Wittgenstein's Lion

On the overcoming of the anthropocentrically differentiation between Men and Animal via the very event of game-play

Essay, 2009

21 Pages, Grade: 1


A. Wittgenstein’s Lion speaks

Ludwig Wittgenstein is not without a reason one of the most influential thinkers for the Anglo-Saxon Philosophy. His fundamental important for analytic tradition is founded in his conviction that philosophy is sick of an irrational understanding and the usage of language. Within his famous early work Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus from 1921, which often encounter as his magnum opus, he claims that philosophy can only be healed by understanding that all philosophy has to be linguistic criticism. This influential idea marks together with Bertrand Russel’s work the “linguistic turn” in the history of philosophy. Wittgenstein understood this in a very radical way: It is the inner logic of language that mirrors the world. Everything in reality has a name and its place in the syntactic structures of sentences produces the arrangement of the world. There was no room for the unspeakable, summarized at the very last sentence of the Tractatus:

"What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence." (Wittgenstein 1969, P. 151)

But there is also a later Wittgenstein that shows itself to us in his other famous publication Philosophical Investigations from 1953. In the first part of this long-term work he revised his dogma of the syntax being absolute, and opened up the possibility for the unspeakable through the game of language. Within the second part of this book one can find a quote that appears to us as a fragment regarding deeply the question of the animal:

“If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.”[1] (Wittgenstein 1958, P. 223)

It is important for me to mention that this quote in localized after Wittgenstein’s “turn” that I just drafted, and thus it is legitimate to look at it from a viewpoint of synthesis. The goal of this paper is to throw a spotlight on this dark phrase regarding its meaning, possibility and actual consequence for the philosophical relationship between the animal and the human today. I will begin by posing the question of the meaning of this event. By analyzing the use of the metaphor of the lion I will ask for the content of his speech. Then I will ask for the possibility of the lion giving this speech after the death of truth. But before that, I will also raise the question of the ontological difference between animal and man. And finally I will conclude by raising the question in which form his words would appear to us today.

I. The very event of revolution

What has a lion to say if he could speak and why could we not understand him? I would like to answer this question by taking a closer look on the metaphor of the lion itself which is essential for the understanding of this quote. Why did Wittgenstein choose the lion to speak for all the animals, to be the kind of animal producing this miracle? Wittgenstein was way too erudite in philosophy in order to place the lion just for the impression that his image has for many people. The literal quality of his choice refers to Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche used the lion as the symbol for the second metamorphosis of the spirit in his poetical magnum opus Thus Spoke Zarathustra. It is remarkable that Nietzsche places it within the very first speech of Zarathustra that he gives after the prologue, leaving him his cave behind in order to share his wisdom with the world, beginning to teach the lesson of the “Superman” (“Übermensch”). But the lion is not the Superman.

In this speech, which is called “On the three metamorphoses”, Zarathustra speaks about three metamorphoses of the spirit: “how the spirit becomes a camel; and the camel, a lion; and the lion, finally, a child.” (Nietzsche 1995, P. 25) The camel stands for the spirit that is willed to suffer by caring heavy bags of altruism through the loneliest dessert, posing the question “What is difficult?” (Ibid. P. 26). Then, in the loneliest dessert, the second metamorphose occurs: The camel becomes the lion because of its will to conquer his freedom and to be the master of its own dessert. It is within the appearance of the lion where the death of god has his place in the development of the spirit for Nietzsche:

“Here he seeks out his last master: he wants to fight him and his last god; for ultimate victory he wants to fight with the great dragon.” (Ibid. P. 26)

But the lion is not the end of the development. What is really needed, according to Zarathustra, and what the lion cannot do, is to create new values. Only the child can do, which is the third metamorphoses of the spirit. As Zarathustra says:

“For the game of creation, my brothers, a sacred “Yes” is needed: the spirit now wills his own will, and he who had been lost to the world now conquers his own world.” (Ibid. P. 27)

This would be the state of the Superman who finally “conquers his own world” through a accepting the cruel principle of Eternal Return, which is the deepest thought Nietzsche has in this work. But the lion, which interests us in this context much more then the child, is not taking part in the process of Eternal Return. The lion is trapped within a paradox situation: He is neither master of his own world nor its slave, and thus has no place in the world, no own ontological home. He is just a moment in between this two ontological states: a pure act of will! It is the death of god, which means the destruction of all previous values, and thus the meaning of truth itself, that we are facing in the eyes of this animal speaking. And what does it speak in the eye of the storm of the murder? According to Zarathustra the lion just needs two words to express himself:

“I will”. (Ibid. P. 27)

What does this “I will” mean that we would not understand if the lion could speak, according to Wittgenstein? He does not say “I will conquer my freedom” or “I will be master of my dessert”. No, he just says “I will”, and it is within the “will” that his subjectivity is trapped in this paradox situation of not having any ontological grounding. The “I” is just a hard shadow of the past in the dusk of the future, and the question of free will does not arise for the lion. Sure it is its goal to be free, but not his current state. The real music is played by the pure will that shows itself in the lion. He is not a type or a token of the animal, he is the event itself. One could compare this radical singularity with a revolution. Every revolution is not about improving established values (like the camel would do) or establishing new values (like the child would do). Revolution is about to force the time to standstill – this even took plastically forms in history, for example during the Russian Revolution the communists used to shot on clocks.

It is well known that Nietzsche lived in a time of cultural eruption, and he knew Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s proclamation of the end of history very well. It was up to Hegel not only to pronounce the end of history in his speculative thinking, but also to be the first to pose the death of god; even though in a cryptically way in order to avoid censorship. Nietzsche was able to let the lion speak to us in his philosophical fiction that he dedicated for further generations to understand. But is there a possibility for the lion to speak after the death of god? Or in other words: Can the event repeat itself?

II. The speaking animal and his World in the age of posthistoire

In order not to fall into the trap of a too fast responded “No” to this question, I have to bring Rainer Maria Rilke’s idea of the animal beholding the Open from his poem “The Eighth Elegy” into discussion. The reason is that we need an idea of what gives the lion the possibility to kill his god in order to proceed without losing our main subject, the animal, in this question. Rilke begins his famous poem with the strong explanation:

“With all its eyes the animal world beholds the Open”. (Rilke: “The Eighth Elegy”)

The Open is specified as an area of being that is endless in possibilities. We humans have no access to the Open, because as Rilke says:

“What we have is World.” (Ibid.)

We have World means that we move in a finite area of being. It is the consciousness of the boundaries of our being that creates our notion of reality and opens up our existential viewpoints through which we are aware of our power in owning this World. I use the term “existentialism” for this notion, because it is the very point where the time gets access in the human consciousness. Or in the illuminating words of Novalis:

“Death is the Romanticizing principle of our life. Death is minus, life is plus. Life is strengthened through death.” (Novalis 1997, P. 154)


[1] I have to comment a disorder that occurs by the translation of G.E.M. Anscombe which I used here. The German original sentence says: “Wenn ein Löwe sprechen könnte, wir könnten ihn nicht verstehen.” Anscombe translated everything literally, except one word that is in my opinion the most important: “sprechen”. “Zu sprechen” means literally to “to speak”. It also means “to talk” in German but not in this sentence structure. The important difference is that “talk” is implying that it is more than just an expression what the lion gives. It implies a discussion between the lion and us. I belief the more adequate translation would be “to speak”. This would have been in terms of Wittgenstein because his statement does not necessarily have to imply that we would response in a way that would open up a discussion or “talk” with the lion. But the very message of the picture this sentence produces is that the lion speaks to us, and we are unable to understand him or even recognize it. This is the reason why I will furthermore use the term “speak” instead of “talk”.

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Wittgenstein's Lion
On the overcoming of the anthropocentrically differentiation between Men and Animal via the very event of game-play
Bard College  (Literatur, )
Wittgenstein's Lion
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Wittgenstein, Anthropocentrism, Animal, Nietzsche, Deleuze, Tier, Mensch, Human
Quote paper
Adam Rafinski (Author), 2009, Wittgenstein's Lion, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/129741


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