A Note on Talking Lions And Cavell

A quick thought.  Recall Cavell’s wonderful description of Wittgenstein’s famous line that “if a lion could talk we could not understand him”(II, pg. 223).  He describes the line as “penetrating past assessment ” to “become part of the sensibility from which assessment proceeds”.  If it does less than that, he concludes, the line is “philosophically useless”.  Shouldn’t we describe one of Cavell’s most famous lines, a question, in the same way, mutatis mutandis?

Can philosophy become literature and still know itself?

11 responses

  1. This brought to mind a couple of passages Cavell writes in The World Viewed (p. 98) and Pursuits of Happiness (p. 238) about Goddard’s Breathless. When the hero says to his beloved, “There is no unhappy love”, “he is not, as some may be, leaving the matter open to a question, to evidence; for him it is knowledge a priori; you may say a definition”.

    There’s the same movement past assessment…

    From there, considering the question of Cavell’s you quote, what he goes on to say in that paragraph of Pursuits of Happiness jumps out at me (us?): “The truths of arithmetic [philosophy?] cannot be more certain than [literature] that Hamlet had a doublet and wore it all unbraced.”

  2. i’ve always hated that line about the lion, though i’m not sure why. it might have something to do with two things in combination: it’s the sort of line that people who write on wittgenstein quote all the time as if it were an explanation or elucidation of something else (i’m talking particularly of the less good work, or less good moments of it), even though when they do so it hardly seems to explain anything, either about the phenomena at hand or about what wittgenstein thinks; and it seems like too great of a risk, or like a failed experiment on wittgenstein’s part, to have given the line like that, so inscrutable and too prone to misuse.

    (kind of like when dylan fans say that ‘rainy day women’ is a perfectly fine song but sometimes they kind of wish it weren’t there so that so many casual dylan listeners couldn’t take it the wrong way.)

    • While I guess I can’t say that I hate the line, I share your sense of its riskiness. (It is in part my sense of a similar riskiness in Cavell’s line that led me to put them together.) Other than Cavell’s comments on it, my favorite comments are Virgil Aldrich’s in his (now, unfortunately, mostly forgotten) “What is it like to be a man?”.

      I take the lion line to manifest Wittgenstein’s ambition for his philosophical writing, the depth of engagement he seeks with his reader, the upheaval of sensibility in the reader he took to be necessary to understanding what he most wants to say. But I can easily enough imagine someone appalled by such ambition, sickened by what Wittgenstein seeks–someone who accuses Wittgenstein of abandoning the very canons of philosophical fair play in favor of a prophet’s mantle.

  3. The lion remark is very quotable, perhaps too quotable. But it’s from the unfinished part of the book, so it seems unfair to criticize it too much.

    Speaking of passages it brings to mind, here are three (sort of):

    1. In the Lecture on Ethics Wittgenstein uses the example of someone in the audience suddenly growing a lion’s head and roaring. A talking lion would be miraculous in the same sense, I think (the lecture example is meant to be a miracle, as I recall). So the example might make us think of miracles and the extent to which we can make sense of them. Then perhaps also of what kind of sense religion makes, and whether we can understand God.

    2. More indirectly (or just fancifully), it reminds me a little of Blake’s poem about the “tyger,” in which he asks what immortal hand or eye could frame its fearful symmetry. Blake, of course, would say it was God that framed the tiger. Does the tiger somehow speak God’s nature? Can we understand it as doing so?

    3. Then there are Wittgenstein’s various claims about his not being understood. Can we understand him? What might doing so take? Didn’t he think that he could not understand English women and Chinese people? If he did (and I think he did), is this sexist or even racist of him, or quite the reverse? Maybe (probably) those are the wrong terms to use here, but I think Wittgenstein took otherness seriously and we probably won’t understand him if we just take it for granted that of course we can understand any and all speakers or languages. His statement about the lion should perhaps be taken as a question, or as an invitation to ask questions, or to try to think ourselves into a lion, as a writer of literature might. And Cavell’s question might be taken as a statement, or at least a questioning, an ongoing act or attitude, rather than something that requires a Yes or a No.

    • Good thoughts all. I don’t know what to say about them, but I can say that I agree with your comment about Cavell’s question, that it might be taken as something that does not require a Yes or a No. That too is part of why I compared it to the lion line. I read Cavell’s question as an attempt to inform or create a sensibility from which assessment of philosophy or literature proceeds, a sensibility that is, we might say, interrogative in its shape.

  4. Vicki Hearne (animal trainer, poet, fan of Cavell) wrote an essay about Wittgenstein’s Lion which appears in her collection Animal Happiness. (I can’t recall what she says, but Hearne is good.) It is probably worth checking out. (I might have a pdf of it that I can send you.)

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