Academic journal article Linguistic and Philosophical Investigations

Wittgenstein on Animal (Human and Non-Human) Languages

Academic journal article Linguistic and Philosophical Investigations

Wittgenstein on Animal (Human and Non-Human) Languages

Article excerpt

"In Rosroe Wittgenstein is still remembered as the man who talked to the birds."

(Portraits of Wittgenstein, vol. IV, p. 36)

1. Kinds of "Naturalism"

Although the issue of Wittgensteinian naturalism is quite controversial (Strawson, 1985; Hilmy, 1989; Wolgast, 1994; Das, 1998; Haines, 2000; de Lara, 2003; Dromm, 2008; Tripodi, 2009; Coliva, 2010; McGinn, 2010; Hertzberg, 2011; Kenny, 2011; Moyal-Sharrock, 2013), in this paper I will maintain that Wittengenstein's description of human language is fully naturalistic. Therefore my argumentative strategy will not to demonstrate that Wittgenstein enlisted to some form of explicit "naturalism," rather I will try to show how Wittgenstein was in fact a sort of naturalistic philosopher when he actually described linguistic phenomena. In particular, his naturalism is apparent in the contrastive comparison he frequently makes between human and animal behavior and language. Wittgenstein is a philosopher who is part of that naturalistic vein that - from Aristotle to Merleau-Ponty - cannot consider philosophy without taking into account the basic bodily experiences of Homo sapiens as an animal (albeit an animal with quite peculiar characteristics).

As well known (Rosenberg, 1996; Stroud, 2009; Ritchie, 2014), it is a very difficult task to exactly establish what "naturalism" is; an even more difficult task is to know if Wittgenstein can be considered a naturalistic philosopher (Moyal-Sharrock, 2004; Kenny, 2011; Searle, 2011). Despite these difficulties, I will try to elaborate a tentative and operative concept of naturalism that I will use in this paper. Firstly, naturalism does not mean materialism, that is, the thesis that only material entities exist. For example, an oral language exists, even if it is not the same sort of thing as an apple or a cat (i.e., a description of the material aspects of a language does not capture what make them linguistic entities; Williams, 2011). Epistemologically, this means that it is not the case that only an entity which can be explained by a natural science - like physics or biology - can be considered natural (Searle, 2011). That is, a naturalistic approach does not assume the same stance as "hard" sciences. More controversially, a description of a phenomenon can be considered naturalistic even if it cannot be formulated in evolutionary terms.

This is an important point to remember if one wants to understand Wittgenstein's remarks that human language is a "natural" phenomenon, in contrast with an emphasis on evolutionary explanations of human mind (Pinker, 2002). For example, Wittgenstein, in order to delineate the basic characteristic of human language, quite frequently makes reference to animal behavior (Frongia, 1995; Angel Garcia, 2013; Moyal-Sharrock, 2013); at the same time, he never seems interested in evolutionary explanations of human language. That is, he does not search animal behavior for any precursor of human behavior. Wittgenstein does not seem to distrust evolutionary explanations because he believes that that evolutionary biology is not a science. His point is that evolutionary explanations frequently involve anthropocentrism (Gordon, 1992; Chomsky, 2007) and conceptual confusion which prevent us from seeing the differences between Homo sapiens' language and all other animals' languages. At the same time, and in sharp contrast with many others philosophers, Wittgenstein describes human language and behavior in a very crude and simple way, because there is nothing special in human language (Ferretti, 2007). For Wittgenstein a "naturalistic" stance mainly means to look for differences more than similarities. This is a point frequently misunderstood: biology is not the science of similarities between forms of life, rather it is the science of similarities and differences between them (Mayr, 1976). Therefore, Wittgenstein naturalism is neither epistemological nor properly philosophical; moreover, Wittgenstein is a naturalistic philosopher when he describes human language in the same way an ethologist looks at animal behavior. …

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