Other Minds

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-V022-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from

6. Private language and other minds

It has been widely accepted that language is a public phenomenon. Some have insisted that it is essentially public. One way of understanding this claim is classically associated with Wittgenstein. A language that is necessarily private, that is, such that only one person can understand it, is (logically) impossible (see Private language argument).

The connection with the problem of other minds has been controversial. However, it seems clear that the connection exists in the reason given for the impossibility of such a private language. That reason bears directly on the analogical inference to other minds.

A necessarily private language is claimed to be impossible because a language has to be, in principle, subject to checking by someone other than an individual user of the language. Generally, a user of the analogical inference to other minds is in breach of this principle. They have insisted that each of us knows what psychological terms mean (at any rate, some of them) from our own case and only from our own case. Their usage would not then be, in principle, one that could be checked for consistency. Functionalists, by contrast, make no such claim, and it should be noted that the connection from private language to other minds depends on the use of terms whose meaning would be private in the relevant sense. The connection is not directly to any particular argument to other minds.

The argument that a check is needed (in principle, so Robinson Crusoe is not in trouble) has generally been that, in its absence, no distinction can be made between its seeming to the language user that their usage is consistent, and its being so. They have only their impression to go on. The issue has been vigorously contested.

That a private language is impossible has not generally been used explicitly as an argument for other minds. Nor could it be. After all, it is only in principle that a language is to be checkable by other people. An important, though indirect role, however, could be seen as its supporting the criterialist insistence on the need for a conceptual connection between inner states and publicly observable states (see Criteria).

Citing this article:
Hyslop, Alec. Private language and other minds. Other Minds, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-V022-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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