The late Wittgenstein, as opposed to the one who was always early for everything, was fascinated by ducks. He used to go for walks around Cambridge and stare at them, trying to work out what it was like to be one. This can’t have been pleasant for the ducks – imagine how you would like to be stared at by a crazy Austrian – but everyone has their cross to bear.
Wittgenstein was a busy man, and he didn’t want to waste his time by looking at things that weren’t ducks, because obviously one cannot work out what it is like to be a duck by looking at horses.
Before setting out on his first expedition, therefore, he went to see Russell.
Bertie, Bertie, he asked, how can I be sure I’m looking at ducks?
After lengthy and clearly painful contemplation, Russell replied: Dear Ludwig, if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.
Thank you, said Ludwig, and off he went to scare some ducks.
Now that may have been good enough for Ludwig, but it isn’t for me.
This may be a little confusing so far, so I will try to explain. Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim begins like this:
He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam- Zammah on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib-Gher – the Wonder House, as the natives called the Lahore Museum. Who hold Zam-Zammah, that ‘fire-breathing dragon,’ hold the Punjab; for the great green-bronze piece is always first of the conqueror’s loot.
There was some justification for Kim, – he had kicked Lala Dinanath’s boy off the trunnions, – since the English held the Punjab and Kim was English. Though he was burned black as any native; though he spoke the vernacular by preference, and his mother-tongue in a clipped uncertain sing-song; though he consorted on terms of perfect equality with the small boys of the bazaar; Kim was white – a poor white of the very poorest.
It really is a wonderful novel and you should all read it, but that’s not why I just qoted those lines to you. I quoted them because they bear directly on my subject. Though Kim looked like an Indian, though he spoke like an Indian, though he thought and lived like an Indian – he was not a duck. He was English, and in the novel that fact, and his consciousness of it, becomes utterly central to his development.
Now maybe I’m just especially self-obsessed, but I often read novels as though they’re about me
Now maybe I’m just especially self-obsessed, but I often read novels as though they’re about me. Most of the time this is indefensible – Madame Bovary really is nothing like me (I hope) – but with Kim I think I have a better excuse than normal. Because it struck me that I’m his mirror image in terms of identity – though I’m fortunately not pale and yeasty, I’ve grown up in such a way that I talk, live and think much more like an Englishman than the average Indian. On Russell’s test, I would be an Englishman. But as I said, I’m not convinced, and so I ask: am I really a duck?
Another reason is to do with the importance of honesty. For a start, human relationships – i.e. most of what’s good about life – are entirely meaningless without it. All conversation, for instance, depends on the belief, and the fact, that people generally say what they mean. Without that basic belief, and its truth, not only is there no point in talking to anyone, it probably isn’t even possible. Moreover, dishonesty can take different forms, and one of them is particularly closely connected to identity. This is the sort of global dishonesty involved when we accuse people of ‘living a lie’ – it is a dishonesty that is possible without actually ever saying anything untrue, and it is utterly corrosive to the possibility of a valuable or meaningful relationship.
Before I try to answer that question, however, I think I need to ask whether it matters at all. Many ducks, after all, probably don’t know they’re ducks, but still lead perfectly happy duck-lives, quacking away to their heart’s content.
Anyway, it’s certainly an interesting question, but it’s not the one I’ve set myself. Wherever the need to know who we are comes from, I think it’s true that we have it. And this is one reason why knowing whether you’re a duck or not matters.
One reason it does matter, I think, is simply that we have a deep need to know who we are. I’m not sure where this need comes from, but it’s interesting to note that it’s not something that human beings have always had. The characters in Homer, for example, do not have this need. They worry about what to do, not who they are, because in Homer who they are is fixed for all time. But the novel is all about this need, so I will venture the guess that the source of our need to know who we are is the same source that fuelled the rise of the novel.