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Implications of the private language argument


To: Mary J.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Implications of the private language argument
Date: 30 September 2002 11:05

Dear Mary,

Thank you for your e-mail of 18 September, with your second essay for the Philosophy of Language program, 'Discuss the implications of the private language argument'.

You explain the idea of a 'private language' and Wittgenstein's objection to it very nicely. An important point to make is that a lot of the work of the private language has already been done earlier in the 'Philosophical Investigations', where Wittgenstein concludes:

'And hence also "obeying a rule" is a practice. And to *think* one is obeying a rule is not to obey a rule. Hence it is not possible to obey a rule "privately": otherwise thinking one was obeying a rule would be the same thing as obeying it' (para 202).

The most important implication of the private language argument is that the thing Wittgenstein calls 'practice' *is* sufficient to give meaning to a term. It would seem to follow that if you can describe a practice for the use of a term 'T', then that is sufficient to show that 'T' has a meaning.

But is it? And what would count as an adequate 'description of a practice'? Your example of Conor's father is an excellent way of approaching this question. From your account, and from the word itself, I would guess that 'wadyacalled' functions like a variable used in the place of a substantival expression, like 'thingummybob'. I might be wrong about this. If I am right, then what I have just said is a pretty precise description of the practice of using 'wadyacalled'. Yet at the same time, there may be nuances of the practice that this account misses. Some unnamed objects are more appropriately called 'wadyacalled' than others. For example, it might seem too disrespectful to use the term to refer to a religious artifact.

But is it the case that we can adequately describe a practice when we *do* feel fully confident in using a term? Surely not. So we potentially have two views, from outside and from inside a given 'in-crowd' with respect to a given expression. From outside, it seems impossible to discover exactly how the expression is used. From inside, it seems impossible to explain to an outsider how it is used. Both the insiders and the outsiders will feel that this is a deeply unsatisfactory state of affairs, without having any idea how to remedy it. Wittgenstein's view of language use as a 'practice' allows such a state of affairs to arise. There is nothing the philosopher or linguist can do about it. However, some philosophers (myself included) will feel that the philosopher ought to be able to say more.

That 'the philosopher ought to say more' is Michael Dummett's view too. Where I diverge sharply from Dummett is over his claim that an adequate theory of meaning ought to be able to explain the meaning or 'practice' for all the terms in a language in an informative way. To me, this seems an impossibly strict requirement. Yet I do want to say that the philosopher is, or ought to be in a position to adjudicate when a term used by an 'in-crowd' has an objective meaning, which outsiders are unable to discern because they lack the requisite training, and when it only seems to have a meaning. There are cases, I want to say, where the fact that a particular usage 'seems to *us* to be "right"' doesn't make it right.

I don't know quite what to say about Blackburn. Like Blackburn, I want to save our intuitions that for each of us there is something, which I call 'subjective knowledge', which cannot be communicated, namely our immediate knowledge of our own mental states. (See my paper 'Truth and subjective knowledge' for the 2001 Shap Conference on the 'Wood Paths' web site at: In my view, however, this is fully consistent with the 'all-or-nothing' view of the private language argument. Subjective knowledge is not a form of judgement. It is beyond language, whether public or private. Whereas Blackburn's account seems in this case too easy a compromise with common sense.

All the best,