WITTGENSTEIN’S “FORMS OF LIFE AND CULTURES”, OR REINTERPRETING GLOBAL COMMUNICATION
(USA, University of North Carolina, Greensboro)
To describe philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s examination of forms of life (Lebensformen
) as cursory would be an understatement. In the entire corpus of his published writings, Wittgenstein mentions Lebensformen
only seven times (Gier, 2011). Despite this infrequency of usage, however, the concept occupies a central position in Wittgenstein’s philosophy (Malcolm, 1954). This essay initially explores the notion of forms of life in relation to other key concepts in Wittgenstein’s philosophical works. The interrelationship of forms of life with other ideas should demonstrate how Lebensformen
function, and their function or use will in turn demonstrate the role forms of life play in human activity (cf. PI, §139; OC, §61). The second part of the discussion will examine how forms of life function in the context of the search for extraterrestrial life. The application of Lebensformen
to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence focuses on the period of research and exploration of outer space prior to the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger
. The rationale for this focal point is that discourse prior to this catastrophic event would concentrate more on the nature of the encounters with extraterrestrials than on the technological safety and feasibility of enabling the contact to take place. The fundamental issue at stake is how a deeper understanding of Lebensformen
might illuminate the concept of understanding the limit case of an unfamiliar culture: an alien life form that may bear little or no similarity to what counts as human. Here lies the ultimate example of the radical Other.
The assumptions inherent in the search for alien life will be examined, including a comparison and contrast of how scientists and the lay press conceive of extraterrestrial forms of life in relation to Wittgenstein’s philosophical framework. The second section of this paper should help to remedy some rhetorical and conceptual confusion inherent to the quest for finding other life in the universe (cf. PI, §593, §309; Z, §452).
Before examining interpretations of what “forms of life” might mean, it is necessary to answer two preliminary questions. First, are there necessary and/or sufficient criteria for determining what a form of life might be? Second, are forms of life static enough to permit positing a stipulative definition?
The first question might lend itself to paraphrase: are there certain characteristics, or “ingredients” all forms of life do or logically must share? Wittgenstein’s insistence on family resemblances instead of invariant criteria of meaning tends to mitigate the possibility of defining “forms of life” or any other term free from any context (OC, §433). In order to find out what counts as a form of life, it will be necessary to look and see how Wittgenstein uses the phrase (PI, §§66, 340).
The question of whether forms of life remain static relates closely to the search for necessary and sufficient criteria for Lebensformen
identification. If forms of life lack constancy, then the search for the stipulative definition of forms of life will prove difficult, if not impossible. An examination of the phrase “forms of life” should help to answer the question of necessary and sufficient conditions as well as that of constancy.
In seeking to understand the notion of forms of life, it is important not to be misled by the phrase’s surface grammar, i.e., its apparent similarities to other phrases as opposed to differences in use (cf. PI, §401). At first glance, “forms of life” seems grammatically identical to phrases such as:
- 1. forms of tennis strokes (forehand, backhand, etc.)
- 2. bodily forms (somatotypes)
- 3. poetic forms (Alexandrian couplets, Italian sonnets, etc.)
The similarities between any of the above phrases and “forms of life,” however, count as similarities only insofar as the term “form” recurs. Forms of life are not observable as are tennis strokes or bodily shapes, much as “hope, fear and doubt are forms of thought,” not facts (Gier, 2011: 32). The attempt to look for a form of life in the same way as one would look for a particular form of poetry (an Elizabethan sonnet, for instance), is misguided (cf. PI, p. 197 on “seeing as” versus perceptual sight).
If the quest for forms of life proceeds in the above manner, it must fail for two reasons. Just as there exists no single meta-culture, but a plurality of cultural identities and practices, the plural “forms of life” indicates that no paradigmatic instance of “the life-form” should be sought. Second, Wittgenstein portrays forms of life as dynamic activities (PI, §23). As such, they should not be examined as if they were at rest. Max Black adds that “forms of life” applies to activities; as activities, they require being described in action (i.e., in use) (Black, 2014: 326).
Wittgenstein makes two brief attempts to describe forms of life in action. He first posits the case of someone who arrives in a country whose inhabitants have entirely different traditions from the traveler’s native land (PI, p. 223). Understanding is impossible even if the traveler comprehends the language. The reason the foreigner “cannot find his feet” with the natives stems not from a lack of lexical or syntactic knowledge. Rather, without understanding the basis for how the language is used, the newcomer cannot make himself, in effect, a native of the foreign land. The speaker must learn to “see as,” to encounter reality, the way the natives do. This seeing as consists not so much in visual seeing as it does in dealing with reality by means of language (which need not imply that there is only one way to do so per form of life).
The second instance of different forms of life is the case of the lion. Wittgenstein remarks (PI, p. 223): “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.” The reason for this lack of understanding, again, is not so much failure to understand another’s spoken words. The problem in communicating with the lion arises from the lion’s customary modes of action being so radically different from those of humans. For instance, a lion could say, “I’m late for my Wittgenstein seminar.” Even if we understood the lion’s words, the remark would be incomprehensible if the lion made the statement and promptly settled down to sleep for another hour. These cases of conflicting forms of life might permit an examination of what “Lebensformen
” itself might mean in the contexts Wittgenstein uses the term.
J.F. Hunter (Hunter, 1968) identifies four views of what “forms of life” might be. In this section, these interpretations will be described and critiqued. This analysis will be followed by an attempt to reconcile the most plausible of these viewpoints with each other and with Wittgenstein’s usage.
Forms of life could be treated as characteristic behaviors. This behavioral interpretation gains textual support from Wittgenstein’s remark that commanding, questioning, etc. “are as much a part of our natural history as walking, eating, drinking, playing” (PI §25). Certain nonverbal behaviors might also have the status of forms of life. Smiling, crying, and expression of pain appear basic enough to form an intrinsic part of human history.
The behavioral interpretation, however, relies on a fundamental confusion. The fact that forms of life can be manifested as behaviors does not mean that behaviors are forms of life. Chimpanzees can duplicate many human facial expressions and emotions, yet we do not act as if chimpanzees were human. For example, we do not invite chimpanzees to formal dinners or admit them to doctoral programs. If the behavioral view were correct, then the behaviors manifested by an organism would suffice for saying that such an organism exhibits a particular form of life. Which behaviors, however, should constitute a form of life? Does any behavior shared by humans and chimpanzees suffice to say that we share the same form of life?
Granted, behaviors often lack justification, so they do share this quality with forms of life (OC §§189, 253, 254, 343, 344, 358, 359, 559). We often discount the behavior of animals or of other people by saying, “Oh, that’s just the way she acts.” No further explanation seems necessary, for such a comment in effect says, “It’s simply action, and that’s that.” It appears correct, therefore, to assume that behaviors can indicate the presence of a form of life, but little justification exists for equating behaviors with forms of life. For example, I might see someone sitting in a full lotus position contemplating his navel and intoning the syllable “Om.” This set of behaviors indicates that this person is a yogi, but the behaviors themselves do not comprise yoga.
Another interpretation treats forms of life as language games. Textual support for this viewpoint appears in Wittgenstein’s connection of language games with forms of life: “And to imagine a language means to imagine a form of life” (PI, §19). Wittgenstein also treats the act of speaking a language as a part of a form of life (PI, §23). Supposedly, since speaking a language is the physical enactment of a language game, “forms of life” and “language games” are synonymous.
In order to clarify Wittgenstein’s cryptic remark in PI §19, it is necessary to understand that Wittgenstein sees language and life as functioning holistically. In other words, when we play language games, we also bring into play the foundational understanding of basic assumptions. For instance, in giving a class lecture, I assume that there are other sentient beings in the universe, that the world will not end before I finish my lecture, that I exist, etc. These assumptions allow me to understand what types of moves are legitimate and what types are illegitimate in the context of my language game. They do not have the same status as the playing of the language game itself (OC, §§94, 105, 136, 140, 144). The conceptual connection between language games and forms of life, then, is not equivalence. Instead, when Wittgenstein says that imagining language games means imagining of forms of life, he indicates that forms of life act as foundations for (though not the causal bases for) conducting language games (OC, §558). Only against the background of forms of life, often manifested a s assumptions forming the basis for conducting a game (not rules, but what counts as a rule—see OC, §95) can we conduct language games (OC, §497). The idea of forms of life serving a function akin to moves within a language game will receive further attention in the section on the roles of forms of life.
A third view of Lebensformen
treats forms of life as customs or sociocultural habits. Mostafa Faghfoury explains that humans manifest their forms of life “through their cultural make-up,” which he explains as “social behaviour, cultural activities, religious ceremonies, etc.” (Faghfoury, 1980: 448). Textual support for this perspective occurs in Wittgenstein’s comments about how learning a language involves cultural inculcation, or gaining an understanding of natural history (OC, §534). Wittgenstein’s remarks about imagining language meaning imagination of culture (BB, p. 134) appear to parallel similar phrases in the PI, indicating that Wittgenstein uses “culture” and “forms of life” synonymously.
In evaluating the cultural interpretation of forms of life, it is important to note the change from “culture” in The Blue and Brown Books
to “forms of life” in the Investigations
. In The Blue and Brown Books
, Wittgenstein equates Lebensformen
with the social contexts surrounding particular language games. These cultures form the milieu from which the criteria arise for what counts as playing particular language games. “Culture” ordinarily refers to the customary practices, habits, etc. common to inhabitants of a particular geographic area or to members of a relatively bounded group of people (e.g., delineation based on religion or race, as in Jewish culture or African-American culture). Why, if forms of life should be equated with cultures, would Wittgenstein change his terminology?
The answer might be that “culture” fails to reflect the breadth of human activity involved in “forms of life.” Wittgenstein’s example of the visitor who “cannot find his feet” (PI, p. 223) in the foreign land certainly sounds like what might be called “culture shock.” The visitor, however, could overcome cultural displacement by simply staying in the country for a while and becoming accustomed to the way the natives do things. There appears to be a difference between merely “doing as the natives do “ and what Wittgenstein treats as a deeper entrance into the lives of the natives. Compare Wittgenstein’s remarks on how a child becomes linguistically competent. The child does not simply “get used to” the culture, but becomes a participant in the environment (PI, §33).
A further problem arises when equating forms of life with cultures. Forms of life give us “our ways of looking at things” (OC, §211), a role apparently similar to cultures. Yet some cultures, despite their individuality, share beliefs and practices with other cultures. For example, Chinese culture, Buddhist culture, Muslim culture, and Anglo-American culture share the belief that murder is wrong. Each of these cultures condemns and punishes murderers. Does this shared practice justify treating the cultures as one form of life? The essential difficulty here is that forms of life need not be delineated in the same way as cultures. Wittgenstein might reply to someone who asserts that forms of life are culture, “If you choose to define the terms as equivalent, then they are equivalent (see OC, §5; PI §§254, 429). But to say that forms of life somehow correspond to cultures would assume a definite, constant meaning for “forms of life.” Such as assumption works against how we actually use language” (OC, §10). A fourth approach to forms of life is to treat them as biological. This view, called the organic explanation, derives textual support from Wittgenstein’s description of forms of life as “something animal” (OC, §359) and the example of a dog being unable to hope (PI, p. 174). Forms of life, then, could be described as akin to “that which typifies a living being” (Hunter, 1968: 239).
Defenders of the organic interpretation would not necessarily differentiate forms of life on the basis of habits intrinsic to a species, but Lebensformen
could be seen as coextensive with species.
The organic perspective suffers the same difficulties as other interpretations that attempt to pin a single sense on “forms of life.” First, biological similarity or difference need not constitute a sufficient condition for a form of life to exist (Gier, 2011: 29). Wittgenstein indicates that biological similarity might be necessary in order to understand that activities of another form of life (as in the cases of the lion and the dog). He never adds that biological conditions determine all forms of life. Certain religions condone human sacrifice, a practice undoubtedly contrary to biological necessities. Second, the organic account fails to accommodate the logical possibility of a person (or any other living being) who biologically fits within a form of life, yet remains incommensurable with the rest of the species (the proverbial wolf-child or a twenty-fifth century time traveler who returns to earth in 2500 BC). Finally, the reduction of forms of life to biological facts reduces Wittgenstein’s analysis of Lebensformen
to a factual inquiry, a move Wittgenstein surely would not appreciate (PI §90; PG, pp. 66, 80).
If forms of life do not fit neatly into any of the previous categories, then what are Lebensformen
? In the spirit of Wittgenstein’s philosophy, the question “What does x
mean?” is illegitimate in the absence of specific usage contexts. Wittgenstein uses “forms of life” in several ways, sometimes apparently equating them with cultures, other times leaning toward biological differences or behaviors. Forms of life might best be described as matrices whence particular activities spring (but not the causes of the activities—see PI, §89). Language games, for instance, make sense or fail to make sense against the background of forms of life. Whether forms of life apply only to humans remains an open question. At this juncture, the following assumptions about forms of life appear relatively safe to make:
- 1. Language games, criteria, and rules logically can and empirically do function only within a form of life.
- 2. Forms of life, like language games, are dynamic activities.
- 3. In order for communication and understanding to occur, forms of life logically and empirically must be communal. To say an individual had his or her own form of life would be equivalent to saying someone had his or her own private language.
- 4. Forms of life can be treated, depending on the context, as human cultures, biological facts, characteristic behaviors, or as foundational propositions (more on this in the next section), but Lebensformen are not simply one or more of these at all times.
Now that forms of life have been examined and somewhat clarified, the precise function of Lebensformen
awaits analysis. The relationship between forms of life and the everyday activities involved in language-use will be explored. Specifically, forms of life will be related to justification, empirical facts, and agreement.
Wittgenstein states unequivocally that forms of life cannot be justified (OC, §§358, 359). It might appear strange that Wittgenstein talks about forms of life as if they were propositions. The certainty he ascribes to forms of life is identical to the certainty he refers to when he describes propositions that function as foundations against which we play particular language games (compare OC, §344 with OC, §341). Does this mean that forms of life can be reduced to sets of propositions?
The types of propositions Wittgenstein exempts from doubt mark the existence of a particular form of life. For example, the framework fact “The world of the senses is an illusion” signifies the Hindu conception of existence (Finch, 2015: 383). Note that such propositions do not function as sufficient conditions for identifying a particular form of life. Framework facts are propositional formulations of the characteristic beliefs, customs, or behaviors within a form of life. The propositions serving as criteria for making sensible moves within language games are themselves unjustified and unjustifiable (OC, §§253, 341, 343), but this lack of justification should not be interpreted as a flaw. The foundational propositions lack justification because they indicate what counts as justification and other activities, e.g., doubting and tallying (OC, §199).
The justificatory status of foundational propositions shed more light on forms of life. First, as the matrix out of which particular language games arise and against which they make sense, forms of life themselves are neutral (cf. PI, §242; OC, §287). In other words, forms of life are not subject to activities occurring within particular language games, such as doubting and verifying. When we reach bedrock in the form of the types of propositions indicating “here is a form of life,” we can merely observe, not explain (OC §287; PI, p.200).
Another point related to justification reinforces the conception of forms of life as dynamic. IF forms of life remained stable, we would expect language games to remain stable as well. Wittgenstein, on the contrary, clearly envisions language games as fluid, changing over time (OC, §256). Moves within a language game can solidify into foundational propositions, and vice versa (OC, §§98, 167, 213). Similarly, since the language games themselves change, the sense of forms of life likely changes over time as well. This interpretation provides additional support for restraining wholehearted endorsement of any single explanation of forms of life.
If forms of life are formal structures, it follows that they remain distinct from factual assertions. Wittgenstein indicates that playing a language game is logically possible only if some propositions, which need not be explicitly stated, are assumed as a basis for conducting the game (OC, §§160, 253, 354). Although aspects of forms of life can be stated propositionally, the similarity between empirical propositions (which are thereby subject to tests of verifiability and doubt) and foundational propositions is a similarity only in surface grammar. This similarity parallels the similarity between “forms of tennis strokes” and “forms of life.” The role of empirical propositions differs from that of framework facts. Wittgenstein repeatedly acknowledges the logical, if not ontological, priority of framework facts over empirical assertions (OC, §§160, 211). Given this difference, must forms of life remain logically independent of empirical propositions?
The answer to this question requires a short preface. Wittgenstein claims that the bottom line, as far as justification goes, is action. We simply do things in certain ways, as a product of our conducting human activities within a form of life (OC, §§427, 476). This concession might verge on equating forms of life with assertions in language games, but such is not the case. Wittgenstein treats words as tools that can be used for particular purposes within a form of life (PI, §23). He denies that foundational propositions, however, can be put aside in the same way as tools (OC, §§94, 317). Although we can select different language games to play in different contexts, we cannot simply choose to abandon our form of life. To do so would be tantamount to refusing to communicate with other people and withdrawing into an idiosyncratic world (i.e., catatonia). This assumption that we cannot simply disregard entire forms of life explains why people who habitually do not play the proper game in the proper circumstances are regarded as mentally ill or socially deviant. The intersubjectivity of forms of life again arises, for Wittgenstein insists that human activities are not determined by individuals, but by shared human customs and behaviors, in other words, by forms of life that comprise “the background against which we see any action” (Z, §567; see also Z, §§568, 569).
Apparently, certain activities that would be legitimate within the context of a particular language game lose their legitimacy when applied to forms of life as a whole. A philosopher might attack or defend a particular philosophical thesis, but would balk if put in the position of attacking of defending thinking. The fact that an activity might be legitimate for application within a language game and not to a form of life does not imply that language games are mere subsets of forms of life. On the contrary, the difference in function (not to mention logical differences) between particular activities and the forms of life against which they occur renders doubting, justifying, and the like irrelevant to forms of life. This difference helps to explain an adult’s response to a child who never knows when to stop asking, “Why?” Eventually, the parent simply answers, “Because.” At some point, the child will ask for justification of a human activity that lies beyond justification. At this point, the game becomes meaningless.
Forms of life do involve an activity common to language games: agreement. The agreement in forms of life, however, runs deeper than a verbal acknowledgment. The agreement to which Wittgenstein refers is agreement in the form of tacit acceptance as a given (PI, p.226). Max Black contends that forms of life involve presuppositions of what counts as a sensible utterance (Black, 2014: 327). Black might have added that these presuppositions govern more than linguistic activity; they cover the range of acceptability for all actions within a given form of life. Wittgenstein hints at this broader application when he remarks that human beings “agree in the language they use. That is not agreement in opinions but in forms of life” (PI, §241). In the context of the entire passage, Wittgenstein does not seem to refer to a particular language, but the linguistic activities of determining truth and falsity. Agreement on truth and falsity relies on a more fundamental agreement: what constitutes truth and falsity. This latter agreement stems from sharing a form of life.
Wittgenstein’s mathematical analogies shed more light on the nature of agreement in forms of life. Mathematical definitions of measurement do not guarantee identical results every time an object is measured. Nonetheless, if someone measures an object in accordance with the mathematical procedures for measurement, similar results will be obtained when the measurements are replicated (PI, §242). To some extent, therefore, the standards of measurement do dictate a degree of agreement among individual measurers, just as sharing a form of life would facilitate mutual agreement on particular issues of, say, truth and falsity. In mathematics, if measurers disagree on their results, we question their procedures, not the validity of the standards of measurement. The standards themselves are the “givens” that only major problems can call into doubt (much as Kuhn says minor discrepancies are discounted when a scientific paradigm is still strong). Continuing with the mathematics analogy, Wittgenstein adds that the fact that people learn the same sorts of techniques when they learn mathematics indicates a deeper level of agreement, namely agreement on what constitutes mathematics (PI, p. 226). This deeper agreement could explain Wittgenstein’s reference to “another arithmetic” (OC, §375).
It might prove useful to compare Wittgenstein’s comments on mathematics to Plato’s treatment of mathematical learning. Plato contends, especially in Meno
, that even a slave’s soul is noble enough to “recall” mathematical theorems. Wittgenstein would explain the Socratic phenomenon of initiating Meno’s “recollection” as an instance of learning a technique. Socrates can train Meno not so much because of a metaphysical characteristic of the soul, but because Socrates and Meno share the same form of life. In principle, Wittgenstein would argue (probably without objection from Plato) that anyone with sufficient skill in teaching could elicit the same results from Meno. Wittgenstein diverges from Plato, however, when he explains this feat as evidence for the sharing of a form of life that enables Meno and Socrates to communicate.
In this section, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), a concentrated effort to find life elsewhere in the universe, will be analyzed in light of Wittgenstein’s concept of Lebensformen
. First, the concept of alien forms of life will be examined and compared to Wittgenstein’s conception of forms of life. Next, the ways SETI researchers discuss
extraterrestrial life will uncover the assumptions these investigators hold regarding forms of life. Finally, the discussion will turn to whether or not different forms of life can communicate.
SETI scientists at first glance appear to use “forms of life” as a description of organisms with basic biological differences. Without a great deal of effort, it becomes easy to imagine alien life forms as incomprehensible entities, such as the elusive aliens in the film Contact
who are never seen in their native form. Upon closer examination, however, SETI researchers actually use “forms of life” in a far less organic manner. Space scientists involved with SETI tend to treat biological variations broadly. As long as the same elements that we encounter on earth appear, albeit in hitherto unknown combinations, a form of life exists that we can (at least in principle) approach communicatively. This thesis occurs in the comments of Cyril Ponnamperuma:
The basic assumption is that the chemistry of life is similar anywhere in the universe. In one of my classes, I pointed out that, while I was explaining the periodic table of elements, there was probably a professor in the constellation of Andromeda using the same periodic table. So the building blocks, the elements, required for life are the same all over the universe.
The most interesting aspect of Ponnamperuma’s statement, besides the multitude of assumptions about how life goes on in Andromeda, is the scope of his biological treatment of life itself. In the context of the entire interview, Ponnamperuma uses this wide latitude in defining life to justify SETI programs. As he sees the matter, if all living beings share the same basic chemical make-up, communication is possible. This viewpoint contrasts sharply with Wittgenstein, who at times treats forms of life as cultural differences between human beings. If a lion and a human cannot communicate, then SETI efforts rely on false or misplaced hopes. Wittgenstein might argue further that Ponnamperuma jumps to a metaphysical conclusion from a convention within his language game. Certainly, in the parlance of chemistry, the basic building blocks necessary for life remain at least relatively constant. It would be erroneous, however, to extrapolate from the conventions of chemistry and claim that what chemists define as the essential ingredients of life constitute definitive criteria for the existence of life anywhere in the universe. Perhaps Ponnamperuma should hedge his claim and qualify his assertion by adding that the combinations of elements define life as we know it.
Other scientists use the argument of biological similarity to explain how communication between earthlings and extraterrestrials would occur. Carl Sagan claims: “Because the laws of nature are the same everywhere, science itself should provide a means of communication even between beings that are physiologically very different”. Sagan tacitly assumes the “laws of nature,” presumably physical and biological processes, that hold true for earthlings will and do in turn hold true throughout the universe. Wittgenstein might respond that Sagan could very well be partially correct—the known laws of nature might empirically hold true everywhere for everything. On the other hand, Sagan has no justification for asserting that our laws of nature, i.e., our basic Lebensformen
, act as logical strictures or perhaps normatives for the universe as a whole. Such an assumption, according to Wittgenstein, would at the least constitute scientific pomposity and at the most reflect a total misunderstanding of how our language and how our very forms of life operate.
The optimism inherent to SETI manifests itself most clearly in the assumptions researchers make about extraterrestrials. What at first seems to be mere playful anthropomorphism turns into a revealing look at what characteristics these scientists deem sufficient to communicate with extraterrestrials. A discussion of these essential characteristics should help to explain why, although they might refer to extraterrestrials as “alien life forms,” SETI scholars rely on humans and aliens sharing traits within a single form of life.
SETI scientists speak of extraterrestrials as if they not only had human-like desires, but could also express these desires. Marcia Smith, for example, attempts to justify satellite listening posts by claiming that intercepting extraterrestrial communication s would allow humans to “learn their nature and intentions toward other species” (Smith, 2016). This ascription of volition to extraterrestrials reflects not so much simple anthropomorphism as the impossibility of breaking out of a way of thinking characteristic to humans. Smith’s assumption about extraterrestrials seems perfectly natural from Wittgenstein’s standpoint because it exemplifies how humans logically must conceive of other life as a result of humanity’s natural history.
SETI scientists tend to describe possible extraterrestrial behavior in terms characteristic of human behavior. SETI supporters argue that extraterrestrials will be peaceful, while opponents claim that they will be warlike and attempt to pillage the earth. Isaac Asimov claims that if an extraterrestrial group “is dangerous and warlike (a very slim chance, in my opinion), then the knowledge we will have gained will encourage us to keep quiet, make no reply.…” (Asimov, 2012: 274). Interestingly, the ability to fight and “be warlike” appears to constitute a sufficient condition for being able to share an alien form of life. Since signs of aggression seem to have some degree of universality, it would be possible to detect these signs regardless of who or what manifests them.
When researchers discuss the possibility of extraterrestrial life, they often refer to such life as simply “intelligence.” The term “intelligence” becomes a synecdoche for life itself. This synecdoche does not seem inappropriate, at least partially because scientists and the general public apparently deem intelligence a sufficient condition for treating something as if it were human-like.
Peter Angeles treats intelligence as fundamental to extraterrestrial life when he urges “communication with more advanced extraterrestrial intelligences ... who can help provide some of the solutions to man’s rapidly increasing and insurmountable problems preventing him from progressing to a higher state of intelligence” (Angeles, 2016: 20). Angeles goes on to discuss “getting data from extraterrestrial civilizations” (Angeles, 2016: 21), as if the information gathered by such civilizations would be recognized as data. Patrick Moore goes a step further when he claims that extraterrestrial intelligence would manifest itself in language use (Moore, 2011) Moore’s claim relies on extraterrestrials understanding how and why humans use language, an assumption that would work only if aliens already shared with humans that aspect of a form of life.
The SETI program reveals not only the perceptions of scientists toward extraterrestrials, but also the forms of life that enable the researchers to treat extraterrestrials as they do. Despite the anthropomorphic conceptions apparent in the remarks of several SETI proponents, visitors from outer space would be treated as “outsiders” even if they looked exactly like earthlings. The fact that these beings traveled such great distances would at least temporarily cause earthlings to act differently toward the visitors. To a certain extent, therefore, the traditional geographically based definition of culture does bear on forms of life. Distance breeds difference, as xenophobes will attest. The idea that visitors from far away should be treated with suspicion or with added respect stems at least partially from the idea that these visitors do not share the lifestyle of the local residents. Extraterrestrial visitors would arouse similar feelings.
Although the conceptions of researchers toward extraterrestrials should appear relatively well-defined, what forms of life allow such conceptions to take root and flourish? SETI supporters base many of their expectations on hope. The contention that humans could learn from extraterrestrials, for example, depends to a great extent on humans wanting
to learn from teachers more advanced than themselves. The SETI characterizations of extraterrestrials need not be treated as fantasies to appreciate that these researchers maintain optimistic expectations for aliens.
Besides hope, SETI proponents harbor a desire for community. This tendency to “be social animals” infuses most (if not all) of humanity. The film Close Encounters of the Third Kind
used a tag line that simultaneously aroused curiosity, foreboding, and reassurance: “We are not alone.” Bernard Oliver invokes the same idea in a more soothing sense, arguing for SETI by claiming: “At the very least, communication will end the cultural isolation of the human race, enabling us to participate in a community of intelligent species” (Oliver, 2016: 156). Wittgenstein’s remark about hope being a mode of a form of life (PI, p. 174) acquires new significance in this context. Not only do the hopes of SETI supporters reflect their human condition, but they also influence the conceptions of what extraterrestrials are.
In conclusion, it should be pointed out that since the ultimate goal of the SETI program is contact on a global level a fundamental assumption of SETI researchers and proponents is that global communication (even with extraterrestrials) is both logically and technologically possible. The SETI program itself would remain useless unless some way of receiving or sending global communication could be devised.
The level of global communication depends on how forms of life are delineated. If extraterrestrials do share a common form of life with humanity as a whole, then communication would undoubtedly be logically possible. As the preceding sections have demonstrated, SETI researchers frequently assume that basic chemical or biological similarities constitute sufficient grounds for attempting communication.
If extraterrestrials do not share a form of life with humans (at least with those humans attempting to communicate), then attempts to communicate would likely prove futile. If each form of life has its own procedures, logic, and customs, then individuals from different Lebensformen
attempting to communicate would find themselves in the position of the human who encounters a talking lion. Even if the same words were spoken, the interlocutors would have no guarantee that the same language game were being played, since the participants in the dialogue would share no common ground. This interpretation, which appears consistent with Wittgenstein’s remarks about failures in understanding (PI, pp. 223, 226; OC, §237) casts a shadow of doubt on the optimism with which SETI analysts often approach global communication.
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5.Finch H.L. Wittgenstein’s Last Word: Ordinary Certainty. // International Philosophical Quarterly. – 2015. – Vol. 15. – P. 383.
6.Gier N.F. Wittgenstein and Phenomenology: A Comparative Study of the Later Wittgenstein, Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty. - Albany: State University of New York Press, 2011. – P. 18.
7.Hunter J.F. Forms of Life in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. // American Philosophical Quarterly. – 1968. – Vol. 5. – P. 233-243.
8.Malcolm N. Review of Philosophical Investigations. // The Philosophical Review. – 1954. – 63. – P. 549.
9.Moore P. The Next Fifty Years in Space. - New York: Toplinger, 2011. – P. 137.
10.Oliver B. The Quest for Extraterrestrial Life: A Book of Readings. - Mill Valley, CA: University Science Books, 2016. – P. 156.
11.Smith M. The Possibility of Intelligent Life Elsewhere in the Universe. - Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2016.
Symbolization for Wittgenstein’s Work
Unless indicated otherwise in the text, all work by Wittgenstein is cited by remark number rather than page.
BB = The Blue and Brown Books
. - New York: Harper and Row, 1958.
L = Wittgenstein’s Lectures. - Cambridge 1930-1932
, from the notes of John King and Desmond Lee, ed. Desmond Lee (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1980).
OC = On Certainty
, ed. G.E. M. Anscombe and G.H. von Wright, trans. Dennis Paul and G.E.M. Anscombe. - New York: Harper and Row, 1969.
PG = Philosophical Grammar
, trans. A. J. Kenny. - Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.
PI = Philosophical Investigations
, 3rd ed., trans. G. E. M. Anscombe. - New York: Macmillan, 1958.
Z = Zettel
, 2nd ed., ed. G.E.M. Anscombe and G. H. von Wright, trans G. E. M. Anscombe. - Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1981.