Is it the case that the beetle in the box does not play any role in our…? Or do similar neurological constituents and identical physical input contribute to the experience of 'pain' in a Kantian manner, where each individual possesses their unique sense perception but shares at least the same scheme?

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    See the Private Language Argument Jan 21, 2020 at 14:37
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    Phenomenologists (and continental philosophers of language more broadly) often defend some form of private language, see e.g. Solomon, Husserl's Private Language. Azzouni finds a certain "loophole" in the private language argument in The Rule-Following Paradox and the Impossibility of Private Rule-Following.
    – Conifold
    Jan 21, 2020 at 20:47
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    The underlying problem you should consider here is "what is language?". If it is communication with symbols about the world, it needs at least two individuals which agree on proper symbol use by definition. The SEP article does a decent job at identifying the main lines of thought culminating in the rejection of the idea of a private language.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jan 21, 2020 at 22:15
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    Well, of course there is such a thing as thought and inner speech. But as Sellars argued later as well: The language that is used here did and indeed has to develop in social context with practical reference to the world. If we are sufficiently adept as a language user, we might become able to develop derivative uses and construct "our own" way to understand and describe things, but arguably, Wittgenstein would say that all the derivative uses of language are what creates nonsense and philosophical "problems" in the first place.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jan 22, 2020 at 10:12
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    See Jerry Fodor's LOTH: Some philosophers reject the LOTH, arguing that our public language is our mental language—a person who speaks English thinks in English. But others contend that complex thought is present even in those who do not possess a public language (e.g. babies, aphasics, and even higher-order primates), and therefore some form of mentalese must be innate. Dec 21, 2021 at 23:11

3 Answers 3


I think the obvious answer is no. But one could perhaps stretch the definition of language a bit and think of interesting workarounds.

We know that writing is a system of conventions that makes material "imprints" of spoken languages. Written language will "die" once it loses any remaining link to spoken languages and the "breath of life." It can never again be translated or understood unless some Rosetta Stone is discovered to administer an "artificial resuscitation" via a known spoken language. Of course, one would not call this a "private" language but a "dead" language.

But now let's imagine the famous operator inside Searle's Chinese Room. In this case a written language is in effect "imprinted" upon her living behavior. She caries out the operations of Chinese communications without understanding it at all. (And let's assume that her original instructions are in a recently extinct language or simply long since memorized.)Does her behavior then constitute a gestural interpretation of Chinese that might itself be called a language? One that follows linguistic operations "inside" a public language and conveys an understanding or "how-to", but is not comprehensible to anyone else and is hence "private."

An even simpler case would be the last speaker of an extinct language, not at all a fantastical scenario. For an interval, at least, it is still operating though only in a single mind. One might call this its withdrawal into privacy. In other words, there may be grey areas "before and after" the emergence of a language into its living social matrix. I am not at all convinced by my own arguments here, but I'll go ahead and post while I think about it.


Are there some kinds of arguments in defense of Private Language?

Well consider the case of a space where all speech acts are public.

Q. How then can one carry out a private conversation?

Because its due to conversations being private that one can plan to ones advantage, and to the disadvantage of others (and in this case, mostly to others; in the sense, the others are more numerous).

Well, in such a public space, one invents a private language. That looks like the public language, but is so coded that one knows what is being said. If you have some physics knowledge, think of a communication signal being overlayed on a carrier wave.

Note however, the advantage is accrued wholly to the private group, who are in charge of the private language. Thus, if you are publicly minded, you might think this is no advantage at all; and in fact, a disadvantage.

So I came to praise private language, and in fact, it seems I have buried it...!

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    For the Private Language Argument, private means accessible only to the individual, like the beetle-in-a-box. It is about challenging the basis of 'a priori', direct private knowing & conceptualising, rather than just using code for public words already developed by a community and the conceptualisations from interactions in modes of life. As I understand it. Which would make your post entirely on the wrong track.
    – CriglCragl
    Mar 27, 2021 at 19:03
  • @CriglCragl: Well, the question doesn't make much sense. For example he refers to "pain" without saying why brings that in. And he refers to Kant without also saying why this is relevant. Thus I chose to interpret the question as I saw fit. Apr 24, 2022 at 3:54
  • Wittgenstein goes into some depth about pain, as a it is key to how he establishes what we now call the Private Language Argument. For Kant, I would assume the Categorical Imperative, that universalises individual experiences - it is his most famous idea (although I guess could relate to transcendental idealist perspective I guess, that would be a typical meaning given to 'Kantian')
    – CriglCragl
    Apr 24, 2022 at 12:09
  • @CriglCragl: The point I'm making is that the question, as it stamds, is incoherent. This is something that you implicitly acknowledge because you "assume" his reference to Kant is to his categorical imperative. We shouldn't need to assume what an OP is asking about wjen the question is clear. It is not. Descartes already had demonstrated that we cannot deny mental experiences. So what W had said abput pain was already said by D. Ah, actually, that was Al-Ghazali. Apr 25, 2022 at 13:48

Wittgenstein's "beetle in a box" argument is easily seen to be incorrect, simply by our successful operation of internal dialog and reasoning processes, and that we succeed with both even as prelingual toddlers. His presumption that we would no longer be able to reason or think to ourselves, if the rest of humanity died out and we could no longer confirm word meanings with an external community, is implausible in the extreme.

  • Of course there is still the language even if there's only one person left.But if there is only one man embryologically,it seems no language can be developed in. One can talk with herself,but if the thought is expressed by words,it's not "Not to be learned by others in principle" in some's opinion,hence it's not a kind of private language(if the private language means that). Jan 23, 2020 at 15:02
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    @AnduinWilde I believe that Wittgenstein's argument holds that there can be NO private language without external definitional reference checks, hence one person cannot have language, as language cannot be private. This is what I cited evidence to refute -- as we operate with private "mentalism" starting from before we are lingual, and throughout life. And even the formal language we use internally is not checked against external definitions, as full syntax and definitions and assumption sharing CANNOT be done, because our external throughput is grossly less than our internal throughput.
    – Dcleve
    Jan 23, 2020 at 18:33
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    @Dcleve: You seem to be asserting that pre-lingual toddlers would spontaneously develop language even if deprived of all human contact, which flies in the face of language deprivation case studies, which show that children with restricted human contact often find it impossible to develop proper language mastery later. Think about Helen Keller, who lived an effectively animalistic existence until someone went out of their way to create a linguistic bridge. She did not have a 'private language' which she used prior to learning to communicate with another. Feb 21, 2020 at 21:41
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    @Dcleve: cats and dogs and birds can reason as well: does this imply they have private language? I don't believe that Wittgenstein suggested we couldn't think without language — in fact, language game #2 involves two people trying to complete a cooperative task and developing language as a result, which implies that task-solving precedes language — merely that language itself had no sense or meaning outside of cooperative, communal activity. Feb 22, 2020 at 2:17
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    @Dcleve: Aphasiacs are a problematic case, since they (assumedly) have a multitude of elements of their previous linguistic ability to draw on. The mere fact that they recovered and speak again (without a laborious, years-long effort to relearn speech from the ground up) implies that. And your assumption that 'pointing' implies 'naming' (and thus symbolic representation) is unfounded. You should read GH Mead's social psychology. Feb 22, 2020 at 14:55

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