists by saying "Take a photo" we
would understand that as mere mimicry: we could not, given the lyrebird's "form
of life" etc., understand the sense of those words as expressing the sense they
have when used by humans - and we would know that attributing their human sense
to the lyrebird would be a mistake. In the case of the lyrebird we have a
mechanism of mimickry to explain the utterance, but without this we might make
no sense at all of why the lyrebird squawks "Take a photo". A lion in the wild
roaring "Take a photo" might render us merely astonished - we would not,
without much more ado, be able to understand this "Take a photo" as language.
We would (in this sense) not be able to understand its sense.
This is the kind of thing the lion-aphorism is getting at. It is all of a piece
with the underlying theme of PI that language 'never says its own sense', and
that the sense of language can only be shown. Here Wittgenstein uses aphoristic
language to show his POV: for the sense of an aphorism, as above, is not
something said by the aphorism but is something shown when we examine how we
On Monday, 8 June 2015, 23:12, Omar Kusturica <omarkusto@xxxxxxxxx> wrote:
Actually I was worried that JL would point out that some 'logicians' proposed
to exclude the subjunctive form from the treatment of material implication. I
had a sort of a reply to that, but since JL did not bring it up there is no
need to waste ammunition. :P
Word-play with 'could', 'would' and the like can safely be left to the
Griceans, a set of which I am not a member.
On Mon, Jun 8, 2015 at 11:22 PM, Redacted sender Jlsperanza@xxxxxxx for DMARC
If a lion could talk, we could not understand him. "Wenn ein Löwe sprechen
könnte, wir könnten ihn nicht verstehen."
O. K.: "Seems to be a subjunctive. In the traditional treatment of
material implication, it would seem that 'if p, q' is considered true whenever
is false. (Lions don't appear to speak.) However, I am rather inclined to
think that the truth value of 'if p, q' is indeterminate when p is false.
[I]t's interesting that people cite such a wild speculation as if it were
Well, it's complicated. While a treatment with the horseshoe (p ⊃ q) seems
a good start, the occurrence of 'could' (twice, in the protasis and the
apodosis) brings a 'dispositional' element.
Popper might have a word or two to say on this, since I believe one issue
his opponents (the verificationists) had at one time was with the analysis
of counterfactuals involving dispositions (which were used by scientists,
such as 'fragile').
Oddly, as Geary might suggest, there is room for variations here.
While (majestic) we could not understand a lion, if he could talk, an
inverse scenario seems plausible. As Geary would put it: "If I roar to a lion,
he might understand me --". The implicature: "If Speranza roars to a lion,
the lion might understand him -- and only too well."
--- where 'too well' implicates, further, 'and he might take further
Note that while the cognate for English 'if' is 'ob', Witters prefers
'wenn', which in Scots is "when", pronounced 'hwen' -- hardly your
common-or-garden logicians' horseshoe.
Note that Witters (and his translator) use 'could' which is cognate with
'can' and does with a Scots-Northern English variant of 'know' (as in "Do you
ken John Peele" -- "a tune that everybody in Cumberland knows", as Rupert
Brooke used to say. So it might well be that the lion COULD talk but WOULD
not. The use of the English modal 'might' might be preferable, even if also
dispositional ("right is might, and might is right" -- Hobbes). "If a lion
might talk, we might NOT understand him". While Witters uses 'sprechen',
which is obviously cognate with 'speak' (the Anglo-Saxons disliked the
intrusive 'r'), the use of 'talk' may trigger different implicatures, as it is
cognate with 'tell' (with a replicative suffix -- cfr. "The language of
flowers", or "Say it with flowers" -- 'floral dictiveness').
KEYWORDS: ETHOLOGY, animal communication, Wittgenstein, Androcles,
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