Wittgenstein criticized the idea that there could be a meaningful language that was only known in principle by one person.

His insights have often been used to disregard the idea of private mental states (concepts, ideas, etc) to which our words and sentences correspond.

My question: Is this application of Wittgenstein's criticism justified?

Couldn't a careful philosopher note a difference between type and tokens in language, where the content is of a public type for all language, but of a private token for each person?

In theory, couldn't there be individual mental concepts which our words correspond to (in some cases), and couldn't these concepts relay content that is public and communicable?

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    Wittgenstein's argument is based on the absence of criterion of correctness in application of private signs, and it makes no difference what those signs refer to if anything, so the metaphysics of mental states, types and tokens is irrelevant to his argument. However, check out Jacquette's Wittgenstein on Private Language and Private Mental Objects for a different type of critique sammelpunkt.philo.at:8080/399/1/12-1-94.TXT
    – Conifold
    May 11, 2016 at 4:22
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    @Conifold I thought Wittgenstein was criticizing the notion of a private language as defined as a language where the symbols are designated by one person to represent wholly private sensations. I'm familiar with his 'beetle in a box' thought problem where he argues that content is actually irrelevant to designation, but I'm iffy about whether a private language as he defines it includes this insight or not. It seems that the language being symbols of private sensations is critical to parts of Wittgenstein's criticism of private language, at least the parts I'm asking about.
    – Mos
    May 11, 2016 at 20:59

1 Answer 1


The SEP article does a good job of pulling together various places in Philosophical Investigations over which the private language argument sprawls (including the rule-following paradox, and the beetle in a box), as well as surveys its various readings and misreadings. Unfortunately, this obscures the argument itself. Jacquette gives a cogent summary of the core argument and its "extensions" in Wittgenstein on Private Language and Private Mental Objects. Here is the key passage from PI §258 (but it is hard to decipher without working through §§244–271):

"I will remark first of all that a definition of the sign cannot be expressed. 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 concentrating 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'".

For sign to have a meaning it must be possible to use it wrongly, because language is a rule-governed activity. In a community other speakers are available to correct the speaker, or the speaker can even internalize the "rules" and use them privately, but on things that are at least in principle publicly accessible. There is no such check on private sensations, whatever seems right is right. And Wittgenstein addresses the obvious rebuttle, "but surely I can appeal from one memory to another", by comparing it to "looking up" an imaginary timetable:

"If the mental image of the timetable could not itself be tested for correctness, how could it confirm the correctness of the first memory? (As if someone were to buy several copies of the morning paper to assure himself that what it said was true)... But justification consists in appealing to something independent".

With no possibility of error private signs are meaningless. Does this imply the non-existence of private mental entities? Not immediately, Wittgenstein himself talks about "pre-linguistic" in PI §541, but that is little consolation since it renders at least any talk of them meaningless. Does the difference between types and tokens matter? In the argument we do not even reach a point where the nature of sensations comes into play, and Wittgenstein's own position was that there is no such thing as "mental content", only language games, he indulges in it just for the sake of the argument. A champion of the distinction, Davidson, who based his "anomalism of the mental" thesis on it, didn't think so either, see a Davidsonian reading of Wittgenstein in Verheggen's How Social Must Language Be?

But there is something else. Wittgenstein's argument is best understood as a transcendental argument in the Kantian sense: use of signs requires criterion of correctness, public access supplies such a criterion, therefore it is a condition of its possibility. "Therefore" here is not a logical inference, it is what Peirce called abduction, an ingenious explanatory hypothesis. But who is to say that the speaker herself does not host something of a community, with different modes and faculties acting as checks on each other? Aren't multiple memory recalls and comparisons akin to different speakers intervening to correct the use of a public sign? The morning paper analogy limps badly, especially on Wittgenstein's own view of the mental, there is no making copies of that. So different memory recalls are somewhat independent verifiers. It seems that Wittgenstein's criterial skepticism covertly invokes the underlying unity of Cartesian "I", which he officially rejects.

Kant once gave a transcendental argument that for us to establish temporal succession of events we must presuppose the law of causality, because events do not come with time stamps on them. He identified a real puzzle and offered an ingenious solution to it, which nonetheless modern cognitive science more or less established to be wrong, see In what fundamental ways, if any, does Husserl break with Kant? Wittgenstein's puzzle is equally real, there has to be something that acts as a check for a private language to make sense, and what plays that part for public languages isn't available. But in contrast to Kant, at the moment the jury is far out on whether his skeptical solution is empirically correct.

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    I'm still confused about what role sensations have in Wittgenstein's criticism. While it seems true that Wittgenstein is more focused on the designation of symbols than their content, he still talks about private languages as symbols of sensations. As such, content is seemingly inseparable from the definition Wittgenstein provides for private language. I struggle to see how this presented private language is related to Wittgenstein's criticisms of it. Where Wittgenstein might think content irrelevant to designation, the proponent of private language certainly doesn't.
    – Mos
    May 12, 2016 at 13:48
  • On what ground does Wittgenstein meet those he is criticizing?
    – Mos
    May 12, 2016 at 13:48
  • @Mos You are asking to interpret Wittgenstein which is fraught with peril :) But here it goes. I think of it by analogy with arguments against hidden variables in quantum mechanics, assuming specifics about them would defeat the purpose. So Wittgenstein treats private sensations as nothing more than what the name suggests, that they are experienced only privately. He then makes assumptions about what language requires, and microarguments as to what cognitive abilities are available to the subject to meet those requirements.
    – Conifold
    May 14, 2016 at 20:34
  • His contention is that they can not be met, just as no-go theorems conclude that classical hidden variables can not reproduce quantum mechanical correlations. No-go arguments always have loopholes in their premises, Bohm produced a theory with hidden variables but it is rather implausible. But Wittgenstein's minimalism covers just about any kind of private content, and his meaningfulness condition on language seems plausible, so it is his dim view of subject's faculties that is most vulnerable. The challenge is to present a plausible account that makes content discriminable and communicable.
    – Conifold
    May 14, 2016 at 20:45
  • Thank you for the clarification. Wittgenstein's prose is difficult for me to follow but your help is appreciated.
    – Mos
    May 15, 2016 at 17:15

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