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Wittgenstein: 'The world is MY world'


To: Chris H.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Wittgenstein: 'The world is MY world'
Date: 15 January 2004 15:12

Dear Chris,

Thank you for your e-mail of 3 January, with your first essay for the Philosophy of Language program, in response to the question, 'The world is MY world: this is manifest in the fact that the limits of LANGUAGE (of that language which alone I understand) mean the limits of MY world' ('Tractatus' 5.62). - Do you agree with that statement?

A lot of thought and reading has clearly gone into this essay. On this extremely difficult topic, I am always on the look-out for the possibility that I have missed something. If, in what follows, it seems to you that I have failed to grasp the point that you were making, then all I can ask is that you 'run it by me again'!

As I don't speak German, I am not in a position to comment on the perversity or otherwise of 'the only language which I understand' as opposed to 'the language which only I understand'. However, it is a simple matter to analyze what hangs on this.

Let's suppose that,

A. There is a language L which is such that L is a language which only I understand.

But it is not the case that,

B. There is a language L* which is such that L* is the only language which I understand.

Clearly, A is consistent, while B is inconsistent with the proposition,

C. There is a language L** which you and I understand.

From A and C it follows that I understand two languages, the language which is private to me and the language which you and I share.

One issue is whether that is an accurate representation of what W. held in the Tractatus. My objection to this interpretation is that it makes a nonsense of W's 'demolition of solipsism', as you call it, 'The self of solipsism shrinks to a point without extension' (5.64). On the contrary, with two languages at my disposal, the private and the public, we can quite happily converse about things like Iraq or Wittgenstein or my Macintosh G3, while I am able to cordon off an area to which you are permanently denied access, my private states. Reflecting on the fact that this is true for you too, I am drawn irresistibly to the conclusion that I can form no conception of your private states, nor even speculate whether such states exist or not. Let's call this 'crude solipsism'.

An example of this two-language view might be the use of colour words. You and I can agree that snow is white and the sky is blue, but only I know the private 'colour' of my impression of white or of my impression of blue, call these 'white[gk]' and 'blue[gk]'.

This idea is demolished by W's private language argument in the Philosophical Investigations. Given that one of the main aims of PI was to reconsider W's former views, it is tempting to think that the private language argument is indeed aimed at the two-language doctrine.

The trouble is, that this still does not account for W's claim in 5.64.

That is why I think W. did hold a more radical view in the Tractatus. There is only one language, my language, which I use to describe the world as I find it, including you and all the other 'objects' that I encounter.

In this radical version of solipsism, there is no way to express the thought, 'I don't know how things are for you, nor even whether there is such a thing as 'the way things are for you''. But there remains something which can be 'shown' but not 'said', which deeper reflection on the private language argument brings to light. There will be more discussion of this later in the program.

I did try to see how your account of 'language' and 'meta-language' might yield a third alternative to the two alternatives considered here.

Let's say, that instead of two languages for two distinct realms, the private and the public, there my private 'meta-language' and the 'languages' which I describe, in talking about the world as I find it; for example your language. So, in my meta-language, I can say, ''GK' refers to GK', where the quoted occurrence of 'GK' refers to the word which you use to refer to GK, while the second occurrence of GK represents my use of the term 'GK' in my language. However, this is fully consistent with radical solipsism.

My language is a 'meta-language' only insofar as it is used to describe an 'object language'. That is how the term is used. The world itself is not a 'language'.

Possibly, you are trying to say something else, something which I agree with, which is that both versions of solipsism, 'crude' and 'radical', are false. There is the world, and there are the things that can be said about the world in language, a language which you and I share.

All the best,