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Wittgenstein's 'private language' argument

DB7 258. Let us imagine the following case. I want to keep a diary about the recurrence of a certain sensation. To this end I associate it with the sign "S" and write this sign in a calendar for every day on which I have the sensation. - I will remark first of all that a definition of the sign cannot be formulated. - but still I give myself a kind of ostensive definition. How? Can I point to the sensation? Not in the ordinary sense. But I speak, or write the sign down, and at the same time I concentrate my attention on the sensation. But what is this ceremony for? for that is all it seems to be. A definition surely serves to establish the meaning of a sign. - Well that is done precisely by the concentration of my attention; for in this way I impress upon myself the connection between the sign and the sensation. But "I impress it on myself" can only mean: this process brings it about that I remember the connection right in the future. But in the present case I have no criterion of correctness. One would like to say: Whatever is going to seem right to me is right, and that only means that here we can't talk about 'right'.

259. Are the rules of the private language impressions of rules? - The balance on which impressions are weighed is not the impression of a balance.

260. "Well, I believe that this is the sensation S again." - Perhaps you believe that you believe it! Then did the man who made the entry in the calendar make a note of nothing whatever? - don't consider it a matter of course that a person is making a note of something when he makes a mark - say in a calendar. For a note has a function, and this "S" so far has none. (One can talk to oneself. - If a person speaks when no-one else is present, does that mean he is speaking to himself?)

Here we are concerned with how a person might learn a private language, or might devise one. The latter would seem the more appropriate description in this case since the idea of learning a language strongly suggests, that the language is already given. That the rules for the language are already in some way determined. The distinction between learning and devising a language is important if we want to consider 'criteria of correctness'. If we are learning a language then criteria are available from the word go. Our very first fumbling attempts at using the language may be classed as correct or incorrect. In the case of devising a language it is quite possible that in the beginning we will have no criterion, and hence it will not make sense to talk about our first uses of the language as correct or incorrect. This does not mean that there never will be criterion. If I am successful in devising this language then as the language evolves the patterns of use will settle down so that there is a fairly stable correlation between the things I say in this language and the mental states or sensation they are supposed to describe. One could then say that I was using the language I had devised correctly if and only if my usage fitted in with the established pattern. But how does this pattern ever become established in default of some criterion of correctness? Surely we need a criterion of correctness before we establish the pattern and so cannot invoke the pattern to give us a criterion. Not at all patterns are very easy to come by, even without the slightest intention our activities tend to fall into patterns. It requires rather more effort to break out of a pattern (or a habit if that sounds more familiar) than it does to keep it up. With a private language the problem if there were any would not be in establishing a pattern, but in adjusting the pattern to best serve our purposes (whatever they might be).

Need a note have a function? Surely the note "S" in the calendar serves to remind us on what days we experienced the particular sensation associated with "S", isn't that enough of a function?


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