The idea of the so-called “private language argument”, which Wittgenstein (1953) has discussed in paragraphs 243 to 315 of his book Philosophical Investigations, is very important because it deals on one hand with the field of psychology and behavioral sciences and is also related to the field of epistemology in particular, and on the other hand, one can see a return to the Cartesian epistemology where human knowledge is based on perception and “private cognition” with an emphasis on the distinction between the inner affair (sensations) and the outer affair (behavior) in phrases such as “I think” or “I understand”.
According to Wittgenstein (Section 243), private language is supposed to be one in which people speak a phenomenal language with a vocabulary completely disconnected from the physical world. In other words, private language is a language whose words are referred to things that are known only to “the teller” (referring to his direct personal feelings). It is obvious that such a language would be necessarily unteachable. Wittgenstein immediately rejected this idea after introducing it.
Denying such a private language that comes against our ordinary everyday language was in contradiction with current philosophical views. According to this view, firstly, the mind is internal and it is a personal “space” that only the owner can handle, so that no other person can access its content. Secondly, “meaning” is a subjective affair and the term has meaning when it implies its inherent and certain nature. So, if someone is born on a remote island to live without interacting with others, ideally, it is possible that a language and a system of “rule” is developed there to follow in practice. In Wittgenstein’s point of view, the possibility of such “private language” is only an illusion and it is due to our poor understanding of the “grammar”. As we shall see later, he considers the language in the form of a “language game” and pays attention to the application of terms in order to get their meanings and to show that with “introspection”, psychological terms such as Thought and Pain cannot be defined. This paper has attempted to portray and analyze Wittgenstein's view of the impossibility of “private language” and his reasons regarding his thoughts are examined.
2. Introspection and cognition
In the common concept, “introspection” is an inner sense, which, through it, a person finds special access to his mental content. American philosopher, William James, offering that the word “introspection” does not need to be defined, believes that the meaning of introspection is that we practice meditation in our mind and discover what we have to report, so we can get to know it. (1981:185)1
In most cases common assumption is that the mind is a private domain and only the owner of the mind can understand what is going on in his mind and that other people are excluded from accessing to one’s mental content, and logically, others cannot have the same experiences as the owner’s mind has. In the other words, cognition is a private affair and only one can have access to whatever is on the mind by immediate introspection.2 However, the extent to which this personal (subjective) experience extends is a location of certainty and finality and is not something agreeable with everyone.
Some philosophers consider this experience of introspection to be completely free of errors and believe that the mind is perfectly clear to its owner. Namely, this inner sense that gives us an awareness from the inside world is a certain cognition. For example, Hume (1971:190) states that all of us realize our own actions and subjective perceptions through “self-awareness”. Perceptions have the same manifestation and existence and what actually comes to mind is the perception and it is impossible to feel things other than it. In contrast, some other philosophers have rejected this view and do not consider that it would be impossible to take it mistakenly. However, they believe that our cognition of the inner world is created through the inner sense. Philosophers including William James (1981:180) believed that introspection is difficult and error is possible and that this problem is general and applies to any type of observation. But Wittgenstein’s way of dealing with the issue (introspection) in a different manner depicts a completely different approach that includes two sides:
(1) Introspection as a kind of reflection: According to Wittgenstein's view, introspection is not a form of sensation-related concept that is focused on the inside, but it is a kind of reminder for example, for when we are going to specify the nature of a feeling, where in fact, we reflect on memories:
“It makes sense to ask: Do I really love her, or am I only pretending to do? And the process of introspection is the calling up of memories; of imagined possible situations, and of the feelings that one would have if….” (Wittgenstein, 1967: 154).
Wittgenstein argues that the inner search needs ‘imagination’ but the inside eye does not, because in the latter there is nothing to perceive. We speak, for example, about our ‘pain’ or ‘emotional excitement’ but our aim is to record these mental states not to achieve what we perceive. Although one may say that he feels ‘pain’ or is aware of his ‘pain’, but there is not any difference between ‘feeling pain’ and ‘knowing it’. Being aware of ‘pain’ is not from sensation-type and it cannot be said that one has headache but is not aware of it. Of course, what is noteworthy here is that humans unlike animals have the ability to talk about their thoughts, feelings and internal states, but this should not cause a misunderstanding for us as to think that this is due to the fact that the inside eye sees our inner states. Namely, to say that I feel pain should not result in saying that I have access to something that is understandable through my feelings because I do not have any sensory perception of concepts such as pain, belief, feeling, and so on.
Let us consider Wittgenstein's view on private recognition more closely. In order to enter into the discussion he propounds the following questions: Do we know what is going on in our inside? Is it possible that I feel pain but I do not know it? Am I sure of it? Do I have any doubt in having the pain or other feelings? According to Wittgenstein, the statement, ‘I know’ and such psychological actions are not prior judgments. The statement ‘I know’ may mean that ‘I do not doubt’ but it cannot mean that the statement “I doubt” is nonsense. If there is the possibility of doubt, we can speak of ‘recognition’ and we can analyze subject. Thus, when ‘I know’ would mean that its negation also holds true because awareness of any issue (proposition) due to it is announced from the actual world, and contains ‘true’ and ‘false’ and can be selected one of two modes.
But if we look carefully at the terms involving the consciousness of the mental states, we notice that they have no meaning. For example, the sentence ‘I know that I am in pain.’ conveys meaning when that the sentence ‘I do not know that I am in pain’ does. In fact, since doubt is meaningless in relation to such mental states3, concluding with ‘certainty’ on such things as mental beings would be meaningless. In short, ‘recognition’ has got a meaning only when its discovery and learning is also meaningful. Human’s consciousness about ‘pain’ when one suffers from it, is nothing but pain. However, as we shall see in the next section this term does not obtain its meaning by referring to the inside but rather by referring to the ‘grammar’.
Thus, Wittgenstein’s changed view on knowledge had dominated philosophy since Descartes. Since Descartes, it was assumed that the world is made up of two distinct parts: the outside world and the inner world, that we know ourselves better than the rest of the world and also that we have to inevitably make an objective reality out of us. But Wittgenstein rejects it and believes that this approach leads us to shape axis-human (which is a very extreme claim that a solipsist4 says that only my perception of the world is true and genuine and that there is no reality but my perception) whilst the understanding and recognition of ourselves depend on the view that we are part of the actual world and connect with others.5 Hence, Wittgenstein's thought was placed against the idea of radical relativism, Cartesian skepticism and Solipsists.
(2) The rejection of private ownership: Commonly, we often consider ourselves to be the owner of our internal states. Therefore, the two phrases, ‘I am in pain.’ and ‘You are in pain.’ are distinguishable from each other in the sense that ‘I’ am the owner of my pain and ‘you’ are also the ownerof your pain. In other words, everyone feels his own feelings although the feelings are completely similar and identical in every aspect. And as Strawson (1959: 97) quoted the identity of a particular subjective experience is owed to the entity of who has that experience. The consequence of this is that if mental states and experiences, as part of trivial affairs are recognizable, they must be the owner or are attributable to one.
On the other hand, it is impossible to state a private subjective experience of a person belonging to another person’s subjective experience. Identity of such an experience requires transitivity of its ownership; but Wittgenstein denies such private ownership of feelings based on the criteria of “having”. According to his view, ‘to feel pain’ does not mean owning something. When we say that “I feel pain”, I do not mean that I am the owner of a mental thing. We are neither the owner of the pain nor does our insight help us to understand our pain, since merely with ‘introspection’ we cannot identify that in the phrase of ‘one could not have my pain’ what and which my pain is.
Here, a criterion for identifying pain is not introspection but it is the use and the grammar of the concept of the pain, meaning that the applied concept of ‘pain’ in language should be considered. ‘My Pain’ is not a feature or attribute of my pain but only defines whom I am talking about. This means that when we talk about pain the difference between feeling pain is similar to what we have had in the pastor having a pain similar to the other person is derived from the grammar within the language and the use of the concept of ‘pain’ differs from the first person to the third person. Thus, to say that, ‘I am the owner of his pain.’ is meaningless because it does not apply in any language. Soon, the distinction between the private (what is available only for individual) and public (what is available for all) will return to the difference between the two types of grammar.
3. Introspection and Ordinary Language
In paragraph 244, Wittgenstein draws our attention to the ways of learning the ‘common language’. In this section his focus stands on the grammatical research about the concept of ‘pain’:
“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 connection between the name and the thing which is named set up? ..... So you are saying that the word “pain” really means crying? On the contrary: the verbal expression of pain replaces crying and does not describe it.” (Wittgenstein, 1967: 89)
Here, he tries to point out to us regarding how children are raised. When the child is in pain and cries, the relationship between pain and what the child feels is generated by the grammar of that concept and the word “pain” which means that we have a new way to teach behavior. No training is based on the child’s attention to his own inner and subsequently his crying and screaming but based on how to work with the word “pain”. Pain may seem to be a clear example of a sensation-type, which is independently recognizable, but the word is really only a substitute for the act of crying which is a natural expression of the child’s sensation.
We teach the child to think instead of showing his pain and to express his feelings through words than just scream. Therefore, the child is trained to perform these actions and applies these words at the time which the action occurs and he reacts to the words of others in this way. The most important part of the training would be where the teacher first refers to things as to draw the child’s attention to them and at the same time, he says the word. Therefore the word is only a substitute for the cry, which is a natural expression of pain, a sensation-type that is independently recognizable.
Wittgenstein then writes about how introspection has no role in raising children to teach them words related to feelings such a “pain” or “What is pain?” and our sensory language depend on the physical world. It should be noted that by training, Wittgenstein is not solely referring to teaching the language, but that its purpose is to learn and use that meaning in action.6
4. Introspection and Private Ostensive Definition
We begin this section with this question: What role could ‘paying attention to what we feel’ play regarding the understanding of the meaning of the word ‘pain’? According to Wittgenstein's view, a mistake that may occur here is that we think that the meaning of the word ‘pain’ is only understood by focusing the attention on our minds. Consider his following quotation: “But I can undertake to call THIS ‘pain’ in the future.” “But is it certain that you have undertaken it? Are you sure that it was enough for this purpose to concentrate your attention on your feeling?” (Wittgenstein, 1967: 93).
What Wittgenstein wants to show is that understanding the meaning of pain by the language user is wrong on this basis which has an example of the pain in his inside, or idiomatically refers to it in his mind. What is on one’s mind about ostensive definition is dedicated only to real and external affairs and does not include a direct reference to one’s inside to get the semantic concept of mental states such as pain; this means that we show our skill in understanding the meaning of the concept of table, red, etc. by referring to those that are happening in the actual world while direct definition has no role in the understanding of the meaning of the terms in a sensory language. For example, if we want to teach the meaning of pain to children, we may refer to a person who is in pain and this means that even we have learned the meaning of showing something in society through the use of it: I can exhibit pain, as I exhibit red, and as I exhibit straight and crooked and trees and stones. That is what we call “exhibiting” (Ibid: 194).
Wittgenstein believes that what is important to understand is that something that actually occurs is not something that is happening inside the mind. Thus, in pointing out something in one’s mind, despite pointing to the outside world, and to think of a thing and saying and assigning a name to it is not accounted as an instantiate for a real action and at best, it is merely an imagination and nothing more. To illustrate the above claims, Wittgenstein uses the example of deduction. He uses the simile of passing something from one’s left hand to his right hand and vice versa, and here we would ask: what does it mean? And it is not granted as a gift, and by using the same analogy, if someone offers a private definition of a word, the same question can be asked; this means that no actual action has been done.
5. The Private Language Argument
The meaning condition and rule-guided argument have an important role in creating Wittgenstein’s private language argument. In this section, while defining these two concepts we will show how he uses these concepts to advance the arguments in rejecting the “private language”.
5.1 Meaning condition of the terms
‘Meaning condition of the terms’ as cited by Wittgenstein, can be considered to have been borrowed from Frege's idea (on the issue of “meaning”- although the method of reference is different between the two philosophers). In this idea, he emphasizes on differentiating between ‘image’ and ‘thought and reflection’. This means that what has a role on the formation of ‘meaning’ is independent of the user of language. In this view, Frege holds the notion of objectiveness for ‘meaning’, something which impressed Wittgenstein.7 In Wittgenstein’s view, the meaning of a word is defined by its use in a “language game” and within a real human community. The ‘language game’ is a kind of social activity with specific rules where the use of language has an essential role. Wittgenstein has stated the following regarding this concept in §23: here the term ‘language-game’ is meant to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of form of life (Wittgenstein, 1967: 11).
5.2 Rule-guided Argument
‘Rule-guided argument’, which Wittgenstein has mentioned in §202-143 of Philosophical Investigations, has an influential role in formulating the private language argument. Thus, discussing this case can help us understand it better. His argument is summarized as follows: When the user of a language expresses a sentence or responds to it correctly, he follows the rules of application of that statement. For the performance will be the correct method, a model is needed until that performance can be corresponded with it. In other words ‘Meaning’ is nothing that can be carried by a sound or sign so that it is independent of how it is applied, but if we want our explanation to be used effectively, instead, the explanatory statement must also be used properly, namely it has to have application and this requires rules of general methods whether operation of the user of language can or cannot match with it:
“But how can rule show me what I have to do at this point? Whatever I do is, on some interpretation, in accord with the rule. That is not what we ought to say, but rather its interpretation still hangs in the air along with what by themselves do not determine meaning”. (Ibid: 80)
As Wittgenstein mentioned any ‘theorized normative standard’ cannot be formulated to justify rule-guided, because theoretical formulating of methods of rule–guided is stated in proposition, justification will require a different theoretical criteria and this will not result in anything but regress. So, methods of rule-guided are not theoretic. But the above does not mention that he considers rule-guided as being without criterion such that anything is allowed to be done according to language user’s tastes and interests and be said this is the rule and law. But rather, a justified criterion and the correct approach of rule-guided to get a meaning is nothing but skill in technique of the language-game:
“It is not possible that should have been only one occasion on which someone obeyed a rule. It is not possible the there should have been only one occasion on which a report was made, and order given or understood; and so on. To understand a sentence means to understand a language. To understand a language means to be master of a technique”. (Ibid: 199)
The behavioral concept of language users and their technical skills and expertise in the use of language words and establishing a framework for a normative model of grammatical language instead of a ‘theoretic’ concept to understand a rule depicts a realistic footprint in Wittgenstein’s thought despite the skeptical views of philosophers such as Kripke (1982) that has been inserted into this reading of section 201 on the concept of meaning. Kripke (1982) has proposed a skeptical view on Wittgenstein's ideas based on what one considers as a meaning for the term ‘plus’ (+) or understands that word so that in some special cases, applied as ‘plus’ there is not. In this view, even with taking all uses of the term in the past it used by one and responded them and so by consideration of everythingthat is or can bein the mind of that individual, it is not still clearwhat meaning he/she intends to express by using the term ‘plus’.
Hence, each new application we make is a leap in the dark; any present intention could be interpreted so as to accord with anything we may choose to do. In this anti-realistic perception of the rule-guidedargument, one can write a sign but mean something other than what it meant to that date. Taking (+) for example, from now on it means if both numbers are less than 5, then it adds them; otherwise, the result equals 5. That is, if 3 +1 then the answer is 4, and if 6 +7 then the answer is 5. Therefore, there is no normative criterion for holding the application of words as true or false. In other words, by the meaning we do not mean to study the truth conditions of the application of words, but to study their assertibility conditions.
Assertibility conditions refer to conditions regarded as official by the community of language users when words are applied, where the language user applies the words as others based on his aptitude according to the application rules. Based on this reading, Kripke also states that meaning has two components: (1) The dead sign, which lacks normality; and (2) the normative criterion, which states the truth or falsity of the application of words. This criterion is another dead sign itself which requires another interpretation. Therefore, we face an infinite sequence. Hence, meaning has no real identity. In other words, Wittgenstein has presented a skeptical perception of meaning through stating the rule-guided argument (Kripke, 1982: 55-90).8
This view makes the challenge against ideaof “rule for the use of a word” that targeting both general functions and individual applicationsofarule. There are many different rules that are compatible with whatever happened in reality in the community and whatever is in the mind of every individual. Many of these rules in the caseof“is what now implyingto itin the next time will also be true or not?” differ from each other. It seems that nothing in the past or the present, guarantees its constancy and therefore, the criteria by which one person follows a specific rule rather than another rule no longer exists; namely, the fact that a phrase can mean only one thing or that one understands that phrase only in a particular from and not in any other way, does not exist.
In reply, Wittgenstein, Certainly, confirms the idea that there is nothing in the mind or anywhere else whose existence may guarantee one’s understanding from the word “plus” to mean (+). This is what displays objective and practical training (like the example of the worker and builder mentioned in §2). Practical methods of thing that is in mind can cause the completely different understanding from that. Therefore what gives meaning to the phrase can be found in its use. He reveals the fact by which the language users are guided what they do, cannot be condition that shows a phrase means what it does or cannot be condition that it is understood in a certain way rather than the other way and cannot be condition of existence of something such a rule by which users act or condition existence of a technique in which the users have trained. Thus, meaning is no longer composed of two dead signs; however, it has the only component of sign-at-use. Finally, the Wittgenstein’s main purpose of substituting pattern in practice instead of interpretive pattern is to refer us to an area away from any internal realm that is as a necessary condition to understand facts such as meaning and thought and perception.9
5.3 Argument against Private Language
As mentioned before, the most important aspect that the private language focuses on is the question, “Does it mean that the words in psychology can be defined by pure introspection?” In other words, is the notion of private language possible? Wittgenstein writes:
“What would it be like if human beings showed no outward signs of pain? Then it would be impossible to teach a child the use of the word 'tooth-ache'. Well, let's assume the child is a genius and itself invents a name for the sensation! But what does it mean to say that he has “named his pain”? (Wittgenstein, 1967: 92).
He poses a fundamental problem here: lack of grammar that defines what is it that the child named. We thinkthat cleverchild focuses hismental attention to what feels and with himself repeats that, I call this a ‘toothache’. According to Wittgenstein, the private language idea presupposes a grammar and act of ‘calling’ cannot be without a language rule and staged. Namely, the appropriate technique and skill must be need for employment of a word within a game language.10 Something is not provided by introspection at all.
Next paragraph of the book (258) has a lot of effect on clarification of this discussion. Wittgenstein uses the analogy in this paragraph as we name a special feeling with S token and record this Mark S on the calendar. In fact, every time that feeling happens, we draw our attention to it as though we have referred to it from the inside and then recording marks on the calendar. Here a question that Wittgenstein cites is that this introspection and to repeat the records of mark S in calendar how can attribute to the meaning to the S? Does S have the meaning in this case? Here Wittgenstein's milestone strategy is expressed in rejection of private language and it is not something unless we say private language is unable to attribute meaning to S.
The standard interpretation of this paragraph may be provided as follows: private language claims that it can attribute a word to a sense of inner. But, when we want S in the future again apply that original and initial sense there will be no longer. In other words, no reference can justify our reuse of S, there will be no one. So what can be invoked by the private language is a memory made of feeling similar to the previous one; When we achieve to a new feeling say with ourselves, yes I already have a similar situation and therefore, I refer to it this S. but since this memory of similar feeling is the only criteria for applying the S, correctly. It is important that the memory, memory be true. But how do we know that these memories are true? Since S does not mean anything and there is no way to determine the correct application of S in future. Here again, we'll be back to the skeptical discussion of rule – guided given by Kripke. The skeptical discuss that connects two issues to each other: rule – guided and private language.
If I say that the only thing I have now a memory similar to what I had before; So, I call this memory also S; this point is also required to be asked what criteria of similarity is? Wittgenstein knows the only way to solve the problem using an independent criterion outside of the person that would be possible only with grafting application of S to a normative criterion. This criterion is based on two main assumptions: 1-There should be a rule to get right and wrong grammar that identifies correct application of S in the new procedures by person. 2- Concept of meaning of the psychological words like thought, pain, and anxiety and.... requires a normative standard that includes distinction between “what is right and what just seems”. Namely a language user makes meaning of his sentences, based on the separation of “what is right and what seems right” to be understood by means of a normative model (grammar).
Some philosophers, like Mc Ginn believe this criterion shows the fact that Wittgenstein's view is a unitarianistic one and meaning is certainly an individual fact (1984: 200).
This section can be summarized by saying that: The meaning of a word or words in a language with rules governing the use of that term is obtained; the ability to understand the meaning of a word only when it will be possible for the user language that there is a normative standard governing its use. On the other hand, this rule should be such that can distinguish between right and wrong following of it. Therefore, we conclude that the term that refers to the internal and personal identity since it cannot follow the valid rule, according to Wittgenstein`s meaning criterion, it will be meaningless. Indeed, Failure of language users in creating and maintaining a distinction between “what is right and what just seems right” will result in impossibility of a private language.
Studying Wittgenstein's view about introspection and the so-called “private language argument” the result that tends to separate the physical world and the mental world based on introspection is a mere mistake and a language user cannot have immediate access to his own mental states from pure introspection in any way. In other words, feelings expressed by the language user cannot in any way be considered in form of a private property because understanding of a word is determined by an external normative standard that require distinction between “what is right and what just seems right”. Distinction formed by means of skill and mastery of a language user in use of grammar accepted by a society. Thus, Wittgenstein rejects notion of a private language with reference to the absence of a valid rule and lack of condition to the meaning of internal entities and feelings.
We are very grateful to Sayyid Hassan Hoseyni (Assistant Professor at Sharif University) for his invaluable comments towards the improvement of this paper.
1. For more information, see: James, w, The Principle of Psychology, Cambridge, Harvard University, 1981.
2. Such a view of mental states is associated with two senses of privatization mental states 1.Incommunicable 2- Inalienable. See: Antony Kenny. Wittgenstein, pp.146-147
3. Like if someone says ‘I guess I have a toothache’ is meaningless.
4. The solipsist’s ego lacks any criterion of personal identity, and similarly, if the quality of a sensory experience were completely disconnected from everything in the physical world – not only from any stimulus but also from any response – it would lack any criterion of typed entity (Pears, 2003: 817).
5. The common objection to this view is that it simply fails to allow for the ability to recognize recurring types of things. This, it is said, is a purely intellectual ability on which we all rely in the physical world. So what is there to stop a single person relying on it in the inner world of his mind? Perhaps Carnap was right when he chose ‘remembered similarity’ as the foundation of his Logical Structure of the World (1967).If the ability to recognize types really were purely intellectual, it might be used in the way in which Carnap and others have used it, and it might be possible to dismiss Wittgenstein’s objection by saying, ‘We have to stop somewhere and we have to treat something as fundamental – so why not our ability to recognize sensation-types?’ But against this Wittgenstein argues that what looks like a purely intellectual ability is really based on natural sequences of predicament, behavior and achievement in the physical world (Ibid: 817).
6. Consider a word for a sensation-type had no links with anything in the physical world and, therefore, no criteria that would allow me to teach anyone else its meaning. Even so, I might think that, when I applied it to one of my own sensations, I would know that I was using it correctly. But, according to Wittgenstein, that would be an illusion, because in such an isolated situation I would have no way of distinguishing between knowing that my use of the word was correct and merely thinking that I knew that it was correct. Notice that he did not say that my claim would be wrong: his point is more radical – there would be no right or wrong in this case (Wittgenstein, 1953: 91).
7. Frege in "The Thought" argues that there are three areas, first, the outside world. Second, the mind contains images and feelings, and third, the world of Thought in which Meaning of sentences considered as objective entities. By separating imaginations from meaning, he insists that imagination have no role in creating meaning (Dummett, 1981: 620-642).
8. Reading the opinions of Wittgenstein this way has been criticized by many of his commentators, like Werhane (1992); Hacker (2001); McDowell (2002).
9. The realistic idea that meaning is closely connected with use, or even that meaning is use, seems to go against the strictest construal of the ‘no-theory’ theory of meaning, does seem to be a substantive piece of philosophical theory concerning the notion of meaning.There are two versions of the ‘no-theory’ theory of meaning. The strict version says that there is nothing substantive at all to be said about meaning – not even that meaning is use and there is nothing more to know about meaning than is constituted by acceptance of such trivial-seeming statements about meaning as: The sentence ‘Fido barks’ means that Fido barks. The more moderate version of the ‘no-theory’ theory of meaning allows that there may be something of philosophical interest to be said about linguistic meaning. It would be consistent with the moderate ‘no-theory’ theory to offer a philosophical theory according to which facts about meaning are determined by facts about use. But the moderate ‘no-theory’ theory still insists that there is no substantive philosophical theory about meaning that can be packaged as an analysis of the concept of meaning along the lines of: Sentence S means that p iff _ S _ p _(Davies, 2003: 125).
10. Although Introduction of the language- games shows this point that he accepts a cultural relativism, Based on the design of various language-games, a full recognition of a society can be just achieved through being and living in that society; So there is no general criteria for the evaluation of different cultures.