Published online by Cambridge University Press: 24 February 2022
A Disease of the Intellect
Wittgenstein's argument against the possibility of a private language is an endeavour to show that a certain conception of the mind, of self-consciousness or self-awareness, of knowledge of other minds and of perceptual experience, is deeply incoherent. The incoherence of this pervasive picture of the mind is co-ordinate with fundamental misconceptions about language, meaning, and understanding. These in turn strikingly exemplify the distorting force of the pre-theoretical assumption that the essential function of words is to name and of sentences to describe.
The private language argument is, if correct, one of the most important philosophical insights achieved in this century. It is a criticism of the conception of the mind which is not merely the dominant one in European philosophy, but is also pervasive in our culture, in psychology, linguistics, and indeed in the reflections of most people who think about the nature of ‘self-consciousness’ and the mind. For our reflective conception of our awareness of our own thoughts, desires, and emotions, our intentions, delights or perceptions is moulded by the picture of a contrast between what is ‘inner’ and what is ‘outer'. And we quite naturally construe what is ‘inner’ on the model of what is ‘outer'. We can, we think, inspect the objects in the world around us, or introspect the ‘objects’ of the ‘world’ within us. We take the latter on analogy with the former—and it is precisely there that we fall into confusions.
The consequent array of misconceptions of the mind presupposes a distinctive picture of language. For we are inclined to view the primitive indefinable terms of a language as deriving their meaning from our immediate experiences. Terms like ‘red’ or ‘sour', ‘pain’ or ‘joy', ‘thought’ or ‘desire’ are, we think, understood by anyone who has had the experience of seeing red or tasting a sour taste, suffering pain or being joyful, thinking or willing, and who has attached those words to the appropriate experiences. In this sense, the ‘foundations’ of language are conceived to lie in private experience. I know what I mean by ‘pain’ or by ‘red', one wants to say, I mean this f —and one, as it were, points within.