Topic: private language argument for skepticism about meaning

topics > philosophy > Group: meaning and truth

abstraction as part of language
language and life as a game
limitations of formalism
mathematical proof as a social process
meaning by social context
meaning by use
metaphysics and epistemology
natural language as communication
number and arithmetic as part of language
problem of other minds
problems with information retrieval
skepticism about knowledge
scientific method


A private language is held by the speaker in isolation from others. Locke held that language was necessarily private because our sensations, consciousness, and experience are private. But if this were so, then language could not be a means of communication. Furthermore, without access to other minds, a speaker could never know whether or not communication had occurred.

For this and other reasons, Wittgenstein argued that private language is impossible. He extended the argument to arrive at a deep skepticism about rules and meaning. If a rule were obeyed privately, then anything goes, and there is no way to distinguish successfully following a rule from successfully following similar, but in the end, unrelated rules.

Wittgenstein's classic examples are from arithmetic. Given a series that appears to be following a rule, what is there to prevent a radical deviation in the series from the rule commonly assumed? Similarly, addition may appear exactly consistent until a new pair of numbers distinguishes one person's addition from another.

Wittgenstein's solution is to turn language into a normative process. We add as we do because it is a useful thing to do. By our actions agreeing with those of others, we become members of a community. Hence our private sensations and understanding are irrelevant to language. (cbb 4/94)

Subtopic: language rules are not private up

Quote: one's private interpretation of speech is shared by others; otherwise speach is deception [»hobbT_1650, OK]
Quote: private language argument--it is not possible to obey a rule privately, otherwise belief would be the same as obeying [»kripSA_1982]
Quote: neither commands nor rules can determine action; both can be ignored or cause conflict; both must be understood; not basis for coordination [»turvMT_1984]
Quote: if consider a person in isolation, a rule can have no meaning; nor truth conditions that verify rule use [»kripSA_1982]
Quote: a real Robinson Crusoe may go through the motions of language but he is not speaking a language because it is not used for communication [»martAP_1990]
Quote: private sensations of red or pain are irrelevant to the meaning of the words "red" and "pain" [»martAP_1990]
Quote: though no two people perceive reality the same, views overlap enough to allow cooperative work [»kentW_1978]
Quote: the notion of truth as applied to language is deeply interwined with translation; it is nonsensical to say that a conceptual scheme is largely true but not translatable [»daviD11_1974]
Quote: any language that organizes the ordinary events of experience must be like our own [»daviD11_1974]

Subtopic: skepticism about language up

Quote: in ordinary communication, the ability to stretch and modify meanings is essential [»kentW_1978]
Quote: rules about language are often inconsistent because words are used as tools, not labels [»pitkHF_1972]
Quote: skepticism about meaning because words are signals, learned from use, with context-dependent meaning; these have contradictory implications [»pitkHF_1972]
Quote: skepticism about meaning from desire for system in our language, our ability to generalize and find patterns; yet definitions are incomplete [»pitkHF_1972]
Quote: central problem of Philosophical Investigations--if an action was determined by a rule, then all actions could be made to accord with the rule; a form of skepticism [»kripSA_1982]
Quote: perhaps the phoneme is constructed, if at all, as a consequence of perception, not as a step of perception [»oettAG_1972]
Quote: only an appeal to semantics can resolve the syntactic ambiguity of 'time flies like an arrow'; three acceptable structures [»oettAG_1972]
Quote: the syntactic structure and phonemes of a sentence depends on its meaning [»oettAG_1972]
Quote: a schoolboy parses a sentence backwards, from meaning to structure
Quote: with Bongard problems, context determines the objects; objects do not exist independent of their understanding [»linhA8_2000]

Subtopic: skepticism about knowledge up

Quote: we can be self-deceived about how Thingish something is [»mckeWM_1970]
Quote: ultimately, nothing can be said about the nature of knowledge [»plat_368]
Quote: science is the belief in the ignorance of experts; the greatest teachers of preceding generations are not infallible; need balance [»feynRP9_1969]

Subtopic: rules and doubt up

Quote: suppose someone says "I know what series '1 4 9 16'" is but then writes 20,000 for the 100'th element; may still be following a rule [»wittL_1939]
Quote: the confusion between plus and quus applies to any rule or word; e.g., in the past we meant grue by 'green', and now the sky is green [»kripSA_1982]
Quote: for each new application of a word, we make a leap in the dark; our intention could be interpreted arbitrarily [»kripSA_1982]
Quote: we can always imagine a doubt; e.g., of someone who believes an abyss may open up, but the doubt is not held by most [»wittL_1958a]
Quote: if we want to understand others, we must count them right in most matters [»daviD11_1974]

Subtopic: language as normative, responsible up

Quote: the relation of meaning and intention to future action is normative, not descriptive; e.g., 68+57 should be 125 [»kripSA_1982]
Quote: we are each responsible for the consequences of how our acts will be understood within our shared tradition; despite lack of rules [»winoT_1986]
Quote: each person who claims to be following a rule can be checked by others in the community; a primitive part of the language game [»kripSA_1982]

Subtopic: language is private, innate up

Quote: Locke holds that necessarily every language is private; meaning is an idea in the mind of the speaker (who knows nothing of other minds) [»martAP_1990]
Quote: how does a child figure out what an adult is pointing at? an ostensive definition can always be variously interpreted [»pitkHF_1972]
Quote: if Locke's argument for private language is true then cannot use language for communication [»martAP_1990]

Subtopic: skepticism about foundations up

Quote: whenever defects are seen in the foundations, it is reasonable to doubt everything else that is built upon them

Related Topics up

Topic: abstraction as part of language (18 items)
Topic: language and life as a game (30 items)
Topic: limitations of formalism (93 items)
Topic: mathematical proof as a social process (14 items)
Topic: meaning by social context (33 items)
Topic: meaning by use (58 items)
Topic: metaphysics and epistemology (99 items)
Topic: natural language as communication (34 items)
Topic: number and arithmetic as part of language (30 items)
Topic: phenomenology (37 items)
Topic: problem of other minds (11 items)
Topic: problems with information retrieval (51 items)
Topic: skepticism about knowledge (34 items)
Topic: responsibility (12 items)
Topic: rules (43 items)
Topic: scientific method
(42 items)

Updated barberCB 6/05
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