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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.

1 comment:

Thina said...

Good words.