Saturday, 21 May 2022

The Private Language Argument IV: Sensations, Grammar and Samples. §§256-271


In §§246-250 Wittgenstein considers pain in relation to knowledge, and in §253 he invites us to untangle the conceptual confusion involved in treating pain as a kind of possession. Both passages aim to undermine the notion that sensations represent “inner objects” – akin to physical objects, but existing in the mind rather than the outside world. 

We don’t have pains in the sense that we possess them; we suffer them. As such, they are not objects of knowledge for us. I can be wrong about which objects I possess, and if I’m unsure I can find out by doing an inventory. Then I’ll know which things I possess and which I don’t. None of this applies to a sensation like pain. The question “How do you know you’re in pain?” makes no sense. 

Note, however, that if we model our sensation-language on the analogy of physical objects, the question becomes valid. Now if someone says they’re in pain we can legitimately ask whether they might be mistaken. “I’m in pain” is no longer an expression of pain; it is a description or assertion, logically on a par with (eg) “I’m in London”. As such, it stands in need of justification. On what grounds do I claim to be in pain (or in London)? So yet again we are confronted with the issue of correctness. 

In §§256-271 Wittgenstein weaves these insights into a broader attack on the notion of a private language. We might distinguish four related strands: 

  1. The incoherence of pain considered as conceptually distinct from its characteristic expressions. 
  2. The resulting redundancy or sham nature of the private language. 
  3. The inadequacy of ostensive definition as the private language’s foundation. 
  4. The inadequacy of sensations (or the memory of sensations) as definitional samples. 

Under this onslaught, the private language is revealed as an incoherent parody. Not only can it not be understood by other people; it can’t be understood by the speaker himself – for there is nothing to understand. 


Pain and its Expression 

§§256-258 set out the key features of the private language. It is a language in which sensation-words are not tied up with the natural expression of sensations. They just name the sensations themselves. Indeed, it is helpful when imagining this to do away with the physical expression of sensations altogether (§257). There are merely sensations, which are named, and these names are strung together to form descriptions of our inner lives.  

This disassociation of pain and its expression is a crucial step. It’s what would allow the private language to be radically private. The words of such a language could not be further defined, or explained to anyone else (§258), and it would be impossible for other people to figure out what they meant. As such, of course, they couldn’t be taught either, but that’s beside the point; the private linguist will simply have to teach himself (§257). The result will be a language whose meaning owes nothing to its use – for it has no use. 

For Wittgenstein, however, this is not so much a crucial step as a crucial misstep. It gives a distorted picture of the concept “pain”. For we do not learn that word through an act of introspection; it is given as an extension of our natural pain behaviour (§244). Nor do we learn to deduce or hypothesise pain in others from their behaviour (there is such a thing, but that comes later). We are taught “look, she’s in pain!”, not “she’s behaving in a way that suggests she’s in pain”. As such, the expression of pain is built into the concept from the very beginning. Pain and its expression go together not as a kind of happy accident, but as a logically interwoven whole.  

How coherent is it, then, to completely disassociate the two? On the face of it, this doesn’t seem to be a problem: there can be pain without pain behaviour, and pain behaviour without pain. What could be clearer than that? But such distinctions are secondary rather than fundamental. They only make sense within a broader framework of pain as something which is naturally expressed. For how would it be if pain was never expressed – if people behaved quite normally, but occasionally said “I’m in pain”? What on earth would the word “pain” mean in such a context? If someone walked around for week after week with all the outward signs of good health but swore sincerely that every step was complete agony, then we would have to conclude they didn’t know what the word “agony” meant. And if I imagine myself saying “my shoulder is painfully sore, but I can move it with complete freedom” then I don’t even understand my own words. 

Does this mean that there’s no such thing as pain without pain behaviour? Wittgenstein raises the question in §281, and for once gives a clear answer: “only of a living human being and what resembles (behaves like) a living human being can one say: it has sensations; it sees; is blind; hears; is deaf; is conscious or unconscious”. This brief remark has huge philosophical ramifications, which we’ll have to leave for a later post. For now, we should just note that Wittgenstein is stressing the difference between an ontological claim (“pain exists”) and a conceptual one (“this is what we call ‘pain’”). Consider what it means to create a country by drawing its boundaries on a map. In a sense, this brings the country into existence, but of course it doesn’t literally create the land – all the mountains, rivers, plains, etc – which makes up the country. And it’s similar with the conceptual boundary we have for pain. The boundary as drawn includes a logical link between pain and pain behaviour. The latter is part of the definition of the former. But nothing is brought into existence, apart from the concept itself. 

One final point. Since the private linguist’s use of the word “pain” differs crucially from our own, he has no reason for using it. Indeed, to spare us all a lot of confusion, he’d be better off finding a different word. And of course, what goes for “pain” goes also for “sensation”. Indeed, even to say he “has Something” is a misapplication, since “has” and “something” belong to our public language. “So in the end, when one is doing philosophy, one gets to the point where one would just like to emit an inarticulate sound. – But such a sound is an expression only in a particular language-game, which now has to be described” (§261). Ouch! 


Sensation-Language as a Part of Life 

Severing the link between pain and its expression raises a further difficulty for the private linguist: what purpose is served by his language? For us, having sensations and verbalising them is a matter of consequence. We feel pain and so we can no longer walk properly, or concentrate, hold things, etc. We tell someone we’re in pain and we get treatment or sympathy or mockery, cruelty, indifference, etc. But for the private linguist, his sensations are just there, passive and inert. They lack genuine significance. This by itself can make us wonder if they really deserve the name “sensations” at all – which in turn shows how far our concept of sensation is bound up with its expression and our wider lives more generally. Likewise, his private language is passive and inert. It doesn’t achieve or affect anything. And this can make us wonder if it really deserves the name “language” at all. 

Certainly Wittgenstein has his doubts. In §258, after describing how the private linguist supposedly names his sensations, he asks “But what is this ceremony for? For that is all it seems to be!” And in §260 he further questions whether the private linguist’s sensation-diary really amounts to an actual diary: “Don’t consider it a matter of course that a person is making a note of something when he makes a mark – say in a calendar. For a note has a function, and this ‘S’ so far has none” (my italics). Finally, in §268, he asks “Why can’t my right hand give my left hand money? – My right hand can put it into my left hand. My right hand can write a deed of gift, and my left hand a receipt. – But the further practical consequences would not be those of a gift” (my italics). By analogy, the private language is no more than a parody of an actual language precisely because it too lacks consequences. 

It’s tempting to suppose otherwise. Why does language have to achieve something? Can’t I, for example, just keep a record of events because I want to, and not because it’s useful in some way? So, with the sensation-diary introduced in §258, we might say that what it achieves is itself. It records the reoccurrence of sensation “S” over time, and that’s enough.  

Okay, but how about this: there’s no such thing as language, and then one day someone keeps a list which serves no purpose. Does that make sense? As things stand, I can of course keep a record of something just because I feel like it, but such an activity takes place within a language that already has numerous established techniques for producing consequential records: school reports, shopping lists, company accounts, appointment diaries, and so on. The moot point is whether a purposeless record could be foundational – for that is the task which the private linguist has set himself. 

Let’s consider this foundational purposeless record. Over the course of a few days someone writes down “S” at various times. The resulting “list” plays no part in his subsequent actions. He doesn’t, for example, consult it later when doing something else. But in that case, what right do we have to suppose he has made a record of something? He might just as easily have written “S” each time merely because he felt like it. It might be a list, a pleasing design, or just a series of random doodles. That is, it could be something or nothing. 

But surely the author himself knows what he’s created? And that’s all that’s needed for a private language. This is a strongly persuasive suggestion, and yet there’s also something dubious about it. For example, when the private linguist writes his first “S” does he know that he’s starting a list? How can he without some kind of paradigm or archetype to guide him? And since the list serves no purpose, what’s the difference – for him – between keeping a record and merely writing “S” whenever he feels like it?  

It’s tempting to brush such questions aside and say that the private linguist forms the intention of keeping a list and then goes ahead and carries out his intention. So the intention is the archetype. There are two things to be said against this. First, the jump from nothing to a full-blown technique of list-making seems too big to make sense. If I intend to keep a list I can say what it is that I intend: another one of these. And if my list is in some way innovative I can say that it’s another one of these, plus this. My innovation builds upon, and is supported by, an existing framework of customs and techniques. That’s part of what it means to innovate. But going from nothing to a full-blown list would be more like jumping straight from rudimentary counting to quadratic equations. How could the latter be seen as an extension of the former with nothing in between? Quadratic equations would make no sense in such a context – even to the person who was proposing them. Likewise, what sense would the private linguist’s intended innovation make to him? An intention is embedded in a situation which makes it possible. If I know the rules of football, it is impossible for me to intend to win a penalty by diving on the half-way line. 

The temptation to suppose that intention can enable creation ex nihilo stems, at least in part, from the idea that having an intention is akin to having a picture in our mind. We form an image of doing something and then go on to do it. No prior framework is needed for this image to exist; the mere fact that it’s there is enough. Again, the intention is the archetype. Fully exposing the incoherence of such an account will have to wait for another time. Right now it’s enough to note that it leads to the second objection mentioned above: how can intention (qua image) play the role of an archetype? That’s like saying that an imagined example can do the work of an actual example. If I need an example – say, of basket weaving – to show me what to do, then it’s no good simply imagining one. (Of course, I might imagine a technique and then try it out – and it might work. But what I imagined wasn’t an example, for all that. “Maybe this will work” isn’t the same as “this is how it’s done”. And in any case, the private linguist has no criterion of “working” here, since his list serves no purpose. Whatever he does will be right, so long as it seems that way to him.) 

If all this sounds familiar, it’s because it draws upon arguments already set out in the rule-following sections of the Investigations (see in particular §§197-205). It also leads directly on to strands (c) and (d) mentioned in my introduction. The question as to whether the private linguist understands his own signs boils down to the question as to whether ostensive definition can, by itself, found a new linguistic technique. This in turn raises issues about the logical possibility of a private sample as the lynchpin of a private ostensive definition – and that’s more or less the same as asking whether an image can fulfil the role of an archetype. 


The Private Language and Ostensive Definition 

Once sensation has been logically detached from its expression, sensation-language cannot be founded as an extension of our natural behaviour. Nor can this language be explained in terms of its use since, essentially speaking, it has none. Instead, we’re pretty much forced to view our sensations as inner-objects, and to base our language on the naming of these objects. 

How is this naming achieved? By association (§256). I focus my attention on a particular sensation as I pronounce the word (§258) – or perhaps it would be better to say that I focus my attention on the word and the sensation together. I commit to memory the connection between the sign and the sensation, so that next time the sensation appears the name is right there along with it. That’s how the word gets its meaning: by a kind of inner ostensive definition. 

In §257 Wittgenstein at once questions whether the private linguist really understands his own names. Or, rather, he questions whether the private linguist’s baptismal act really amounts to naming at all – so if the names aren’t understood it’s because there’s nothing to understand. The basis for his criticism is that genuine naming goes along with (indeed, is proceeded by) the grammar of the name. When a child is baptised, for example, we already know how proper names are used; the only thing lacking is the particular name of this particular child. But without the pre-established use of proper names, the baptism itself achieves nothing. In other words, “much must be prepared in the language for mere naming to make sense” (§257). An established grammar is precisely what the private linguist lacks, and so his act of baptism is a sham. He feels a sensation and he makes a sound, but so what? Whatever connection there is between the two, it is not the connection between an object and its name. 

Another way of making the same point is to say that grammar provides a standard of correctness for the use of a word. Knowing how to use a word is of course knowing how to use it correctly. And so, again, an act of baptism isolated from any established technique of usage lacks a standard of correctness. There’s no right or wrong way of using the new word. And since the criterion for understanding a word is correct usage, it follows that the new word isn’t understood – not even by its creator. The private linguist doesn’t understand his own language. Of course, this is not like when I don’t understand the word “aphasia”. That is, the private linguist doesn’t fail to understand his words. Rather, there is no such thing as understanding them, for they aren’t really words at all. 

But aren’t we being unfair to the private linguist? He is going to write “S” every time a particular sensation occurs. Doesn’t that amount to a technique, and therefore a grammar and a standard of correctness? In other words, the private linguist invents a grammar to go along with his newly-coined vocabulary. Wittgenstein considers this option in §§262-263 and asks how the invention is supposed to come about. The private linguist’s answer, as we’ve already seen (§256), is that he focuses his attention on a sensation and resolves to call it “S” in the future. But is this enough? Actually, Wittgenstein has already answered his own question in §253: “one does not define a criterion of identity by emphatically enunciating the word ‘this’.” If the private linguist says “I will call this ‘S’ in the future” he’s immediately faced with the question “what do you mean by ‘this’?” And the answer can’t be “whatever I’m going to call ‘S’ in the future”, because that’s just circular. 

The private linguist is trying to create a grammar out of his sample (“this”), but it’s the grammar that gives identity to the sample, not the other way round. So he doesn’t actually have a sample! It just seems like he does, because we’re all familiar with cases in which new names are coined (“from now on I’m going to call this ‘x’”). But what we have in such cases is an established grammar into which we can slot the new word. Suppose I discover a new type of tree which gives a new type of fruit. I can happily set about inventing names for the tree, its fruit and so on. But of course I already have an established grammar for trees and fruit (and for countless other things which are more or less similar to them: bushes, pine cones, etc). And it’s this grammar which is presupposed in my act of naming, and which makes everything flow so easily. If we forget this background, it can seem as if names can be created out of nothing by a kind of mental fiat. But they can’t. 

The same thing goes for the alternative idea touched upon in §262 and §264, namely that mere acquaintance with an object is enough to force a grammar upon us once we start talking about it. We don’t have to invent a grammar because we find it ready-made. So, for example, if I’m shown a lychee for the first time and told its name I can immediately say “pass me the lychee” (plus countless other sentences), and I know that it’s nonsense to say “lychee me an apple”. I don’t have to resolve to use the word in a particular way; the grammar just seems to come along with the nature of the object itself. But, again, an awful lot of stage-setting stands behind this easy fluency. Given my years of experience, I know how to talk about fruit (and physical objects more generally), and can easily incorporate new examples into my repertoire. But it’s not like that for toddlers, who frequently over- and under-extend new words. For example, on learning that the family pet is a “cat”, they might go around calling everything they like “cat” – their teddy, blanket, and so on. It’s all “cat”. (§28: “an ostensive definition can be variously interpreted in any case”.) There is no mysterious force emanating from the objects around us which compels us to adopt a particular grammar. We have to be trained into it. 

All this can seem paradoxical. If names require a pre-established grammar to give them meaning, how does language ever get off the ground in the first place? It seems as if we need grammar before we even have words. But how then is grammar itself created? The answer is that words and their grammar emerge together out of steady ways of living. I don’t just have a grammar for the word “fruit”; I also have fruit. I eat it, buy it, pick it, carry it around, put it in bowls, throw it away when it gets mouldy, etc, etc. Likewise, I don’t just have the word “pain”; I suffer it, it incapacitates me, makes me cry. I witness it in others and tend to them, pity them, ignore them, take advantage of their frailty, gloat over their distress. That’s the background onto which language is grafted. And it’s precisely the background which the private linguist has foresworn. 


Private Samples 

As we’ve seen, in §258 Wittgenstein objects to the private language on the grounds that it provides no criterion of correctness for the use of its words. In the above sections, I cashed this out in terms of grammar, rule-following, etc. Such points are not specific to a sensation-language; they apply equally to talk about stones and trees. But in §258 Wittgenstein’s immediate complaint concerns correctness in relation to memory. That’s more narrowly pertinent to a private language because a private language relies exclusively on memory for its definitional samples: I know that the sensation I’m feeling now is called “S” because it’s the same as the sensation I remember having in the past, which I baptised “S”. Even if we leave aside the need for samples to be embedded in an existing grammar, we’re faced with the question as to whether memory alone can fulfil the role of a sample. 

So the private language’s words are defined by committing to memory the connection between the sign and the sensation. Wittgenstein immediately retorts that “’I commit it to memory’ can only mean: this process brings it about that I remember the connection correctly in the future. But in the present case, I have no criterion of correctness. One would like to say: whatever is going to seem correct to me is correct. And that only means that here we can’t talk about ‘correctness’” (§258 – the connection with §202 should be obvious). 

Note that Wittgenstein’s point does not hinge upon the fallibility of memory. He’s not saying that because we sometimes misremember we might always be misremembering. Such a sceptical argument would undermine all language, not just a private one. But it would also be incoherent. If I can never be sure that my memories are correct then I can never be sure that they’re incorrect either – yet the sceptic’s argument relies on the fact that we know our memories sometimes mislead us. Therefore, we must also know what it is to remember correctly. The sceptic’s doubt illicitly relies on the very thing he’s trying to call into question: a standard of correctness for memory. Without that, there would be neither correct nor incorrect memories. 

And that is Wittgenstein’s point: we do have a standard of correctness for memories, and it involves checking what we remember to be the case against what actually is the case. If my memory suggests that Addis Ababa is the capital of Ethiopia but my friend is certain it’s Nairobi, we can look it up – or even visit Ethiopia to find out. As Wittgenstein points out in §56, “we do not always resort to what memory tells us as the verdict of the highest court of appeal”. In practice, of course, we don’t always go that far. As long as we remember clearly we tend to trust our memories, and if there’s a difference of opinion we’ll often go along with the person who’s certain rather than the one who’s unsure (and in the case of Ethiopia, that might get us into trouble). Indeed, sometimes our memories can be so compelling that we refuse to give them up even when the facts seem to contradict us. If I’m sure there’s a post office at the end of a certain road, but when I get there it’s a charity shop, I might just say “they must have changed it; I’m certain this used to be a post office”. We don’t check every last memory that crosses our minds, and we don’t always trust the result of a check either. 

But what if there was no way of ever checking any memory? What if there was no such thing as checking a memory against the facts? We’d be left with only the impression that things were (or used to be) thus-and-so. But would that even count as an impression? The concept of having an impression (thinking, believing, remembering, being certain that x) goes together with the concept of checking, making sure, establishing the facts. If we logically isolate impressions then they cease to be impressions at all – that is, they no longer play the role of what we call “impressions”. Without an objective method of calibration, memories wouldn’t be memories. 

This, of course, is a problem for the private linguist. His language is founded upon the notion of checking the sensation he has now against the memory of a past sensation in order to justify calling it “S”. This is to say, he is using his memory as a sample in order to judge the correctness of his subsequent assertions. But memories themselves stand in need of justification. Samples, by contrast, are neither justified nor unjustified; they are what we use to justify other things: assertions, judgements, impressions, and so on. They are the ruler, not what is measured. That’s why a memory cannot function as a sample. 

But if memories can’t provide an objective justification, might they nonetheless provide a subjective one? Wittgenstein mentions this option in §265. It gets its appeal from the fact that sometimes we use one memory to support another. For example: I seem to recall that Temptation by New Order was released in 1982, but I’m not sure. Then I clearly remember listening to it repeatedly on the evening before my geography A level exam when I should have been revising – so, yes, it must’ve been 1982. Okay, but this doesn’t really get us any further forward. A clear recollection still stands in need of justification, just like a hazy one. That is to say, “I clearly remember that x” doesn’t have the status of proof. It doesn’t play that role in our lives. Checking one memory against another can be useful, but in terms of establishing correctness it’s “As if someone were to buy several copies of today’s morning paper to assure himself that what it said was true” (§265). 

The private linguist has nothing that counts as checking his memory against the facts, and so he has nothing that counts as establishing its correctness. Whatever is going to seem correct to him is correct. “And that only means that here we can’t talk about ‘correctness’” (§258). And if there’s no standard of correctness then there’s no language either, because language has to be more than making whatever noises feel right at the time. 


Using the Private Language 

I discussed earlier how the private language lacks functionality. If you’re going to claim that such a language is not only possible but forms the basis of our actual language, then clearly this is a problem. And, of course, that’s precisely the claim made by numerous philosophers from Descartes through to modern-day cognitive scientists. Language (meaning) is basically a matter of representations in the mind (or brain): pictures, maps, apperceptions, sense data, qualia, and so on. These are the inner objects which form the true subject-matter of language. And since my representations are hidden, only I truly know what I’m talking about. You have to figure it out as best you can. 

At the same time, nobody denies that we put language to use. What we say and write has real-life consequences. How does that work? How might a private language get a public face? Wittgenstein turns to this in §270 when he imagines a use for the entries in the private linguist’s diary. Whenever there’s an entry “S”, it turns out that the diarist’s blood pressure is rising. So he can tell he has rising blood pressure simply from the fact that he’s written “S”. The private language has consequences. But now Wittgenstein remarks “it seems quite indifferent whether I’ve recognised the sensation correctly or not. Suppose that I regularly make a mistake in identifying it, this does not make any difference at all”. So long as the correlation between writing “S” and rising blood pressure holds true, the diary performs its function and the correct identification of the sensation is neither here nor there. 

This is a deeply ironic twist of the knife. First the private language is criticised for being useless and then, when a use is proposed, the language’s subject-matter is cast aside as irrelevant! 

Two issues might trouble us, however. First, Wittgenstein seems to suggest that the very idea of keeping a sensation-diary is bogus – or, at least, that it doesn’t matter if the diary’s entries are correct, so long as they correlate with other aspects of the world. Yet it is quite common for people to keep such diaries. Are they all behaving foolishly? And if I kept such a diary I wouldn’t be indifferent to the correctness of my entries. Whatever use they had, it would be essential that each “S” picked out the same sensation. For the whole point of writing “S” is to record the fact that this sensation (and not some other) has occurred again. 

Secondly, if the utility of the diary entries trumps their correctness, why doesn’t this apply just as much to a record of physical occurrences as to a sensation-diary? 

Let’s take the second point first. Suppose I keep a diary in which I write “S” every time there’s a particular cloud formation in the sky (eg, stratocumulus). Later, I realise that whenever I write “S” I get bad TV reception. So now I can tell if my TV reception’s going to be disrupted simply from the fact that I’ve written “S”. Couldn’t we say here that so long as the correlation between writing “S” and bad reception holds good, it doesn’t matter if each “S” correctly records the occurrence of stratocumulus clouds? Won’t my cloud-diary be just as useful either way? 

Maybe, but it’s important to recognise that I have options which aren’t open to the private linguist. For one thing, I can check the correctness of my entries. I can use samples (eg, photos of different cloud formations), take my own photos to supplement my entries, and then compare the two. As we’ve seen, the private linguist can’t do that. At best, he might form a strong impression that today’s sensation is the same as yesterday’s, but an impression isn’t proof. (§265: “Looking up a table in the imagination is no more looking up a table than the image of the result of an imagined experiment is the result of an experiment.”) 

Suppose now I check my previous entries and find that they are often wrong, and yet each “S” still correlates to bad TV reception. Here I might indeed be indifferent to these errors since they still produce a useful result, but now the whole nature of what I’m doing has changed. I’m no longer keeping a genuine diary. It’s more like I’m using the clouds as a source of inspiration. I gaze at them, and every now and then get the urge to write “S” – indeed, this might even happen on a completely clear day. Nonetheless (and somewhat miraculously) the resulting entries are useful. I’m more like a cloud shaman than a cloud diarist. 

The private linguist’s position is similar, though worse. For it’s not that he has no way of checking the correctness of his entries but rather that there’s no such thing as their being correct or incorrect. The private linguist is not keeping a diary which might, or might not, be accurate. He’s not keeping a diary at all. But still, so long as the link between writing “S” and high blood pressure obtains, what does it matter? 

Now let’s go back to the first issue: is Wittgenstein claiming that for any personal sensation diary it doesn’t really matter if our entries are right or wrong? That would be a revelation, and would hardly square with Wittgenstein’s insistence that philosophy “leaves everything as it is” (§124). But here I think we need to distinguish between two different claims: 

  1. If I write “S” it doesn’t matter if I’m correct or not. 
  2. If I write “S” it doesn’t matter if I’m in pain or not. 

If I undertake to write “S” each time I’m in pain, then of course it matters whether or not I’m in pain when I write “S”. But the issue of correctness doesn’t come into it, for I can no more be correct (or incorrect) about being in pain than I can know (or not know) that I’m in pain. If I write “S” when I’m not in pain then I’m either lying or else I’ve forgotten that “S” is the sign I’ve chosen for pain. What can’t be the case is that I’ve mis-identified my sensation. And that’s not because I unerringly identify my sensations correctly, but because I don’t identify them at all. 

Think of writing “S” as a highly refined extension of our natural pain behaviour, rather than a description of a mental state (§244). Both descriptions and groans can let someone else know how things stand, but that doesn’t mean that a groan is a type of description. And this distinction remains important even when our groans are replaced by verbal equivalents. “I am in pain” looks much more like a description than “ouch” – indeed, we might even freely admit that it is a type of description – but that doesn’t mean it functions in exactly the same way as (eg) “I am in London” (cf §§290-291). It has a different place in our lives, different roots, and runs according to different rules. We are taught to express our pains verbally and later in writing. The result of this training is not to produce within us a series of mental samples which we then use to identify what we’re feeling. It can’t be, because there’s no such thing as a mental sample. Rather, it makes possible a range of more or less sophisticated reactions – such as telling a doctor what’s wrong with us, or writing “S” whenever we feel a particular pain. 

The issue highlighted in §270 is that if we suppose keeping a sensation-diary to be a straightforward matter of description – recording an arrangement of (inner) objects – then as soon as we try to give this description a function, the objects themselves cease to matter. All we need is the description and its consequences. “That is to say, if we construe the grammar of the expression of sensation on the model of ‘object and name’, the object drops out of consideration as irrelevant” (§293). In philosophy, this mistake is called behaviourism. 



By the end of §271 Wittgenstein has broken the back of the private language. Its self-imposed isolation from the flow of our public lives (including our natural expression of sensation) leaves it without a grammar – since the latter grows out of the former. Instead, it attempts to found itself upon acts of naming, with something like ostensive definition providing the rules to hold everything in place. But this is doomed before it begins. For names only function as names when embedded in an established grammar. Moreover, the attempt relies on the supposition that sensations (viewed as inner objects) can be used as samples to ground its definitions. But sensations aren’t objects, and remembering a sensation is not like pulling a chart out of your pocket to check that you’ve done things right. Sensations can’t be samples. The end result of all this is that the private language lacks a genuine standard of correctness. And without that it doesn’t even qualify as a language. 

A house of cards has been demolished, but we ought to pause for a moment and reflect on the significance of what’s just happened. Because it’s not only the private language that’s been repudiated; one of the central philosophical traditions of the last four hundred years has come tumbling down in its wake: the “object-in-a-box" theory of mind. And not just this or that version of the concept – the whole thing is in ruins. Substance dualism, property dualism, idealism, transcendental idealism, physicalism, solipsism, phenomenology, functionalism, monism, materialism, behaviourism, mysterianism and naturalism are all dragged down in the aftermath. It’s nothing less than the rejection of philosophy’s account of what it means to be a human being. 

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