Private language argument (1953)

Debate initiated by the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) in his posthumous Philosophical Investigations.

This debate concerns the question of whether there could possibly exist a private language; that is, a language which is ‘necessarily unteachable’ because the meanings of words known by an individual are based on private and undemonstrable experiences of their referents.

Wittgenstein argued that the speaker of such a language could not, even in principle, check whether he was using such words correctly; from which it followed (he thought) that there would be no such thing as a correct, as against incorrect, use of such words, so that the speaker would not really be saying anything.

The soundness of the argument is disputed, but its importance is that words referring to immediate experiences (like ‘pain’) have been thought to have meaning in this way, by empiricists in particular. If Wittgenstein is right, such notions as the egocentric predicament and solipsism and many forms of skepticism become incoherent.

L Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (1953), 243-315;
O R Jones, ed., The Private Language Argument (London, 1971)


The private language argument is of central importance to debates about the nature of language. One compelling theory about language is that language maps words to ideas, concepts or representations in each person’s mind. On this account, the concepts in one’s head are distinct from the concepts in another’s head. One can match their concepts to a word in a common language, and then speak the word to another. The listener can then match the word to a concept in their mind. So the shared concepts, in effect, form a private language which one can translate into a common language and so share. This account is found for example in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and more recently in Jerry Fodor’s language of thought theory.

Wittgenstein argues, in his later work, that this account of private language is inconsistent. If the idea of a private language is inconsistent, then a logical conclusion would be that all language serves a social function. This would have profound implications for other areas of philosophical and psychological study. For example, if one cannot have a private language, it might not make any sense to talk of private experiences or of private mental states.

Philosophical Investigations

The argument is found in part one of the Philosophical investigations. This part consists of a series of “remarks” numbered sequentially. The core of the argument is generally thought to be presented in §256 and onward, though the idea is first introduced in §243.

What a private language is

If someone were to behave as if they understood a language of which no one else can make sense, we might call this an example of a private language.[3] It is not sufficient here, however, for the language to simply be one that has not yet been translated. In order to count as a private language in Wittgenstein’s sense, it must be in principle incapable of translation into an ordinary language – if for example it were to describe those inner experiences supposed to be inaccessible to others.[4] The private language being considered is not simply a language in fact understood by one person, but a language that in principle can only be understood by one person. So the last speaker of a dying language would not be speaking a private language, since the language remains in principle learnable. A private language must be unlearnable and untranslatable, and yet it must appear that the speaker is able to make sense of it.

The sensation S

Wittgenstein sets up a thought experiment in which someone is imagined to associate some recurrent sensation with a symbol by writing S in their calendar when the sensation occurs.[5] Such a case would be a private language in the Wittgensteinian sense. Furthermore, it is presupposed that S cannot be defined using other terms, for example “the feeling I get when the manometer rises”; for to do so would be to give S a place in our public language, in which case S could not be a statement in a private language.[6]

It might be supposed that one might use “a kind of ostensive definition” for S, by focusing on the sensation and on the symbol. Early in The Investigations, Wittgenstein attacks the usefulness of ostensive definition.[7] He considers the example of someone pointing to two nuts while saying “This is called two“. How does it come about that the listener associates this with the number of items, rather than the type of nut, their colour, or even a compass direction? One conclusion of this is that to participate in an ostensive definition presupposes an understanding of the process and context involved, of the form of life.[8] Another is that “an ostensive definition can be variously interpreted in every case”.[9]

In the case of the sensation S Wittgenstein argues that there is no criterion for the correctness of such an ostensive definition, since whatever seems right will be right, ‘And that only means that here we can’t talk about “right”.’[5] The exact reason for the rejection of private language has been contentious. One interpretation, which has been called memory scepticism, has it that one might remember the sensation wrongly, and that as a result one might misuse the term S . The other, called meaning scepticism, has it that one can never be sure of the meaning of a term defined in this way.

Memory scepticism

One common interpretation is that the possibility exists that one might misremember the sensation, and therefore one does not have any firm criterion for using S in each case.[10] So, for example, I might one day focus on that sensation, and link it to the symbol S; but the next day, I have no criteria for knowing that the sensation I have now is the same as the one yesterday, except for my memory; and since my memory might fail me, I have no firm criteria for knowing that the sensation I have now is indeed S.

However, memory scepticism has been criticized[by whom?] as applying to public language, also. If one person can misremember, it is entirely possible that several people can misremember. So memory scepticism could be applied with equal effect to ostensive definitions given in a public language. For example, Jim and Jenny might one day decide to call some particular tree T; but the next day both misremember which tree it was they named. If they were depending entirely on their memory, and had not written down the location of the tree, or told anyone else, then they would appear to be with the same difficulties as the individual who defined S ostensively. And so, if this is the case, the argument presented against private language would apply equally to public language.

This interpretation (and the criticism of Wittgenstein that arises from it) is based on a complete misreading[citation needed], however, because Wittgenstein’s argument has nothing to do with the fallibility of human memory[citation needed], but rather concerns the intelligibility of remembering something for which there is no external criterion of correctness. It is not that we will not, in fact, remember the sensation correctly, but rather that it makes no sense to talk about our memory being either correct or incorrect in this case. The point, as Diego Marconi puts it[citation needed], is not so much that private language is “a game at which we can’t win, it is a game we can’t lose”.

Wittgenstein makes this clear in section 258: “A definition surely serves to establish the meaning of a sign.—Well, that is done precisely by the concentrating of my attention; for in this way I impress on myself the connexion between the sign and the sensation.—But “I impress it on myself” can only mean: this process brings it about that I remember the connexion right in the future. But in the present case, I have no criterion of correctness.” This absence of any criterion of correctness is not a problem because it makes it more difficult for the private linguist to remember his sensation correctly; it is a problem because it undermines the intelligibility of such a concept as remembering the sensation, whether correctly or incorrectly.

Wittgenstein explains this unintelligibility with a series of analogies. For example, in section 265 he observes the pointlessness of a dictionary that exists only in the imagination. Since the idea of a dictionary is to justify the translation of one word by another, and thus constitute the reference of justification for such a translation, all this is lost the moment we talk of a dictionary in the imagination; for “justification consists in appealing to something independent”. Hence, to appeal to a private ostensive definition as the standard of correct use of a term would be “as if someone were to buy several copies of the morning paper to assure himself that what it said was true.”

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