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From time to time I come across people who endorse Wittgenstein's notion that language is a fundamentally public activity, and that a private language would be meaningless.

I always feel somewhat incredulous at these claims. To me it seems obvious that meaningful things are constantly going on in my mind that others are not aware of, and I have trouble imagining that anyone would really deny this. So I think, even believers in the private language argument (PLA) must not deny it, they must be just saying the public aspects of language are more important or deserve more central focus, or that it's impractical to communicate private experiences. But I'm not sure because I have rarely had this confirmed to me by a believer in the PLA.

So please clarify for me what PLA believers actually think, by confirming or denying the following statements. I'm guessing that most PLA believers would affirm most of these.

  1. People have private mental lives.
  2. People have subjective experiences.
  3. Pain is real.
  4. People have P-consciousness.
  5. People have qualia.
  6. A person may go off alone and think by himself.
  7. Language is used to transmit concepts from one person's mind to another. That is: there was a private concept in one person's mind, then a public utterance, and then a similar private concept appeared in a second person's mind.
  8. A person, alone, may use language to conjure images in his own mind. Assuming he does not have aphantasia. (If you are a PLA believer, do you have aphantasia?)
  9. There is an objective reality, independent of what people say about it.
  10. A social consensus, even a unanimous one, can be incorrect.
  11. People often have an internal dialogue.
  12. A person may decide that the word "lurrim" (for example) will be his private synonym for "table," tell this to no one else, and use this word in a meaningful way in his internal dialogue.
  13. If a person has a literal, physical, beetle in a box (as Wittgenstein famously discussed as a metaphor), shown to no-one else, then statements the person makes about the literal beetle are still meaningful and may be true or false depending on how well they match the physical characteristics of the beetle.
  14. A person may hear what others say, but then he must decide for himself whether he will believe it, based on his own sense of reason. Ultimately, this personal sense of reason is the "gatekeeper" of what beliefs go into a person's mind.
  15. Psychology is a legitimate field of study.

Here is a second set of statements, about what I think (but please confirm), PLA believers consider unique about their perspective, assuming they do assent to statements 1-15.

  1. Language is primarily a social activity.
  2. It can be difficult, often impossible, for a person to accurately share his private mental experiences with others.
  3. As a practical matter, because of the difficulty of sharing private mental experiences, we should avoid speaking about them in a philosophical context. The potential for confusion and talking past each other is too high.
  4. It is better to "think with other people," trying to build consensus and adopting existing consensus, than to ruminate or meditate by oneself.

I'm not looking for lengthy discussion of each of these, just assent/dissent. Right now I'm trying to determine what PLA believers believe, not (right now) why they believe it.

As for myself, I assent to 1-17, deny 18 and 19.

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  • Colloquially, "private language" attaches to private use of public language, "things going on in mind that others are not aware of", which 1-15 are about. 16-19 are beside the point, it is not about importance of public aspects or ease of communication. Wittgenstein was addressing philosophical abuses of the concept in sense data and phenomenological theories, not colloquial or scientific uses. His "private language" is one set up to refer to private events without accessible external correlates, and so no cross-checks on the reference, even in principle. As such, it fails to refer.
    – Conifold
    Sep 6, 2023 at 22:52
  • @Conifold Okay. I would have thought #18 to be the crux of the matter - as it is the PLA "watered down" a bit to practical difficulty of communication rather than outright impossibility of communication. Anyway, do you find Wittgenstein's arguments convincing yourself, and if so, which statements do you affirm?
    – causative
    Sep 6, 2023 at 23:05
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    The point is not difficulty or impossibility, but rather that "private language" is a covert oxymoron, the term is only superficially descriptive. Whatever is done will not answer to specifications, but similar sounding meaningful descriptions tend to give us the opposite impression. I find the negative part convincing, that private ostension on its own cannot set up a referring language, but not that public practice is the only circumstance that can. In particular, Azzouni's alternative in The Rule-Following Paradox looks plausible to me.
    – Conifold
    Sep 6, 2023 at 23:43
  • @Conifold Alright, I've skimmed it, and correct me if I'm wrong, but Azzouni's core point is that a person alone on an island needs two things to form a language without social interaction. (1) a disposition to recognize when he is mistaken in his use of language to describe his environment (2) a coherent practice to correct himself over time in a way that produces genuine utility. If I have indeed identified Azzouni's core point (which is sound), it seems like a lot of pages to say something fairly simple. I do agree with it.
    – causative
    Sep 7, 2023 at 0:51
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    PLA shows that there has to be a check on referring languages, and Wittgenstein surmises that social practice typically serves as such a check. Azzouni suggests that reality itself can provide the check, but in a limited way and under many restrictions. Wittgenstein's examples with naming qualia do not clear them, for instance. We need (at least) "cooperative environment", responsive dispositions and practically consequential referents. I also suspect that Azzouni's languages, while loosely meaningful, are not, strictly speaking, referring in Wittgenstein's sense.
    – Conifold
    Sep 7, 2023 at 9:21

4 Answers 4

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I’m afraid you won’t find this project very satisfying. The PLA is not a doctrine or a set of beliefs. Many people have tried to reformulate it in that way, with mixed success. But it is more than a theory or doctrine; it is a re-interpretation of our language and thinking about pain and, by extension, other experiences. The benefit is that we can escape from various philosophical quagmires.

Perhaps a comparison will help. You may know the story of Dr. Johnson’s “refutation” of Berkeley’s arguments for immaterialism. In case you don’t, Boswell tells it as follows:-

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is untrue, it is impossible to refute it. I shall never forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it,– "I refute it thus."

See George Berkeley - Wikipedia.

The odd thing about this is that although Dr. Johnson thought that Berkeley was denying plain common sense, Berkeley is at great pains (both in the Treatise and in the Dialogues) to insist that he is not contradicting common sense; his aim is just to correct a mistaken philosophical theory. In the same way, Wittgenstein’s argument does not try to contradict ordinary non-philosophical life or language, but to re-orient philosophy so that it no longer wanders through a maze of puzzlement generated by a misleading model of introspection.

You’re asking a lot in your list of propositions. In this context, very few of them have straightforward answers. A proper answer to them would disentangle the philosophical models from the everyday use of language, but that would inflate this answer to inordinate length and I’m concerned that it would become a TL;DR or lead to a long and confusing discussion.

At the heart of it is the conventional philosophical doctrine about introspection. This observes that if I say I am afraid or feeling pain or thinking of a beetle, no-one else can meaningfully contradict me. This is what “privacy” means in this context, and it is quite different from the caterpillars and beetles that children used to keep in match-boxes or from some secret vice indulged in only when on one’s own (“in privacy”). Those privacies can be violated. But it is not logically possible to violate this kind of privacy.

So introspective knowledge becomes a gold standard, alongside logic, of what knowledge (certainty) is. The catch is that, just because it cannot be wrong, it isn’t really meaningful to speak of it being right. (The same point led to logical truths being classified as “trivial”).

The argument is that this model of introspection needs to be replaced, and his idea is that “I am in pain” should not be compared to “The patient is in pain”, but to “Ouch!”. It is an expression of pain, not an observation about it, and belongs alongside wincing, clutching the affected part &c. Consequently it is not true or false in the way that ordinary observations are.

The crucial point here is that the symptoms of pain are part of the concept of pain and not an add-on – and, incidentally, so is the impulse to help on the part of other people. (He doesn’t comment on sadism.)

Of course, there is more to be said here. For a start, “I am in pain” is not simply a variant of “Ouch”, but plays a part in the public language game. However, there is no point in my trying to duplicate the various expositions of the argument, which I’m sure you are quite capable of looking up on your own. But perhaps identifying the starting-point of the argument and its terminus will be helpful.

In response to your request, here is my response to each of your questions.

  1. People have private mental lives. Yes, but they can be revealed and/or shared.

  2. People have subjective experiences. People do experience things. Experiences are subjective by definition.

  3. Pain is real. Fake pain and mimicked pain are not real. Phantom pains, psychosomatic pains and referred pains are real. Normally, physical injuries are really painful.

  4. People have P-consciousness. I’m not familiar with this concept; I must be out of date. No comment.

  5. People have qualia. Another concept that I’m not very familiar with. No comment.

  6. A person may go off alone and think by himself. Yes.

  7. Language is used to transmit concepts from one person's mind to another. That is: there was a private concept in one person's mind, then a public utterance, and then a similar private concept appeared in a second person's mind. I accept that one of the functions of language is communication between people. But the question assumes a model of language that I find very problematic.

  8. A person, alone, may use language to conjure images in his own mind. Assuming he does not have aphantasia. (If you are a PLA believer, do you have aphantasia?) Certainly people imagine things and “using language” (using language to do what?) may be a helpful stimulus.

  9. There is an objective reality, independent of what people say about it. Whether my car is still parked where I left it does not depend on what I want or believe or suspect.

  10. A social consensus, even a unanimous one, can be incorrect. Yes, and another social consensus (such as driving on the left or right hand side of the road) can be neither correct nor incorrect.

  11. People often have an internal dialogue. I would have said yes. However, the model that you link to is not wrong, but is extremely problematic.

  12. A person may decide that the word "lurrim" (for example) will be his private synonym for "table," tell this to no one else, and use this word in a meaningful way in his internal dialogue. This is just a variant of question 13. The question is what “meaningful” means.

  13. If a person has a literal, physical, beetle in a box (as Wittgenstein famously discussed as a metaphor), shown to no-one else, then statements the person makes about the literal beetle are still meaningful and may be true or false depending on how well they match the physical characteristics of the beetle. This is just a variant of question 12. The question is what “meaningful” means.

  14. A person may hear what others say, but then he must decide for himself whether he will believe it, based on his own sense of reason. Ultimately, this personal sense of reason is the "gatekeeper" of what beliefs go into a person's mind. Certainly, nobody else can make up my mind for me. But I don’t know what you mean by “a personal sense of reason”. I suspect that a philosophical thesis that I might disagree with is buried in it.

  15. Psychology is a legitimate field of study. Sometimes it is. But it depends on what you mean by “psychology” and “legitimate”. In this respect, it is no different from physics or etmylogy.

  16. Language is primarily a social activity. Surely that’s a cliché. Certainly, it’s not unique to PLA believers.

  17. It can be difficult, often impossible, for a person to accurately share his private mental experiences with others. Yes. But how is it decided when a person has accurately shared his private mental experiences?

  18. As a practical matter, because of the difficulty of sharing private mental experiences, we should avoid speaking about them in a philosophical context. The potential for confusion and talking past each other is too high. That seems like an unwise and unrealistic policy to me. The difficulties can be overcome.

  19. It is better to "think with other people," trying to build consensus and adopting existing consensus, than to ruminate or meditate by oneself. Both solitary and social thinking are to be recommended.

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  • This is a thoughtful answer. The sticking point for me is when you say it isn't really meaningful to speak of, "I am feeling pain," as being right. It might not be possible for other people to verify that it is right, but truth or falsehood of a statement does not depend on what people think about it (that's why I included statement 10). Certainly, if I say right now, "I am feeling pain in my left big toe," I am wrong, and lying; statements about pain can be introspectively wrong. Anyway, thanks for your answer.
    – causative
    Sep 6, 2023 at 23:42
  • One last question. Do you think the PLA makes sense, and if you do, which of the 19 statements would you affirm? Even if you don't consider your views on these statements to be "part" of the PLA, I am interested in what views "go along incidentally" with belief in the PLA. For instance, you have said that it's not meaningful to speak of statements about pain being right. Does this mean you don't think pain is real, or not? Or you just "remain silent" on the question of whether pain is real?
    – causative
    Sep 6, 2023 at 23:43
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    About PLA I've little opinion/comment. About introspection: Yes the fact I'm hopelessly locked in my head, you in yours etc and we cannot directly know the insides of others is true.... 99.99% of the time. When you've experienced real telepathy you know it's not 100%. And the gap between 99.99% and 100% makes one realize this argument is contingent, pragmatic. But not a priori /analytic.
    – Rushi
    Sep 7, 2023 at 4:46
  • @causative. I agree that what I said about introspection was over-simplified; I registered that in my last paragraph. I agree that if you reject the traditional view of introspection, then the private language argument has no target. So there are issues about the argument. However, I think they are a complication, not a refutation of the argument.
    – Ludwig V
    Sep 7, 2023 at 6:08
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    So my answers are 1 – 3 Yes; 6 – 15 Yes. 4,5 Skip and 16, 17 Yes; 18 No; 19 Both. Sorry to still be awkward. I can't help it.
    – Ludwig V
    Sep 7, 2023 at 15:46
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I think you may have misunderstood Wittgenstein’s argument. The argument is not that one can’t create a language in their head and find meaning in certain terms. Neither is it that one can’t create a language that others would have a hard time deciphering as a practical matter.

The argument is that one can’t create a private language that others, even in principle, can’t decipher. The reason this is such is simply because if it was in principle unintelligible by others, it would be unintelligible by the proponent of the language as well. But then it wouldn’t be a private language.

The consequence of this is that it might not make any sense to talk of private experiences or of private mental states.

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  • So, which of the 19 statements would you say a PLA believer would assent to? The kinds of languages "allowed" under the PLA, even if we take the words you just said as a good interpretation, heavily depends on what you consider "in principle" decipherable. For example, is a language about one's private qualia "in principle" decipherable?
    – causative
    Sep 6, 2023 at 20:02
  • As per the article, “ What Wittgenstein had in mind is a language conceived as necessarily comprehensible only to its single originator because the things which define its vocabulary are necessarily inaccessible to others.”
    – user62907
    Sep 6, 2023 at 20:11
  • The consequence of this is that it might not make any sense to talk of private experiences or of private mental states.
    – user62907
    Sep 6, 2023 at 20:15
  • That would be why I included statements 1-5. Also, Wittgenstein's "beetle" scenario does not involve language that is in principle unshareable, only language that in practice is not shared because people don't look at each other's beetles. It seems he was more concerned with what he thought happened in practice when people used language, than what might be in principle possible.
    – causative
    Sep 6, 2023 at 20:29
  • Well a language wouldn’t be needed if referring to only private items is the gist of his point from what I can gather. Language must refer to public items. If it refers to things only you have seen then you wouldn’t need a word for it: you would just know it.
    – user62907
    Sep 6, 2023 at 20:50
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I read the PLA in three tiers, and the first two are articulated in the Stanford link in your question.

Wittgenstein was inclined strongly toward both behaviorism and logical positivism, and the overt argument he presented is a behaviorist attack on the ability of any verification of a private experience or thought. This is the “orthodox” interpretation of the PLA. Critics of this argument are conceded to be correct in the SEP article. Public language also has no foolproof error correction method, as we see with linguistic drift and dynamism, so this cannot be a valid criticism of private language. The only thing actually lacking in private thought is 3rd person confirmation, and with the collapse of both the verification principle and the entire failed behaviorist dogma, this is no longer the central concern that W considered it to be.

W’s overt argument is also in conflict with our own experience of observing say a sunset, enjoying it, but then struggling to translate our thoughts into public language to share.

Also, a peculiar outcome of the orthodox argument is that there absurdly can be no last speaker of a dying language. Nor a first speaker of a new one. Only a second to last speaker, or second speaker!

So, moving on to the second tier of interpretation. Your question 9 is on target. The basic reasoning here, and what Conifold I think is getting at, is that our thoughts appear to be too indefinite to be able to say there even IS a “fact if the matter” about them. The recursion of evaluating what we think we think is just too squirrelly to be nailed down to be “the reality of the world” that one can even do a truth test evaluation against.

I believe the point of tier 2 of this argument is to question whether your point 1 is possibly compatible with point 9. Do tier 2 PLA advocates dispute point 1? I think they do not dispute its SEEMING to be the case, but then dispute that we can use any such seeming to draw conclusions from.

Tier 3 you touch upon with 10. None of us are omniscient. There IS no “ view from nowhere”. 3rd person perspective is as subject to undiscoverable error in principle as first person perspectives. If first person thoughts are too squirrelly to treat as possible facts then so are 3rd person shared thoughts. The post structuralists noted this about all expressed thought — there are embedded assumptions in all language and social structures that skew what we take “reality” to be, that we cannot justify and in general can rarely even identify if we try. The tier 3 extension of the tier 2 argument takes Kripke’s reasoning to its logical absurdity of rejecting all knowledge.

I believe that Dennett’s Multiple Drafts model points to a useful alternative POV than that pursued by analytic philosophy. IF our thoughts do not have a singular definable state, but are a dynamic collection of related and changing content, then our private thoughts, and private language, can exist and have meaning even if there may not be explicit facts about them per point 9.

This is to accept pragmatic rather than absolute truth. That our external observations and community thinking may also be in error would then be no more of an obstacle to having knowledge than the dynamism of our thoughts is to their existing. And while both first person and 3rd person checks are fallible, 3rd person are LESS fallible, hence do give us a more useful/ reliable approximation to “reality”.

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First off, confetior, I haven't read Ludwig Wittgenstein. All I have to go on is discussions on internet fora. It seems he's quite a star northwest of the English channel.

Anyway, the private language argument (PLA, affectionately) has cryptographical undertones. Say person X invents a private language which they and only they understand. That qualifies, sensu amplissimo, as a coded message. It needs a key for decipherment. The key is not public per the definition of a private language. Think Rosetta Stone (the key that unlocked Egyptian). What this means is, for all intents and purposes, the coded message is indistinguishable from gibberish/gobbledygook. Hence, a private languge is unintelligible to anyone but the person who invents the private language (X). The sticking point then is, is a private language intelligible to its inventor? To my reckoning, this is a question in cryptography. What kinda misfortune may befall a key, if it exists at all? Lost? Corrupted?

The rongorongo script (consisting of pictograms on wooden blocks) remains undeciphered till date. Is it a private language?

Adieu ...

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  • 1
    The rongorongo script is an undeciphered script, which means it is not private in the sense relevant to the PLA. A private language in the PLA means a language which can only be decrypted by the key-holder, so that effectively an encrypted message means whatever the key holder decides. For philosophical purposes, a key that can be or even could have been shared is enough to qualify the encrypted language as a public language. The Rosetta stone, like Linear B script and the Enigma Code were only deciphered because a guess struck lucky. Wikipedia has entries for all three. Good stories all.
    – Ludwig V
    Sep 7, 2023 at 10:12
  • But perhaps the philosophically relevant part of the stories is how they proved that their decoding was correct. That's also part of the record. The process was different in each case. There's no royal road.
    – Ludwig V
    Sep 7, 2023 at 10:23

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