Can an Ape Become Your Co-author? Reflections on Becoming as a Presupposition of Teaching



Wittgenstein’s remarks on teaching highlight how teaching is an interactive, bidirectional process: through her responses, the learner contributes to the teaching process. However, not every potential learner exhibits such responses. A one-year-old child is typically too young to respond in ways that sustain interactive processes of “learning how to multiply.” But we have the attitude that she will become teachable, when she gets a little older. Teaching can be said to presuppose a dimension of becoming . Our familiarity with this dimension comes to expression in how we imagine the learner in Wittgenstein’s examples . We do not assume that the pupil in the mathematical rule-following discussion is a one-year-old child, for example, or an ape. By discussing ape language research, this chapter investigates becoming as a presupposition of teaching . Ape language research is interesting because we generally do not expect that an ape can become someone whose spontaneous responses sustain language learning . Using as my point of departure an article by Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and three language-competent bonobos, I show how different our attitudes to ape and human learnability are. We patiently await learnability in human children , but assume that apes must be specifically trained, if they are to learn at all. By revealing our attitudes to apes as not living in a dimension of becoming (as being at most susceptible to disciplining), and by demonstrating the challenges these presumptions mean for ape language research, the chapter emphasizes the didactic significance of attitudes to learnability , and of becoming as a presupposition of teaching .


Ape language Learnability Becoming Didactic attitudes Wittgenstein 



This is a reworking of unpublished presentations at two conferences “Zoo-Ethnographies” (Uppsala University, 2011) and “Human and Non-Human Primates – Crossing the Boundaries” (University of Warsaw, 2014). The work was funded by the Swedish Research Council, project number 344-2011-5099, “Becoming ‘human’: gender theory and animals in a more-than-human world.” I want to thank Jeff Stickney for pointing out some very relevant remarks by Wittgenstein to use and discuss in this chapter.


  1. Savage-Rumbaugh, E. S., Murphy, J., Sevcic, R. A., Brakke, K. E., Williams, S. L., & Rumbaugh, D. M. (1993). Language comprehension in ape and child. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development (Vol. 58). Serial no. 233.Google Scholar
  2. Savage-Rumbaugh, S., Shanker, S. G., & Taylor, T. J. (1998). Apes, language and the human mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Savage-Rumbaugh, S., Wamba, K., Wamba, P., & Wamba, N. (2007). Welfare of apes in captive apes: Comments on, and by, a specific group of apes. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 10(1), 7–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Segerdahl, P. (2014). Being humans when we are animals. Nordic Wittgenstein Review, 3(2), 125–149.Google Scholar
  5. Segerdahl, P. (2015). The rhetoric and prose of the human/animal contrast. Language & Communication, 42, 36–49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Segerdahl, P., Fields, W., & Savage-Rumbaugh, S. (2005). Kanzi’s primal language: The cultural initiation of apes into language. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Wittgenstein, L. (1958). Philosophical investigations (2nd ed., G. E. M. Anscombe, Trans.). Oxford: Basil Blackwell (PI).Google Scholar
  8. Wittgenstein, L. (1981). Zettel (2nd ed., G. E. M. Anscombe, Trans.). Oxford: Basil Blackwell (Z).Google Scholar

Video Documentary

  1. Niio, G. (Director). (1993). Kanzi, an ape of genius (videotape, 54 minutes). Tokyo: NHK of Japan.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Gender ResearchUppsala UniversityUppsalaSweden

Personalised recommendations