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Private language and why language matters to philosophy


To: David C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Private language and why language matters to philosophy
Date: 31 July 2002 12:10

Dear David,

Here is my response to your first and second essays for the Philosophy of Language program which you posted together on the 14 July.

Essay 1 'Why does Language matter to Philosophy?'

I'd like to start by looking at your comment on Wittgenstein's famous quote, 'Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language'.

Does language itself 'cloud our intelligence' or is Wittgenstein making the more modest claim that 'we can combat philosophical confusions through clarifications of language'? In what way is our relationship with language 'unsatisfactory'?

It is no great surprise that confusions can be overcome by clarifying language. We do it all the time. Language is designed to be extensible, so that, whenever a question arises about what exactly we mean, we can express our meaning by using other words - perhaps in the case where a new concept is involved a lot more words. But that is not a philosophical point, except insofar as it recognizes that Language is not a tool that we find simply given, but rather one that we are able to fashion and shape for our own purposes. There are many ways of being confused, and then overcoming that confusion, besides the philosophical.

Something more fundamental is involved when language or our understanding of it gives rise to philosophical confusion. Our very intelligence is 'bewitched'. We cannot think straight, or resolve our confusions because the thinking that would enable us to do this is contaminated. Extending the language, using more words or coining new ones won't help. That's where things get interesting for the philosopher.

It is very difficult to talk about this in general terms without getting down to cases. One thing you might try to do is think for yourself about examples of philosophical problems which allegedly involve this 'deep' kind of linguistic confusion, and how that confusion is eventually overcome through philosophical argument.

It is now commonplace amongst writers on the philosophy of language to talk of the philosophy of language 'interfacing' with philosophy of mind and metaphysics, as well as, outside philosophy, with mathematical logic and linguistic theory. Whereas, as you note, in the first half of the twentieth century there was a robust notion that the philosophy of language was the 'First Philosophy' (just as metaphysics, then epistemology had once been thought to be) there is now widespread agreement that, in the words of W.V.O. Quine, 'there is no first philosophy'.

I am not altogether happy with this tendency (the original title of my book 'Naive Metaphysics' was 'First Philosophy'!). I would agree that exaggerated claims have been made for the philosophy of language. But I still think that language is one of the most fundamental issues. The philosophers who talk of 'interfacing' regard the philosophy of language as just another area of philosophy where one puts forward theories. I think there is something more at stake, which Wittgenstein in his quote alludes to.

It is interesting that many contemporary philosophers are still pursing the Tractarian project of doing ontology via the logical analysis of language. So, for example, philosophers of mathematics debate over whether the correct logical analysis of numerical discourse, whether the expressions which refer to numbers should be interpreted as genuinely referring expressions. Following Davidson's work, there has been much discussion about whether we 'need' an ontology of events in order to give a correct logical analysis of statements about actions, and so on. - These are all interesting issues, but I don't see them as fundamental.

There is no reason why the philosophy of language should be inaccessible, as I hope the Language and World program will bear out.

Essay 2 'Discuss the implications of the private language argument'

The essay is about the implications of the private argument, so inviting us to consider the question, 'What implications would follow, if the conclusions of the private language argument were accepted?'

You state that there cannot be, according to the private language argument, an act of 'private ostensive definition, of a private mental sample functioning as a standard for the correct application of a word, and of a rule which cannot logically be followed by another person.' The idea of a private language, in other words, is that of a language used to describe aspects of our experience which we cannot communicate to others.

I look up at the 'blue' sky, I feel the 'cool' breeze, these are things which I can perfectly well communicate to others. As you say, we learn the use of all words, including the words for inner sensations, from other people'. What the private linguist is seeking to do is to express, to name, for his/her own benefit alone, the blueness that is my 'blueness' the cool sensation that is my 'coolness', as witnessed in the privacy of my own isolated ego.

On the face of it, it is difficult to see how this idea is necessary for the Cartesian project, or 'traditional epistemology of the sort...encountered in Locke, Berkeley and Hume'. Consider Descartes' evil demon, or, better still, let us transpose the plot to that of the film 'the Matrix'. It seems to me that one can perfectly well understand the worry about whether my experience corresponds to a world outside me without invoking the idea of a private language in the sense attacked by Wittgenstein. It is possible for the captive in the Matrix to know what it is for something to be blue, even if, in reality, they live in a world where there is no sky, and where everything is coloured in shades of grey. 'Blue' here is not intended to refer to a private object, but to just the sort of thing that we mean when we use the word 'blue', that is to say, to a phenomenon that is, in principle, publicly accessible and which two individuals can agree in calling 'blue'.

However, there is another level to this question, where what is at stake is not, 'How things really are in the objective world', i.e. whether they are as the seem to be, or whether on the contrary the objective truth is such as described in the evil demon or matrix hypothesis. On the more fundamental level, the question one is tempted to ask is why there *needs* to be an 'objective world' in this sense. Every thought that I entertain is a thought about my experience or possible experience, including the thoughts that I have just been describing. In other words, according to the solipsist, 'the world is my world'. The concept of an 'objective' world, outside of, or in addition to the world of my subjective experience and the various interpretations that I make of it, is empty, without meaning.

The upshot of the private language argument is the rejection of this hypothesis. Language is not merely *experienced* as a social phenomenon, which is as true of the solipsist as the non-solipsist. Rather the very idea of judgement implies a distinction between the individual and the world of which that individual is a part, alongside other individuals. There is another side of me, which cannot logically be reduced to my experience or possible experience: my reality in the eyes of the other whom I engage in dialogue.

All the best,