Wittgenstein's Dilemma

"If a lion could speak, we would not be able to understand what he said. Why do I say such a thing?... To imagine a language is to imagine a form of life. It's what we do and who we are that gives meaning to our words. I can't understand the lion's language, because I don't know what his world is like. How can I know the world a lion inhabits? Do I fail to understand him because I can't peer into his mind?" says Wittgenstein in Derek Jarman's movie Wittgenstein. (at which a student jokes: If we could understand him, I shouldn't think we'd have too much trouble with a lion!)

It makes me wonder that maybe the reason Wittgenstein's contemporaries struggled and failed to understand him was because they couldn't peer into his mind. How could they know the world which Wittgenstein inhabited? How could they know the life he lived, his phenomenology? I cannot help but feel that Wittgenstein's psychological perception of the human life was very different from an average person's perception. In the movie, W writes to Russell about his Tractatus "It combines logical symbolism with religious mysticism." But there is nothing in Tractatus about religious mysticism! In a letter he writes to Ludwig von Ficker "... my work consists of two parts: of the one which is here, and of everything which I have not written. And precisely this second part is the important one." [In the movie he confesses at a point "The most important part of my philosophy hasn’t been written. I can’t write it. It can never be written."] And the reason he gives is that his Tractatus draws a limit to the expression of thoughts, a limit to what can be said. Therefore, things like religion, mysticism, ethics, aesthetics cannot be discussed, not because they are nonsensical themselves, but because any statement expressing them would be. Later on in his life, when Wittgenstein developed the idea of language games, he began to see religion in the same fashion: a self-contained language-game, with its own self-referential concepts and discourse. However, I suggest, the real reason behind Wittgenstein's silence may be that he was simply unable to articulate the way he perceived the world. In the movie he says "Philosophers in the tradition of Descartes start from the lonely self, brooding over its private sensations. I want to overturn this centuries-old model. I want to start from our culture, our shared practical life together, and look at what we think and feel, and say it in these public terms." Perhaps Wittgenstein's real dilemma is that there are no public terms for his private sensations.


Komal said…
Descartes is way cooler than Wittgenstein ;).
stumblingmystic said…
I'm downloading this movie and will watch it and discuss it with you when we meet up next.
Alec Lindsay said…
If we wonder what a lion would say if he could speak we surely mean that we imagine him speaking our language and talking about our world. We do not imagine a lion language or a lion world. Perhaps only Wittgenstein, in most ways a brilliant man, would fail (or possibly pretend) not to understand this not uncommon idle speculation. What we expect from a talking lion is a view conditioned by an unusual point of view, one different from, but framed in terms of our own perceptions, not the unintelligible one of Wittgenstein's fancy :o)
I rather like the rest of the post about Wittgenstein's psychological perception of human life. It's making my head hurt.
Exactly but mysterious writing style adds to more misery of innocent minds!
pck said…
"Perhaps Wittgenstein's real dilemma is that there are no public terms for his private sensations."

This is precisely the core of W.'s private language argument(s). If one assigned a symbol, say "S", to some private sensation S, one could not possibly use "S" to "talk" about S, even to oneself, for there is no way to hold up and compare an experience E1 one is having now to a later experience E2 by using "S". There is no way to tell, with the aid of "S", whether E2 is (or is not) E1 again. We can say "I'm having the same pain in my shoulder as I had yesterday", but the sameness of the two pains is not adjudicated through the use of some internal symbolism, where E1 and E2 are related to one another by being referred to the same symbol "S". The ability to notice that E1=E2 is not predicated on or facilitated by a process involving symbolic representation. An "internal language which only I can understand" is logically impossible. Such a language would not be a language at all: It would lack the capabilities of designation and description, as it would have no sayable criteria of comparison. According to W., when we agree about experiences, we do not agree in language, but in "way of life", using objective (that is, publicly accessible and comparable, and thus sayable) criteria. These may involve, but are not limited to, the use of language, as language can only acquire meaning by association with certain practices. This is not to say that we have no "inner lives". It merely means that language does not, and cannot, acquire meaning by describing "the inner" - not even to myself. Some utterances are commonly used to signal sensations though, e.g. as it occurs when we say "ouch" if we feel a pain. The heterogeneous use and multiplicity of the functions of words is a major theme in W.'s later philosophy.

"Descartes is way cooler than Wittgenstein ;)."

W. cleared up many of the unfortunate messes Descartes left us with, such as mind/body dualism, which is the preeminent error in modern (scientifically inspired) thought about our cognitive abilities. Which is not to say that D. was stupid, he was, like Kant, a necessary station modern philosophy had to pass through.
pck said…
"However, I suggest, the real reason behind Wittgenstein's silence may be that he was simply unable to articulate the way he perceived the world."

No. The problem is not some personal shortcoming of W.'s abilities to express himself. As I have tried to lay out above, W. arrived at the conclusion that the concept of a "way" anyone perceives the world, as far as it is thought of some "inner" affair to which only the subject itself has access, is a confusion. The subject cannot possibly clarify (using language) what this "way" is supposed to be, not even to itself, since private languages cannot exist. Hence we cannot agree in language, but only in way of life, and the life of a lion is to far removed from our own sphere of experiences in order for us to make sense of it. (We see shades of this even in the differences between the lives of men and women, where the overlap in forms of life is obviously much greater than between lions and humans, but there are parts of a man's life a woman cannot possibly understand and vice versa.)

For further clarification, see for example here.