"There are none so blind as those who will not see." --

Thursday, June 12, 2008

In Defense of Private Language: Part 2

Kripke’s theory of naming—though he refuses to call it that—is a reaction against the views of Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell. They had thought that the reference of a name is determined by a description which is associated with it in the mind of a speaker. Thus the reference of a name such as 'Aristotle' may be determined by a description such as “the most famous student of Plato.” Kripke makes several criticisms of this kind of account of names, which I cannot go into here. The important thing is the positive view that Kripke develops in response to it.

If the Frege-Russell view is wrong, how does it come about that people are able to use names to refer to objects? On Kripke’s theory, names are simply labels that we tag objects with. They can pick out their referents directly, without a need for any mediating description. In place of a description, Kripke envisions a causal chain stretching from current utterances of a given name all the way back to an initial “baptism” of its bearer. (Naming and Necessity, pp. 96-97) During a typical baptism a person will attend or point to an object which causally affects them in some way—perhaps by the light it reflects—and pronounce a word which, in the right circumstances[1], becomes the object’s name. Others hear the baptizer utter this name and come to use it themselves. Still others hear it from them and come to use it as well, etc. In this way the name can be passed on to an ever increasing number of speakers. So long as they intend to use the name to refer to the same thing the original baptizer used it to refer to, they too can use it to refer to that thing, even if they have never encountered it and know next to nothing about it. Indeed, they can successfully use the name to refer to it when most of their beliefs about it are false. These results are a great strength of Kripke’s theory, and one would do well to remember them, for they are crucial to understanding how the Private Language Argument goes wrong.

If Kripke’s account of naming is correct, we may say either that names refer but have no meaning, or that the meaning of a name just is its bearer. Either way, Wittgenstein’s view is in trouble, for the Private Language Argument rests on the assumption that names do have a kind of meaning, in the form of a rule which governs their correct application. Consider this excerpt from section 258 of PI : “A definition surely serves to establish the meaning of a sign.—Well, that is done precisely by the concentrating of my attention; for in this way I impress on myself the connexion between the sign and the sensation.—But “I impress it on myself” can only mean: this process brings it about that I remember the connexion right in the future. But in the present case I have no criterion of correctness.” (PI p. 92) But it is doubtful that such a conception of meaning applies to the sort of expressions being considered here. What, for instance, would the rule for the correct use of the name ‘Aristotle’ be? Would it be “Apply the name ‘Aristotle’ to Aristotle and nothing else”? If one does not already “understand” the name ‘Aristotle’ this rule is useless, and if one does understand it the rule is entirely superfluous. Note also how Wittgenstein quickly passes from saying that a definition[2] establishes the meaning of a sign to saying that one impresses a connection on oneself through an act of attention. The connection between a sign and a sensation is a relation of reference, and if one thinks of reference as Kripke does it will sound very odd to talk of “impressing” such a relation on oneself or of “remembering” it. What could it mean, on a view like Kripke’s, to impress on oneself the connection between the name ‘Aristotle’ and the man to whom it refers? For Kripke this connection is constituted by a certain series of causal relations, and it exists whether I remember it or not.

The truth is that, to use the name ‘Aristotle’ meaningfully—or “referentially,” if we hold names to be meaningless—one need only stand in certain causal relations to Aristotle and intend to use the name to refer to the same thing as those from whom one got it. Whether one also has certain beliefs about Aristotle, undertakes to “use” the name ‘Aristotle’ in a certain way, or is able to “remember” the referential link between the name and its bearer will not affect the meaning or reference of the name. Apart from this there is no criterion for its correct use. Names can be used significantly because they stand in certain relations to something in the world, not because of any rules we supply to govern their application. The same, I contend, goes for the terms of a private language.

In opposition to Wittgenstein, I propose the following Kripke-inspired picture of the meaningfulness of sensation words. Suppose I am a private linguist who wants to record occurrences of a private sensation—a toothache, for instance—in a calendar of the sort Wittgenstein mentions in section 258 of PI. On having the toothache I go over to the calendar and inscribe the sign ‘T’. Since I am trying to keep track of the recurrence of this sensation, I am evidently using ‘T’ a general term, not as a name for that particular toothache. The term ‘T’ is, when used in this way, a natural kind term. To establish its reference I simply attend to my toothache and think something like “Let this kind of pain be called ‘T’,” just as I can attend to a particular kind of substance and say “Let this kind of metal be called ‘gold’.” In order to establish a relation between my sign ‘T’ and this kind of pain I need not impress on myself any connection or give myself any rule for its use, for terms which are introduced in this way either have their referent as their meaning or have no meaning at all. The baptism itself is all that is needed for me to use the sign significantly. Once the reference of ‘T’ has been established, I can use the sign in the future to refer to the same class of pains simply by intending to use it in the same way I originally did, even if the initial baptism has long since been forgotten and I now apply the term ‘T’ (incorrectly) to pains which are not toothaches. The reference is passed on to my future selves much as the reference of proper names such as ‘Aristotle’ is passed on to subsequent speakers. Moreover, if others should stumble across my calendar they can also use the sign ‘T’ to refer to my toothaches, even if they have no means of discovering what ‘T’ stands for.

We have seen that if the Private Language Argument is sound, sensation words must have publicly accessible criteria for their correct application in order to be meaningful. If there is no such thing as a criterion for the correct use of words of this kind, Wittgenstein’s argument falls apart. The upshot of the foregoing considerations is that if Kripke’s theory of naming is right the notion of a private language may be intelligible after all, in which case it is Wittgenstein himself who has fallen victim to a conceptual confusion.


Kripke, Saul A. Naming and Necessity. Cambridge, Massachussetts: Harvard University Press, 1980.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations, 3rd Edition. Trans. G.E.M.

Anscombe. Engelwood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1958.

[1] These circumstances may include such background conditions as that the object does not already have a name or that the baptizer is authorized to name this object.

[2] By which he means ostensive definition, as is made clear earlier in section 258.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

In Defense of Private Language: Part 1

(The following is my final paper for the Philosophy of Language course I took last semester, lightly edited to improve grammar and clarity. I've also divided it into two parts so you don't have to read the whole thing in one sitting.)

Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (henceforth PI) is a deep and important book, densely packed with thought experiments and many insightful observations. One of the most significant themes running through this work can be found in a chain of related aphorisms containing Wittgenstein’s ruminations on the possibility of a private language—a language whose terms are intelligible only to its speaker. Collectively known as the Private Language Argument, they are designed to show that the notion of a private language is incoherent. This argument, if sound, would be of lasting significance to philosophy, for it has the potential to overthrow some deep-seated intuitions about the mind. In what follows I shall attempt to show that, even if such a language is impossible, the Private Language Argument does not give us a good reason for thinking it is.

The main thrust of Wittgenstein’s arguments concerning the possibility of a private language seems to be that a would-be private linguist has no means of telling whether they are using a sign which purportedly picks out one of their private sensations correctly or not. For a private linguist to use a sign for one of their sensations meaningfully there must be a distinction between correct and incorrect usage. But what could this distinction consist in for a term of a private language? Not in its agreement or disagreement with how the term is used by others in the private linguist’s community, for by hypothesis the meaning of the term is not determined by and cannot be inferred from anything that is publicly observable, including the private linguist’s behavior. Nor can its correctness consist in its conformity with the private linguist’s judgments regarding whether they are having the same sensation or a different one, for then the distinction between correct and incorrect usage would evaporate. For what we are after here are not merely the conditions under which, as a matter of fact, the term is correctly or incorrectly used, but rather what it is for the term to be used correctly or incorrectly. The issue at stake in the Private Language Argument is not the skeptical one of whether, given that there are private sensations, we can be sure that for the most part we are applying our sensation words to them correctly. The issue is instead whether talk of such things as private sensations is meaningful at all. So when Wittgenstein demands criteria for the correct use of words, what he wants is simply some means of distinguishing correct from incorrect use; how often our use is correct is immaterial. Now, if the criterion for the correct use of a term in a private language is its accordance with the judgments of the private linguist, it will be nonsense to speak of any possibility of error. As Wittgenstein puts it, “One would like to say: whatever is going to seem right to me is right. And that only means that here we can’t talk about ‘right’.” (Section 258; PI. p. 92) Yet if the correct or incorrect application of the term is established neither by public use nor private judgment, what else could establish it? I think there is another possibility, but we must critically examine Wittgenstein’s account of meaning as use, and its relation to naming, in order to see what it is.

On Wittgenstein’s view, the meaning of a term is its use in the language of which it is a part (PI section 43, pp. 20-21). It must be noted that Wittgenstein is not asserting the rather trivial thesis that a term—if one could even call it a term—would not be meaningful if no one ever spoke it or wrote it down or in any way employed it in communication. Nor is he maintaining the equally trivial thesis that a term’s meaning depends on the particular way it is used, so that it would have meant something different if it had been used differently. These theses are true of course, but Wittgenstein is making the far stronger claim that the meaning of a term consists in the way it is used to shape behavior, and in its role or utility in our lives.

Wittgenstein distinguishes the meaning of a name from the bearer of a name. (See PI sections 39-44, pp. 19-21.) The bearer of a name is the individual to whom it refers, while the meaning of a name is the set of rules which determine whether or not a name has been correctly applied to this individual. Wittgenstein thinks that the bearers of proper names have little to do with their names’ meaning because a proper name can be meaningful even when its bearer has ceased to exist. According to Wittgenstein, naming is preparatory for actual use. Names can refer to things, but they can do so only in the context of a language game: “Naming is so far not a move in the language-game—any more than putting a piece in its place on the board is a move in chess. We may say: nothing has so far been done, when a thing has been named. It has not even got a name except in the language game.” (PI section 49, p. 24) For Wittgenstein, then, naming—and hence reference—play but a minor role in the mechanics of language.

Given the account of meaning and reference sketched above, it is easy to understand why Wittgenstein, in attacking the notion of a private language, focuses his arguments on the notion of a “private ostensive definition”—on how the connection between the private linguist’s sign and the private linguist’s sensation is set up. In section 244 of PI Wittgenstein asks, “How do words refer to sensations?—There doesn't seem to be any problem here; don't we talk about sensations every day, and give them names? But how is the connexion between the name and the thing named set up? This question is the same as: how does a human being learn the meaning of the names of sensations?—of the word “pain” for example.” (PI p. 89) Notice that Wittgenstein here identifies the question of how sensation words come to refer with that of how one learns their meaning. It is this identification—a conflation, in my view—which vitiates the Private Language Argument. To see why, we must contrast Wittgenstein’s view of naming with that of Saul Kripke in Naming and Necessity.