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Private language argument

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-V027-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved January 22, 2021, from

Article Summary

Ludwig Wittgenstein argued against the possibility of a private language in his 1953 book Philosophical Investigations, where the notion is outlined at §243: ‘The words of this language are to refer to what can be known only to the speaker; to his immediate, private, sensations. So another cannot understand the language.’ The idea attacked is thus of a language in principle incomprehensible to more than one person because the things which define its vocabulary are necessarily inaccessible to others; cases such as personal codes where the lack of common understanding could be remedied are hence irrelevant.

Wittgenstein’s attack, now known as the private language argument (although just one of many considerations he deploys on the topic), is important because the possibility of a private language is arguably an unformulated presupposition of standard theory of knowledge, metaphysics and philosophy of mind from Descartes to much of the cognitive science of the late twentieth century.

The essence of the argument is simple. It is that a language in principle unintelligible to anyone but its user would necessarily be unintelligible to the user also, because no meanings could be established for its signs. But, because of the difficulty of Wittgenstein’s text and the tendency of philosophers to read into it their own concerns and assumptions, there has been extensive and fundamental disagreement over the details, significance and even intended conclusion of the argument. Some, thinking it obvious that sensations are private, have supposed that the argument is meant to show that we cannot talk about them; some that it commits Wittgenstein to behaviourism; some that the argument, self-defeatingly, condemns public discourse as well; some that its conclusion is that language is necessarily social in a strong sense, that is, not merely potentially but actually. Much of the secondary (especially the older) literature is devoted to disputes over these matters.

An account of the argument by the influential American philosopher Saul Kripke has spurred a semi-autonomous discussion of it. But Kripke’s version involves significant departures from the original and relies on unargued assumptions of a kind Wittgenstein rejected in his own treatment of the topic.

Citing this article:
Candlish, Stewart. Private language argument, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-V027-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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