Wittgenstein’s Private Language Argument

By Graeme Alan

The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines the private language argument as the assertion that “a language in principle unintelligible to anyone but its user would be unintelligible to the user also” (Private Language Argument – pp 693). Supposedly, the idea of a private language came to Wittgenstein through a published lecture of Bertrand Russell, The Philosophy of Logical Atomism. The private language put forth here by Russell is one in which “there [would] be one word and no more for every simple object”; it is entirely analytic and based on particular objects (this exact object, granting every object the status of a proper name), and therefore entirely private to the speaker using these proper names. Whether it is this understanding of a private language that Wittgenstein argues against is sometimes dubious, but nevertheless it seems to be a likely inspiration for the notion. By other accounts, the argument is against the ideas found in the works of Locke and Descartes, both of whom presume that our understanding of language is private, and is never entirely intelligible to other minds.

Related is the problem that, if we have private experiences, and other people have private experiences, but language is public, how do we communicate and know that others will have understand us, or that they have similar experiences? It is important to note that there is a vast range of views on the private language argument; the text and problem is so elusive that it seems to attract the projections of other philosophers during their reading of it. What makes this such an intriguing read to me is the fact that it lends itself to so many philosophical problems, whether the author intended this or not. Moreover, a reading of the private language argument as an isolate passage is bound to give a reading different to one read in terms of the entire text, Philosophical Investigations, although the isolated view seems more often to be called orthodox. In reading the private language argument, it is also useful to know that there are different accounts of what a private language is, and of Wittgenstein’s conclusion to the problem. In my own reading, I have found two distinct possible arguments. One of these accounts deals primarily with the passage that speaks directly of private languages (242-270) and this attacks a definition of a private language closer to that set out by Russell. The second view is more comprehensive of the ideas set forth in Philosophical Investigations as a whole. I find the second reading to be more compelling, although quite unorthodox, but again I know that I must be careful of projecting my own ideas when reading the text.

The simplest view of the problem is to reduce it to an argument against memory; this view states that for any meaningful definition or understanding, there has to be a community in order to externally validate the definition, as private notions without an independent criteria for correctness cannot be trusted. The problem in this case can be said to be one of seeming versus being. If the name one gives an object is specific to the exact circumstance and mental state of the speaker, that is to say particular to him, then there is no way, subsequent to the process of naming itself, to be sure that any component of his private language correctly refers to an object at all. If there is no accurate reference of a word because of the fallibility of memory, then there is no meaning to the word at all.

Put another way, because there is no inherent objective measure of internal sensations and processes, there is no way to assign, with any accuracy, any meaning to a private experience. Here Wittgenstein gives us the example of an agent marking on a calender the occurrence of a particular private sensation. The agent’s sensation in this example must be completely unfamiliar (the point is not that he is simply replacing a publicly defined sensation by an arbitrary sign ‘S’), and the only steps he takes to define this sensation is to focus his attention on the sensation, and then call it by its private name. The problem in this example is, of course, that there is no further objective criteria that tells him that he is in fact experiencing the private sensation, rather than a different one, at any other point. Thus, he marks as the original sensation whatever merely seems to be the same as the original sensation, and this, Wittgenstein claims, can never be a meaningful definition (258). In order for there to be consistency, there needs to be some form of external validation, such as reading a manometer to measure an increase in blood-pressure, concurrent with the sensation. In this example, the agent would be measuring a form of behavior – his body’s reaction to the sensation – and so behavior is introduced as an independent criteria for judgment, a key component of the argument.

At this point we can draw the relation of this idea to the purpose of language from a hypothetical example of the origin of a word. Let us imagine that no word has yet been formed for the sensation of pain in an early society. When a child in this society experiences some pain, the likes of which is presumably common to its parents as well, the child involuntarily cries out, an expression caused by tensions in its body, kicking its legs, and squeezing its eyes shut. The parents see the child, and through their capacity for sympathy, the mechanism of mirror-neurons in the brain, or some simpler recognition of the the expression, empathizes with the child, understanding its discomfort. The child then receives attention from the parents. It eventually learns to associate the sound it makes when it is in pain to the care that it consequently receives from those around it. In this example, the child defines the sound as a means to get attention, and the parents associate the sound with the fact that the child is in some kind of pain.

As we can see, although both the child and the parents have different understandings of the meaning of the sound, it is the behavior that one exhibits that defines the sound for the other. As the child grows older, they continue to refine the meaning of the sound for each other in this way (the idea of community discussion, evaluation, and correction) until they settle on a more or less common understanding of the sound. It is this kind of analogy that Wittgenstein wants to use to understand language. In the given example, there would be no reason for the child to have conceived of a word for his pain if it were not for the practical purpose of interacting with his parents (“If I need a justification for using a word, it must be for someone else” – P.I. 380). Moreover, to quote Wittgenstein, “The possibility of language depends upon agreement among speakers in definitions and judgments” (242), precisely because the purpose of language is, as Wittgenstein so often compares, like a tool used for a purpose, rather than as a means to express our internal mental states (which is what Locke tends towards in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, in the section, Of Ideas). Thus language is a public affair, and there is no use for, nor any accuracy in, a private language. The accuracy of a public language is found in its capacity for errors to occur – without the possibility of error, there can be no ‘right’. Wittgenstein sums this argument up continuously throughout Philosophical Investigations, for instances when he says, “Hence it is not possible to obey a rule ‘privately’: otherwise thinking one was obeying a rule would be the same as obeying it” – referring to the lack of external validation or independent criteria of correctness in a private language.

This is similar to his analogy of measuring one’s height by placing a hand upon one’s head. As a corollary, with regards to rule-following, one can never know if one is following the ‘correct’ rule, Wittgenstein claims, because we only have empirical knowledge of what we have experienced, or done so far. The example he uses is the rule of addition. There are infinitely many numbers that can be added, but we only have only observed the rule up until a finite number. How can we be certain that our rule, our disposition to add in the future, for even something as seemingly intuitive as addition, is the “correct” understanding of addition? According to this view, the only true understanding of addition we can get to is that which society as a whole puts forth. Through the discussion and evaluation of the different possible notions of addition, the society agrees upon one that is most pragmatically useful. Any practice of addiction contrary to this is viewed as wrong, and anything that follows society’s view is right.

“Addition” therefore, gets its meaning (which is always provisional) from public interaction, and only through this. Thus a private understanding, a private language, would have no meaning. Some readers believe that this substantiates the argument against any certain knowledge at all, a problem of epistemology. Kripke interprets Philosophical Investigations to conclude that no real truths can be reached whatever (“Wittgenstein’s main problem is that it appears that he has shown all language, all concept formation, to be impossible, indeed unintelligible” – pp 62; “In fact, he agrees with his own hypothetical sceptic that there is no such fact, no such condition in either the ‘internal’ or ‘external’ world” – pp 69); that any sense of meaning is merely whatever society constructs it to be at a certain time. Here is an example that illustrates the concept along the lines of Kripke’s interpretation: as a child, one may observe that jumping from a certain height to the ground is accompanied by an intensity of discomfort; seemingly the higher one jumps, the more pain one feels. From experience, one can tell that jumping from five meters high causes a certain intensity, n, of pain, while from ten meters, 2n of pain, fifteen meters, 3n, and so forth.

One concludes that if one had to jump off of a tall building, say 60 meters high, one would feel an immense amount of pain. We conclude this because we have taken our experiences and made a conjecture, a rule, about the relationship between jumping from heights and the pain experienced due to the fall. Perhaps we grow up believing in the validity of this rule (and therefore do not jump from any tall buildings) until tenth grade, during which a physics teacher explains the idea of terminal velocity – that an object reaches a maximum velocity when falling under gravity. As it turns out, when jumping off a tall building, the pressure of the air from below us eventually becomes equal to the downward force of gravity, and our velocity levels off. We now suppose that it would not be much more painful to fall from a twenty-story building than perhaps it would be to fall from a double-story one, and we may have thus have discovered a more efficient way of getting downstairs. Until we have verified this empirically (to imagine the idea in our minds will not help us, as Wittgenstein ridicules in 267), we cannot know that it is true or false (it has no truth condition, and thus no meaning).

Our dispositions are therefore always provisional, and we rely upon experience to give us corrections that lead us to a more pragmatic version of the truth. This is the basis of the argument of following rules beyond the range of previous experience. However, and Krikpe here points out that the argument is echoing Hume’s skepticism, every moment is itself beyond the range of experience, “each new application we make is a leap in the dark” (Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language – pp 55). Thus there is never any true meaning to language, and language again becomes an entirely pragmatic ‘tool’, for which there is no need, or possibility, for statements or assertions to correspond directly to facts, as long as definitions among speakers agree. As critics who assent to this view have said, Wittgenstein thus “[dissolves] altogether the epistemological problem of necessity” (Wittgenstein: Rules, Grammar and Necessity pp 266), as all truths become pragmatic constructs that are open to correction. “Truths” only appear to assert an actual truth because of the structure of language and grammar, but in fact the private language argument exposes the falsity of the idea of analytisity. The significance of the view that all truths are provisional is apparent by its influence on philosophers of science (for example, Karl Popper).

The second interpretation of Wittgenstein that I came to deals with more general philosophic problems, including that of identity, and other minds. This account focuses more strictly, it seems to me, on the definition of a private language as one that is incomprehensible to more than one person. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines the problem of other minds by the question “How is it that we know other people have thoughts, experiences and emotions?” According to John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, each of us have private ideas, sensations, etc., and we use language to try to express these ideas to others. Wittgenstein illustrates this problem of having no direct knowledge of another person’s thoughts through the ‘beatle in a box’ analogy, which highlights this asymmetry. In 272, Wittgenstein says, “The essential thing about private experience is really not that each person possesses his own exemplar, but that nobody knows whether other people also have this or something else”.

Behaviorism solves this problem by claiming that, because other people have similar experiences to us, it follows that their internal experience should be similar. Wittgenstein supports behaviorism, to some extent, in his discussion of sensations: because there is no internal criteria for understanding a sensation, there is nothing empirical about it; we can only look to behavior when determining meaning. Internal sensations are devoid of meaning because whatever seems right is right, but external behavior (effect on a manometer, smiling, crying, etc.) becomes an independent criteria that we can use to gain empirical evidence. However, some may argue that a close reading of his text shows that he entirely side-steps the problem of other minds altogether, claiming no asymmetry, as if the beetle in our box is as inaccessible as those in the boxes of people around us. Wittgenstein begins to hint at this in 286 (“But isn’t it absurd to say of a body that it has pain?–And why does one feel an absurdity in that? In what sense is it true that my hand does not feel pain, but I in my hand?”). At this point it is clear that questions of identity are arising.

If “I” have access to all of these private thoughts and sensations, then is it not true that observing my thoughts and sensations is in a sense an observation of the behavior of my brain, and of my nervous system? The problem here is not explicitly clear, but in this sense it seems that the brain observing the brain – how does this make sense? We need a radical example of a private language and private experience to clarify the problem of identity that arises out of a reading of Wittgenstein. The only example I can think of where the thing which a language defines is necessarily inaccessible to any other mind is drawn from a reading of Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy. The idea is reached when we break down the second meditation and borrow from its beginning – staring with the concept that because he can persuade himself of something, he exists. The argument could have been constructed, perhaps more convincingly, that because there is something, and he is aware that there is something, “he” exists (that is to say, a form of consciousness).

Without assenting to the idea of other minds, if I merely take for granted that I am that which is aware that there is something, I am the only one accessible to this experience. But already a distinction has been made between subject and object, which I have to go back on if I am truly to find an example of something in principle inaccessible to anyone else (within the context of the situation, in which there is no other mind). This sensation of “something” is perhaps just that, a sensation that is just as much who I am as the awareness of the sensation. There is just sensation, as David Hume describes, no subject, no object of observation. Thus, truly, we have a private experience, as any other entity is merely a part of what is it to be me, that is part of that which makes up my experience. This is my best interpretation of the reading, which Kripke points out when he quotes from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, “If I wrote a book called The World as I found it… it alone could not be mentioned in that book.” (pp 122), a kind of recursive problem, and again, “The subject does not belong to the world: rather it is the limit of the world.”

The problem, as Kripke asserts, is similar to Hume’s skepticism of the self, in that one can never acquire a mental impression of the subject – the problem is a bit like trying to bite one’s own teeth, see one’s own eyes, measure one’s height by placing a hand upon one’s head, or using the impression of balance to measure the impression of balance. It is in this sense, that the idea of any language which tries to define a private sensation that is completely inaccessible to anyone else is an absurd, because such an experience would be simultaneously too close to and too far away from one’s rational awareness for one to gain such perspective. Too close in the sense that it is inseparable from the awareness itself (collapses the subject-object distinction and thus there is no possible independent criteria for correctness), and too far in that it transcends rational function, which requires something to be observed and analysed for understanding to occur, in such a way as to escape the possibility of definition.

Works Cited

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations;. New York: Macmillan, 1953. Print.

Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. New York: Routledge, 1998. Print.

Kripke, Saul A.. Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language: An Elementary Exposition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982. Print.

Baker, G. P., and P. M. S. Hacker. Wittgenstein: Rules, Grammar and Necessity. 2nd Revised edition ed. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Print.

This post was guest-written by Graeme, who runs Te Amo HQ, TeAmoHQ.com, with his girlfriend. TeAmoHQ is the only website where an actual couple discusses relationship topics, gives relationship advice, shares personal stories, and reviews relationship products. Also, check out the difference between privacy and secrecy in a relationship.

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