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Friday, 14 March 2014

Abstract: "“If a lion could talk...” Wittgenstein and Uexküllian phenomenology"

On February 28th I submitted the abstract below to the organisers of the 5th Symposium of the Nordic Wittgenstein Society, "Wittgenstein and Phenomenology", which is to be held at University of Stavanger May 30-31st.

“If a lion could talk…” Wittgenstein and Uexküllian phenomenology

By Morten Tønnessen
Associate professor in philosophy at University of Stavanger’s Department of health studies
“If a lion could talk,” Wittgenstein (1986 [1953]: 223) famously wrote, “we could not understand him.” Wittgenstein’s enigma does not appear to have been meant to address topics of animal communication – even though he does claim (ibid, 226) that “[w]hat has to be accepted, the given, is—so one could say—forms of life.” 

Elsewhere in PI Wittgenstein (ibid, remark 25) actually addresses the question of whether animals have language (emphasis added):
It is sometimes said that animals do not talk because they lack the mental capacity. And this means: “they do not think, and that is why they do not talk.” But—they simply do not talk. Or to put it better: they do not use language—if we except the most primitive forms of language.—Commanding, questioning, recounting, chatting, are as much a part of our natural history as walking, eating, drinking, playing. 

While most traditional forms of phenomenology take for granted that the human lifeworld is and should be the dominant, if not the sole, object of study for phenomenology, Uexküllian phenomenology, built on the Umwelt theory of biologist Jakob von Uexküll (1864-1944) (cf. Uexküll 2010), is different. In sharp contrast, Uexküllian phenomenology is “characterized not least by an assumption of the (in the realm of life) universal existence of a genuine first person perspective, i.e., of experienced worlds” (Tønnessen 2011: 327). For the ethologist as well as for the zookeeper, Wittgenstein’s statement that we would not be able to understand a lion’s language is nonsensical – since understanding animals and their behaviour and mindset is exactly what good ethologists and zookeepers do. In a similar manner, the Uexküllian phenomenologist realizes that all animals have their own lifeworlds (or Umwelten, in Uexküll’s terminology), which are just as meaningful to them as our human lifeworld is to us. Whether or not instances of animal communication are nominally branded as instances of language is here not decisive – more interesting is to what extent human-animal understanding is possible. 

In this presentation I will recount Wittgenstein’s statement and its context, explain how the perspective of Uexküllian phenomenology makes the statement sound nonsensical, and refer to indications of acknowledgement of the existence of other-than-human lifeworlds in the work of Husserl and Mearleau-Ponty respectively.

Acknowledgement: This work has been carried out thanks to the support of the research project Animals in Changing Environments: Cultural Mediation and Semiotic Analysis (EEA Norway Grants/Norway Financial Mechanism 2009-2014 under project contract no. EMP151).

Tønnessen, Morten 2011. Semiotics of Being and Uexküllian Phenomenology. Pp. 327–340 in Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka (ed.): Phenomenology/Ontopoiesis Retrieving Geo-Cosmic Horizons of Antiquity (= Analecta Husserliana CX/110). Dordrecht: Springer.
Uexküll, Jakob von 2010. A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans with a Theory of Meaning. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press. Transl. by J.D. O’Neil.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig 1986 [1953]. Philosophical Investigations. Transl. by G. E. M. Anscombe. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

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