Research Seminars

Research seminars

"If a Lion Could Speak": Wittgenstein and Alien Forms of Life

Alexander Carter (University of Cambridge) 

Wednesday 6th March 2019

According to Wittgenstein, that which makes it possible for us to understand (or misunderstand) other human beings makes it impossible for us to understand (or misunderstand) other non-human beings. Crucially, this barrier to understanding is not language per se—hence Wittgenstein’s pronouncement that ‘if a lion could speak, we could not understand him.’ Rather, our inability to understand the lion lies in its living an alien ‘form of life’. 

‘Wittgenstein’s lion’ therefore raises a number important questions about i) the co-dependence of language and thought, ii) the extent to which all languages are essentially human and iii) the possibility of creating an artificial intelligence. These questions form the basis of my wider research into Wittgenstein’s later philosophy and his relevance to contemporary, philosophical debates. 

However, my aim in this brief talk will be to consider the significance of ‘Wittgenstein’s lion’ in the context of the blockbuster film Arrival. Just how much of our reality is shaped by the language we use? To what extent are the aliens (mis)understood? And does the film do more than act as an allegory for human misunderstanding and disagreement?