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Qualia and Wittgenstein's private language argument


To: Walter F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Qualia and Wittgenstein's private language argument
Date: 17 January 2006 10:46

Dear Walter,

Thank you for your email of 9 January, with your third essay for the Philosophy of Mind program, in response to the question, '...But in the present case I have no criterion of correctness. One would like to say: whatever is going to seem right to me is right, and that only means that here we can't talk about 'right''(Philosophical Investigations Para 258). - How effective in your view, is Wittgenstein's Private Language Argument in attacking the notion of a 'quale'?

Wittgenstein never used the terms 'quale' or 'qualia'. His preferred term for the illusion which we was seeking to expose is 'private object'. He never says that pains or sensations or experiences are not 'real'. The illusion, according to Wittgenstein, is that our subjective experiences are 'private objects'.

'No game can go on for very long if the players are free to ad-lib the rules.' This is correct. Wittgenstein is fully prepared to allow that the rules for the game can be flexible in all sorts of ways, but at the end of the day there has to be something which counts as following the rules of the game or going against the rules. This is the essential aspect of the 'normativity' of meaning, that which gives rise to the possibility of talking about 'right' and 'wrong'. The crux of the private language argument is that there can be no language game with names for private objects, yet it is only in the context of a language game that notions of 'right' and 'wrong' can be defined.

Searle possibly, and Chalmers definitely would be examples of philosophers who want to say something about the inner which would not be acceptable from Wittgenstein's point of view. I am fully with Wittgenstein on this, but I also accept that there is something which is prior to language and judgement which I call 'subjective knowledge' (see my 2001 paper, 'Truth and Subjective Knowledge' ).

Richard Rorty once wrote an article on the private language argument where he put forward the science fiction idea of a 'cerebroscope', a piece of apparatus which can 'read' brain states. Suppose we had the technology, then it would no longer be possible to claim that, 'only I know my pain' or 'only I know my sensation of red' because we could check the reading on the cerebroscope and see for ourselves. (Rorty no longer holds this view, I'm glad to say.) My argument in the paper starts from the premiss that this assumption is wrong, and that there is a strong sense in which the states of my brain are, in principle, only accessible to me. However - and this is the crucial point - these are not 'qualia' in the sense defended by opponents of physicalism because the manner in which this 'subjective knowledge' is manifested is necessarily prior to judgement and language.

Whitehead is an interesting philosopher to bring into the discussion. If I understand the point correctly, 'creativity' gives rise to a special kind of uniqueness because language can only grip the product of past acts of creativity, what 'has been' in consciousness and not what 'is'. There does seem to be an intersection here with what I want to say (in 'Naive Metaphysics') about the uniqueness of the 'I-now'. Again, this is not, like qualia, an 'object' with a 'quality' which only I am in a position to judge, but rather something prior to 'objects', something unnameable, indescribable, the 'this...'.

Whitehead is an unashamed Platonist. In this respect, his ideas do not sit well with Wittgenstein's language games. For Whitehead, there are two essential 'ingredients' to reality, the process and events underlying the more or less stable 'objects' which we identify over time, and the timeless concepts which give rise to the possibility of describing the stable products of that process. It would be interesting, however, to see if any attempt has been made to reconcile the two philosophers.

I was very interested to read what you said about the 'pragmatics' of practitioner-patient communication. Could it be argued that medical students go through a process of 'unlearning' the language game which we use to describe our feelings or the things which we perceive to be happening to our bodies? This is a case where the 'spirit of science' in seeking certainty and rigour, only succeeds in coarsening, rather than refining our pre-reflective perception and understanding.

All the best,