Thursday, December 15, 2011

Wittgenstein: private language

More of a first draft of a revised version of the article I'm working on for the IEP:
The debate about solitary individuals is sometimes referred to as the debate about “private language.” Wittgenstein uses this expression in another context, however, to name a language that refers to private sensations. Such a private language by definition cannot be understood by anyone other than its user (who alone knows the sensations to which it refers). Wittgenstein invites us to imagine a man who decides to write ‘S’ in his diary whenever he has a certain sensation. This sensation has no natural expression, and ‘S’ cannot be defined in words. The only judge of whether ‘S’ is used correctly is the inventor of ‘S’. The only criterion of correctness is whether a sensation feels the same to him or her. There are no criteria for its being the same other than its seeming the same. So he writes ‘S’ when he feels like it. He might as well be doodling. The so-called ‘private language’ is no language at all.
It might be worth trying to spell this idea out at greater length, and Wittgenstein approaches much the same idea from a different angle with his example of the beetle in the box. In this case we are asked to imagine that everyone has a box with something in it called a “beetle.” No one can see anyone else’s beetle, and the only way for anyone to know what a beetle is is to look inside his or her own box. Whatever is in it is a beetle, by definition. So “beetle” means “contents of one’s box,” whatever this might be, including nothing at all or a constantly changing something. Or rather, it is to the contents that the word “beetle” refers, but the use of the word “beetle” might be quite different from the use made of “the contents of one’s box.” The terms “flyover states” and “the heartland” might refer to the same geographic region, but their meanings are different in the sense that the use, the point, of each is different. In the case of “beetle,” however, there is no such relevant common referent. Only the use can matter to the word, and this use is common to all speakers of the language.
The words of a “private” language, one whose words’ meanings were the boxed-in contents of each speaker’s head, would have no real meaning at all. This is because the meaning in question of each word is supposed to be whatever is in the person’s mind or head when he or she says (or writes, or thinks) ‘beetle’ or ‘S’. Not that the meaning is: whatever is in my head when I say ‘S.’ That is perfectly intelligible. Rather, the meaning is supposed to be the actual thing, whatever it might happen to be, and this could be anything or nothing. A language whose words mean anything or nothing is no language at all.     
The point of this is not to show that a private language is impossible but to show that certain things one might want to say about language are ultimately incoherent. If we really try to picture a world of private objects (sensations) and inner acts of meaning and so on, we see that what we picture is either regular public language or incomprehensible behavior (the man might as well quack as say or write ‘S’).

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