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Implications of the private language argument


To: Alan L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Implications of the private language argument
Date: 12 January 2004 13:01

Dear Alan,

Thank you for your e-mail of 31 December, with your second essay for the Philosophy of Language program, in response to the question, 'Discuss the implications of the private language argument'.

You have actually answered a slightly different question, concerning the interpretation and validity of the private language argument. The question of its implications would arise only if one were clear about what it means and that it is valid.

But that's OK, because your essay raises some interesting and important issues. It is good to see that you have read through the relevant sections, and have not just concentrated on 258.

The first thing to be clear about is that Jo is not a philosopher. Jo says she has had an indescribable mystical experience and I think we should take her seriously. One natural response is to inquire what prompted it, what other feelings it arouses and so on - in other words there are things to say about it. Another possible response would be sceptical and dismissive. The basic point is that Jo is at a loss to say 'what it is like' because it is not 'like' anything she has previously experienced. And we should accept that that is the way things *seem* to her.

Mo's mistake is to identify Jo with the character, call him Wiggy, in Philosophical Investigations who *imagines* (258) that he might have a sensation (we need not get hung up about it's being a recurring 'sensation' - it can be any subjective state) which he decides to call 'S'. Now comes the important bit: 'I will remark first of all that a definition of the sign cannot be formulated'. It's not clear at first exactly what this means, but as we see later from the manometer example (270), Wiggy's idea is that there is no connection between occurrences of S and events in the objective world.

People do occasionally get strange recurring sensations. It turns out that there is a physical cause. We generally *assume* this to be the case. So, for example, in the manometer case, I might discover after seeing a doctor that the occurrences that I note in my diary correspond with bouts of dangerously high blood pressure. Only a deluded philosopher like Wiggy would dismiss this as a merely accidental and contingent feature of S - as if what 'S' refers to, the object in my mental world, exists independently of anything outside my mental world.

In Jo's case, she is convinced that the explanation is not physical but metaphysical. It is a 'mystical' experience, an insight into a higher reality. Knowing Jo, we might be confident that she is wrong. (Strangely, Imex occurs only after Jo has drunk half a dozen dry martinis.) Either way, however, occurrences of Imex are assumed to track events in an objective (physical *or* metaphysical) reality.

So what is *essential* to the idea of a private language, as characterized in the Philosophical Investigations, is that the 'object' whose recognition I call attention to exists only in my consciousness, or from my perspective (the philosophical term is 'Cartesian mental event' - although there is room for argument whether this idea can really be pinned on Descartes).

It is concerning these objects, and these alone, that Wittgenstein claims 'one cannot talk about 'right'.'

A complicating factor, however, is Wittgenstein's 'anti-realism'. Apart from the attack on 'logically private objects' or Cartesian mental events, Wittgenstein does have a concern with the idea of unknowable states of affairs in the objective world. Suppose that Jo's Imexes have a direct mystical connection with an alien in the Andromeda galaxy called Oj. Whenever Oj is injured, Jo 'feels' this, although neither she, nor anyone else can ever know about the connection. This would be a case where the correctness or otherwise of Jo's use of 'imex' can never be *checked*. I think Wittgenstein would object to this, but not on the grounds that 'imex' is a term in a private language. He would simply ask what is the point of this completely idle speculation.

The anti-realist connection has led some philosophers to accuse the private language of making an unwarranted 'verificationist' assumption. It is very tempting to do this given things Wittgenstein says about the possibility of 'checking' that one has had an occurrence of 'S'. However, the argument is not simply that one can 'never conclusively check' whether one has had S, but rather that there is no coherent notion of the *requirements* for being S, no 'criterion of identity' for occurrences of S.

However, in the present case it seems that Jo and Flo are in the right and Mo is the one who is speaking out of turn.

All the best,