THE PRIVATE LANGUAGE ARGUMENT
Ivo Coelho, SDB
This paper is a study (completed in November 1980) of Chapters 4 and 6 of O. R. Jones’ The Private Language Argument. Chapter 4 is “Behaviourism and the Private Language Argument,” containing two articles, one by C.W.K. Mundle and the other by L.C. Holborow. Chapter 6 is entitled “The Verification Principle and the Private Language Argument,” and the articles here are by Judith Jarvis Thomson and Anthony Kenny. In this paper I will deal with each of these two sets of articles separately without making any attempt to relate them.
1. Behaviourism and the Private Language Argument
Mundle accuses Wittgenstein of being a ‘Linguistic Behaviourist’—not a crude behaviourist who denies the existence of all ‘inner experiences,’ but rather one who holds that even if there happen to be such things as inner experiences, we cannot speak of them. Mundle’s case may be stated as follows:
(a) Wittgenstein denies both an incommunicable (i.e. private) language about inner experiences, and a communicable language about inner experiences.
(b) Wittgenstein stresses the primacy of public language, and the fact that were it not for natural expressions of sensations, we could not learn the public words for them. Let us admit both, says Mundle. Having admitted this, why can’t I proceed to invent a language for inner experiences which at least I can understand?
(c) Wittgenstein offers the Diary Argument to show that we can’t even talk to ourselves about our inner experiences. The crux of the argument is this: there is no criterion of correctness—hence it makes no sense to speak of remembering correctly. The argument is thus based on a scepticism w.r.t. memory. But, as Ayer has shown, this leads to total scepticism. So we cannot doubt memory; we must accept the fact that at some state or other we do rely solely on memory. Hence there is no difficulty in recognizing a particular sensation again.
(d) Rhees, however, says that the identity—the sameness—comes from language. Language is required in order to recognize some¬thing as the same. This, according to Mundle, makes no sense: surely we first recognize the similarity and then apply the same name? The problem about recognizing sensations does not exist.
(e) Hence the Diary Argument does not hold. We can name our inner experiences, and also recognize them when they recur, without difficulty. So we can have a private language about our inner experiences.
(f) The question now is: can we also have a public language about them? Here Mundle feels we must agree with Wittgenstein that without natural expressions of sensations, we would not be able to teach others the use of words for sensations. The beetle situation is an apt analogy here. Each one of us knows what ‘pain’ is only from our own model. However, Wittgenstein went too far in saying that the box might even be empty. I may not be able to say whether the pain I feel is similar to yours; but surely I can have little doubt about the fact that you do have pain sometimes. There is evidence available—in your behaviour, your description of your pain, etc.
Further if we must choose between some version of the Verification principle, and denying meaning to the principle that similar conditions give rise to similar sensations, we must reject the former.
So we can have a communicable language about our inner exper¬ience after all.
Mundle ends by saying that anyone who would hold that Wittgen¬stein did not deny language about inner experiences, must first show how the Diary Argument and the Beetle Argument fit in.
Hol¬borow’s article is a response to Mundle’s challenge. He says:
(a) It is wrong to say that Wittgenstein denied all talk about inner experiences.
(b) The Diary and the Beetle Arguments can be shown to fit in with this interpretation, by distinguishing, between inner experiences with natural expressions, and inner experiences without natural expressions. Wittgenstein denied the possibility of a language only about the latter, and this is the point of the two arguments in question.
(c) However, it is possible that Mundle would challenge even this restricted thesis. The Diary Argument, he would say, is based on a scepticism w.r.t. memory, and this implies a total scepticism. Here Holborow points out that the argument is not based on a scepticism w.r.t. memory. The real point is this: that mere ‘concentration of attention’ on ‘something inner’ accomplishes nothing. No criterion is fixed at all: and so there is nothing to remember. The question of memory does not arise.
However, PI # 265 might give the appearance that Wittgenstein does attack the reliability of memory (“Justification consists in appealing to something independent”). But what is required here is not actual checking in every case, but rather the possibility of a check. Unless a checking is possible, it makes no sense to speak of my use of a word as correct or wrong.
So the Diary Argument stands: a language about radically private experiences (those which have no natural expressions) is impossible.
(d) But now a new question arises: there cannot be a radically private language. But can there not be a partially private language? This would be a language in which the general character of the sensation is given in the normal way, but the specific type can be distinguished but not publicly conveyed. (There are no existing words for it, nor does it have natural expressions.) So here we would have an identification that would be uncheckable in principle.
Here Wittgenstein would say: if an identification is uncheckable in principle, there is no justification for talk of correctness or mistake. Now when there is no such justifi¬cation, then the statement in question must be either an expression like ‘I am in pain,’ or it must be senseless. Your partially private language claims to identify, to describe; so it is impossible.
(e) At this point we must question Wittgenstein’s assertion that no doubt is possible at all in the case of ‘I am in pain.’ It is possible to find counter-instances. (Holborow cites a few.) Besides, it seems possible to find in Wittgenstein another category for reports of sensations, descriptions of sensations which are ‘results of observation.’ (PI II:187-189)
(f) On this interpretation, the distinction we claim to make would be a ‘result of observation’, a description of the sensation. But if it is a description we still have to find a justification.
Why is it that Wittgenstein requires a justification of the claim to recognize sensations? Because, as Rhees says, it is only through language that we can specify, or isolate the aspect of a thing which interests us. It makes no sense to say ‘that.’ We must specify what we mean, and this specification comes from language. In other words: the claim to have recognized something makes no sense unless that something has in some way been specified. Is this condition fulfilled by our partially private language? “I think that it is in the case of strikingly distinctive internal sensations, and that the fact that the distinctive quality of such sensations cannot be communicated does not rule out our claim to discriminate them.”
Holborow concludes that Wittgenstein is no behaviourist. He denies the possibility of a radically private language, not of all talk about inner experiences. However, Wittgenstein’s arguments are in need of qualification insofar as there can be a dependent private language.
I think Mundle has been answered fairly well by Holborow. I agree with Holborow that Wittgenstein is no behaviourist, and that the Diary Argument and the Beetle Argument are not opposed to this interpretation. But I wonder whether it is necessary to defend these arguments by saying that Wittgenstein made a distinction between inner experiences with natural expressions, and those without. I do not know whether Wittgenstein has explicitly said anywhere that there are inner experiences of the latter type. What he seems to have said is rather: if you think that inner experiences are named by looking into ourselves and uttering a sound, you are mistaken. If there were no natural manifestations of pain, for example, we would never be able to teach a child the use of ‘pain’. If our inner experiences had no natural expressions at all, we would have no words for them in our language.
The purpose of the Diary Argument is not so much to deny language about inner experiences, as to point out both the dependence of the language game of inner experiences on that of external objects, and its divergence.
The Beetle Argument must not be taken as a description of our actual situation w.r.t. our sensations, as Mundle has done. In fact (as Holborow has also pointed out), Wittgenstein’s purpose is just the opposite: what he wants to say is that if you consider sensa¬tions on the model of beetles in a box, then you are committed to the position that they do not enter language at all. The object then drops out as irrelevant, and the box might even be empty. And when Wittgenstein declares that sensation is neither a something nor a nothing (PI # 304), he is not denying the existence of sensations. What he is rejecting is the grammar on which it is based, which easily misleads us into thinking of sensations as objects of some kind, admittedly ‘inner,’ but objects all the same (PI ## 304-308).
What about Holborow s ‘partially private language’? His claim is that it is possible to make a finer distinction (as to the type of the sensation) than can be publicly described. There are no natural expressions to help us make this distinction, and nothing in the existing language either. This implies therefore that no justification of the claim is possible—and hence that it makes no sense to speak here of a correct or mistaken identification, or even of an identification in the first place.
Holborow, we have seen, tries to answer by seeking the reason behind Wittgenstein’s demand for justification. The call for the possibility of a justification, he says, is a call for the speci¬fication of the terms being used. So in his opinion, this condi¬tion is fulfilled at least in the case of strikingly distinctive sensations, even if this distinctive quality cannot be communi¬cated. He ends on this note. I do not think we can consider his claim substantiated. In order to make a case, one has to do more than merely make claims. It appears to me that he is aware of the implications of his claim from the moment he introduces the problem; that he tries to work his way to a solution by trying to find place for a new category of ‘fallible sensations reports’ which are ‘results of observation.’ But this procedure gets him nowhere, for with the claim that his ‘partially private language’ is a description, the requirement for the possibility of a justifi¬cation merely re-enters. The last effort is to reduce the need for justification to that of ‘specification.’ As far as I can see, ‘specification’ would involve language; and Holborow has excluded this when he says that the distinction he claims to make cannot BE PUBLICLY DESCRIBED. In the face of all this, it is difficult to make sense of his claim that all the same such a specification can be made at least in the case of strikingly dis¬tinctive sensations.
Perhaps Holborow’s ‘partially private language’ might have been saved if he had contented himself with saying merely that no public expression corresponds to the distinctive character he claims to discriminate, without saying also that the distinction is not publicly describable. Here then perhaps there would be the possibility of making finer distinctions by relating to words which already exist In public language—words for other inner experiences, for example. So here we would have a description of sensations, together with the necessary ‘possibility of a check’ and the ‘spe¬cification’ that is implied. I don’t think Wittgenstein has ruled out such a dependent language. We must take heed of his warning, however, that describing sensations is not like describing other things. We must not fall into the temptation to think of sensations as some kind of inner things which we describe by looking into ourselves.
2. The Verification Principle and the Private Language Argument
Mrs Thomson’s article is a vigorous attack on the attempt to find a thesis called the ‘Private Language Argument’ in Wittgenstein. She takes Malcolm’s presentation of the argument as representative of this misguided effort, and states her case against it:
(a) The thesis must not be credited to Wittgenstein. Further, it is neither important nor original.
(b) It is difficult to see what could make it logically impos¬sible for a language to be understood by anyone but its speaker.
(c) It is not at all clear what it means to follow a linguistic rule, or to violate it unwittingly.
(d) The whole argument is nothing but a restatement of the discredited principle of verificationism.
How (if at all) does Kenny answer Thomson? He says very tersely in a footnote: “Mrs Thomson is doubtful whether the Investigations contain an argument against private language. I agree with her that it does not contain the argument which she states.” He does not, therefore, attempt to respond to her directly. Instead, he goes back to Wittgenstein himseIf in a refreshing re-examination of the whole question:
(a) What, according to Wittgenstein, is a private language? A language whose words “refer to what can only be known to the person speaking: to his immediate private sensations.” (PI # 243) (Wittgenstein has just asked whether there could be a language to express inner experiences. ‘Obviously,’ the answer comes: ‘don’t we use our ordinary language for this purpose?’ But, says, Wittgenstein, that is not what he means. He wants to know whether there can be a language referring to what can be known only to the speaker. The question here is not so much about the possibility of a private language, as about the nature of ‘inner experiences.’ Supposing they are such that they are accessible only to the sub¬ject, could there be a language about them?)
(b) Why is this question about private language important? Because of its implications for epistemology and philosophy of mind. Several philosophical theories imply the possibility of a private language (e.g. Cartesianism, empiricism, scepticism). If a private language is impossible, these theories are wrong.
(c) The notion of a private language rests on two mistakes: (1) about the nature of ‘experience’: that it is private (inaccessible to others); and (2) about the nature of language: that words can acquire meaning by bare ostensive definition.
(d) Experiences are not ‘private’ in any radical sense. Others often know when I am in pain. I can of course deceive them; but this very deception is possible only on the basis of the existence of natural expressions of inner experiences.
(e) Bare ostensive definition is insufficient. It presupposes a great deal of stage-setting in language (PI # 257); and so the language in question is no longer private.
(f) However, some would hold that naming an inner experience is still possible, without necessarily having to fall back on public language. To these, the Diary Argument is directed. Now many are of the opinion that this argument is based upon a scepticism about memory. This is a misunderstanding. Wittgenstein is not asking, ‘how will I remember whether something is S or not?’ but rather: ‘how will I know what I mean by S?’ What is in question is the very extension of the term S. Suppose, when I had first used the term, I had fixed a table in my imagination. Now I want to use S. I refer to the table. And now suppose I want to justify my use of S. What do I refer to? The same table, the same memory! I use one memory to justify itself! This, says Kenny, is exactly analogous to buying two copies of the same newspaper.
(I would like to add a further point. Immediately after the above, Wittgenstein says: “So the look of a clock may serve to determine the time in more than one way.” (PI # 266) I think Wittgenstein is calling to our notice a point he made earlier: that there are ways and ways of interpreting a rule or a table. So a mere picture by itself is of no help. What we need is an established usage, a spontaneous rule-following. Now is this requirement ful-filled in the case of the table in our imagination?)
(g) The Private Language Argument rests not so much on verifi¬cationism as on the picture-theory of the 1910’s. A proposition is essentially bi-polar. (There is no such thing as an essentially true—an analytic—proposition.) Further, propositions must be articulated. Now ‘This is S’ satisfies neither of these conditions: it is not articulate (“a definition of the sign cannot be formulated¬“—PI # 258); nor is there is any possibility of its being false. It is related to the sensation “like a yardstick which grows or shrinks to the length of the object to be measured.” A measure must be independent of what it measures. There is no way of giving S an independence short of taking it into a public language.
To summarize: Kenny is of the opinion that there is something that could be called the Private Language Argument in Wittgenstein, though it is not in the form in which Thomson states it. He re¬jects her statement of the problem, and with it the charge of verificationism too. However, he could have been more explicit: what exactly is it that is wrong with Thomson’s statement of the problem?
We will bypass the question whether it is Malcolm who must be blamed for the statement of the argument, or whether it is Thomson who has misunderstood Malcolm. This much is clear: the entire argument as found in Thomson’s article is centred around the notion of ‘rule-following’; and it is obvious that a clarifi¬cation regarding Wittgenstein’s own notion of ‘rules’ is called for.
Thomson thinks of a rule as something explicitly formulated—¬a command or an order that can be followed or violated. “Immediately the difficulties rush in” —naturally. For what could be the rule for ‘table’ or for ‘chair’? Who formulates them? What would count as a violation of ‘You may do this’? And suppose we settle for ‘Call this, and other similar things, ‘table’—what is the meaning of ‘call’? Does this rule oblige us to shout out ‘table’ whenever and wherever we see one? The rules that Wittgenstein has in mind, however, are not commands or orders, nor are they explicitly formulated. They are rather “part of the framework on which the working of our language is based.” (PI # 240) They form part of the agreement that exists among human beings—and “that is not agreement in opinions but in form of life.” (PI # 241) How, then, do these rules influence us? By way of training: I have been trained to react to this sign in a particular way, and now I do so react to it.” (PI # 198)
Hence following a rule is something done spontaneously; and if this is so, it is also possible to violate a rule unwittingly. lf we take ‘rule’ as meaning ‘order’ or ‘command,’ it may make little sense to speak of an unwitting violation. But we take ‘rule’ in the sense of a usage, a custom, a tradition. What sense does it make to speak of a conscious mistake here? (A pianist deliberately pressing the wrong keys.)
Thomson will immediately respond: if you hold that ‘unwitting violation’ is part of the concept ‘rule,’ you are committed to the third step: that unwitting violation is not possible unless there is the logical possibility that another could find out. And that amounts to verificationism. In other words, Thomson is saying: if you insist on the public character of rules, you are a verificationist.
The question ‘why must rules be public?’ can be countered by another: ‘how would you fix a private rule?’ And now the whole of the Private Language Argument can be brought to bear. We need not go into details again. It will be sufficient to point out that the question of the ‘possibility of finding out whether or not a thing is a K’ does not arise at all. Mere ostensive definition, mere concentration of attention, coupled with the uttering of a sound, does not achieve anything: the extension of ‘K’ has not been fixed at all. The question of finding out whether or not a thing is a K already presupposes that we have fixed what type of thing, or what aspect of a thing is to be called a K; and the occurrence of that prior step apart from any connection with public language, is what Wittgenstein is denying.
2.1 A remark on ‘the possibility of finding out’
A sound is a word in language only if there is ‘the possibility of finding out.’ Put this way, this remark could be misleading. But there is some truth in it.
On what is the possibility of communication based? On the sounds I utter? The gestures I make? The symbols I use? Or is it based on something shared? A form of life, a framework that is taken for granted—an agreement which is not agreement in opinions? Another way of expressing this: there must be spontaneous rule-following. “To obey a rule, to make a report, to give an order, to play a game of chess, are customs (uses, institutions)” (PI # 199). So if this common form of life is absent—if you do not share it with me—there can be no communication. I think this is how we must understand the phrase, “the possibility of finding out.” (This is not to rule out the possibility of inventing new usages, new customs. But even this very possibility, and the possibility of communicating these, would be radically rooted in a common form of life....)
This is a far cry from verificationism. In a society where ‘god’ is a community experience, the sound ‘god’ surely makes sense, has meaning. Communication is possible. Would a verificationist be satisfied with such a procedure? The verificationist has a particular type of verification in mind: he has exalted one particular framework, that of empirical science, to the status of absolute arbiter of sense. All language must conform or be damned. For him, the phrase, ‘the possibility of finding out’ has a particular connotation. Has Wittgenstein restricted himself in this way in the Investigations? On the contrary.
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