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Is it possible to speak a private language?

In order to best answer the above question, it would probably help to state just what I mean when I say ‘private language’. The sort of language I will discuss differs from what we might normally think of as a private language (some sort of secret code known only by one person). For the purposes of this paper, I shall use the definition of a private language formulated by Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations. Wittgenstein states that:

The individual words of this language are to refer to what can only be known to the person speaking; to his immediate private sensations. So another person cannot understand the language (§243, Wittgenstein)

This sort of language would be logically private. It is the sort of thing that would be impossible for anyone but its speaker to understand, because it would refer to objects that are necessarily private (i.e. ‘immediate private sensations’).

I’ll begin with a discussion of Wittgenstein’s critique of the very concept of a private language, and then continue to discuss the conclusions about non-private language that he draws from this critique.

To illustrate (relatively briefly) one of Wittgenstein’s major objections to the concept of giving one’s self a (logically) private language I’ll quote §258 of his Philosophical Investigations:

Let us imagine the following case. I want to keep a diary about the recurrence of a certain sensation. To this end I associate it with the sign “S” and write this sign in a calendar for every day on which I have the sensation. –– I will remark first of all that a definition of the sign cannot be formulated. –– But still I can give myself a kind of ostensive definition. —How? Can I point to the sensation? Not in the ordinary sense. But I speak, or write the sign down, and at the same time I concentrate my attention on the sensation—and so, as it were, point to it inwardly. –But what is this ceremony for? For that is all it seems to be! A definition surely serves to establish the meaning of a sign. –Well, that is done precisely by the concentration of my attention; for in this way I impress on myself the connexion between the sign and the sensation. –But “I impress it on myself” can only mean: this process brings it about that I remember the connexion right in the future. 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’ (258 Wittgenstein)

The way I interpret it, the problem here is that there is no way to verify whether or not you had a particular sensation (‘S’). You can say to yourself that this sensation now is ‘S’, but how would you go about verifying that it is, in fact, ‘S’? The obvious answer would be to compare the present instance of ‘S’ with past instances of ‘S’ in your memory: “Yes, I remember that past sensation ‘S’ it was like this sensation now, so this sensation must also be ‘S’”. But, as Wittgenstein shows us, this appeal to memory simply begs the question; how can you verify that you are remembering past instances of ‘S’ correctly? Well, the only answer would be to appeal to memory yet again, and so on, and so on. So, the problem with naming private sensations privately is that you cannot verify a correct application of a name, because any attempt at verification in turn requires further verification, ad infinitum.

There are at least two underlying assumptions in this example:

1. That verification entails an appeal to something independent and certain.

2. If verification (with certainty) of correct usage of a term is impossible then that term cannot be part of a language.

There is more specific textual evidence with which to flesh out both of these claims. Wittgenstein’s further treatment of verification (or justification) of correct usage is illustrated in another ‘conversation’ between himself and his imaginary interlocutor:

A dictionary can be used to justify the translation of a word X by a word Y. But are we also to call it a justification if such a table is to be looked up only in the imagination? – “Well, yes; then it is a subjective justification.” –But justification consists in appealing to something independent. –“But surely I can appeal from one memory to another…” –No; for this process has got to produce a memory which is actually correct…(As if someone were to buy several copies of the morning paper to assure himself that what it said was true) (§265 Wittgenstein).

So, we can see in this example (even more clearly than in §258) the flaws inherent with the idea of subjective verification. The analogy of buying several copies of the same paper to make sure that what it says is true seems to me quite convincing. Thus, if the only method of verification for private sensation terms is an appeal to memory, this cannot be seen as verification/justification for correct usage at all. It merely begs the question. But why should we be caught up in verifying correct usage at all? Here we need to argue for the second assumption above, that verification of correct usage is required to admit a term into anything called ‘language’. This assumption is directly related to Wittgenstein’s conception of language. There seem to be a few things that any definition of language should take for granted: that it is used to communicate and that it is understandable by those that use it to communicate. I think that Wittgenstein’s objections to private language are aimed at showing that it cannot fulfill either of these criteria.

If we are unable to verify when exactly we are using a term correctly (which has been shown to be impossible in a private language) then how can we use that term to communicate? Even if the communication is entirely internal or private, if we cannot define the terms of usage for a ‘word’ (‘S’) then we cannot comprehend that words usage. Which is to say, if we cannot recognize when the word is used correctly or incorrectly, the word could mean anything or nothing. This may seem a bit tautological, but it is an important point.

So, to summarize the points just made: a logically private language, one that refers only to private sensations, is not possible because for it to count as a language it must be able to be understood. Understanding a word in a language means knowing when it is applied correctly or incorrectly. So, because you cannot tell when a word in a private language is applied correctly or incorrectly (remember that appeal to memory does not count as verification) those words cannot be understood, and thus, cannot be members of a language. This leads us to the question: if one cannot verify or justify the correct usage of a term simply by an appeal to memory, then how can one justify correct usage? Well, for Wittgenstein (and Robert Martin) justification/verification requires an appeal to some sort of outside standard. It is just this sort of outside verification that is provided by a linguistic community. Martin states that:

Without public standards for the correct use of ‘C’, all there is is what seems to Sally to be a correct application of that word... What difference does it make whether Sally is trying to make up a name for a private or public object? Well, in the case of a public object, there is at least the possibility of creating a public standard… that is, we might get a public standard that results from community use and thus have the possibility that Sally’s uses are right or wrong. But if Sally is trying to name a private object… then because nobody else can perceive these items, there is no possibility of a public standard. Thus we can conclude that a language of names of public objects is impossible when only one individual invents and uses those “words” before the development of a public standard; but a language of names of private objects is altogether impossible. (Martin 50)

Essentially, what he states here is that, though applications of words may not be absolutely correct (about the ‘world’), they can be absolutely determined to be correct or incorrect by a community of language users within that community. Analogously: though we can only make certain moves within the game of chess, if we are not playing chess and we make what would normally be an incorrect move, the term ‘incorrect’ no longer applies because we are not within the framework of the game of chess. Thus, though we cannot be absolutely certain (in the Cartesian sense) whether or not we have applied a term correctly or not, we can, within the community that uses that term, be certain that it has been applied correctly. Which is to say that the Cartesian notion of certainty does not apply here: because a term can be applied correctly (or incorrectly) only within a certain context (the context of a particular community of language users).

Now, I should like to examine the question of private language from another view that is not quite the opposite of (but at least antagonistic to) the picture of community-determined standards painted above by Martin and Wittgenstein. This viewpoint has heavy doubts about the efficacy of the ‘community’ in determining correct application any more rigorously than the individual is able to. Though these doubts are not in themselves direct endorsements of the possibility of a logically private language, if such criticisms stand, the anti-private language position would be considerably weakened. There are at least two major worries about the community determination of linguistic standards, one functional, and one definitional:

1. In order to justify particular instances of usage, we need to define what community we are dealing with, and what consensus would look like for that community. If we cannot formulate a precise definition of which particular community we are dealing with, it will be impossible to determine what would count as consensus for any given justification. This leads to the further difficulty of how to deal with cases where it appears as though various different linguistic communities might have a hand in the determination of correct usage.

2. The judgment of the community is no more certain than that of a single person. Aside from the Western world’s general tendency toward democratic thought, it seems (on the face of it anyway) that community determination of standards makes the assumption that simply adding more bodies (and minds) to the justification committee will increase its certainty.

Now I should like to further develop these two quick sketches by examining a few arguments in greater detail.

The first criticism splits nicely into two separates arguments: one against the possibility of a rigorous definition of a linguistic community, and the other (which follows from the first) that posits the impossibility of defining community consensus in coherent terms.

It seems that if we define the community too broadly then there will rarely be agreement in terms (for instance if we include in our category both English and German speakers, then there will be a lot of problems concerning the word ‘die’). But, if we define the community to narrowly, it seems that we are limiting its justification power. For instance, between only two users, it would be hard to decide ‘correct’ usage because it would always be a case of one opinion against the other.

So, what possible criteria can we provide for community definition in particular cases? The simple answer would be to define any given community as just those who agree on the usage of terms. But this is just begging the question. This would be to state that in order to verify correct usage of terms we need to appeal to a community for justification, then to define that community by its agreement on what constitutes correct usage of terms. This seems to me to be precisely what Wittgenstein was illustrating in the newspaper example of §265. Perhaps we can define a community as those that curb incorrect usage. This sort solution also seems to evade a direct solution. If we define a community as those that correct incorrect usage then both a German speaker and an English speaker might correct your incorrect use of the word ‘die’ though for different reasons. An account of community based simply on negative reinforcement of usage simply cannot encompass examples like this.

If we see these problems with defining a community as insurmountable, then there will be obvious problems in defining precisely what would count as consensus in community determination. But, even if we assume that there can be a definite community, consensus itself is difficult to define. Just how we would be notified of our correct usage of a term is somewhat of a mystery. For incorrect usage, it seems at least plausible to assume that there might be some sort of interruption, or confusion afterwards; for correct usage however, this seems entirely implausible. It seems highly implausible to me that if we are unable to justify our own correct usage of terms, that a community can do so through unstated, tacit approval. This seems to me to be the only way that correct usage could be justified. If this is the case, we have to separate instances of correct use (indicated by tacit approval) from cases where we are ignored, misunderstood, etc. Unlike incorrect usage, which could plausibly be ‘sanctioned’ or corrected in some way, correct usage would never be mentioned or noted. Thus, we should not be any more certain of correct usage in the presence of a community than we are in the absence of it! (Simply because we have not been censured should not indicate any more strongly than we ourselves are able to that we have used a term correctly.)

But, if both of these criticisms fall and we are somehow able to define both ‘community’ and ‘consensus’ in a particular case, there is still a strong criticism of community determination illustrated particularly well by A.J. Ayer:

… Unless there is something that one is allowed to recognize, no test can ever be completed: there will be no justification for the use of any sign at all. I check my memory of the time at which the train is due to leave by visualizing a page of the time-table; and I am required to check this in its turn by looking up the page. But unless I can trust my eyesight at this point, unless I can recognize the figures that I see written down, I am still no better off. It is true that if I distrust my eyesight I have the resource of consulting other people; but then I have to understand their testimony, I have correctly to identify the signs that they make. Let the object to which I am attempting to refer be as public as you please, let the word which I use for this purpose belong to some common language, my assurance that I am using the word correctly, that I am using it to refer to the ‘right’ object, must in the end rest on the testimony of my senses (256-257 Ayer).

Thus, Ayer argues, community can get us no closer to certainty of correct usage than we ourselves can. If we are not allowed to recognize appeal to memory as justification for the correct usage of a term (public or private) then, logically, we cannot accept a community determination that inevitably (for Ayer) leads us back to our own, untrustworthy senses. This, finally, gets us right back to square one with regards to private language. So, it seems that if we accept that there can be no logically private language, and also accept the criteria used in proving this fact, then we cannot get to any steady conception of public language either. If we require justification for correct application of terms in a private language, we should also require it in public language. For Wittgenstein, this is not a problem, as he relegates this justification to the external judgment of the community. The problem is (as we have discovered) that there are numerous problems with the notion of the community. We cannot define rigidly what a community is, and if we could, defining what community consensus would look like is equally difficult. Not only that, but given both a firm definition of community and community consensus, there is still the problem that all judgments given by that community must necessarily be reduced to sense data. We always have to internally gauge whether we are judging the judgment of the community correctly via our own internal reactions. So, is it possible to speak a private language? It seems that my answer to this question will have to be necessarily equivocal. On the one hand, no it is not possible (given Wittgenstein’s arguments) to speak a private language, but on the other hand, these arguments, if taken seriously, seem to indicate that we cannot speak any language whatsoever. It seems that if we wish to unequivocally answer this question, we either have to eliminate the doubts about Wittgenstein’s criteria proposed above, or implement entirely new criteria.

Books cited:

Ayer, A.J. “Can There Be a Private Language?”, pp.251-266 in Wittgenstein: The Philosophical Investigations, edited by George Pitcher, (Macmillan and Co Ltd,London, 1968).

Kenny, Anthony. Wittgenstein, (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1973).

Martin, Robert. The Meaning of Language, (MIT Press, Cambridge, 1987).

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations, translated by G.E.M. Anscombe. No publishing information provided.

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