THE PRIVATE LANGUAGE ARGUMENT: LITERATURE

LUDWIG WITTGENSTEIN: PHILOSOPHICAL INVESTIGATIONS

This book was, I believe, the source of the argument. Wittgenstein discusses many issues, more or less simultaneously. As well as the private language, various other issues are raised - notably (a) whether we can justify describing mental processes using the grammar of subject and object (b) whether the nature, or even existence, of private sensing, makes any difference to anything of value (which links to the question of whether a private language would be of any value.

§202: And hence also 'obeying a rule' is a practice. And to think one is obeying a rule is not to obey a rule. Hence it is not possible to obey a rule 'privately': otherwise thinking one was obeying a rule would be the same thing as obeying it.
Comment: Certainly "to think one is obeying a rule is not to obey a rule". I can propose a rule - a constant association between R and S - but unfortunately lack independent checks on the identification of R, so that I am relying on my uncorroborated impression that R has occurred. I think that I am obeying the rule. But I am also horribly aware that I cannot, unaided, tell the difference between what seems to me to be R, and what actually is R. I have a clear view of what obeying the rule would involve - but I am aware that I may be breaking it.
Wittgenstein has not shown that "thinking one was obeying a rule would be the same thing as obeying it"; merely that in private the difference between the two cannot be independently established.
Wittgenstein's instinctive view is a kind of positivism: What cannot be independently corroborated does not exist. In particular, if two possibilities are claimed to differ, but the difference cannot be independently checked, he instinctively concludes that therefore they do not differ. Making this unjustified move over and over again, very forcefully, does not make it justified.

§257: 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 can 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 - and so, as it were, point to it inwardly. - 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 concentrating of my attention; for in this way I impress on myself the connection between the sign and the sensation. - (i) But 'I impress it on myself' can only mean: this process brings it about that I remember the connection *right* in the future. (ii) But in the present case I have no criterion of correctness. (iii) One would like to say: whatever is going to seem right to me is right. (iv) And that only means that here we can't talk about 'right '.
Comment: He is concerned that I remember the connection right. His positivism shows in his immediate move from having no criterion of correctness, to the concept of 'right ' being inapplicable. I have the sensation, and I concentrate my attention on it, as I decide to associate it with the symbol 'S'. I now have a sensation, and I write down 'S'. If we are not positivists, we can say that either I am right, or I am not (ie. even though this is impossible for myself, or anyone else, to test). The criterion that I am using is that if the new sensation seems to me to be the same as the one that I remember - the one that I concentrated my attention on previously - then I write 'S'. 'This isn 't much of a criterion.' - It isn't, but it is all that I have; I hope for the best. 'I mean that it isn't a criterionx at all. A criterion mustx provide an independent check that the rule is being correctly applied.' - This is a persuasive definition. That sort of criterionx is very nice, if it is available; we can call it 'criterion0 '. If it isn't, we use a 'criterion(1) ' such as 'seems the same as the one that I remember '. I agree that it isn 't a criterion0, but that doesn 't matter. I also understand that you don't like using a criterion1 because you think that it is second best. That is your problem, not mine.
(i) No.It can mean: 'This process brings it about that I intend to remember it right in future' - but I may be wrong.
(ii) Yes.
(iii) No, one would not like to say this. One would like to say: "Whatever is going to seem right to me, may be right, or may be wrong."
(iv) No. Only a positivist or verificationist would say that we "can't talk of 'right'", because we can't independently test for correctness.

§263. "But I can (inwardly) undertake to call THIS 'pain' in the future" - "But is it certain that you have undertaken it? Are you sure that it was enough for this purpose to concentrate your attention on your feeling?" - A queer question.
Comment: The words 'certain' and 'sure' indicate his life-long concern with certainty. I am certain and sure - in the usual meanings of the words. Only a positivist would hope for a different form of certainty - presumably by public checking. What he wants is the same kind of checking that is possible for a chipped tooth. By slipping between the private sense of certainty, and decisive public checking, he is deceptively pointing.

§265. ...But are we also to call it a justification if such a table [a mental dictionary] is to be looked up only in the imagination - (i) Well, yes; then it is a subjective justification.' - (ii) But justification consists in appealing to something independent...
Comment: I agree with him, but the pattern of his argument is revealing.
(i) An attempt to suggest that internal 'looking-up' might provide some internal way of supporting a judgement, 'justification(1)'. I don't agree with it, but:
(ii) He dismisses it, by merely referring to the usual meaning of 'justification(O)'. But perhaps we are suggesting that judgements can be supported in *other* ways - in which case, referring to the usual way is irrelevant.
Remember that Wittgenstein cannot beg the question, by presuming that we are all permanently trapped in everyday language, and that all suggested extensions are unsound. He has offered no general proof of this result, so he has no right to presume it. All he can hope to do is to argue against the metaphysician, case by case - showing the deceptive pointing, and how we have been tempted into it by linguistic carelessness. As Ayer writes (p.80), we look to Wittgenstein to demonstrate to us where we have been misled by grammar. But instead we just get uncharitable translation of our claims into ordinary language.
{Ordinary language does implicitly contain metaphysical presumptions, sometimes within its grammar, which can be abused. The application of ordinary language to the mind is an example, where Wittgenstein, following, for example, Henry James, does seem to me to show what he sets out to show: the casual use of nouns and adjectives, subjects and objects, presents a picture, a model, of a mental world by analogy with the physical world - with 'I' as the subject, and mental objects as the objects. We may have no justification at all for introducing this picture. We can try it, but firstly we should introduce it explicitly as a premise, not surreptitiously through our grammar, and secondly, we should be assessing continually whether the picture is still proving helpful, or if it is leading us into paradox and confusion.}

§271 "Imagine a person whose memory could not retain what the word 'pain' meant - so that he constantly called different things by that name - but nevertheless used the word in a way fitting in with the usual symptoms and presuppositions of pain" - in short, he uses it as we all do. Here I should like to say: a wheel that can be turned though nothing else moves with it, is not part of the mechanism.
§272 The essential thing about private experience is really not that each person possesses his own exmplar, but that nobody knows whether other people also have this or something else. The assumption would thus be possible - though unverifiable - that one section of mankind had one sensation of red and another section another.
Comment: Transposition of colour-sensing: We agree, minimally, that a mental process, colour-sensing, occurs; a radically colour-blind person behaves in a publicly verifiably different way, because, we conjecture, she has no colour sensing. But beyond that, transposing the sensing would be unverifiable - and hence unimportant. Again his positivism, the engineer's attitude, comes to the fore. For our part, we accept 'unverifiable' (and 'no place in positive science') but deny 'unimportant'. §272 is correct; we are left with the - admittedly unverifiable, and practically irrelevant - quality of the sensing. "Who cares?", Wittgenstein suggests - to which the correct response, here as in the philosophy of science, is: "You are welcome not to, but I do".
But how much can we hope to say about the colour-sensing, detached from its publicly-testable manifestations - its teaching links? We can step forward, cautiously, because Wittgenstein fails to prove that we cannot. But firstly he can choose not to take the step; secondly, he can spotlight the danger, as we step from the light into the darkness - he can warn us that we are crossing a fairly clear threshhold into the dark.

§278 "I know how the colour green looks to me" - surely that makes sense! - Certainly: what use of the proposition are you thinking of?
Comment: The ordinary-language sentence is not capturing, of course, the meaning that I intend. The meaning is unusual - philosophical. Wittgenstein remarks in §275 that ordinary people would never say that the blueness of the sky is in their own heads. But this, bluntly, may just make them, as Hume says, 'the vulgar', who have not thought enough about their situation - have not considered the total available evidence sufficiently carefully - to have worked out a consistent view of their perceiving and nature.

§293...Suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a 'beetle'. No one can look into anyone else's box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is by looking at his beetle. - Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something different in his box. One might even imagine such a thing constantly changing. - But suppose the word 'beetle' had a use in these people's language? - If so it would not be used as the name of a thing. The thing in the box has no place in the language-game at all; not even as a something: for the box might even be empty. - No, one can 'divide through' by the thing in the box; it cancels out, whatever it is.

That is to say: if we construe the grammar of th expression of sensation on the model of 'object and designation' the object drops out of consideration as irrelevant."

[Comment: A private sensation is not a something, but he insists elsewhere that it is not a nothing either. The conclusion was only that a nothing (the empty box) would serve just as well as a something about which nothing can be said. We have only rejected the grammar that is forced upon us here.

He argues that, for a public language, the words 'private sensation' are irrelevant. This is hardly surprising, since the language is public. Do things, or events, to which the phrase 'private sensation' attempt to refer, exist? If so, can be devise ways, not in part of the everyday public language, for referring to them?]

 

§296. "Yes, but there is something there all the same, accompanying my cry of pain. And it is on account of that, that I utter it. And this something is what is important - and frightful." - (i) Only whom are we informing of this? And on what occasion?
§298. The very fact that we should so much like to say: "This is the important thing" - while we point privately to the sensation - is enough to show how much we are inclined to say something which gives no information.
Comment: (i) We are trying to do something unusual here, not chat with our bank manager - or our doctor. We are informing you of this, on this occasion. We are trying to persuade you of something. He wants to suggest that all we would normally say is things like "I am really in pain, not acting", which is fine, because it doesn't make references to inner processes, only to a mental process. He is objecting to the 'inner' picture, of a mental world, with a something in it, which does not appear in ordinary situations, because it is philosophical nonsense, which is not needed for us to talk about all substantial issues.
We have accepted concern about unjustified models of mental processes. But a private language needs to presume neither that the term 'S' refers to a mental object, a thing, nor that it is defined by some simple mental analog of ostensive pointing towards a chair. We can avoid the subject-object language - talk of sensing occurring rather than sensations existing, of mental events, of remembering rather than memories. We can still aim to associate 'S' with a certain kind of sensing, a certain kind of mental process.
And we can continue to suggest that the sensing is 'inner', or 'private', meaning that it is sensible to doubt that someone else has the sensing, but not to doubt that we are having it - and that we discover empirically that some aspects of our sensing, and our thoughts, are not detectable by other people.

§304. 'But you will surely admit that there is a difference between pain-behaviour accompanied by pain and pain-behaviour without any pain?' - Admit it? What greater difference could there be? - 'And yet you again and again reach the conclusion that the sensation itself is a nothing.' - Not at all. It is not a something but it is not a nothing either! The conclusion was only that a nothing would serve just as well as a something about which nothing could be said. We have only rejected the grammar which tries to force itself on us here...
§305. ...The impression that we wanted to deny something arises from our setting our faces against the picture of the 'inner process '. What we deny is that the picture of the inner process gives us the correct idea of the word 'remember'. We say that this picture with its ramifications stands in the way of our seeing the use of the word as it is.
306. Why should I deny that there is a mental process? But 'There has just taken place in me the mental process of remembering....' means nothing more than: 'I have just remembered....'. To deny the mental process would mean to deny the remembering; to deny that anyone every remembers anything.
Comment: The positivist attitude is that an electron, for example, is merely a cipher in the theory. The theory is used to save the observable phenomena; success is to be empirically adequate at the observational, public, level. 'Electron' does not refer to an unobservable entity in the external world; it is a symbol (a set of characters) in a linked set of propositions which are elegantly structured using definitions, and which eventually are linked to observation. Unfortunately the grammar of the theory misleadingly implies that 'electron', as a noun, refers to a thing. But the character string has no such implication. 'Is an electron a nothing?' - Not at all. It is not a something, but it is not a nothing either. It is a grammatical fiction. The conclusion is only that a nothing would serve just as well as a something of which no direct observations can be made. We have only rejected the grammar which tries to force itself on us here...The impression that we want to deny something arises from our setting our faces against the picture of the 'hidden process'. What we deny is that the picture of the hidden, deep, process gives us the correct idea of the word 'electron . We say that this picture with its ramifications stands in the way of our seeing the use of the word as it is.
Wittgenstein is consistent on this point, with sophisticated positivists: an anti-realist such as Bas Van Fraassen - refuses to answer the question: 'Do electrons exist?', because he regards it as misposed; there is no question of them existing or not existing. Nothing positive - and therefore nothing negative - can be said about the unobservable world. An electron, within physical theory, correctly viewed, is not a thing at all - the word 'electron ' is a part of a very successful way of describing various patterns of observable behaviour. If the theory gives an impression of depth, that is unfortunate. All our puzzles over how we know that electrons exist can be unravelled, once we realise that physicists are only talking metaphorically when they seem to describing 'things ' in an 'inner microworld '.
If the word 'electron ' is taken seriously as referring to an entity in the microworld, we are forced immediately to raise difficult questions like: ' What is it made of?'; 'Why does it have infinite self-energy?'. If we retract to our anti-realist position, these problems completely disappear. We are not removing an entity from the microworld - we are saying that it was never there in the first place - that the whole interpretation was a mistake.
This is very similar indeed to Wittgenstein 's attitude. He is not saying 'mental processes do not occur' - in the sense that he is not saying that the patterns of observable events that we describe using phrase like 'He remembered' are not well described in this way. He is saying that we have no justification for *redescribing* these patterns of observable events in the specific language of inner processes and mental states. There was no problem with describing them before - using our non-private language. But once they are described in this public language, using a model in which the mind is like some kind of special world, or device, then special problems arise, the analogy begins to prove problematic, questions are raised which we cannot answer. All that he wants to do is to withdraw from this project. Stop worrying about what 'memory ' is - at least philosophically. Just accept that 'people remember things' and leave it at that.
We have much sympathy with this view.
The challenge to us is to see whether it is possible to investigate at all into this area. Can we, for example, devise new technical terms to refer to aspects of mental processes? Or will we always just find ourself mired in unanswerable questions?

"307 If I speak of a fiction, then it is of a grammatical fiction."

[Comment: He insists that he is not denying that sensations exist; I think he means that he is not asserting it either. Instead he is objecting to the grammatical presupposition that they are the kind of thing that could exist or not exist. "Sensing occurs" might be more to his taste, as it is to ours.

In other words, sensations shouldn't be viewed as entities at all - they shouldn't be presumed to be things, with properties, which can be studied. We incautiously presume that there is a mental medium, with mental events in it - and immediately we are in the grip of this picture. Then we find that we are in all sort of difficulties: we can't understand the processes; we can't explore the medium. But the picture was a mistake; the problems are self-generated; they are telling us that we have made a wrong presumption.

[This is a respectable view, but he has not yet proved it. Furthermore, it is not directly relevant to the PLA]

 

'§311. In the case of pain I believe I can give myself a private exhibition of the difference (between pain-behaviour accompanied by pain, and pain-behaviour without any pain). But I can give anyone an exhibition of the difference between a broken and an unbroken tooth. (i) But for the private exhibition you don't have to give yourself actual pain; it is enough to imagine it - for instance, you screw up your face a bit. (ii) And do you know that what you are giving yourself this exhibition of is pain, and not, for example, a facial expression? (iii) And how do you know what you are trying to give yourself an exhibition of, before you do it? (iv) This private exhibition is an illusion.'
Comment: Note the use of 'know' in (ii) and (iii) - again it is certainty that concerns him.
Note the rather bizarre reference to "screwing up your face" - the positivistic concern for the publicly observable aspect of a phenomena. Note the - from his point of view - more satisfactory case of exhibiting a broken tooth; this is a proper event/thing, because it is publicly observable.
His conclusion (iv) is a positivistic non-sequitur; the lack of ability to demonstrate something decisively to others, does not make it an "illusion", it makes it no more, and no less, than what it has been shown to be: something private, something that you can't publicly demonstrate.

§315. (i) Could someone understand the word 'pain', who had never felt pain? - (ii) Is experience to teach me whether this is so or not? - (iii) And if we say "A man could not imagine pain without having sometime felt it" - how do we know? (iv) How can it be decided whether it is true?
Comment: Ayer says (p.81) that some interpretations of Wittgenstein become odd if we consider someone who has never sensed pain, or a blind person: Wittgenstein is not pretending that we are anaethetised, or automata. He insists that sensing occurs; that he is not a behaviourist; that there is a difference between really being in pain, and just displaying all the teachable patterns of behaviour associated with 'pain'. What he is objecting to is the philosophy of the inner that takes this sensing as a starting point, and charges off into nonsensical claims.
On (i) our intuitive answer is "Partly". Recalling Pears' useful distinctions, above, we reply that the person could understand all the public teaching points (Wittgenstein's favourites like "screwing up your face"), but could not understand the reference to the sensing.
(ii) No. The sensing of someone else is not available to my experiencing. To be upset by this, is positivism.
(iii) Fair enough. Hume grudgingly agreed that a person could use extrapolation and interpolation to imagine colour shades that they have never experienced. Maybe a person could imagine sensing pain, though he never had sensed it. I don't think we can prove, in one of the three ways I proposed, that this is impossible.
(iv) Once again, he becomes positivistic. It probably cannot be decided whether a person is truly imagining pain. No special consequence follows; Wittgenstein's remark is not heavy with menace for some philosophical adversary - it is just a commonplace, true, observation.

'§377 What is the criterion for the sameness of two images? - What is the criterion for the redness of an image? For me, when it is someone else's image: what he says and does. For myself, when it is my image: nothing. And what does for 'red' also goes for 'same '.'
Comment: This is classic positivism or verificationism: the phrase 'what he says and does' is revealing.

§378: 'Before I judge that two images which I have are the same, I must recognize them as the same.' (i) And when that has happened, how am I to know that the word 'same' describes what I recognise' (ii) Only if I can express my recognition in some other way, and if it is possible for someone else to teach me that 'same' is the correct word here.
(iii) For if I need a justification for using a word, it must also be one for someone else.
Comment: In (i) '...to know...' reveals W's continuing search for certainty. (ii) reveals an associated tendency: his focus on language, to the exclusion of the things to which they refer. I suggest that I can judge that two images are the same without putting the thought into words; I have the sensation, and write down 'S'. If asked - in other words if communicating with someone else - I will say 'I have had the same sensation', but this does not imply that I had this thought formed in language.
If we worry about how I came to use the word 'same ' in the first place - I could have invented it myself to refer to the appropriate concept.

'§380: How do I recognise that this is red? "I see that it is this; and then I know that that is what this is called" - This? What? What kind of answer to this question makes sense?
(You keep steering towards the idea of the private ostensive definition).'
Comment: This is interesting, because his comments to his interlocutor are not put in parenthesis. This 'you' seems to be Wittgenstein himself - in other words, he is struggling to persuade himself.

Summary: I don't think that Wittgenstein manages to escape from my basic criticism, which is that his natural positivist and verificationist tendency leads him repeatedly, in the private situation where we agree that later applications of the symbol cannot be independently checked, to deny the possibility that an individual can assign meaning to a symbol. I am proposing that although an uncheckable assignment of meaning is inferior, it is not incoherent.
Wittgenstein is not helped by his casual use of vague ordinary language, which is ironically tied up with his overall method. Using 'languagex' without refinement is a recipe for confusion.

Any comments?