Wittgenstein and Speaking Lions

This is the 1,001st post at the NonSequitur.  I failed to note the 1,000th posting, the last one.  I was more excited about the post.  Regardless, Colin and John have done a great job with the blog, and I'm really pleased to have been brought in.  And in honor of the event of passing the 1000 post mark, I want to pose the question: can a joke work as a counter-example?  Here's a test-case.

Ludwig Wittgenstein was a philosopher, one that did his most influential later work in the aphoristic style.  Asking questions, putting things in a cute way, and so on.  He made many of his points, really, with lines that could pass for jokes. One of the core commitments of Wittgenstein's system was that to speak a language, you have to share a form of life with others who speak the same language. To illustrate this commitment, he has the enigmatic-oracular line:

If a lion could speak, we could not understand him (PI: p.223)

Again, the thought seems to be that since a lion doesn't share our form of life, its language would be inaccessible to us. 

Now, I'm not so sure about Wittgenstein's point, simply on the reason that if we're able to recognize that the lion is speaking a language, then we must be capable of having at least a decent grasp of what he's talking about.  That is, a necessary condition for attributing to X the capacity to speak a language is that you've some evidence that the sounds X is uttering are semantically contentful and also what those contents are.  (Or at least that you know that they are contentful and you could find out what those contents are.)

But I want to play Wittgenstein's game of making points instead of with straight argument, but with aphoristic style.  And so, here's my proposed counter-example (in the form of a joke):

So a lion walks into a bar…  He sidles up to the juke box and selects a Led Zepppelin song.  He then plays a round of darts.  Then he goes up to the bar, and he says to the bartender: "Wittgenstein wouldn't get this joke."

Should someone committed to Wittgenstein's philosophy of language be troubled by this joke?  Is it funny, regardless?  What are the consequences?

7 thoughts on “Wittgenstein and Speaking Lions”

  1. Reminded me of something I heard on TV a little while back: A priest, a hooker and a cop walk into a bar. The bartender looks up and says, "what is this, a joke?"
    An aphorism, while not an argument, is a technique which can highlight presuppositions and thus serve as both a stepping stone to the construction of an argument but also as a warning sign to potential fallacies: lines of circular reasoning, complex questions whose answers we consider pat, etc. A primary function of formal logic in inquiry is to enable us to ask better questions; insofar, there is an analogy with good aphorisms.

  2. Hi Gary,
    That seems right — that aphorisms aren't arguments.  At best, they are incomplete arguments or enthymemes. That's one reason why I'm always more than just a little flummoxed when someone refers to Wittgenstein's "Private Language Argument."  I don't know what the first premise is.  Regardless, the question is (especially in light of the fact that Wittgenstein makes his case with aphorisms) whether a joke gets to be a fair rebuttal. 

  3. Congratulations on the milestone! 
    "Can a joke work as a counter-example?"  Sure, although whether a specific joke does or not is another question.
    This may be far off your point, but in your current joke, the punchline depends on outside knowledge and not the actual set-up (the audience must know the Wittgenstein line and have some understanding of it).  It also hinges on meta-narrative – which is fine, if a matter of taste – but you're asking for it in two places – the lion says the joke's a joke, and the set-up is really superfluous pretense.  You're aiming at a very narrow audience as a result, although this blog is probably that.  But what if you made your joke the second or (even better) third in a series?  For instance:
    #1 – Wittgenstein sits in deep thought, and says, "What can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence."  The bartender says, "That's great, buddy, but I asked if you were ordering a beer or not." 
    #2 – Wittgenstein walks into a bar, and orders a Lowenbrau.  He looks at the label, and sighs, "If a lion could speak, we could not understand him."  The bartender says, "Is that supposed to be funny, or just deep?"
    #3 – A lion walks into a bar.  He sidles up to the juke box and selects a Led Zepppelin song.  He then plays a round of darts.  Then he goes up to the bar, and says to the bartender in a deep, clear voice: "Wittgenstein wouldn't get this joke."
    Hey, feel free to improve on any of that.  Satre certainly had plenty of musings on alcohol, although I always liked the Monty Python Bruces' philosophers song. Congratulations again on post #1000!

  4. "Now, I'm not so sure about Wittgenstein's point, simply on the reason that if we're able to recognize that the lion is speaking a language, then we must be capable of having at least a decent grasp of what he's talking about."

    I think I've always interpreted that quote a little differently. I always assumed, perhaps wrongly, that Wittgenstein meant that the lion would be speaking our particular language, rather than some hypothetical lion language. The form would be recognizable, but not the meaning, because the lion's thought processes are so far removed from ours. I never considered it a translation problem, although perhaps the point remains the same whether we're translating the lion's words into English or the lion is speaking in English.
    We tend to anthropomorphize every living thing we encounter. If we're trying to understand what it's like to be a lion, and we begin by imagining what a lion might say to us if it could speak, then we've already set off on the wrong path. Everything that follows will a projection of ourselves, and we'll completely fail to understand the lion. I think Stanislaw Lem wrote entire novels based on this idea. Solaris, His Master's Voice and The Invincible are the ones that I've read and would recommend.

  5. I would strongly disagree with Wittgenstein: it is scarcely possible to misunderstand the lion since the whole worry about "projecting ourselves" is based on the false claim that doing so lacks legitimacy. There is a specious philosophy of mind at work here (one of those hidden presuppositions that leads to circular reasoning &/or complex questions) that assumes our minds are magically locked away from the world in a manner that renders our organic inter-relatedness with the world entirely moot, despite the depth and intimacy of that inter-relatedness.
    We can scarcely fail to understand the lion now; language would not render the lion more obtuse. What makes the lion so understandable already is the intimacy of its oganic embeddedness — which we share. Language cannot render that embeddedness moot without rendering the organism that employs that language extinct. This is the first fact about any language using entity: organic reality comes first.
    So the only way a language user could be genuinely incomprehensible to us is if their organic reality was irreducibly alien to our own — high-energy plasma beings living in the Crab Nebula (if there are such) might well qualify. But any being that is based on carbon chemistry already has so much more in common with us than it could possibly have different that, while translation might be horrendously difficult in practice, I submit it would be necesssarily possible — Oy! Kripke frames! — as a matter of physical fact.

  6. I had this conversation today, and afterwards, I found this website and thought someone may appreciate it.

    Me: There seem to be words I know but can’t actually define. My wife asked me what “verve” meant yesterday. I can demonstrate it, but I could not come up with words to describe it. I finally had to look it up.

    A Friend: There’s a solid Wittgenstein joke in there somewhere, but my uncaffeinated brain can’t quite get there.

    Me: I think there are two problems with Wittgenstein jokes. The first is that the jokes exist, but it can’t be told in any known language. The second is that, not only does everyone else look at you funny when you get the joke, but they don’t even understand that it was a joke in the first place, so they are really confused at why you are laughing. Of course, their confusion only makes it funnier, and then you are laughing too hard to have any chance of explaining it to them. And, should you somehow manage to get them to actually understand Wittgenstein (which of course is impossible due to language anyway), they will be too confused to actually find the joke funny, which just makes it funnier, and so forth. It’s a never ending circle.

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