Wittgenstein’s Private Language Argument

Is it possible to have a “private language”? Say you have a sensation that is yours alone, and does not fit into any kind of communicable language structure. It’s so peculiar, so individual that you simply cannot express it with common words. So you call it “S”, and when you experience it you tell yourself “that was S”. The word “S” then is a word in your private language.

Wittgenstein thought that the above thought experiment could never happen in reality. Language, on his view, just doesn’t work like that. I will quote liberally from Korsgaard’s reading of Wittgenstein to explain his view. The concept of meaning, Wittgenstein thought, is fundamentally relational: meaning is created through the relationship of an individual with others, not just an individual with himself.

This is because meaning is normative – there is an element of “ought” to it. In Korsgaard’s words, “to say that X means Y is to say that one ought to take X for Y.” Now a normative relationship requires two people: somebody to lay down the rule, and somebody else to obey it. Why does it require two people? Because in all meaning there must be the possibility of error. Korsgaard writes that “if what you call S is just that sensation that makes you feel like saying ‘S’ … then you cannot be wrong.” Without some shared convention, the word “S” has no anchor.

To hopelessly confuse the issue, there is a link here between Wittgenstein’s argument and Kierkegaard’s prescient critique of Nietzsche’s “sovereign individual”. If the only rules you have are rules you lay down for yourself, those rules turn out not to be rules at all. In Evans’ words, “our awareness that our own arbitrary choice is the basis of the authority is sufficient to undermine the authority, since we realize that we can at any time make a new choice.” Like rules of personal conduct, linguistic meaning can only exist in the context of a community.

Getting back to Wittgenstein, we can see that a private language is not a language at all – or, at least, it does not share what we might consider to be essential features of a language. Unless the meaning of “S” is publicly acknowledged, Wittgenstein writes that “I have no criterion of correctness… whatever seems right to me is right. And that only means that here we cannot talk about ‘right’.” In short, statements in a private language can never be false – which means they can also never be true in any meaningful sense.


2 thoughts on “Wittgenstein’s Private Language Argument

  1. Pingback: I’m finding Derrida unstructured | Cool lady blog

  2. Pingback: I’m finding Derrida de-structured | Cool lady blog

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