Looking at the Private language argument it occurs to me that Wittgenstein does not really account for the developmental nature of language:

Temporal and spacial separation of Speakers will invariably introduce changes to meaning of words, changes in pronunciation and eventually completely different languages. Which means that within a splinter group an individual need to introduce a subtle change to initiate the deviation process. This means that the individual conception of the semantics and pronunciation of an word is a (main) agency of change for the common language.

Through the process of maturation an individual will frequently need to change their understanding of common language words. Not only the semantic content, but also emotional connotation and personal preferences are attached to concepts within a person's mind. When a concept is invoked by common language interaction the entire individual history of contact with that concept is invoked. These histories are, per concept, unique to individuals.

The implication is that common language is the consensual 'overlap' of individual private languages. This would seem to fall prey to Wittgenstein's stipulation that a private language should in principal not be translatable. However, while we may use wildly different mental faculties to 'process' a certain concept, when we even as much as think about communicating it we immediately invoke translation to common language. Therefore access to a private language is in principal impossible.

Is there any philosophers that have argued against the impossibility of a private language and what is their arguments?

  • 1
    Not 100% on-topic, but maybe you'll find the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis interesting, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linguistic_relativity (or maybe you'll respond to it in a way that you can't precisely put into words)
    – user19423
    Sep 26, 2018 at 6:37
  • You can't, if we assume qualia can't be shared. If they can through telepathy, for example, then telepathy would be sufficient. But not through spoken language.
    – rus9384
    Sep 26, 2018 at 7:45
  • @JohnForkosh In support of that we might cite loan words such as 'gestalt' and 'zeitgeist' which would imply that at some point English (speakers) could not frame those concepts while German could. The hypothesis itself indicates a deeper 'cognitive differentiation' precipitated by the superficial 'language differentiation' I presented. - so 110% on-topic. :)
    – christo183
    Sep 26, 2018 at 9:45
  • @rus9384 Interesting consequence of private languages would be the that telepathy could not work from 'mind to mind'; because private languages cannot be translated the common language would still be needed as an interpreter. The best telepathy could do is communicate between the (brain's) speech centers.
    – christo183
    Sep 26, 2018 at 9:55
  • Well, it is not clear. Your green may differ from my green. But what you could want me to experience is your green, not my green. What is a private language then? And no, telepathy could do pretty much, because it is ability to directly affect others' brains, including their sensory cortexes.
    – rus9384
    Sep 26, 2018 at 10:03

2 Answers 2


Sappir-Wharf has basically no academic credibility.

Wittgenstein argued that in so far as a system of symbols is private, they are not part of a language. Language is public, community use of symbols. This is built up from a picture theory of language, from an attempt to share mental models. For a mutation of a language to 'take', it is not the 1st initiation of that change that matters, but it being taken up by the community.

Qualia are pretty suspect in this view. Synaesthesia is an interesting case, with for instance high functioning mathematical savantism seems to be related to a kind of applied synaesthesia for memorising number properties and connections. In music or poetry, what is heard or the message taken away, often have very little to do with the artists intentions or mind during the creative process, yet things are still communicated, both intentionally and unintentionally - great songs frequently allow a multitude of readings to be projected.

Wittgenstein saw language as developing from a process of game playing, and that languages aren't fixed sets of symbols, but emergent sets of language-games. Each participant offers up behaviours, and people either engage back or not, iterate, alter. And various language-games are more or less formal. This is a way more flexible and versatile model, able to accomodate for instance people from entirely different cultures or species never in contact attempt to begin communication using gestures and body language.

  • So if private symbols are not language, does this mean Wittgenstein believed that language is not the primary modus of thought? Also I would argue that the very fluidity of language indicates that individuals have different interpretations of common language semantics, therefore there need be a private language that is (slightly) different from the standard interpretation.
    – christo183
    Sep 27, 2018 at 3:31
  • @christo183 There is some dispute about exactly what Wittgenstein said, and this area is an extremely live topic of philosophy, with many polarised camps. Wittgenstein seems innsome ways to have avoided precisely aligning with any major camps, especially because hus later work is so elusive in implication and seemingly contradicts earlier ideas. An overview jstor.org/stable/2998422?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
    – CriglCragl
    Sep 27, 2018 at 8:06
  • @christo183 For people advicating somr levrlnog 'intrinsic' language en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/… Also see mathematical subitism
    – CriglCragl
    Sep 27, 2018 at 8:09
  • Regarding the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, I should think it more likely that the framing relationship between thought and language would be bi-directional. Growing up with an absolute spacial referencing language may lead one to develop enhanced spacial awareness; while living in the Arctic may lead to the invention of many words for "snow".
    – christo183
    Sep 27, 2018 at 10:25
  • @christo183 Without language learning you get wolf-children, who never fully develop mentally or linguistically. I think Witgenstein woukd draw attention to a communitues shared modes of life as conditioning, rather than words thenselves. A quick overview of S-W hypothesis: theguardian.com/education/2014/jan/29/…
    – CriglCragl
    Sep 27, 2018 at 15:53

Since Wittgenstein's anti-private language argument no longer attracts the interest it once did, the literature on it tends not to be terribly recent. The following may be of some help, however :

Owen Roger Jones, The Private Language Argument (Controversies in Philosophy), ISBN 10: 0333105109 / ISBN 13: 9780333105108 Published by Macmillan / St Martin's Press, 1971.

Warren B. Smerud, Can There be a Private Language?: An Examination of Some Principal Arguments, published by Mouton & Co., The Hague, The Netherlands, 1970.

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