Concerning Wittgenstein’s Rejection of Private Language

By | April 27, 2010

Recently I stated in writing my general agreement with Ludwig Wittgenstein’s view that a ‘private language’ is not a tenable idea. Upon reading this, one of my correspondents expressed opposition by stating his view that we can discern ideas in certain writers which are not entirely communicable (and which could comprise a language). He wondered whether these wouldn’t count as counter examples to Wittgenstein’s thesis.

Besides my correspondent, other people disagree with the conclusion that a ‘private language’ is impossible; they find this to be a controversial and doubtful claim. After all, they argue, can’t a person have certain ideas, and even some ‘words’ expressing those ideas, which he never discloses to anyone else? Couldn’t he mentally retrieve these ideas and privately held ‘words’ when he desires or requires them? Don’t some artists, poets, and composers have ideas which only they fully comprehend and which they attempt to express in their art? Can’t we call such privately held ideas a ‘private language’?

Other examples which might qualify as ‘private language include those religious experiences called speaking in tongues (Pentacostals?) in which the ‘speaking’ seems to be nothing but gibberish but which the speaker claims as the Holy Spirit ‘speaking’ through him. Would this be a ‘private language’?

One more candidate as a private language is the case in which all speakers of a language have died except for one person who knows the language, can speak it and understand it perfectly; but nobody else understands a word. (This actually happens with some small native American cultures which gradually die out.) Wouldn’t this be case of a ‘private language,’ private to the one survivor?

Before I reply to my correspondent and to these purported counter-examples to Wittgenstein, I need to do a simple exposition of Wittgenstein’s claim regarding private languages.

The notion of a private language is taken up by Wittgenstein in Part I of his Philosophical Investigations. As with most ideas in philosophy, you can find some philosophers who agree with him and others (e.g. the English philosopher A.J. Ayer) who disagree with Wittgenstein’s view that a private language is impossible. Let’s see what we make of this important issue in philosophy of mind and that of language.

What does Wittgenstein contend with regard to the issue of private language? Based on my study of his remarks on the issue (mostly in his book, Philosophical Investigations) and my reading of some of the vast commentary on his philosophy, the main point concerns the meaning of terms. For any language to function in communicating and expressing ideas, concepts, thoughts, etc., the words and sentences of that language must have a relatively stable meaning, and this requires that users of that language observe rules of meaning. This means that we should be able to make sense of cases in which we get the meaning right and those in which we don’t. In other words, the notion of a rule seems to imply the possibility of correct and incorrect usages. And the notion of meaning implies the application of some rule.

Wittgenstein asks whether the application of a rule makes any sense with regard to a putative private language, one exclusive to the subject alone. How could the private individual, without any objective reference to other speakers or to a rule book or to some standard apart from his own private impressions, make any sense of getting a meaning right or getting it wrong? He argues that this makes no sense when applied to a strictly private context.

The important point is that one try to conceive of this ‘private’ language as strictly or completely private. When one attempts this it becomes evident that one must refer to standards or rules of meaning outside the private ‘stage’ to make any sense of following the rules, and to make any sense of getting the meaning of the words right, and to make sense of the possibility of making errors in our use of words; and thus to make any sense of the very notion of a language.

This is how I interpret Wittgenstein’s position, which I find rationally compelling. The very idea of language implies inter-personal communication and expression. Even the most subjective poets and mystics, when they attempt to express their inner most experiences, must rely on some form of language that can at least partly be understood by others. This implies the observance of some rules of meaning, which implies a social practice. Others, besides the private thoughts of the speaker-writer, are essential to the practice.
(The etymology of the word “language” itself, the Latin “lingua” refers to the tongue, thus to speech. With the invention of writing this function of the tongue includes also the hand, whether manipulating a pen or a keyboard. In any case, whether speech or writing, language is a way of inter-personal communication and expression. It is a social phenomenon, not at all a strictly private, mental one.)

Others disagree with this view; but, frankly, I cannot make much sense of their position. It is true that individuals claim styles of expression which nobody really understands and which therefore might be called a ‘private language’ of sorts. But this would be using the word “language” in an extended, metaphorical sense. It would be the type of expression and ‘language’ which you’re free to take anyway you please. My view is that a ‘language’ which one is free to take any way one pleases is not any kind of language at all. Even the most secret, cryptic code requires at some stage rules of interpretation. Otherwise, it would not have any function as a means of communication and inter-personal expression.

On reading this, my correspondent raised a question about the language used by writers like Nietzsche, for example, who in his famous book Thus Spoke Zarathustra, refers to Zarathustra’s eagle and serpent: “What is Nietzsche alluding to by these images? Could it be the Apollonian and Dionysian dualistic forces? Or is it a reference to different aspects of creation?” The point the questioner is making concerns the notion that Nietzsche’s language in that work is private to him in the sense that we cannot be sure of all the aspects of his meaning.

This raises an interesting issue about the writings of people like Nietzsche. How exactly (if “exactly” even applies) do we interpret all the allusions, metaphors, imagery, analogies, etc.? This makes for much interpretive work for scholars and other writers (e.g. Walter Kaufmann offers excellent interpretations of Nietzsche). Yes, this style of writing, like much literary, poetic work, raises interesting problems of interpretation and meaning. Consider the centuries of debate over different interpretations of religious texts (Old Testament, New Testament, the Koran, etc.). Most great works of literature have multiple levels of meaning; and it takes good critics and scholars to give good interpretations of all that the writer is about. And there will always be a variety of different, even opposing, interpretations.

But these facts about literature do not say anything about the possibility of a strictly private language; at most they remind us that any individual can keep certain things private and not give full expression to his exact meaning. (Maybe he really intends to express ambiguity and a degree of vagueness? After all, in literature these surely have their function.) I doubt that Wittgenstein would deny any of this. Writers like Franz Kafka and Martin Heidegger often claimed that nobody truly understood them. We might then say that an important part of what they meant to say remained private to them. But this is simply a version of a secret or something I cannot reveal to others, for one reason or another. Sometimes I cannot reveal it because I lack the words or the talent (e.g. the talent of a Shakespeare) to express what I really mean. Sometimes I choose to keep my ideas obscure and hard to interpret. But notice that none of this requires a “private language” as such. In fact, it presupposes language as a tool of my culture by which I express my ideas and experiences to others, and sometimes intentionally impose limitations on the extent of that expression.

The private language issue is a conceptual issue. It simply asks that one think carefully about what language entails; and then try to apply this to a strictly private phenomenon or experience, one limited to the individual’s immediate experience and making absolutely no reference to anything beyond that. Wittgenstein argues that when you engage in this though experiment you will find that the notion of a strictly private language is ultimately an untenable one. A poet or a Nietzsche who writes works in which they attempt to express their ideas to the reader are not engaged in a private language. How could they be? In philosophy, the notion of a language that purports to be private might be applied to Descartes in his Meditations when he purports to reduce all his thinking just to his private ideas, with no reference whatsoever to material world. A metaphysical idealist, who claims all reality is nothing but ideas present to his mind (solipsism?) also purports to engage in private “meaning” (viz., language), insofar as he tries to express his strange perspective of things. But Wittgenstein would argue that Descartes and the idealist really do not accomplish what they claim to do. I agree.

Finally some quick replies to the purported counter-examples posed at the beginning. First let’s consider the one that asks whether a person can have certain ideas, and even some ‘words’ expressing those ideas, which he never discloses to anyone else. Could this count as a private language? No, not in the primary sense of the word “language.” People can keep different secrets they never disclose to anyone, and even invent some private technique by which they remember to themselves these secrets. But as soon as they attempt to communicate these or try to express them to others, some form of language is required; and it cannot be ‘private’ in the strict sense of that term. Second, we have the case of speaking in tongues, which nobody can understand. At best, others can surmise that the person is having a highly emotional, religious experience in which they give expression to some feeling or other. But so long as none of this makes sense to others (there’s no translation key), this also fails as a language of any kind, private or public. Third, the case of one, lonely surviving speaker of a language that is dying out does not prove the reality of a private language either. It is an accident of history that only one person can speak and understand the language; but the language is a public one. There were accepted rules of usage that members of the tribe recognized and applied, and which the one surviving member of that unfortunate tribe also accepts, understands, and could apply should there be a situation calling for its use. These are the hallmarks of a public language, not a private one.

I conclude that Wittgenstein was correct in arguing that the notion of a private language is untenable.

4 thoughts on “Concerning Wittgenstein’s Rejection of Private Language

  1. john mize

    A solipsist (if any exists) would have a private language.

    1. jbernal Post author

      John, do you think that solipsism is a philosophical viable position? But, as a thought experiment, I think that Wittgenstein would deny that a private language makes any conceptual sense. Even if we posit a solipsist taking notes for himself, the notion of a rule-following language cannot be consistently spelled out.
      How would the solipsist ever distinguish between I recall X and and I think I recall X? Or between I have correctly used term T or I have misused term T? Language and meaning would reduce to anything he imagined; and those are neither meaning or language.

      “Language,” unless you change the concept altogether, is a social phenomenon; it presupposes human interaction. The thought experiment regarding a lonely, isolated ‘solipsist’ precludes all that. But it is just a game some philosopher’s play with themselves: nothing more.

      1. john mize

        Hi Juan. Thanks for your comments. I agree with you that solipsism is not a viable position. I raised the issue to show what I believe is a Wittgensteinian point about what a language is. Using his ideas about family resemblances or cluster concepts, must we not say the same things about "languages" as we say about "games," namely that there is no essence? You seem to think that communication is the essence of language, but there is also the function of expression (among other definitions of language), sometimes to oneself rather than to another, as when I mutter to myself, "eesah" when exerting myself. I am not attempting to communicate anything to anyone, nor have I been taught the use of that term. It is my natural sound similar to a grunt made by others. Up until now, when I have explained to you my use of that expression, the sound of "eesah" has been a private expression in my private language. Now that I have communicated my usage of that expression it is no longer private, but it seems to me that it was previously. I have others which are still private. Thus it seems to me that there exists private language.


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