Wittgenstein's 'private language' argument

DB4. 244. How do words refer to sensations? - there doesn't seem to be any problem here; don't we talk about sensations every day, and give them names? But how is the connection between the name and the sensation set up? This question is the same as: how does a human being learn the names of sensations? - of the word pain, for example. Words are connected with the primitive, the natural, expressions of the sensation and used in their place. A child has hurt himself and he cries; and then adults talk to him and teach him exclamations, and, later, sentences. They teach the child new pain-behaviour. "So you are saying that the word 'pain' really means crying?" - On the contrary: the verbal expression of pain replaces crying and does not describe it.

245. For how can I go so far as to try to use language to get between pain and its expression?

246. In what sense are my sensations private? - Well, only I can know whether I am really in pain; another person can only surmise it. In one way this is wrong, and in another nonsense. If we are using the word 'to know' as it is normally used, (and how else are we to use it?), then other people very often know when I am in pain. - Yes, but all the same, not with the same certainty with which I know it myself! It can't be said of me at all, except perhaps as a joke, that I know I am in pain. What is it supposed to mean, except perhaps that I am in pain? Other people cannot be said to learn of my sensations only from my behaviour, for I cannot be said to learn of them. I have them. The truth is, that it makes sense to say of other people that they doubt whether I am in pain; but not to say it about myself.

Paragraph 244 is not too bad, I shall remark only upon the last sentence of this paragraph. What he says in this last sentence is acceptable, let me point out what he does not say. He does not say that the verbal expression of pain does not describe anything, he simply states that it does not describe crying. He has not excluded the possibility that a statement be at one and the same time an expression of pain and description of it, though that might be his intention. I don't understand paragraph 245. In paragraph 246 we run into difficulty with the word know again. 'and how else are we to use it?' Well I've already suggested how else we might use it. And is it really true that even in ordinary use people very often know I am in pain? If they often claim that knowledge does that, necessarily entail that they ever have the knowledge? If a million people believe a proposition does that make the proposition true? If a million people claim to know that a proposition is true does that logically entail that they do know? It seems that the 'ordinary use' of the word 'know' does not admit that the frequency of claims to knowledge determines the meaning of the word 'know'. And why can it not be said of me that I know I am in pain? It rarely is said because we general we only claim knowledge when we want to emphasise the absence of any doubt. But that we only claim knowledge when others might doubt our knowledge does not mean that we only have knowledge in these cases. I don't recall ever having claimed to know that I have two eyebrows but that has little bearing on whether I do know.

DB5. There are many other points I would like to raise in respect of this paragraph, but to do so would unduly lengthen this essay. I shall confine myself to some remarks about 'making sense'. In ordinary language a perfectly meaningful or even a true statement may fail to 'make sense'. It may do so because it seems to be incompatible with some of our firmly held beliefs. Alternatively a statement may fail to 'make sense' by virtue of being self-contradictory. Finally a statement may fail to make sense because we just don't understand what it means, or because it really doesn't mean anything at all. Only when a statement fails to make sense through being meaningless does it fail to have a truth value. In particular, if it fails to make sense through being self-contradictory then it is false. When a statement does not make sense because it is meaningless then its negation will also be meaningless and similarly will not 'make sense'. When a sentence does not make sense through being self-contradictory then its negation is tautological, and hence true.

Suppose I say that I do not know whether or not I am in pain. In what way does this statement fail to make sense? Well I think that it fails to make sense, if it does, because it is self-contradictory. If having a pain logically entails knowing that I have a pain and conversely not having a pain entails knowing that I do not have one, then the above statement is self-contradictory. And therefore it is false, and its negation true. Wittgenstein seems to believe that the statement is senseless in a more radical way, something more akin to being totally meaningless, in being a senselessness which is not dispelled by application of a negation sign. For Wittgenstein if it is senseless to deny knowledge about pain it is equally senseless to claim it.

up home © RBJ written c1975 editied into HTML 1996/6/23 last modified 2009/9/2