Private language argument  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The private language argument is a philosophical argument introduced by Ludwig Wittgenstein in his later work, especially in the Philosophical Investigations. The argument was central to philosophical discussion in the second half of the 20th century, and continues to arouse interest. The argument is supposed to show that the idea of a language understandable by only a single individual is incoherent.

In the Investigations Wittgenstein does not present his arguments in a succinct and linear fashion; instead, he describes particular uses of language, and prompts the reader to contemplate the implications of those uses. As a result there is considerable dispute about both the nature of the argument and its import. Indeed, it has become common to talk of private language arguments.

Historians of philosophy see precursors of the private language argument in a variety of sources, notably in the work of Gottlob Frege and John Locke. Locke is also a prominent exponent of the view targeted by the argument, since he proposed in his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding that the referent of a word is the idea it stands for.

The Beetle in a box

The Beetle in a Box is a famous thought experiment that Wittgenstein introduces in the context of his investigation of pains.

Pains occupy a distinct and vital place in the philosophy of mind for several reasons. One is that pains seem to collapse the appearance/reality distinction. If an object appears to you to be red it might not be so in reality, but if you seem to yourself to be in pain you must be so: there can be no case here of seeming at all. At the same time, one cannot feel another person’s pain, but only infer it from their behavior and their reports of it.

If we accept pains as special qualia known absolutely but exclusively by the solitary minds that perceive them, this may be taken to ground a Cartesian view of the self and consciousness. Our consciousness, of pains anyway, would seem unassailable. Against this, one might acknowledge the absolute fact of one's own pain, but claim skepticism about the existence of anyone else's pains. Alternatively, one might take a behaviorist line and claim that our pains are merely neurological stimulations accompanied by a disposition to behave.

Wittgenstein invites us to imagine a community in which the individuals each have a box containing a "beetle". "No one can look into anyone else's box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle."

If the "beetle" had a use in the language of these people, it could not be as the name of something - because it is entirely possible that each person had something completely different in their box, or even that the thing in the box constantly changed, or that each box was in fact empty. The content of the box is irrelevant to whatever language game it is used in.

By analogy, it does not matter that one cannot experience another's subjective sensations. Unless talk of such subjective experience is learned through public experience the actual content is irrelevant; all we can discuss is what is available in our public language.

By offering the "beetle" as an analogy to pains, Wittgenstein suggests that the case of pains is not really amenable to the uses philosophers would make of it. "That is to say: if we construe the grammar of the expression of sensation on the model of 'object and designation," the object drops out of consideration as irrelevant."




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Private language argument" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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