What is a sensible definition of the term language to use when interpreting private language arguments in general (if possible), or Wittgenstein in particular?

Conversely, is rejecting the idea of private languages about the definition of language?

Depending on the definition of language, e.g. if it includes an aspect of being embodied amongst a community, then the absence of private languages might be purely definitional.

Conversely, if one takes a very loose definition of the term then I can conceive of things that at least "skirt the edges" of a private language.

  1. To set some background, suppose there is a written language shared only by Alice and Bob, e.g. they made up their own pairwise language. I'm assuming that there is no conceptual problem with such a just pairwise language under (basically) any definition of the term.

  2. Suppose that Bob writes notes to himself, in a conventional language, in order supplement his memory (I do not think that he needs to be mitigating severe amnesia in order for this to make sense, though assuming such doesn't seem a problem). I'm assuming that there no problem with considering this as language use under any definition of the term.

  3. Now, suppose that Bob makes up a custom written language for keeping his notes. It seems to me that given the previous point, this case shares a "family resemblance" to that example of language use, and though not a public language in practice, it is (typically) a public language in principle.

  4. Some experiences are characterized as being un-communicatable, and thus intrinsically private (one might say they are ineffable in public languages), and yet are often characterized as being personally meaningful.

  5. Finally, if Bob is able to make a set of signs, that helps him (or causes him) to remember/reconstruct these kinds of ineffable experiences, then couldn't it be a private in that it is not in principle translatable due to the fact that his experiences are his alone?

It seems to me that at important link in this chain is the rather loose use of the term language in step 5, and thus, can be easily severed with a suitable definition of the term "language"; but if you define language too strictly, the private language argument is just an aspect of the definition of the term. Thus, it seems to me, that being careful about the definition of the term "language" at the outset is critical to understanding private language arguments.

This question is closely related to this one. Indeed, under very broad usage of the term "language" mystic experiences themselves, being meaningful and significant yet intrinsically private, might be considered as involving a language, in the broad sense.

  • 1
    I think if you want to look at "private language arguments", you're going to have to read both the part(s) of the Philosophical Investigations that people call the "private language argument" and some of the secondary literature. My sense was that it does not map easily onto the sort of 5 claims you've got here, and worse than that, that philosophers disagree about what the argument is and whether it works (one reason I'm not a Wittgenstein scholar). (PI was more a notebook than a polished book).
    – virmaior
    Commented Oct 15, 2015 at 14:54

1 Answer 1


Your point about the memory function of language and the possibility of a "private aid to memory" is interesting. Like a species, communication must "re-member" and "re-pair" itself. As Luhmann, notes a "failure of communication" only produces more communication. It repairs and regenerates itself. So if you simply take communication as prior to Cartesian "individuals" then we are "always already" instantiations of language "remembering" itself.

I suppose the main thing is your starting point. And the errors entailed by the Cartesian starting point of the isolate subject, who is somehow spontaneously self-generated with his Adamic pronouns and predicates. A royal road or reductio to solipsism or divine assistance. For Wittgenstein, I believe, part of the very definition of language, as you suggest, is as a special subset of "observable behaviors." Prior to what is later privatized as "my consciousness." (Wittgenstein experts, please correct me.)

For Wittgenstein's pupil P.F. Strawson, the regenerative embodiment is likewise given. The correct starting point is not a Cartesian subject, but a "Person," defined by Strawson as both consciousness and materiality, hence with "observable behaviors" from which one cannot prescind.

I see two problems with your argument. First, Bob somehow already has the mental capacity for language. It is really "language in the first place" that is the problem and the necessity of something "already shared," whether Kantian or Chomskyan, prior to it. Bob's predicative mind already says, as if to someone, "Lo, I shall create a private language."

Second, Bob's ineffable experiences are no different from all experiences, ultimately derivable from the senses. They are of a particularity and singularity that cannot be reiterated or behaviorally exhausted. But can Bob's behavioral "memory aids" reiterate them, even for Bob? Not fully and technically. Thus what is most reliably "effable" is in some degree a priori. Wittgenstein was a Kantian in some sense. It is prior to the interior "privacy" of the Cartesian individual.

So, I would say you are right. The privacy argument is more about our definition of language than about the possibility of private codes and secret handwriting, which are, like an infertile species or prayer-mumbling anchorites, aiming at self-extinction. Language grows, regenerates, and infiltrates materiality, carrying discrete individuals along with it.

  • The main point is that a private language isn't even thinkable if we do not want to name a simple (or even complex) reference-system to a natural language ("secret words/codes/handwritings") independent and truly private. So, for Wittgenstein, every language has its meaning out of communication about objects. Something privacy just can't provide, therefore a private language would be meaningless.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Oct 15, 2015 at 23:50
  • Do Wittgenstein's "approaches" (I won't call them"arguments") successfully resolve most Cartesian subject-object problems? I only ask because I really don't know. He is, to me, a dead end, like Heidegger. They were right.They went as far as they could go. But they are dead and we must go on. If philosophy "dies," something else much more important dies. Commented Oct 16, 2015 at 3:39

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