Friday, 20 August 2021

Setting Up the Private Language Argument: §§243-245

 It’s worth looking closely at the first few sections of what’s called “the private language argument”, since this is where Wittgenstein sets out his stall and gives some important clues about the significance of what’s to follow. 

§243 begins with a reminder of an obvious fact: some of our linguist activity is directed at ourselves. We can encourage ourselves, give ourselves orders, etc, etc. In short, we often talk to ourselves – either out loud or internally. We might call this “private” in the sense that it’s not about communicating with other people. Next, however, Wittgenstein wonders about the possibility of a more radically private language: one that’s only concerned with giving voice to our immediate private experiences so that it could not be explained to, or understood by, another person. 

Already there are a few questions we might want to ask about this setup: 

  • 1. What does this have to do with the preceding sections of the book? There seems to be an abrupt jump between §242 and §243, as if Wittgenstein was starting an entirely new line of enquiry. If he isn’t, what’s the connection?

  • 2. Why does he begin with ordinary private linguistic use and then contrast this with the more radical version? Why not just begin with the radical version and save some time? 

  • 3. Why would no-one else be able to understand the sensation language? After all (as Wittgenstein himself admits), we describe our sensations to each other all the time. What makes the private language private?


  • 4. Why is Wittgenstein asking us to consider this at all? What hangs on the possibility (or otherwise) of a sensation language that could only ever be understood by the speaker? 

  • 5. If the idea of a private language is to be rejected, what alternative does Wittgenstein offer? 

Let's consider them in order.

1. Rule-following and private linguistic use 

Wittgenstein ends his discussion of rule-following (§§185-242) with the observation that language as a means of communication is grounded in shared judgements or reactions (§242). When the pupil in §185 suddenly starts “adding 2” by writing “1000, 1004, 1008...” and insists that this is going on the same as when he wrote “100, 102, 104”, reasons are no help to us. His fundamental judgement-reactions simply differ from ours, and unless we can train him to share our reactions we will be left staring at each other in mutual incomprehension. And this, Wittgenstein maintains, is true of language more generally. 

His point stands as a heavy blow to the referentialist account, which views language as a system of correlations between objects and words, grounded in definitions (eg, ostensive definitions) which are so powerfully immediate that we are compelled to understand them. Wittgenstein’s rule-following analysis attempts to show that this compulsion is a sublime myth. Explanations (reasons, definitions) do not end in a quasi-magical super-explanation; they end in action (§217). 

But the referentialist is not finished yet. For we might grant that shared reactions were necessary for communication but question whether communication was essential to language. Obviously, no-one is going to deny that we do communicate through language, and that this is tremendously important. But is it an essential feature or a useful by-product? After all, at least some of the time our linguistic usage is not directed towards others; it is directed to ourselves: we talk to ourselves, give ourselves orders, and so on. Doesn’t this suggest that communication is not an intrinsic feature? 

And this is the starting point of the private language discussion. 


2. Ordinary private linguistic use 

Could there be a language that wasn’t used as a means of communication? Perhaps surprisingly, Wittgenstein’s answer is yes – but with an important qualification. At the start of §243 he gives examples of the various ways we direct language towards ourselves rather than others: we encourage ourselves, give orders, blame and punish ourselves, ask ourselves questions and answer them. He then goes on to imagine people who only used language in this way; they never talked to each other, just to themselves. Indeed, we could go further and imagine a solitary person doing this, rather than a community, so that it was obvious his language wasn’t outwardly directed. 

So far so good, but now comes the qualification. Wittgenstein points out that because this language is woven into the speaker’s activities an observer would be able to translate it. And when he had done that, he could use it to communicate with the solitary speaker. (cf §206: “Shared human behaviour is the system of reference by means of which we interpret an unknown language”.) 

Why is this important? Because it suggests that even if communication isn’t essential to language, communicability is. That’s no good for the referentialist, because it still grounds language in action rather than logical compulsion. If the solitary speaker’s words weren’t systematically woven into broadly consistent patterns of behaviour, then we’d have no right to conclude he was using language at all (cf §207). 

What the referentialist needs, therefore, is a language which not only isn’t used as a form of communication, but couldn’t possibly be used in that way. And that’s where the radically private language comes in. 


3. The nature of a radically private language 

A language concerned solely with our “inner lives” – sensations, thoughts, moods, etc – seems the ideal candidate for a radically private language because, at least on the face of it, our inner lives are just as radically private as the language we want to construct. If I have an apple in a box, I can keep it a secret, in which case it’s private in the ordinary sense of the word. But I might also show it to you, or you might discover it by yourself. So in the “outer” world, objects are only ever contingently private. My sensations and thoughts, however, are a different matter. They are shut away in a box (my mind) that cannot possibly be opened. Although I can tell you about them, I cannot literally show them to you or bring you to experience them as I do. Nor can you discover them through investigation; you cannot break into my mind and think my thoughts as though they were your own. Our inner lives are necessarily private. 

We might call this the “object-in-a-box" account of mind, and if we accept it the prospect for a radically private language seems promising. By focussing my attention inwards, I associate words with my various thoughts and sensations, and combine those words into descriptions of my inner life. That’s a language, right? But it’s hard to see how this language could possibly be explained to, or translated by, someone else. If I use the word “plig” to mean “apple”, I can explain myself by pointing at an apple. But how can I explain “plig” if it refers to a particular sensation? I can’t point to that with my hand. All I can do is focus my attention on the sensation and repeat “plig” with a strong emphasis – and that is no help at all. My sounds will mean nothing to you – but I will understand them. 

At this point, the private language is in danger of becoming a victim of its own success. Because if language is essentially a matter of combining words into descriptions, and our inner lives are necessarily private, then it’s hard to see how we could ever talk to other people about these things. To put it more broadly, if language is not essentially communicable then how can we even attempt to use it as a means of communication?  

And yet, as Wittgenstein points out in both §243 and §244, we talk about these things all the time. We can hardly bring ourselves to shut up about our thoughts and feelings. So how do we bridge this seemingly unbridgeable gulf? For the referentialist, the answer is that our inner lives are contingently linked to our behaviour. Luckily, our pleasant and painful sensations happen to coexist with distinctive physical movements, and these provide clues as to what’s happening inside us. So if I just say “plig” you have no idea what’s going on, but if I say “plig” and wince, you can deduce that I’m probably talking about a sensation that’s accompanied by wincing when it occurs in you. 

This brings behaviour into the picture without making it an essential feature, so it safeguards the claim that a radically private language is possible – and, therefore, that communicability is not an essential feature of language. As it happens, human beings accompany their sensations with characteristic behaviour, but (logically speaking) things might have been otherwise. In that case, sensation-language would still have been possible, but it would not have been communicable. Therefore, language is not essentially communicable. QED. 

It’s worth noting that this argument depends on the “object-in-a-box" account of mind, which renders our inner lives essentially private and inserts a categorical boundary between sensations and their physical expression. So the idea that sensations can be logically divorced from behaviour is being used to support the claim that language can be logically divorced from behaviour. 

We have confronted this model before in the discussion of understanding as an inner object or state, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Wittgenstein attempts to undermine it again in the private language discussion. But the task seems more daunting this time round; we might admit that understanding cannot be divorced from its expression, but surely our sensations are a different matter! They are just there as a brute fact of life, whether or not we express them through cries of pain or murmurs of contentment. And if sensations are basically separate from their expression, why can’t we have a language describing them which is equally separate from such behaviour? 

One final point about the radically private language. It seems to me that Wittgenstein’s extensive use of pain as an example is connected with the need to tackle the object-in-a-box model head-on. For of all the possible candidates, pain is the most concrete and therefore the most object-like. Suppose instead we chose to focus on jealousy. Jealousy is an emotion and, as such, is bound up with feelings and sensations. From this, you might think we could identify a sensation – or a cluster of sensations – labelled “jealousy”, but actually it’s not that simple. Which feelings are involved in a case of jealousy (sexual jealousy, for example)? I might list anger, frustration, despair and self-loathing, but these are also feelings I associate with watching a Transformers movie. What then differentiates the case of jealousy from exposure to the work of Michael Bay? If anything, it’s the circumstances in which they are embedded. That, of course, moves us outside the mind-box and ruins the analogy on which we are constructing our private language. Pain, by contrast, is much more straightforward. It is as tangible and discreet as a brick – if anything deserves to be called an inner-object, surely it is pain. So in tackling this paradigm example, Wittgenstein is confronting his adversary on its strongest ground. If it fails there, then the rest stands little chance. 


4. The significance of the private language discussion 

Actually, I’ve already said quite a bit about the significance of the private language discussion: how it relates to, and builds upon, the preceding discussion of rule-following. It’s a continuation of the struggle between two conflicting views of language: language as an activity and language as a system of reference by which the world is described. 

But now the struggle becomes directly and unavoidably entangled with the object-in-a-box model of our inner lives. Since referentialism depends on the idea that language is founded by associating words with objects, it more or less commits us to viewing our sensations, thoughts, etc, as just another type of object. Otherwise, how could we talk about them at all? Of course, these mental objects may have certain distinctive (and rather mysterious) features, but the same linguistic structure must hold good in both cases: object and name (cf §293c).


This connection drags in its wake a whole range of important philosophical ideas. The object-in-a-box model forms the basic theory of mind for philosophers as diverse as Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Husserl, James, Russel, Wittgenstein (in the Tractatus), Nagel and Chalmers. It is therefore bound up with perennial issues such as the problem of other minds, dualism, idealism, solipsism and the so-called “hard” problem of consciousness. 


Furthermore, it brings under consideration materialist theories like behaviourism and functionalism which oppose the object-in-a-box model. Such theories take this model as the correct description of what the mind would be like if there were such a thing, argue that it is either incoherent or irrelevant, and conclude therefore that the concept of mind is itself incoherent or irrelevant. Talk of our inner lives is just so much “folk psychology” which must be translated into bare bodily movements and/or activity in the brain. 

But for Wittgenstein, the incoherence of the object-in-a-box model stems from a failure to understand the workings of language. Implicitly (Descartes) or explicitly (Locke), the model relies upon a referentialist theory which fatally misdescribes the concept we are trying to understand. The materialist then rejects this misdescription under the illusion that she is rejecting the concept itself. The result is a nonsensical response to a nonsensical problem. (Indeed, the connection runs deeper still. Both §270 and §293 suggest that behaviourism is what you inevitably end up with when you try to put the referentialist account of sensation-language into action.) 

We have already seen Wittgenstein’s response to all this. At a detailed level, it involves the claim that meaning arises through use rather than via the association of words with the objects. When this idea is presented in §43, it might seem a rather technical, esoteric point, but its philosophical ramifications are far-reaching and revolutionary. Consider, for example, how the concept of use goes hand-in-hand with the concept of agency. The latter is presupposed by the former. An eagle can use a thermal updraft to climb into the sky, but a feather plucked from the eagle’s wing cannot do that, no matter how high it’s carried. The notion of use makes no sense unless it’s embedded in the context of living creatures, with wants and desires, going about their business. Once you recognise that meaning is use, the rest follows in its wake. 

Traditional philosophy typically looks to start from some supposedly elemental feature (sense data, the cogito, simples) and reason its way out from there to the world of people, values, and so on (and when it fails to do so, it is tempted to conclude that such things are an illusion). But if meaning is use – if language can only be understood as an activity – then the whole project is fatally flawed. For if language is grounded in use then so too are rules and ratiocination. They too only make sense within the context of active, living creatures. Hence you cannot use reason to justify the existence of agents and values since they are presupposed in the very idea of reason and justification. 

This is why, ultimately, philosophy must be descriptive rather than theory-driven. Philosophical theories are an attempt to justify or condemn our concepts through reason – to show that they are true, or that they are incorrect. But our concepts are not grounded in reason; they are grounded in action. They are neither true nor false; they’re either put into practice or they’re not. The language-game is played or it isn’t, and justification, logic, etc, exist within the language-game. And if you can neither justify nor condemn our concepts then all you can do is describe them. 

This has been called the “anthropological” approach to philosophy. As I say, at a detailed level it is concerned with meaning as use, but it gets a broader voice in the observation that language is “as much a part of our natural history as walking, eating, drinking, playing” (§25). And perhaps its most direct expression comes in a manuscript remark from 1937: 

The origin and the primitive form of the language game is a reaction; only from this can more complicated forms develop. 

Language – I want to say – is a refinement […] the foundation on which it grows consists in steady ways of living, regular ways of acting. 

Its function is determined above all by action, which it accompanies. 

MS119, 21 October 1937 

How does this conception play out when we come to the private language discussion? 


5. §§244-245: the alternative to the referentialist account of sensation-language 

The relevance becomes clear as early as §244, when Wittgenstein offers an alternative to the referentialist account of our sensation-language. It is important that he does so, because he will shortly argue that such an account doesn’t even get off the ground (see, for example, §§258-269). In that case, we’re faced with the question at the start of §244: “how is the connection between the name and thing named set up?” Wittgenstein suggests that the starting point is to graft language onto our natural sensation-reactions. So instead of simply crying, we teach a child to say “Ow!”, “It hurts!”, “I’m in pain!”, etc. Thus the connection begins not with naming or description, but as a refinement of our characteristic expressions of sensation. 

The language-game is grounded in action, and this is how it gets a foothold with regard to our sensations. Importantly, at this basic stage, pain and its expression are not conceptually distinct. It is absolutely taken for granted that crying, flinching, etc, are part of being in pain. The behaviour is, so to speak, saturated with sensation; there is no place at this point for doubt. 

Of course, once we’ve established this initial refinement, we can move on to refine things still further. We progress from “I’m in pain” to “I was in pain” – and this latter phrase is certainly more like a description than the former. We can also have “I’m in pain” when we’re not in pain, and “I’m not in pain” when we are in pain. Here we see the beginning of a conceptual distinction between pain and pain-behaviour. It’s tempting to regard this as a kind of “putting away of childish things”: once we assumed that pain and its expression were one, but now we’ve grown up and know better. This, however, misdescribes the relationship between the two positions. The latter is a useful offshoot; a branch which grows out of the central core.  

Certainly, it is important to understand that people sometimes pretend to be in pain. But to conclude therefore that pain and pain-behaviour are fundamentally distinct is to lose sight of the general background within which such pretence takes place. Indeed, the distinction’s limitations are evident in our lives. If I phone in sick, my boss might suspect that I’m pretending to be in pain, but he’s not going to do that if he sees me fall down a flight of stairs (cf §249). Pretending only makes sense within the broader context of guileless expression. Likewise, the very possibility of distinguishing between pain and pain-behaviour rests on the fact that, generally speaking, the two are intrinsically connected. You cannot use reason – or language – to fundamentally pry them apart, for “How can I even attempt to interpose language between the expression of pain and the pain?” (§245) 

This is the conception of sensation-language that Wittgenstein offers us. He doesn't argue that it's true; in §244 it's merely offered up as a possibility. It's just that his version makes sense, whereas (he argues) the referentialist account is hopelessly mired in difficulties from beginning to end. It's up to us which one we choose. The important thing is to be honest with ourselves about what we're choosing - and why we're choosing it.