Tuesday, 12 May 2015

If a lion could talk...

I am delighted to see this issue of Existential Comics doesn’t assume, as so often by others, that Wittgenstein’s quip about the lion suggests that we would not be able to interpret the lion’s speech.  

This line complements the last line in the Tractatus as the quotations all the participants on that fine 1980-90s radio 4 show Stop the Week knew. (And it really was an excellent programme, an excellent use of 30 minutes of the radio. I recall – dimly albeit – a good 15 minute discussion of the worth of fish knives, the vague recollection of which sometimes makes me wonder now whether I ought to buy some. My partner’s family deployed them with due solemnity for fish fingers and I think that they were right so to do.) But typically the assumption is made that it is a kind of exception to a broadly Davidsonian view. The lion really is speaking, is in the space of reasons, but is somehow inaccessible to interpretation.  

It seems, from the context, that Wittgenstein’s comment is more subtle and helps to flag some of the range of meaning that attaches to ‘understand’. It is worth noting what comes before the famous line. We can fail to understand, not because we cannot grasp their meanings, (whether or not for Mulhallian reasons one wants to rejects the word ‘interpretation’ for this), but because we cannot find our feet with them.

We also say of some people that they are transparent to us. It is, however, important as regards this observation that one human being can be a complete enigma to another. We learn this when we come into a strange country with entirely strange traditions; and, what is more, even given a mastery of the country's language. We do not understand the people. (And not because of not knowing what they are saying to themselves.) We cannot find our feet with them. 
“I cannot know what is going on in him” is above all a picture. It is the convincing expression of a conviction. It does not give the reasons for the conviction. They are riot readily accessible.  
If a lion could talk, we could not understand him. [Wittgenstein 1953: 223]

Well I hope that this is what the comic strip is flagging rather than the fact that the lion is actually Frege.

((I have no doubts, given the immediately preceding comment by Wittgenstein. There is a nice, heavy Travisian atmosphere to the scene.))