Wittgenstein sans The Private Language Argument

Ludwig Wittgenstein
Wittgenstein's discussion of private language has been perhaps the most controversial part of his philosophy. The few pages dealing with this subject (PI 243-315) have been pored-over, analyzed and re-analyzed so much that many are simply tired of the subject. Yet it remains the central argument of Wittgenstein's philosophy, the place where his attack on Cartesianism is most strongly focused. And it is certainly the case that Wittgenstein's philosophy will not carry the day without this argument (Finch, H. Le Roy. Wittgenstein - The Later Philosophy, 127).

I do not wish to dispute the assertion that the private language argument is 'the central argument of Wittgenstein's philosophy', but given the controversy which surrounds it, the lack of agreement amongst commentators as to its point, force, and even its precise location in the Investigations, Finch's final statement merits critical consideration. Given that weariness has set in regarding the private language argument proper, to what extent can Wittgenstein's critique of Cartesianism be said to 'carry the day' without it? It is my purpose here to show that, considered exclusively as a critique of Cartesian dualism, Wittgenstein's later philosophy is quite conclusive without the private language argument. The latter, in my view, is an essential requirement for the positive or constructive side of his philosophy, where, having inter alia exposed the misconceptions underpinning the Cartesian account of language and the mind, he goes on to show how psychological terms do in fact acquire meaning, and both the radical differences and complex interconnections which exist between the criteria of individuation and identification for physical and mental events. But his critique of Cartesianism remains nonetheless decisive—though admittedly much less multi-dimensional—when freed from its associations with the private language argument, and when the focus is narrowed to Wittgenstein's account of the two senses attaching to the first person pronoun, 'I'.

In The Blue Book Wittgenstein distinguishes between the use of the first person singular 'I' as object, which involves the recognition and identification of a particular person or living human being - in, for example, such statements as 'I have broken my arm', 'I have grown six inches', 'I have a bump on my forehead' - from its subject use where no such recognition or identification is involved, e.g. 'I see so-and-so', 'I hear so-and-so', 'I try to lift my arm', 'I have toothache' (66-67). When it is used as object 'I' may well be replaced by 'this body' or 'S.P.T.' without change of meaning, and all such assertions are susceptible to empirical error. I may well, for example, be wrong in thinking that I have broken my arm, or that I have grown six inches, and when I make such a claim I am identifying myself and asserting that what I claim holds true of this body, as distinct from any other.

The characterising features of the use of 'I' as subject, on the other hand, is that it is impervious to error through misidentification of the subject or misapplication of the predicate, and it does not refer to a physical body. For if I have toothache, there is no question of my coming to recognise this by first discriminating the toothache, and then coming to learn that the toothache is one which I, as distinct from someone else, possess (Ibid., 68-69). Thus the 'I' in 'I have toothache' does not refer to my body or to me as a publicly-situated person; as Wittgenstein puts it, 'To say, "I have pain" is no more a statement about a particular person than moaning is' (Ibid., 67; Also Philosophical Investigations, I. § 404: 'In saying this ["I am in pain"] I don't name any person. Just as I don't name anyone when I groan with pain. Though someone else sees who is in pain from the groaning'). In other words, while it clearly makes sense to ascribe growth or physical injury to my body, it is, I feel inclined to say, surely to myself that I ascribe pains, sensations and thoughts. And here we encounter, it would seem, the linguistic basis for drawing a distinction, after the manner of Descartes, between the body and the self (See, for example, Discourse on Method, IV, where he affirms that he is 'a substance, of which the whole essence or nature consists in thinking, and which, in order to exist, needs no place and depends on no material thing; so that this 'I', that is to say the mind, by which I am what I am, is entirely distinct from the body'; Cf. also Meditations, II, 104-7; p. 111; IV, 132; VI, 156).

Wittgenstein puts the matter as follows:

In the cases in which 'I' is used as subject, we don't use it because we recognize a particular person by his bodily characteristics; and this creates the illusion that we use this word to refer to something bodiless, which, however, has its seat in our body. In fact this seems to be the real ego, the one of which it was said, "Cogito, ergo sum" (The Blue Book, 69).

When the very structure of our language suggests that we are making ascriptions to something, and it is clear that we are not making ascriptions to our bodies, then the Cartesian res cogitans presents itself to us most naturally as the obvious referent of the reflexive pronoun. The 'word-object' model of meaning comes once more to bewitch us; words such as 'I', we are tempted to assume, gain the meaning which they possess by performing a referential function on our language - they pick out, by naming, unique items in the world. As Wittgenstein says, 'Where our language suggests a body and there is none: there, we should like to say, is a spirit' (Philosophical Investigations, I, § 36).

Now the semantic differences between the two uses of 'I', Wittgenstein believed, are both real and quite fundamental; I do not, he points out, either possess or require behavioural or other criterial evidence to justify my utterance of first person, present tense psychological statements such as 'I have toothache', which involve the use of 'I' as subject ( Ibid., I, § 404). First person, present tense statements such as 'I have broken my arm', on the other hand, do require criterial evidence for their justification (Cf. Jones, J. R., 'How do I know who I am?', 1967; Hacker. P. M. S., Insight and Illusion - Wittgenstein on Philosophy and the Metaphysics of Experience, Chapter VII; Kerr, F., Theology after Wittgenstein, Chapter 4). But it is a mistake to assume from this that 'I' used as subject refers to an immaterial ego or self seated in my body - on the contrary, Wittgenstein argues, the truth is that 'I' in its subject use is not a referring expression at all - it does not function as the name of anything (The Blue and Brown Books, p. 68; Philosophical Investigations, I. § 410). Statements which involve the subject use of 'I', such as 'I have toothache', do not assign predicates to an identified owner, but are rather to be viewed as expressive disclosures or 'non-concealments' of experiences, thoughts, affective states, etc. through language, which require no behavioural or other grounds for their justification (This is potentially misleading - for while the linguistic expression of say, pain, replaces the natural expression of pain, such as crying and moaning, there are no natural expressions of thoughts other than their linguistic expressions. Cf. Philosophical Investigations, I, § 317; The Blue and Brown Books, 68).

Thus the asymmetry which the Cartesian dualist mistakenly characterises as a distinction between the direct and certain knowledge which an immaterial mind has of its own allegedly private contents and the fallible inferential knowledge which it has of minds 'screened' or 'hidden' by other bodies is marked by Wittgenstein as a distinction between the behavioural criteria which an individual requires for the ascription of psychological predicates to others, and the non-criterial grounds or 'right' which he has for self-ascribing them (Philosophical Investigations, I, § 289).

To this it may be protested: If I ascribe psychological predicates to others exclusively on the basis of criterial evidence, and require no such evidence at all to self-ascribe them, surely this means that I have I kind of knowledge of my own mental states and operations which is denied to everyone else? Wittgenstein's response is carefully measured and very clear:

I can know what someone else is thinking, not what I am thinking. It is correct to say "I know what you are thinking", and wrong to say "I know what I am thinking." (A whole cloud of philosophy condensed into a drop of grammar.) (Ibid., II, xi, 222).

To say that I self-ascribe my thoughts or sensations without either the possibility or need for the kind of criterial evidence which others need to ascribe thoughts or sensations to me is not to say that I alone know my thoughts and sensations, or that I have a privileged access to them which is denied to others. On the contrary, precisely because my expressions in language of my thoughts and sensations are not based upon behavioural or any other criteria, it is meaningless to talk about my 'knowing' them. For clearly 'know' here means 'doubt does not make sense', and there can be knowledge only where doubt is also possible (Ibid., II, xi, p. 221).

Two considerations which foster and nurture the dualistic illusion that we can never really know the minds of other persons, that their psychological states are intrinsically private, are our recognition of the possibility of pretence, and our knowledge that persons sometimes have, for example, thoughts which they never publicly articulate, and pains which they never publicly express. Is it not possible, it might be asked, that someone who appears to be in pain is merely pretending? And is it not correct to say that an unarticulated thought, or an unexpressed pain, is ipso facto private, in the sense that no-one other than the person whose thoughts and pains they are is aware of their existence?

In answer to the first question Wittgenstein replies that pretence does of course occur, but that there are cases in which the supposition of pretence is meaningless - as, for example, in the cases of infants and animals: in order to be capable of pretending at all one has to have mastered quite complex behavioural and linguistic skills which infants and animals necessarily lack (Ibid., I, § 249-250). To the second question he makes the related point that it is perfectly true to say that people have thoughts and pains, etc. which they do not publicly manifest in any way. If that is what is meant by the term 'private', then it is incontestably true that there are private thoughts and private pains (Ibid., I, § 246-248). But by precisely the same token, thoughts and pains etc. which are not concealed in this way are not private.

The dualistic belief that thoughts and pains, etc. are necessarily private is frequently, at this point, the product of reasoning which is quite simply fallacious: from the fact that some thoughts, pains, etc. are private (in the sense just outlined) it does not follow that all thoughts, pains, etc. could be private. 'What sometimes happens might always happen' is a logical fallacy: it does not follow from the fact that it is possible for a person to make a false move in a particular game that everyone could make nothing but false moves in every game (Ibid., I, § 345). Moreover, the only sense in which thoughts can be private is in the sense of not being publicly manifested to others, and it is illusory to think that the kind of privacy which attaches to non-manifested thoughts is a characteristic property conferred on such thoughts by the mind. For a person could make even his publicly articulated thoughts private or 'hidden' in precisely this sense by expressing them in a language which those who heard him did not understand (Ibid., II, xi, 222).

Wittgenstein's disdain for psychological dualism - he speaks disparagingly of 'the conception of thought as a gaseous medium' (Ibid., I, §109), and of the dualistic view of mental processes as a 'hocus-pocus which can be performed only by the soul' (Ibid., I, § 454) - coupled, as it is with his emphasis of the need for behavioural criteria as an essential condition for the ascription of psychological predicates to others, was bound, he recognised, to give rise to allegations of behaviourism. Thus in the Investigations his invisible dualistic interlocutor asks him: '"Are you not really a behaviourist in disguise? Aren't you at bottom really saying that everything except human behaviour is a fiction?"' (Ibid., I, § 307). To this he gives the terse rejoinder: 'If I do speak of a fiction then it is of a grammatical fiction' (Ibid). That is to say, his intention is to destroy a distorted and erroneous picture of psychological processes which is itself the product of a misunderstanding of the grammar of psychological predicate ascription. When this picture dominates, psychological terms are functionally identified with terms which describe physical objects, and as a result of this identification invisible, 'inner' non-mechanistic processes taking place in an ethereal medium, the mind, are inevitably projected as the referents of psychological predicates. As he puts it:

The impression that we wanted to deny something arises from our setting our faces against the picture of the 'inner process'. What we deny is that the picture of the inner process gives us the correct idea of the use of the word ... We say that this picture with its ramifications stands in the way of our seeing the use of the word as it is (Ibid., I, § 305).

The ultimate ramification of the dualistic picture of the 'inner process' is, again, that persons come to be conceived of as ethereal entities, immaterial souls or minds, each of which exists in its own private world. As a consequence, human bodies come to be viewed as purely physico-physiological objects—in a word, automatons—in which souls are situated, which are animated by those souls, and which largely constitute the 'screens' which separate individual private souls or minds from each other. Each soul is thus pictured as being locked away in its own private space, and knowledge of other minds becomes, at best, inferential and highly dubious in nature (Ibid., I, § 293-302).

Against this Wittgenstein insists that a body is not something which possesses or has a soul, and instead argues that 'the human body is the best picture of the human soul' (Ibid., II, iv, 178). What he repudiates is the dualistic view that I encounter other bodies and have to infer that other souls or minds are located 'inside' them, and that the bodily behaviour of human beings is merely a fallible external indicator of hidden mental processes. On the contrary, he asserts, it is totally wrong to suggest that I just have a belief that other human bodies are not mere automatons, or that I am merely of the opinion that other souls exist. Souls are not immaterial, 'hidden' objects: they are rather living human beings, who are encountered directly rather than inferred. As he puts it, 'My attitude towards him [another human being] is an attitude towards a soul. I am not of the opinion that he has a soul' (Ibid.). Elsewhere he challenges the dualist to seriously apply his picture of what constitutes a person in practical, real-life situations: 'Just try in a real case - to doubt someone else's fear or pain' (Ibid., I, § 303) - the impossibility of doing this alone destroys the illusion that the sensations, pains, thoughts, affective states, etc. of other human beings are concealed from us by their bodies. Our instinctive, non-cogitated responses of pity or solicitude to the pains and fears of others is made possible only by our immediate recognition of them as fellow human beings or souls: 'How', Wittgenstein asks rhetorically, 'am I filled with pity for this man? How does it come out what the object of my pity is? (Pity, one may say, is a form of conviction that someone else is in pain.)' (Ibid., I, § 287). Thus there is nothing inherently wrong with talk about the human soul - confusion is sown only when such talk is misconstrued dualistically as talk about an ethereal entity, and when there is a failure to recognise that the word 'soul' is one by means of which, in certain cultural-specific situations, we make refer to human beings (Cf. Phillips, D. Z. Death and Immortality, 43-45).

By calling our attention centrally to these matters, independently of his critique of the notion of a private language, Wittgenstein explodes the picture of persons as immaterial souls seated in physical bodies, and in eliminating all that accompanies that picture, he focuses our attention upon what is, in one sense, the obvious: persons are living human beings, who exist in a shared, public, intersubjective spatio-temporal world. What are primitively given, the 'proto-phenomena' (Philosophical Investigations, I, § 654), are not private mental occurrences, but public forms of life, of which language is the most predominant, and in which psychological concepts are inextricably interconnected with concepts relating to the human body and to naturally expressive human behaviour.

In the final analysis, with the dualistic picture laid to rest, Wittgenstein reminds us both of the manner in which it can beguile, and of our familiarity with the picture which he offers in its place:

To have an opinion is a state - a state of what? Of the soul? Of the mind? Well, of what object does one say that it has an opinion? Of Mr. N.N. for example. And that is the correct answer. (Ibid., I § 573).

The fact that he adds to this that 'One should not expect to be enlightened by the answer to that question' is, in my view, to be taken as a recognition by Wittgenstein that this answer leaves untouched the question of the sense in which an opinion can be legitimately regarded as a state, and so is insufficiently 'deep'. It is precisely to plumb these latter depths that he requires the private language argument. Notwithstanding this, however, when it is appropriately situated in the context of his critique of Cartesian dualism, the answer is of profound significance.



Descartes, R. Discourse on Method and the Meditations (trans. F. E. Sutcliffe). London, Penguin, 1968.

Hacker. P. M. S., Insight and Illusion - Wittgenstein on Philosophy and the Metaphysics of Experience. Oxford, University Press, 1972.

Jones, J. R., 'How do I know who I am?', Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volume, 1967.

Kerr, F., Theology after Wittgenstein. London, Blackwell, 1986.

Finch, H. Le Roy. Wittgenstein - The Later Philosophy. N.J., Humanities Press, 1977.

Phillips, D. Z. Death and Immortality. London, Macmillan, 1970.

Wittgenstein, L. The Blue and Brown Books: Preliminary Studies for the 'Philosophical Investigations', Oxford, Blackwell, 1972.

Wittgenstein, L. Philosophical Investigations. Oxford, Blackwell, 1974.

Copyright © 1996 The Cogito Society,
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First published in Cogito 10: 1, 1996.

Stephen Thornton is editor of Minerva, and a member of the Philosophy Department, Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick.

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