Wittgenstein's 'private language' argument


256. Now what about the language which describes my inner experiences and which only I myself can understand? How do I use words to stand for my sensations? As we ordinarily do? Then are my words for sensations tied up with my natural expressions of sensation? In that case my language is not a 'private' one. Someone else might understand it as well as I. - But suppose I didn't have any natural expression for the sensation, but only had the sensation? And now I simply associate names with sensations and use these names in descriptions.-

257. "What would it be like if human beings showed no outward signs of pain (did not groan, grimace, etc.)? Then it would be impossible to teach a child the use of the word 'toothache'". Well lets assume that the child is a genius and itself invents a name for the sensation! - But then of course, he couldn't make himself understood if he used the word. - So does he understand the name without being able to explain its meaning to anyone? - But what does it mean to say that he has named his pain? - How has he done this naming of pain!? - When one says "he gave a name to his sensation" one forgets that a great deal of stage-setting in the language is presupposed if the mere act of naming is to make sense. And when we speak of someones having given a name to pain what is presupposed is the grammar of the word "pain"; it shews the post where the new word is stationed.'

Here we run into the problem which I discussed under paragraph 243, i.e. the fact that Wittgenstein does not distinguish two sorts of privacy. Of course he is quite explicitly referring here to a language which has private reference and is also private in being capable of being understood by only one person. It is clear from paragraph 243 that he supposes this sort of language to include all languages which have private reference, and so he may imagine his remarks to be more significant than we need take them to be. Suitably interpreted paragraph 256 makes reasonable sense. If there is any significant amount of correlation between the things about someone which we can observe and those which we cannot observe (i.e. his sensations) then we may come to some greater or lesser understanding of the language which he uses to describe those which we cannot observe. If our sensations had 'natural expressions' then these would constitute such a correlation and the language might cease to be private in the sense of being understood by only one person. It might nevertheless still be private in referring to things of which only the possessor has knowledge (in the strict sense). In order for the language to cease to be private in this latter sense the words in it would have to refer to things which are not private to him, for example, if there were the word 'pain', it might refer to the observable symptoms of pain, and then it would make sense for someone to argue with me about whether or not I am in pain (i.e. whether or not I am manifesting the appropriate observable symptoms).

In order to ensure that the language is private in both senses we need to eradicate all the clues which someone might use to discover how we are using the language, and this seems to be what Wittgenstein hypothetically arranges. He doesn't do quite enough as far as I can see, unless he includes a great deal in what in what he calls the 'natural expression' for a sensation. One can easily imagine a person who did not 'groan, grimace, etc.' when subjected to pain, but this would by no means entail that we could not have a reasonably good idea of when he was or was not in pain. We could be reasonably sure that he was experiencing pain whenever we kicked him sharply upon the shin. Couldn't we teach a child the use of the word 'tooth-ache' by explaining that it is a pain in the tooth, and explain the meaning of pain by giving him a small sample. And where does the 'natural expression of pain' come into that arrangement?

In order to be quite sure that the language could not be understood by anyone else there would have to be no correlation between the use of words in the language and anything at all which might be known to another party. The main problem is not eliminating natural expressions of our sensations but eliminating the relationship between our sensations and environmental stimulae. I conclude from this that for a reasonably human human being there is no possibility of a language which could not to a greater or lesser extent be understood by other human beings.

There is a clue in paragraph 256 about why Wittgenstein and I differ in this area. He talks about someone else understanding my private language 'as well as I' and hence it not being private. I have generally spoken of someone understanding a language 'to a greater or lesser extent'. Now if Wittgenstein's criterion for someone else understanding a language 'as well as I' is that it must be possible for him to verify as conclusively as I the truth or falsity of any statement in that language, then this would explain his assumption that a language which refers to private objects must be private in the sense that it can only be understood by only one person. If this is what he means by private then I can accept the last sentence of paragraph 243 but I have to argue on a number of points which I have hitherto accepted. For example the denial in paragraph 243 that ordinary language is private. Since I hold that some of the statements which I make in ordinary language are such as cannot be known to someone else as conclusively as they are to me it follows that in the strict sense of understanding mentioned above, no-one else understands my use of the language, and hence that it is a private language. Moreover, returning to paragraph 256, the existence or otherwise of 'natural expressions' becomes less important. Under the new criterion a language in which the concept pain was to some extent correlated with natural expressions such as groans and grimaces would not necessarily on that, account cease to be a private one. It would only cease to be a private language if a concept such as that of pain was so closely linked to it's 'natural expression' that someone else might properly dispute my claim to be in pain if he observed that I had failed to exhibit the appropriate symptoms. Finally some remarks about the problems Wittgenstein seems to find in the idea of giving a name to one of his private sensations such as a tooth-ache. As far as the possibility of private languages is concerned the difficulty as to what constitutes 'giving, a name' to something is largely immaterial. It is not necessarily the case that a private language would have things which operated in exactly the way that names operate in ordinary language. What is necessary is that there is some correlation between the statements of the language and the things they purport to describe. Whether this is achieved by the use of names, adjectives, verbs, etc. is a side issue.

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