Private language argument

Private language argument

The private language argument is a philosophical argument introduced by Ludwig Wittgenstein in his later work, especially in the Philosophical Investigations [Wittgenstein introduced the notion in §243, and argues for its impossibility in §244-§271. Key passages occur in §256-§271.] The argument was central to philosophical discussion at the end of the last century, and continues to arouse interest. The argument is supposed to show that the idea of a language understandable by only a single individual is incoherent.

In the "Investigations" Wittgenstein does not present his arguments in a succinct and linear fashion; instead, he describes particular uses of language, and prompts the reader to contemplate the implications of those uses. As a result there is considerable dispute about both the nature of the argument and its import. Indeed, it has become common to talk of private language "arguments".

Archaeologists of philosophy have located precursors of the private language argument in a variety of sources prior to Wittgenstein. Gottlob Frege and Locke are prominent in these excavations. [A detailed account can be found in: Dejnoñka, Jan "Origins of the Private Language Argument" Diálogos 66, 59-78, 1995] Locke is also a prominent exponent of the view targeted by the argument, since he proposed in his "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding" that the referent of a word is the "idea" it stands for.


The importance of the private language argument derives from its centrality in debates about the nature of language.

One compelling theory about language has it that words map to ideas, concepts or representations in each person's mind. On this account, the concepts in my head are distinct from the concepts in your head. But I can match my concepts to a word in our common language, and then speak the word. You then match the word to a concept in your mind. So our concepts in effect form a private language which we translate into our common language and so share. This account is found for example in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and more recently in Jerry Fodor's Language of thought theory.

Wittgenstein's argument seeks to show that this sort of account is incoherent.

If the idea of a private language is incoherent, then it would follow that all language is essentially public: that language is at its core a social phenomenon. This would have profound implications for other areas of philosophical study. For instance, if one cannot have a private language, it might not make any sense to talk of private sensations such as qualia; nor might it make sense to talk of a word as referring to a concept, where a "concept" is understood to be a private mental representation.

Philosophical Investigations

The argument is found in part one of the "Philosophical investigations". This part consists of a series of "remarks" numbered sequentially. The core of the argument is generally thought to be presented in §256 and onward, though the idea is first introduced in §243.

What a private language is

In order to tell if someone understands a word or phrase, one looks to behaviour. If someone were to behave as if they understood a language which no-one else can make sense of, we might call this an example of a private language. [269.] It is not sufficient here, however, for the language to simply be one that has not yet been translated. In order to count as a "private language" in Wittgenstein's sense, it must be in principle incapable of translation into an ordinary language - if for example it were to describe those inner experiences supposed to be inaccessible to others. [§256.] The private language being considered is not simply a language "in fact" understood by one person, but a language that "in principle" can only be understood by one person. So the last speaker of a dying language would not be speaking a private language, since the language remains in principle learnable. A private language must be unlearnable and untranslatable, and yet it must appear that the speaker is able to make sense of it.

The sensation S

Wittgenstein sets up a thought experiment in which someone is imagined to associate some recurrent sensation with a symbol by writing S in their calendar when the sensation occurs. [§258.] Such a case would be a private language in the Wittgensteinian sense. Furthermore, it is presupposed that "S" cannot be defined using other terms, for example "the feeling I get when the manometer rises"; for to do so would be to give S a place in our public language, in which case S could not be a statement in a private language. [§270.]

It might be supposed that one might use "a kind of ostensive definition" for S, by focusing on the sensation and on the symbol. Early in "The Investigations", Wittgenstein attacks the usefulness of ostensive definition [§27-34] . He considers the example of someone pointing to two nuts while saying "This is called "two". How does it come about that the listener associates this with the "number" of items, rather than the type of nut, their colour, or even a compass direction? One conclusion of this is that to participate in an ostensive definition presupposes an understanding of the process and context involved, of the "form of life". [§23.] Another is that "an ostensive definition can be variously interpreted in "every" case". [§28, italics in original]

In the case of the sensation S Wittgenstein argues that there is no criterion for the correctness of such an ostensive definition, since whatever "seems" right will "be" right, 'And that only means that here we can't talk about "right".' [§258.] The exact reason for the rejection of private language has been contentious. One interpretation, which has been called "memory scepticism", has it that one might "remember" the sensation wrongly, and that as a result one might misuse the term S . The other, called "meaning scepticism", has it that one can never be sure of the "meaning" of a term defined in this way.

Memory scepticism

One common interpretation is that the possibility exists that one might misremember the sensation, and therefore one does not have any firm "criterion" for using S in each case. [This account is supported by §207] So, for example, I might one day focus on "that" sensation, and link it to the symbol S; but the next day, I have no criteria for knowing that the sensation I have "now" is the same as the one yesterday, except for my memory; and since my memory might fail me, I have no firm criteria for knowing that the sensation I have now is indeed S.

But if one person can misremember, it is entirely possible that several people could misremember. So memory scepticism could be applied with equal effect to ostensive definitions given in a public language. For example, Jim and Jenny might one day decide to call some particular tree T; but the next day "both" misremember which tree it was they named. If they were depending entirely on their memory, and had not written down the location of the tree, or told anyone else, then they would appear to be in the same difficulties as the individual who defined S ostensively. And if this is the case, the argument presented against private language would apply equally to public language.

It seems then that memory scepticism alone will not provide us with an argument against private language.

Meaning scepticism

Another interpretation, found for example in the account presented by Anthony Kenny [Kenny, Anthony. "Wittgenstein" pp.193-4] has it that the problem with a private ostensive definition is not just that it might be misremembered, but that such a definition cannot lead to a meaningful statement.

Let us first consider a case of ostensive definition in a public language. Jim and Jenny might one day decide to call some particular tree T; but the next day misremember which tree it was they named. In this ordinary language case, it makes sense to ask questions such as "is this the tree we named T yesterday?" and make statements such as "This is not the tree we named T yesterday". So one can appeal to other parts of the form of life, perhaps arguing: "this is the only Oak in the forest; T was an oak; therefore this is T".

An every-day ostensive definition is embedded in a public language, and so in the form of life in which that language occurs. Participation in a public form of life enables correction to occur. That is, in the case of a public language there are other ways to check the use of a term that has been ostensively defined. We can "justify" our use of the new name T by making the ostensive definition more or less explicit.

But this is not the case with S. Recall that because S is part of a private language, it is not possible to provide an explicit definition of S. The only "possible" definition is the private, ostensive one of associating S with "that" feeling. But this is the "very thing being questioned". "Imagine someone saying: 'But I know how tall I am!' and laying his hand on top of his head to prove it." [§279.]

A recurrent theme in Wittgenstein's work is that for some term or utterance to have a sense, it must be conceivable that it be doubted. For Wittgenstein, tautologies do not have sense, do not say anything, and so do not admit of doubt. But furthermore, if any other sort of utterance does not admit of doubt, it must be senseless. Rush Rhees, in his notes on lectures given by Wittgenstein, while discussing the reality of physical objects, has him say:

We get something similar when we write a tautology like "p → p". We formulate such expressions to get something in which there is no doubt - even though the sense has vanished with the doubt. ["The Language of Sense Data and Private Experience: Notes taken by Rush Rhees of Wittgenstein's Lectures, 1936" Lecture VIII, February 24, 1936. in Klagge, James, Nordmann, Alfred (editors) (1993) "Ludwig Wittgenstein: Philosophical Occasions 1912-1951"p. 318. See for comparison, "Investigations", §298]

As Kenny put it , "Even to think "falsely" that something is S I must know the meaning of S; and this is what Wittgenstein argues is impossible in the private language." [ Kenny (1973) p. 192] Because there is no way to check the meaning (or use) of S "apart from" that private ostensive act of definition, it is not possible to "know" what S means. The sense has vanished with the doubt.

Wittgenstein uses the further analogy of the left hand giving the right hand money. [§268] The physical act might take place, but the transaction could not count as a gift. Similarly, one might say S while focusing on a sensation, but no act of naming has occurred.

The Beetle in a box

The Beetle in a Box is a famous thought experiment that Wittgenstein introduces in the context of his investigation of pains. [§293]

Pains occupy a distinct and vital place in the philosophy of mind for several reasons. [Rorty, Richard "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature", 1979] One is that pains seem to collapse the appearance/reality distinction. [Rorty, p. 97] If an object appears to you to be red it might not be so in reality, but if you seem to yourself to be in pain you must be so: there can be no case here of seeming at all. At the same time, one cannot feel another person’s pain, but only infer it from their behavior and their reports of it.

If we accept pains as special qualia known absolutely but exclusively by the solitary minds that perceive them, this may be taken to ground a Cartesian view of the self and consciousness. Our consciousness, of pains anyway, would seem unassailable. Against this, one might acknowledge the absolute fact of one's own pain, but claim skepticism about the existence of anyone else's pains. Alternatively, one might take a behaviorist line and claim that our pains are merely neurological stimulations accompanied by a disposition to behave. [Rorty, pp. 18-19]

Wittgenstein invites us to imagine a community in which the individuals each have a box containing a "beetle". "No one can look into anyone else's box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is only by looking at "his" beetle." [§293] .

If the "beetle" had a use in the language of these people, it could not be as the name of something - because it is entirely possible that each person had something completely different in their box, or even that the thing in the box constantly changed, or that each box was in fact empty. The content of the box is irrelevant to whatever language game it is used in.

By analogy, it does not matter that one cannot experience another's subjective sensations. Unless talk of such subjective experience is learned through public experience the actual content is irrelevant; all we can discuss is what is available in our public language.

By offering the “beetle” as an analogy to pains, Wittgenstein suggests that the case of pains is not really amenable to the uses philosophers would make of it. “That is to say: if we construe the grammar of the expression of sensation on the model of ‘object and designation,’ the object drops out of consideration as irrelevant.” [§293]

Following a rule

It is common to describe language use in terms of the rules that one follows, and Wittgenstein considers rules in some detail. He famously suggests that any act can be made out to follow from a given rule. ["Whatever I do is, on some interpretation, in accord with the rule", §198-9] He does this in setting up a dilemma:

This was our paradox: no course of action could be determined by a rule, because every course of action can be made out to accord with the rule. The answer was: if everything can be made out to accord with the rule, then it can also be made out to conflict with it. And there would be neither accord nor conflict here. [§201]
One can give an explanation of why one followed a particular rule in a particular case. But any explanation for rule following behaviour cannot be given in terms of following a rule, without involving circularity. One can say something like "She did X because of the rule R" but if you say "She followed R because of the rule R1" one can then ask "but why did she follow rule R1?" and so potentially become involved in a regression. Explanation must have an end. [§87] His conclusion:
What this shows is that there is a way of grasping a rule which is "not" an "interpretation", but which is exhibited in what we call "obeying the rule" and "going against it" in actual cases. [§201, italics in original]

So following a rule is a practice. And furthermore, since one can think one is following a rule and yet be mistaken, "thinking" one is following a rule is not the same as following it. Therefore following a rule cannot be a private activity. [§202]

Kripke's interpretation

In 1982 Saul Kripke published a new and innovative account of the argument in his book "Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language". [ Kripke, Saul. "Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language". Basil Blackwell Publishing, 1982.] Kripke takes the paradox discussed in §201 to be the central problem of the "Philosophical Investigations". He develops the paradox into a Grue-like problem, arguing that it similarly results in skepticism, but about "meaning" rather than about "induction". [Kripke, Saul. "Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language". pp7-25] He proposes a new form of addition, which he calls "quus" (symbolised by ⊕), which is identical with "plus" in all cases except those in which either of the numbers to be added are greater than 57, thus:

x ⊕ y = x+y, if x, y, ≤ 57, otherwise =5
He then asks if anyone could know that previously when I thought I had meant "plus", I had not actually meant "quus". He claims that his argument shows that "Each new application we make is a leap in the dark; any present intention could be interpreted so as to accord with anything we may choose to do. So there can be neither accord, nor conflict". [Kripke, Saul. "Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language". pp 55]

Kripke's account is considered by some commentators to be unfaithful to Wittgenstein [E.g., G.P. Baker and P.M.S. Hacker, "Scepticism, Rules, and Language" (Oxford: Blackwell, 1984) and Colin McGinn, "Wittgenstein on Meaning" (Oxford: Blackwell, 1984).] , and as a result has been referred to as "Kripkenstein".


"Remarks in Part I of "Investigations" are preceded by the symbol "§". Remarks in Part II are referenced by their Roman numeral or their page number in the third edition.


cite book
last = Kenny
first = Anthony
authorlink = Anthony Kenny
coauthors =
title = Wittgenstein
publisher = Penguin Books
date = 1973
location =
url =
doi =
id = ISBN 0-14-021581-6

cite book
last = Kripke
first = Saul
authorlink = Saul Kripke
coauthors =
title = Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language.
publisher = Basil Blackwell Publishing
date = 1982
location =
url =
doi =
id = ISBN 0-631-13521-9

cite book
last = Klagge
first = James
authorlink = James Klagge
coauthors = Nordmann, Alfred (editors)
title = Ludwig Wittgenstein: Philosophical Occasions 1912-1951
publisher = Hackett Publishing company
date = 1993
location = Indianapolis
url =
doi =
id = ISBN 0-87220-155-4

cite book
last = Nielsen
first = Keld Stehr
title = The evolution of the private language argument
publisher = Ashgate Publishing Group
date = 2008
location = Aldershot, UK
doi =
id = ISBN 978-0-7546-5629-6

cite book
last = Wittgenstein
first = Ludwig
authorlink = Ludwig Wittgenstein
coauthors =
title = Philosophical Investigations
publisher = Blackwell Publishing
date = 1953/2001
location =
url =
doi =
id = ISBN 0-631-23127-7

External links

* [ Stanford Encyclopedia] entry for the argument
*Download a diagram of the Beetle []

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