Philosophy Answer Writing Practice 2018 - Week 5 - Question 4

90 Days Philosophy Answer Writing Practice Question 2 for 12-Dec-2018

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12-Dec-2018 - Question 2

Why does Wittgenstein reject the possibility of private language? (2016)

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Model Answer

Note: This answer contains paragraphs directly taken from the original book in order to help aspirants understand that quoting the sentences in bold directly from the source in examination would help fetch more marks.


Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations says, “If a lion could talk, I could not understand him”. Here he equates speaking as a sort of activity of human life and he talks about “forms of life”. He says the ways of speaking are intimately tied to the human understandings and such spoken words will have meaning only in this context.

He says in Philosophical Investigations –

The essential thing about private language is really not that each person possesses his own exemplar, but that nobody knows whether other people also have this or something else. The assumption would thus be possible—though unverifiable—that one section of mankind had one sensation of red and another section another.

Of course, saying that the word "red" "refers to" instead of "means" something private does not help us in the least to grasp its function; but it is the more psychologically apt expression for a particular experience in doing philosophy. It is as if when I uttered the word I cast a sidelong glance at the private sensation, as it were in order to say to myself: I know all right what I mean by it.

Look at the blue of the sky and say to yourself "How blue the sky is!"—When you do it spontaneously—without philosophical intentions—the idea never crosses your mind that this impression of colour belongs only to you. And you have no hesitation in exclaiming that to someone else. And if you point at anything as you say the words you point at the sky. I am saying: you have not the feeling of pointing-into-yourself, which often accompanies 'naming the sensation' when one is thinking about 'private language'. Nor do you think that really you ought not to point to the colour with your hand, but with your attention.

Private language is one which only I understand. Each word in a language would stand for a particular object, and only the user can understand it, it being his private language. In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein systematically demolishes through language games, that there is no rightful, universal and common ground for private language. He says –

“Let us imagine the following case. I want to keep a diary about the recurrence of a certain sensation. To this end I associate it with the sign "S" and write this sign in a calendar for every day on which I have the sensation.——I will remark first of all that a definition of the sign cannot be formulated.—But still I can give myself a kind of ostensive definition.—How? Can I point to the sensation? Not in the ordinary sense. But I speak, or write the sign down, and at the same time I concentrate my attention on the sensation—and so, as it were, point to it inwardly.—But what is this ceremony for? for that is all it seems to be! A definition surely serves to establish the meaning of a sign.—Well, that is done precisely by the concentrating of my attention; for in this way I impress on myself the connexion between the sign and the sensation.—But "I impress it on myself" can only mean: this process brings it about that I remember the connexion right in the future. But in the present case I have no criterion of correctness. One would like to say: whatever is going to seem right to me is right. And that only means that here we can't talk about 'right'.

However, after rejecting Augustinian conception of language, he shows there was no real problem of private language, as when we start seeing the common usage of words, the problem of private language has disappeared.

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