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The Private Language Passages

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

J.P. Schachter*
Huron College


Discusssion of passages 243 et. seq. of Wittgenstein's Philosophical lnvestigations tends to concentrate on the argument supporting the thesis that a logically private language is impossible. When the discussion becomes broader, the presumption is generally that this thesis is one premifs of an argument against solipsism. I believe that the passages will support a valid argument that might, at first glance, give comfort to someone in the egocentric predicament, but that this comfort would quickly grow cold on closer examination. I do not mean to suggest that Wittgenstein offers no escape from the predicament, only that the escape (if successful) will not be a consequence of the pluralism necessary to the existence of language, but rather a byproduct of his discussion of the logic of mental discourse. In this paper (sees. II through VI), I state an alternative to the contra-solipsist reading of the passages, taking Wittgenstein there to be reflecting a three part dispute, the other participants of which are a skeptic and a philosopher I'll call ‘the Realist'.

Research Article
Copyright © The Authors 1982

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1 Wittgenstein, Ludwig Philosophical Investigations, trans. Anscombe, G.E.M. (New York: Macmillan 1964).Google Scholar In the remainder of this paper, I will simply cite'PI' plus the paragraph number directly in the text.

2 It is difficult to find anything both clear and specific in the literature concerning the purpose of the private language passages; it was indeed largely this fact that led to writing of this paper. There is, however, often a general association suggested to hold between the passages and what is alternatively referred to as 'Cartesian privacy,’ ‘the egocentric predicament,’ and simply ‘solipsism'. One of the more unambiguous claims follows: What should be clear at the outset is that the main point of the private language discussion is not to establish something about language (e.g. that language is necessarily “social“). Wittgenstein is after much bigger game than that. He is out to establish something about so-called “inner experience,” to break down the Cartesian way of thinking of this, and thus to change in a fundamental way our conception of ourselves. There is an attack on the prevailing philosophical conception of the self implicit in the attack on the possibility of a private language, and it is this which gives the project its importance. (Finch, Henry LeRoy Wittgenstein: The Later Philosophy [New Jersey: Humanities Press 1977], 127Google Scholar) See also: Kenny, Anthony Wittgenstein (London: Penguin Press 1973), 179;Google Scholar Hamlyn, D.W. The Theory of Knowledge (New York: Doubleday 1970), 222CrossRefGoogle Scholar ('The argument is in fact one directed against the possibility of the sense of expressions being given by a private reference or a reference to a private object.’); as well as the papers included in the section entitled ‘The Attack on the Skeptical View of Other Minds’ in Morick, Harold ed. Wittgenstein and the Problem of Other Minds (New York: McGraw-Hill 1967).Google Scholar

3 I borrow the term from Paul Feyerabend (Wittgenstein's Philosophical investigations,' Philosophical Review, 64 [1955]449-83; reprinted in, ed., Pitcher, George Wittengenstein: The Philosophical investigations, [New York: Doubleday 1966]).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

4 Wittgenstein does not state the Skeptic's puzzle; nonetheless, I believe that it is presupposed by his ongoing consideration of solution candidates. Since I am primarily concerned with the private language passages, I will remark only that such candidates are considered and rejected in the 105 numbered sections preceding PI 243 (PI 137- 242). The first candidate interviewed is the process or state of ‘understanding’ the meaning of an expression. Its main qualification is that it seems to us (to my ‘Realist’) that ‘the understanding itself is a state which is the source of the correct use’ (PI 146). The last candidate considered is the ‘rule' and our obedience to it (roughly PI 197- 242). These candidates are all vying for the Job of sign-use determinant and it is the Realist's presupposition that such a determinant is necessary. Necessary for what? It is my contention that he believes it necessary to assure the constancy of meaning in sign-use.

5 Genesis II: 6- 9

6 The concern that leads the Realist to (R1) also resembles that which led in ontology to the doctrine of the ‘conservation of being'; as the Conservationist feared that unless God created the word anew each instant, it would slip away into nothingness, so the Realist fears that unless ‘meanings’ keep constant the uses of signs between times and between speakers, signs will lapse into meaninglessness.

7 While Wittgenstein's The Blue and the Brown Books (New York: Harper and Row 1964) were published Jointly with the common subtitle ‘Preliminary Studies for the “Philosophical Investigations“', there is an important difference between the two pieces; while the latter's style foreshadows the cryptic style of PI, the former's is virtually didactic in comparison and provides, therefore, a uniquely unambiguous exegetical source. PI 432, for example, already occurs in the Blue Book, complete with commentary: Frege ridiculed the formalist conception of mathematics by saying that the formalists confused the unimportant thing, the sign, with the important, the meaning. Surely, one wishes to say, mathematics does not treat of dashes on a bit of paper. Frege's idea could be expressed thus: the propositions of mathematics, if they were Just complexes of dashes, would be dead and utterly uninteresting, whereas they obviously have a kind of life. And the same, of course, could be said of any proposition: Without a sense, or without the thought, a proposition would be an utterly dead and trivial thing. And further it seems clear that no adding of inorganic signs can make the proposition live. And the conclusion which one draws from this is that what must be added to the dead signs in order to make a live proposition is something immaterial, with properties different from all mere signs. But if we had to name anything which is the name of the sign, we should have to say that it was its use. (Blue Book, 4)

8 The Realist would have ‘the meaning’ resemble ‘the word’ in ‘being meaningful,' but differ from it in being intrinsically meaningful. The point of the comparison and contrast involving money seems to be that of loosening the grip of the impulse to identify ‘meaning’ with some entity distinct from the sign. As it is not the cow that makes money ‘valuable', but the complex system of de facto conventions, so also, it is suggested, it is not any object, event, force, or process associated with the sign that makes it meaningful, but rather the fact and manner of its use. Wittgenstein's suggestion supposes that if we shift our attention from word to coin, we will lose the impulse to locate the meaning of the word in an entity distinct from the word; the implication is that we are never tempted to locate the analogue of ‘meaning’ in money, say ‘purchasing power,’ in the goods that we can acquire by means of the money. That may be true, but Wittgenstein ·fails to notice that philosphers of money have argued alternative ‘sources’ for the purchasing power of money, and among them have been gold and silver. The impulse to *explain* may be more common than Wittgenstein thought. See also: Alice Ambrose, ‘Wittgenstein on Universals,’ reprinted in ed. Fann, K.T. Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Man and his Philosophy (New York: Dell 1967) 348.Google Scholar

9 It is difficult to tell at which point Wittgenstein's ideas became accessible, since the publication dates are usually so much later than the time the ideas came into limited circulation. Nonetheless, the ideas of the Blue and Brown Books could have been encountered from the period 1933-35 on; and again, the material in at least part I of PI could have been encountered from 1945 on. Formal publication for the Blue and the Brown Books had to wait for 1958, and PI1953. Bearing these dates in mind, it is interesting to hear Quine say in 1948: … the explanatory value of special and irreducible intermediary entities called meanings is surely illusory. (Quine, Willard V.O.On What There Is', incl. in From a Logical Point of View [New York: Harper & Row 1953), 12Google Scholar) and in 1951: Once the theory of meaning is sharply separated from the theory of reference, it is a short step to recognizing as the primary business of the theory of meaning simply the synonymy of linguistic forms and the analyticity of statements; meanings themselves, as obscure intermediary entities, may well be abandoned. (Quine, ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism,' ibid., 22)

10 Consider, for example, Wittgenstein's representation of the Realist's view in the Blue Book (p. 34): Let us put it this way: - What one wishes to say is: “Every sign is capable of interpretation; but the meaning mustn't be capable of interpretation. It is the last interpretation.“ While Wittgenstein identifies only one Realist by name, viz. Frege (see n. 7), it is important to note that he himself had held a theory that was exemplary of Realism, that is, the ‘picture theory of language.’ The point being that one time he considered pictures to be intrinsically meaningful; that implied, among other things, that if ‘mental’ pictures were possible, so was a private language. The discussion of pictures and mental pictures as well as the grammar of ‘interpretation' and ‘taking as’ that is scattered throughout PI is all part of Wittgenstein's therapy on Realism (his own as well as ours). An historical candidate for the role of ‘meaning’ might be the ‘idea’ as it occurs both in Locke and Berkeley; for, however else these two philosophers might have disagreed on ‘ideas,’ both contemplated the possibility and desirability of conducting philosophy through propositions expressed not in words, but rather formed out of the ‘ideas’ themselves. See, e.g., Locke's Essay, IV, v, 5 as well as Berkeley's Treatise, Introduction, par. 21.

11 Descartes, The Meditations Concerning First Philosophy, trans. Lafleur, Laurence J. (New York: The Liberal Arts Press 1960).Google Scholar Med. VI.

12 This provides a context for Moore's recollections: He (Wittgentstein) also insisted on three negative things, i.e. that three views which have sometimes been held are mistakes. The first of these mistakes was the view that the meaning of a word was some image which it calls up by association - a view to which he seemed to refer as the “causal” theory of meaning. He admitted that sometimes you cannot understand a word unless it calls up an image, but insisted that, even where this is the case, the image is Just as much a symbol as the word is. (Moore, G.E. Mind, 63 [1954] 8Google Scholar; quoted in Hallett, Garth Wittgenstein's Definition of Meaning as Use [New York: Fordham University Press 1967] 45Google Scholar)

13 Ibid.; see also: Wittgenstein, Blue Book, 5.Google Scholar

14 Descartes, Med. II, ms. #(32)[25].

15 Wittgenstein, loc. cit.

16 Following the parallelism I suggest between the theory of meaning and the philosophy of mind, we could describe Wittgenstein as holding an ‘Identity theory’ of meaning and rejecting a ‘Dualistic lnteractionism’ of meaning and sign use.