As previously noted, an important aspect of Wittgenstein's conception
of language is that it is embedded in a `form of life'-a set of
activities in which the rules of a language-game serve as a basis for communication. Language exists in a linguistic community ; it involves the
use and application of grammatical rules. The rules include ostenstve definitions, criteria, and `strict' definitions that stipulate necessary and
sufficient conditions. If one recognizes the foregoing crucial features of language, Wittgenstein would say, it should lead to the rejection of even
the possibility of a private language. The very notion of a `private language' would dispense with the requirement that language be embedded in
the activities and practices of a linguistic community; it would also dispense with the requirement that the language be guided by the availability
of grammatical rules for public adoption and use.
The conception of a private language appears in the writings of a number
of modern and contemporary philosophers who have been
influenced by the Cartesian theory of body-mind dualism. An important reason why Wittgenstein devoted an extended discussion in the
Philosophical Investigations (Secs. 243-315) to arguing against the possibility of a private language is that, along with his analysis of
psychological verbs (e.g., `understanding', `intending', `expecting', `wishing', `willing', `remembering', `thinking'), it enabled him to mount a
vigorous attack on the Cartesian tradition in the philosophy of mind. His `private language argument' (i.e., his argument against the possibility
of a private language) is one side of his general criticism of Cartesian dualism.
The theory of mind-body dualism envisages the mind as a substance different
from yet linked to the body. The mind is an immaterial `spiritual'
or `thinking' substance. To it belong various mental events, states, processes, and powers; it has its own internal `mechanisms'. Mental
phenomena are totally different from bodily (material) phenomena. The body as a distinct material substance has its distinctive physical
(biological, physiologic, chemical, electrical, and so on) events, states, processes, causal connections, and powers. According to this
philosophy, whereas bodily (physical) phenomena are accessible externally, i.e., to observation, description, and exploration, the mind's
activities, states, and processes are accessible only to `internal' observation, to introspection. Mental experiences are private. The cannot be
known by others in the same direct and immediate way as they are known by the person whose experiences they are. What goes on in someone
else's mind is known only at best by inference and by analogy. Certain philosophic sceptics would urge that they are never known at all. This
Cartesian tradition is summed up in Gilbert Ryle's colorful phrase as the acceptance of the model of "the ghost in the machine. Although it
received a classic formulation and defense by Descartes, this theory was taken over with various modifications by 'other philosophers. It was
adopted in one form or another by modern ratonionalists as well as by the classic British empiricists. It has persisted under many
transformations in discussions of the philosophy of mind and epistemology well into our own day. This traditional conception of mind was a
major target of Wittgenstein's later philosophy.
A good example of how this conception of mind affected the treatment
of language is to be found in John Locke's An Essay Concerning
Human Understanding (1690). Wittgenstein, in his assault on the notion of a private language, does not explicitly attack Locke's views.
Nevertheless, it will be useful to quote the following passage as giving a clear and explicit statement of the kind of approach that Wittgenstein
found objectionable. Locke writes:
Words, in their primary or immediate signification, stand for nothing but the ideas in the mind of him that uses them, howWittgenstein gives his formulation of what the private language would be.
imperfectly soever or carelessly those ideas are collected from the things which they are supposed to represent. When a man
speaks to another, it is that he may be understood: and the end of speech is, that those sounds, as marks, may make known his
ideas to the hearer. That then which words are the marks of are the ideas of the speaker: nor can any one apply them as marks,
immediately, to anything else but the ideas that he himself hath: for this would be to make them signs of his own conceptions,
and yet apply them to other ideas; which would be to make them signs and not signs of his ideas at the same time; and so in
effect to have no signification at all .... A man cannot make his words the signs either of qualities in things, or of conceptions in
the mind of another, whereof he has none in his own. Till he has some ideas of his own, he cannot suppose them to correspond
with the conceptions of another man; nor can he use any signs for them: for thus they would be the signs of he knows not what,
which is in truth to be the signs of nothing. But when he represents to himself other men's ideas by some of his own, if he
consent to give them the same names that other men do, it is still to his own ideas; to ideas that he has, and not to ideas that he
But could we also imagine a laguage in which a person could write down or give vocal expression to his inner experiences-hisIt is important, in understanding the sense in which Wittgenstein is using the phrase `private language', not to confuse it with other uses of
feelings, moods, and the rest-for his private use?-Well, can't we do so in our ordinary language?-But that is not what I mean.
The individual words of this lane.. age are to refer to what can only be known to the person speaking; to his immediate private
sensations. so another person cannot understand the language.
There is another common use of the term `private'
in connection with our ordinary experience that Wittgenstein does not wish
to call into
question and is not to be equated with the use of a `private language' in the present sense. As Peter Geach reports:
Of course Wittgenstein did not want to deny the obvious truth that people have a `private' mental life, in the sense that they have for` In the same vein, when Wittgenstein wishes to single out `private language' for criticism he does not wish to deny the possibility of the use
example thoughts they do not utter and pains they do not show; nor did he try to analyse away this truth in a neobehaviouristic fashion. In one of his lectures he mentioned Lytton Strachey's imaginative description of Queen Victoria's dying thoughts. He expressly repudiated the view that such a description is meaningless because `unverifiable'; it has meaning, he said, but only through its connexion with a wider, public, `language-game' of describing people's thoughts; he used the simile that a chess-move worked out in a sketch of a few squares on a scrap of paper has significance through its connexion with the whole practice of playing chess."
A human being can encourage himself, give himself orders, obey, blame and punish himself; he can ask himself a question and answer it. So we could imagine human beings who spoke only in monologue; who accompanied their activities by talking to themselves.An explorer whoBy contrast with the foregoing uses of the term `private language', the kind of `private language' Wittgenstein is singling out for attack,
watched them and listened to their talk might succeed in translating their language into ours. (This would enable him to
predict these peoples's actions correctly, for he also hears them making resolutions and decisions.)
With these preliminaries in mind, let us turn to an examination of Wittgenstein's
strictures against the possibility of a private language.
First, let us consider more carefully the characteristics of and claims made in behalf of private language by those who appeal to this idea.
The main characteristics of a private language are those that Wittgenstein
states briefly in the passage quoted from Philosophical
Investigations. They are three: (1) "The individual words of this language are to refer to what can only be known to the person speaking"; (2)
The individual words of this language are to refer "to his immediate private sensations"; (3) "Another person cannot understand the language."
The first item has to do with the matter of knowledge of that to which
the words in the private language refer. Only the person using the
language can have this knowledge, since only the person speaking the language knows what the objects are to which the words in the language
refer. The language is private because the knowledge is private and the knowledge is private because the objects referred to by the words in
language are known only to the speaker of the language. To the sensations, known with certainty by the person who has them, names are
assigned to refer to them as `objects' of private experience. "It is as if when I uttered the word I cast a sidelong glance at the private sensation,
as it were in order to say to myself: I know all right what I mean by it. For the adherent of the concept of private language, the knowledge a
person has of his or her own mental experiences (sensations such as colors seen, sounds heard, pains felt) are known directly, "from the inside,"
whereas any attempt to know what goes on in the mind of someone else can never be achieved. At best it is only possible to make an inference
by analogy, to have a belief; for we must rely on a method that is "indirect" and "from the outside." All that we have access to is the "outward
behavior" of the other person, never his private mental experiences. Any inference about what goes on in someone else's mind may be wrong.
The advocate of private language could thus claim:
"So-and-so has excellent health, he never had to go to the dentist, never complained about toothache: but as toothache is a privateThe second characteristic of private language has to do with another sense of `privacy', that of ownership. The words of the language are
experience, we can't know whether he hasn't had terrible toothache all his life.' '
"I can only believe that someone else is in pain, but I know it if I am."
"Well, only I can know whether I am really in pain: another person can only surmise it."
The third item draws the consequence of these two aspects of privacy
(private knowledge, private ownership). The language is private in
the sense that it cannot be understood by anyone but the speaker; it is incommunicable as a language.
Wittgenstein's criticism of the notion of a private language is conducted
on several fronts. One criticism focuses on the supposed use of
names to refer to private sensations. Such names, it is assumed, may be assigned by a process of private ostension. The speaker has a particular
sensation (say the pain of a toothache, or the visual experience of seeing red) and to this sensation S, he assigns by private ostension in his own
vocabulary the name `S' . He may, it is claimed, be thought of as building up a table of such names by associating certain symbols with certain
sensory experiences, He is henceforth able to use these names for other sensations insofar as the later sensations resemble the initial paradigm
(exemplar) that served to assign the name in the original ostensive definition.
However, this putative process of assigning names to private experiences
by means of private ostensive definitions fails to make available a set
of usable names. The private ostensive definitions are not effective -grammatical rules. One cannot appeal to such 'rules' to clarify or confirm
the meaning of the symbols so introduced. One cannot justify using a name in new situations if it is, in principle, impossible to recapture in any
reliable way the situation of the original introduction of the ostensive definition. Yet such impossibility would always be the case with private
ostensive definitions. The ostensive definition could now only be appealed to in memory (or in imagination) and there is no way of checking a
present memory image against the original sensory experience that provided the occasion for the introduction of the name m an ostensive
definition. The `rule' therefore is not an effectively usable rule. There are no reliable procedures for distinguishing correct from incorrect
applications of a name in a private language.
Let us imagine the following case. I want to keep a diary about the recurrence of a certain sensation. To this end I associate it withAnother consideration that shows the incoherence of the notion of a private language is its incapacity to serve as a language not only for the
the sign "E" and write this sign in a calendar for every day on which I have the sensation.-I will remark first of all that a definition of the
sign cannot be formulated.-But still I can give myself a kind of ostensive definition.-How? Can I point to this sensation? Not in the
ordinary sense. But I speak, or write the sign down, and at the same time I concentrate my attention on the sensation-and so, as it were,
point to it inwardly.-But what is this ceremony for? For that is all it seems to be! 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. 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'.
Let us imagine a table (something like a dictionary) that exists only in our imagination. A dictionary can be used to justify the
translation of a word X by a word Y. But are we also to call it a justification if such a table is to be looked up only in the
imagination?-"Well, yes; then it is a subjective justification."-But justification consists in appealing to something independent.-"But surely I
can appeal from one memory to another. For example, I don't know if I have remembered the time of departure of a train right and to
check it I call to mind how a page of the time-table looked. Isn't it the same here?"-No; for this process has got to produce a memory
which is actually correct. If the mental image of the time-table could not itself be tested for correctness, how could it confirm the
correctness of the first memory? (As if someone were to buy several copies of the morning paper to assure himself that what it said was
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 .'8
Making sure that you know what `seeing red' means, is good only if you can make use of this knowledge in a further case. Now what
if I see a color again, can I say I made sure I knew what 'red' was so now I shall know that I recognize it correctly? In what sense is having
said the words `this is red' before a guarantee that 1 now see the same color when I say again I see red?'
If I say of myself that it is only from my own case that I know what the word "pain" means-must I not say the same of other peopleAnother criticism of the conception of a private language has to do with the claim made that the speaker of such a language is in a
too? And how can I generalize the one case so irresponsibly?
Now someone tells me that he knows what pain is only from his own case!Suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call
it a "beetle". No one can look into anyone else's box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle.-Here it
would be quite possible for everyone to have something different in his box. One might even imagine such a thing constantly
changing.-But suppose the word "beetle" had a use in these people's language?-If so it would not be used as the name of a thing. The thing
in the box has no place in the language-game at all; not even as a something: for the box might even be empty.-No, one can `divide
through' by the thing in the box; it cancels out, whatever it is.
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.
The essential thing about private experience is really not that each person possesses his own exemplar but that nobody knows
whether other people also have this or something else. The assumption would thus be possible-though unverifiable-that one section of
mankind had one sensation of red and another section another.
In what sense are my sensations private?-Well only I can know whether am really in pain; another person can only surmise it. -In one
way this is false, -and in another nonsense. If we are using the word "to know" as it is normally used (and how else are we to use it?),
then other people very often know when I am in pain -Yes but all the same not with the certainty with which I know it myself!- It can't
be said of me at all (except perhaps as a joke) that I know I am in pain. What is it supposed to mean -except perhaps that I am in pain?
Other people cannot be said to learn of my sensations only from my behaviour, for I cannot be said to learn of them. I have them.
The truth is: it makes sense to say about other people that they doubt whether I am in pain; but not to say it about myself.
In denying that only I can know whether I am in pain, Wittgenstein points out that in the way we ordinarily use the term 'know,' we say
that there are many cases in which others can know (be correct in their assertions) someone is in pain. As justification for their ascribing
(predicating) pain to someone, they use various criteria for pain, and also rely on various symptoms and publicly obtainable observational
evidence. Of course, we may sometimes be wrong in our ascriptions of pain to someone else on the basis of such criteria and observational
data. For example, a person who shows all `outward' signs of pain behavior may be only pretending, e.g., may be a very skillful actor.
However, not all judgments ascribing pain are wrong. Pretense of pain cannot be universal, if the term `pain' is to have any meaning and usable
criteria. Some ascriptions of pain to others are correct, and we can therefore be said to know that someone else is in pain. Hence it is false to
say that we never know that someone else is in pain, and that only the sufferer knows he is in pain.
Moreover, Wittgenstein argues, it is nonsense to say that the one who
suffers pain knows he is in pain. It is not nonsense to say that others
can know this. The person who has the pain expresses that pain in various ways, for example by exhibiting various types of pain behavior and
also by uttering the sentence "I have pain." But the uttering of this sentences not to claim knowledge about the pain being suffered. It is her an
avowal of pain a way of expressing the pain, like holding one's cheek when one has a toothache. The utterance of the sentence "I have a tooth
ache" is neither true nor false. It makes no sense for the one uttering this sentence either to verify it or falsify it. Others may verify or falsify the
sentence (in third-person ascription) "He has a toothache." But the person who utters the sentence (in present tense first person singular) "I
have a toothache" is not uttering a sentence that is a claim to privileged knowledge. To say "I know I am in pain" means no more than "I am in
pain." Since the notion of doubt does not have any applicability or foothold in connection with the latter sentence, neither does any claim to
certainty (absence of doubt). Since neither certainty nor doubt has any bearing on the sentence "I am in pain," that sentence cannot be equated
with the sentence "I know I am in pain." And so the claim by the pain sufferer to be in a uniquely privileged position to have such knowledge is
without any sense. Furthermore, since self-ascriptions of pain are expressions rather than statements, they are not made on the basis of criteria
in the way the term `pain' is used in third-person ascriptions. Hence the use of terms in a putative private language cannot be based on any
effective grammatical rules (whether ostensive definitions or criterial rules) in the way such rules are present and operative in ordinary
languages used by a linguistic community.