We also say of some people that they are transparent to us. It is, however, important as regards this observation that one human being can be a complete enigma to another. We learn this when we come into a strange county with entirely strange traditions; and, what is more, even given a mastery of the country’s language. We do not understand the people. (And not because of not knowing what they are saying to themselves.) We cannot find our feet with them.
‘I cannot know what is going on in him’ is above all a p ictu re. It is the convincing expression of a conviction. It does not give the reasons for the conviction. They are not readily accessible.
If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.1
In my final chapter I will bring my previous reading of Wittgenstein to bear on questions of community and difference. We often contrast the shared intelligibility between community members with the opacity of strangers. Wittgenstein appears to make such a contrast in the passage above when he describes the experience of moving to a foreign country. But the simple contrast is soon called into question. One may not understand the people, he says, even when one has mastered their language. Furthermore, this lack of understanding does not amount to an inability to grasp what they are saying to themselves. Being unable to know what is going on inside another may be how we ‘picture’ our lack of understanding, Wittgenstein says, but it cannot explain what it is to not understand. In an effort to describe what takes place when we encounter others Wittgenstein makes two further points. Firstly, he suggests that we can respond in sympathy or understanding to others regardless of whether we have privileged access to their inner states. Secondly, he suggests that even our neighbours, the people with whom we share language and community, can be quite strange to us.
1 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1958), 223.
189 Miscomprehension need not entail a gulf of absolute separation, he tells us, but may mark a near/far relation between us.
The first of these ideas ties in with the previous discussions of Simon Glendinning’s account of criteria for what we say when as spontaneous leaps to community, and with Stanley Cavell’s distinction between acknowledgement and knowledge. The second demonstrates Wittgenstein’s ongoing concern to reveal the intermingling of the familiar and strange, which in the previous chapter I tied to the unconscious.
In this chapter I intend to develop these two ideas further. To help open up my discussion I will outline the role Wittgenstein’s work plays in some existing debates about community and difference. I will look at Iris Marion Young and Chantal Mouffe’s critique of the way that community entails an appropriative claim of mutual intelligibility and their arguments in favour of an ethics based on respect for alterity. Drawing on the Wittgenstein influenced work of Cavell, Glendinning and Alessandra Tanesini, I will argue that there are more nuances of understanding and misunderstanding between beings than this polarised account suggests.
In my view, Wittgenstein presents the encounter between beings as an open textured conversation that need not find final resolution. This open-ended encounter has its counterpoint in the idea of determinate limits. So, for example, there are two different ways of reading Wittgenstein’s insistence-. ‘If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.’ On the one hand, our failure to comprehend the talking lion may be read as an emblem of the gulf between human and animal and as a warning that our sympathetic imagination has reached its limit. But on the other hand, the scene may be read as an emblem of the open yet enigmatic relation between different beings, of the nonsense we must speak if we are to embark in conversation. The first reading rests on the notion that the main function of nonsense is self-dissolution; the second reading emphasises the indeterminable quality of nonsense, its open suggestiveness. In the previous chapters I tied this latter account of nonsense to a shift in focus from the subject per se to the space of relation between subjects, firstly in the context of our attempts to express an outlook on life as a whole and secondly in the context of the therapeutic situation of the Investigations. In this final chapter I will ask: what bearing does the space of encounter opened up by an imaginative engagement with nonsense have on an ethics committed to the recognition of difference?
From within the terms of Wittgenstein’s project this question is in fact quite difficult to formulate. At the end of chapter 2, for example, I identified what might be understood as an important distinction between Wittgenstein’s therapeutic engagement
with fantasy, on the one hand, and his outlook on differences in culture, belief, or behaviour, on the other. According to the Investigations both social and biological differences between beings can be interpreted as differences in ‘form of life,’2 3 so that, for example, a religious belief may be meaningful from within a whole series of rituals and ways of talking, but outside these practices the same belief may seem impossible to understand. Therapy, by way of contrast, addresses the tendency to disengage from the stream of life and escapes into fantasy, evading the criteria that testify to our various shared forms of life. On the basis of this account it would seem that Wittgenstein’s intention is to distinguish between the enigmas addressed in the course of therapy and the enigma of beings whose form of life are unlike our own. In the former case the task seems to be to discover or rediscover a sense of community (even if the community amounts to a shared sense of derangement); in the latter case the task seems to be to accept that the sympathetic imagination has reached its limit when we encounter different forms of life.
However, although I do not want to claim that the element of Wittgenstein’s thought which advocates a respect for differences in ‘form of life’2 can be entirely reconciled with his therapeutic project, I nevertheless intend to outline some important points of cross over. In particular 1 will argue that to respond to another with respect or wonder is to risk a ‘we’ of some broader kind, a near/far space of relation opened up by differences that cross the shared being of life. What is at stake when we evoke or deny this community of life1. To help respond to this question I will read Wittgenstein’s work in conjunction with J.M. Coetzee’s book The Lives of Animals.
The Lives of Animals
In a well-known article, the philosopher Thomas Nagel describes his attempt to imagine what it would be like to be a bat.
It will not help to try to imagine that one has webbing on one’s arms, which enables one to fly around . . . catching insects in one’s mouth; that one has very poor vision, and perceives the surrounding world by a system of reflected high-frequency sound signals; and that one spends the day hanging upside down by one’s feet in an attic. Insofar as I can imagine this (which is not very far), it tells me only what it would
2 The notion of ‘forms of life’ recurs throughout the Investigations. See for example, §241, 174 and 226.
3 Wittgenstein’s description of the relation between himself and a religious believer, discussed previously in chapter 2 is one place where he advocates an open respect for difference.
191 be like for me to behave as a bat behaves. But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. Yet if I try to imagine this, I am restricted by the resources of my own mind, and those resources are inadequate to the task.4
Responding to this in Coetzee’s novel The Lives o f Animals, the author Elizabeth
C ostello, the book’s protagonist, tells her audience about the ‘sympathetic
imagination, ’5 something in which Thomas Nagel puts little faith.
‘For instants at a time,’ his mother is saying, ‘I know what it is like to be a corpse. The knowledge repels me. It fills me with terror; I shy away from it, refuse to entertain it.
‘All of us have such moments, particularly as we grow older. The knowledge we have is not abstract - ‘all human beings are mortal, I am a human being, therefore I am mortal’ - but embodied. For a moment we are that knowledge. We live the impossible: we live beyond our death, look back on it, yet look back as only a dead self can.
‘When I know, with this knowledge, that I am going to die, what is it, in Nagel’s terms, that I know? Do I know what it is like for me to be a corpse or do I know what it is like for a corpse to be a corpse? The distinction seems to me trivial. What I know is what a corpse cannot know: that it is extinct, that it knows nothing and will never know anything anymore. For an instant, before my whole structure of knowledge collapses in panic, I am alive inside that contradiction, dead and alive at the same time.’ .. .
‘This is the kind of thought we are capable of, we human beings, that and even more, if we press ourselves or are pressed. But we resist being pressed, and rarely press ourselves; we think our way into death only when we are rammed into the fact of it. Now I ask: if we are capable of thinking our own death, why on earth should we not be capable of thinking our way into the life of a bat? 6
At stake, is the breath of the sympathetic imagination - our capacity to imagine
ourselves into the lives of other beings - but also the very nature of the life we
imagine ourselves into. According to Nagel we do not have a bat’s sense modalities
4 Thomas Nagel, 'What Is It Like to Be a Bat?’ in Mortal Questions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 169.
5 J. M. Coetzee, The Lives o f Animals, 2nd ed. (London: Profile Books, 2000), 49. Coetzee’s character Elizabeth Costello is a novelist who has been invited by the university to give a talk on the topic of her choice. Instead of speaking in detail about her fiction or literary influences she makes the contentious choice to talk about her views on the lives of animals.
and this makes the bat ‘a fundamentally alien form of life. ' 1 But according to
Elizabeth Costello the sympathetic imagination has no absolute bounds. At moments, she tells her audience, she lives the impossible, she is alive in death, but she can also think her way into the lives of creatures who have never existed, into the characters of pure fiction, and ‘[i]f I can think my way into the existence of a being who has never existed, then I can think my way into the existence of a bat or a chimpanzee or an oyster, any being with whom I share the substrate of life. ’ 7 8
I want to draw attention, for a moment, to something of the extraordinariness of this suggestion, by quoting an extract from Peter Singer’s imagined (fictional) conversation with his daughter Naomi regarding Costello’s remark. ‘You don’t have to be a philosopher to see what is wrong with that,’ Naomi tells her father. ‘The fact that a character doesn’t exist isn’t something that makes it hard to imagine yourself as that character. You can imagine someone very like yourself, or like someone else you know. Then it is easy to think your way into the existence of that being. But a bat, or an oyster? Who knows? ’ 9 We can sympathetically portray a fictional person, a person who actually does not exist, because their way of life is similar to our own or to the people around us, but how can we sympathise or imaginatively understand a life we are unfamiliar with?
If, as Naomi suggests, the ability to understand another’s life stops where our shared ways of life stop, then expressions of sympathy or understanding that try to go beyond these limits will seem only presumptuous, unconvincing or confused. In the face of this confusion, it would seem that the task of the philosopher is to identify exactly what forms of life, what practices, abilities or perceptual apparatus we do and don’t share with animals. For Nagel the answer would be very little, for although it is true that we share more with a monkey than a bat, and more with a bat than a Martian, we cannot say, in the case of the bat, what it would be like to be a bat because we do not share their sense modalities. 10 Peter Singer, on the other hand, says that we do share some things with animals, especially the capacity to feel pain, but that there are many other things (looking to the future, reasoning, reflecting on death) that we don’t share, and this explains why, even though the animal interest in life is important, the human interest in life is ultimately greater. 11
7 Thomas Nagel, 'What Is It Like to Be a Bat?,’ 168. x Coetzee, The Lives o f Animals, 2nd edition, 49.
9 Peter Singer, 'Reflections,’ The Lives o f Animals (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 91. 10 Thomas Nagel, ‘What Is It Like to Be a Bat?,’ 170.
193 Naomi finds Costello’s ‘argument’ about the sympathetic imagination weak from the point of view of the non-philosopher, Singer has such little confidence in it that he doubts that the book’s author actually takes Costello’s views seriously. He speculates that the various characters who critique Costello’s talk are used by the author to distance himself from his protagonist’s claims. 12 He does not consider the possibility that The Lives of Animals posits no rational authorial viewpoint from which to adjudicate.
In summary we might say that for Singer, the fact that he can imaginatively invent a fictional conversation about Coetzee’s fictional heroine, has no bearing on his capacity (or incapacity) to envisage the lives of animals; 13 nor does it alter his conviction that life, although important to animals, is significantly more important to humans.
But if, as Elizabeth Costello suggests, animals and humans share a ‘substrate of life’ - a ‘fullness of being,’ a ‘body-soul’ 14 - then it may be possible for me to imagine myself into a life very different from my own. Here differences in animal and human forms of life, although important, are ultimately of ‘secondary consideration,’ for what is most important in this encounter is not this or that particular type of life, but an opening to the very being of life. 15 And if, as she also suggests, we can also imagine ourselves beyond this being of life into death, into a living death, then the question becomes: what is it that we understand about human and animal existence, when we imagine these things - when we imagine both the fullness of life, and the life of the dead?
Put in the terms of my previous discussion, Costello could be read as suggesting that our capacity to imagine the un-dead existence of figures such as Judge Schreber and Wittgenstein’s philosopher child bears upon our capacity to imagine the lives of beings very different from our own and that, furthermore, the problematic of un-dead life, and the search for the fullness of life, may not, as Cavell suggests, be a uniquely human concern. I will return to this final suggestion in the second half of my chapter. But
12 Singer points out that Costello is just one o f many characters who proffer philosophical points o f view in C oetzee’s fiction ‘The Lives o f Anim als.’ Norma, for example, frequently criticizes Costello for her poor reasoning, and lack o f clear principles, so why be so sure, Singer asks, that her voice is the authorial voice? - the voice with the authority to speak philosophically - for the true import o f the text may be elsewhere.
13 In this regard Singer does not agree with Nagel, for he argues that there are various things we can tell about animals, their degree o f self awareness, their feeling of pain, etc.
14 Coetzee, The Lives of Animals, 2nd edition, 45.
15 Here the very terms such as ‘shared forms o f life’ or ‘shared substrate o f life’ com e under a certain pressure, for as I will argue in this chapter, what is shared is not a series o f attributes but a space of relation and possibilities.
before addressing in detail the relation between humans and animals I want to describe how the notion of ‘sympathetic understanding’ Costello puts forward ties in with Wittgenstein and Cavell’s work. To do so I will look at the way their thought has impacted on current debates about political community and an ethics of difference between humans.
The formation of communities often rests on acts of exclusion. In her work on political community Iris Marion Young, for example, has observed that the identification of oneself as a member of a community ‘often occurs as an oppositional differentiation from other groups, who are feared, despised, or at best devalued. ’ 16 In this situation an ‘us,’ a community, is identified by distinguishing itself from a ‘them’ outside the community. This makes Young suspicious of the claim that one human being can sympathetically project themselves into the standpoint of another. In her view: ‘it is neither possible nor morally desirable for persons engaged in moral interaction to adopt one another’s standpoint. ’ 17
The whole problem with the ideal of community, Young argues, is that it presumes a shared sympathy, a ‘transparency’ between people that covers over actual differences
in their life histories and viewpoints. 18 In the name of sympathetic understanding the