In Philosophical Investigations 244-254, before talking about private signs, Wittgenstein is talking about sensations.

He seems to divide this section into addressing in what way words refer to sensations, and in what way sensations themselves can be said to be private.

What is a brief outline of the points Wittgenstein is making about these two questions?

How does this section relate to his private language argument?

1 Answer 1


These paragraphs are, in a nutshell, Wittgenstein's account of public language, which precedes the core of his private language argument. Its purpose is preparatory, to dispel the traditional idea that names are associated with some "content" or "meaning", which represents or "describes" the named thing (Frege-Russell view). Wittgenstein's view is in a slogan that "meaning is use", what is learned is linguistic behavior, not mental "descriptions":

But how is the connexion between the name and the thing named set up? This question is the same as: how does a human being learn the meaning of the names of sensations?—of the word "pain" for example. Here is one possibility: words are connected with the primitive, the natural, expressions of the sensation and used in their place. A child has hurt himself and he cries; and then adults talk to him and teach him exclamations and, later, sentences. They teach the child new pain-behaviour. "So you are saying that the word 'pain' really means crying?" — On the contrary: the verbal expression of pain replaces crying and does not describe it.

He then goes on to explain how some common sentences, that encourage thinking of sensations as "stuff" when viewed in context support no such substantivation. This is similar in spirit to Russell's paraphrases of expressions like "the current king of France", which show that such sentences can be understood without presupposing existence of (potentially incoherent) entities, despite the apparent suggestion in their grammatic form. Except Wittgenstein "paraphrases" not apparent names into descriptions, but descriptions into verbal behavior. "Sensations are private" is compared to "one plays patience [card game] by oneself", i.e. it is a comment on how a game is played. "Another person can't have my pains" is personalized into a person striking herself on the chest and saying "surely another person can't have THIS pain!" To be discharged with "one does not define a criterion of identity [of a thing] by emphatic stressing of the word "this"".

What Wittgenstein argues is quite counterintuitive: that the traditional view of words as pointers to "mental stuff" in the head or mind is philosophically naive, and linked to taking surface grammar at face value. Instead, he suggests, the words are just verbalized parts of our actions and responses, verbal signals, "the verbal expression of pain replaces crying and does not describe it". Like bearerless names dissolve into descriptions, meanings dissolve into inferential roles, see more under Do Wittgenstein and Quine give the same criticisms of semantics? At the end of §254 he compares the traditional view to mathematical Platonism:"...what a mathematician is inclined to say about the objectivity and reality of mathematical facts, is not a philosophy of mathematics, but something for philosophical treatment."

With the nature of public language clarified Wittgenstein can move directly to the core of his private language argument. It turns out that the idea of private language is only plausible on the traditional "descriptive" view of language. With that view out of the way it is easier to explain why the conditions that enable verbalized public behavior are not met in the private setting, making private language problematic. See Did Wittgenstein consider the possibility of a private language with public content?

  • I still have a few questions. It seems that in Wittgenstein's example there is still a process of response between the reactionary behavior (crying) and the verbal behavior (the word 'pain'). That is to say, the word 'pain' is specifically connected to the action 'crying' due to what seems like an act of recognizing the reoccurence of crying and giving that behavior as considered in its reoccurence a vocalized symbol ('pain'). Why does Wittgenstein think showing that a given word is connected to a given behavior does away with talk about that word's representative value?
    – Mos
    May 16, 2016 at 13:47
  • @Mos This dovetails with an earlier discussion around PI 201. The problem is that according to Wittgenstein representational view leads to the rule following regress: each rule has to be interpreted before it can be applied, ad infinitum. So "there is a way of grasping a rule which is not an interpretation, but which is exhibited in what we call "obeying the rule" and "going against it" in actual cases... And hence also 'obeying a rule' is a practice. And to think one is obeying a rule is not to obey a rule.
    – Conifold
    May 16, 2016 at 18:48
  • Hence it is not possible to obey a rule 'privately': otherwise thinking one was obeying a rule would be the same thing as obeying it... Following a rule is analogous to obeying an order. We are trained to do so". This part of the argument was analyzed in detail by Kripke. Basically, Wittgenstein cuts out the representation/recognition acts of the traditional view as redundant, in Ryle's terms he replaces knowledge-that with knowledge-how. Again, he seems to think of representational picture as ex post facto substantivation of grammar, "bewitchment by means of language" as he called it.
    – Conifold
    May 16, 2016 at 18:54
  • Interesting. Are there other options besides ditching the whole effort of representation? It seems counter-intuitive (which isn't necessarily a fault) to rid of an entire kind of knowledge (knowledge-that) in the face of the potential problem. And another question: is Wittgenstein's rule following regress in any way a parallel to the explanatory regress?
    – Mos
    May 17, 2016 at 0:36
  • @Mos Well, representational semantics is still pursued, e.g. by Fodor and Dretske, but it is dogged by the difficulty of what representing/intentionality amounts to, which took an unexpectedly practical dimension in AI research. It is interesting that Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, etc., arrived at anti-representationalist conclusions by very different arguments. Dreyfus gives an interesting account of how that influenced AI cid.nada.kth.se/en/HeideggerianAI.pdf Quine's indeterminacy of translation arguments also independently lead to anti-representationalist conclusions.
    – Conifold
    May 17, 2016 at 21:00

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