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Volume 50 • Number 3

July 2013


The Geometry of Partial Understanding

by Colin Allen

Wittgenstein famously ended his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Wittgenstein 1922) by writing: "Whereof one cannot speak, one must pass over in silence." (Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.) In that earliest work, Wittgenstein gives no clue about whether this aphorism applied to animal minds, or whether he would have included philosophical discussions about animal minds as among those displaying "the most fundamental confusions (of which the whole of philosophy is full)" (1922, TLP 3.324), but given his later writings on language and thought, it seems a plausible hypothesis. Years later he wrote in the Philosophical Investigations (1968, p. 223) another aphoristic statement: "If a lion could speak, we would not understand him." (Wenn der Löwe sprechen könnte, wir könnten ihn nicht verstehen.) Decades of philosophical discussion about what Wittgenstein meant by these remarks illustrate another point: when philosophers speak, we do not fully understand them.

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ISSN: 2152-1123