Friday, October 11, 2013

If the lion could speak

Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the pioneers of concept analysis, famously wrote that "if the lion could speak, we would not be able to understand it." Much has been written about what he meant, but I have my own take on the idea itself, as opposed to what Wittgenstein may have had in mind. It is central to my research on horse cognition and it goes like this.

Suppose some lions had a well developed language and their first encounter with humans was with us, as we are today. Would we understand them? No, but for two different reasons. First, they would have different words for the same things we have words for. This is not especially interesting, but what is interesting is that they would have words and phrases that embodied concepts that we simply do not have. They would have these because they have interests, experiences and needs that are very different from ours. (By the same token we will have many words and phrases that embody concepts that the lions do not have.) Thus they see the world quite differently than we do.

But because we share the same actual world it should be possible for us to gain some understanding of their language. Moreover, and most importantly, even without having a rich verbal language they still have a great many concepts, as do horses. The question about the lion’s fictitious language is designed to make this point. Lions and horses could have a rich language; they just do not.

Here is an analogy that might help. It was a popular saying that Eskimos had many words for snow. My guess is that these words were actually for the many different kinds of snow, because there are in fact many different kinds and in the Arctic knowing that could be a matter of life or death. Most people are not in that situation so have no use for these many different concepts of snow.

In the same way lions and horses have many different concepts that are useful to them. Humans do not have these concepts because they are not lions or horses. It is the same for other critters as well of course. So the first challenge is that we are dealing with concepts we do not have. The second challenge is how to understand and describe these concepts using the concepts we do have.

Here is a simple example for horses. Several members of my observation herd use a particular tree branch to scratch their backs. They clearly know where it is and what it is good for because they will travel some distance just to use it, then they often return to where they were. So we can tell that they have the concept of using this branch from their behavior. This is our basic analytic principle, that they must have this concept to do what they do.

But notice that I described it as scratching their backs, which may not be correct. In my language there are back scratches and back rubs, which are different things. What the horses are doing is sort of in between, but it is also neither because scratching and rubbing each involves hands or tools which are different from this branch. Perhaps we need a new word to describe what the horse is doing and thus to express the concept the horse has of doing it.

If this seems picky consider a behavior that is further removed from human behavior. Our geldings frequently engage in what we call “face biting.” But they seldom if ever actually bite and they go after things besides the face, such as the chest and neck, so our terminology is misleading. Also is it a game, or practice, or dominance, or what? Not only do we not know but none of these words may be appropriate, because we do not know why they are doing it. I am not saying we can never know just that it is a challenging problem. The further a horse’s concept is from our concept the harder it will be to understand and express.

To summarize, thinking about what language an animal would have, if it had one, is a way to think about the many concepts it already has. Thinking about how we might translate that language into our own is a way to think about how we can understand and describe that animal’s concepts. None of this is easy, but neither is it impossible.

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