I’ve chosen to analyse Ludwig Wittgenstein and his views on the private language after reading Yezhou Yang’s written assignment on the Private Language Argument. The private language argument is a philosophical argument regarding the idea of a language understandable to only a single individual and how it would be incoherent to others. Ludwig Wittgenstein introduced this idea later in his work, especially in his highly influential book; Philosophical Investigations.
In this book he brings forth his personal views on the nature of language and brings light to the conceptual confusions surrounding language use, even going as far as to contradict his ideas in his earlier work; Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. He begins the book with an incredible quotation from St. Augustine – who was a Christian Theologian and Philosopher in the Patristic Era, whom Wittgenstein summarizes: “The individual words in language name objects—sentences are combinations of such names.
In this picture of language, we find the roots of the following idea: Every word has a meaning. This meaning is correlated with the word. It is the object for which the word stands. ” The book was well-known and studied by fellow philosophers in the 20th Century and is still considered to be one of the most important philosophical works of that time, it also continues to influence philosophers to this day, especially those studying language and the mind. In his book Philosophical investigations, Wittgenstein deals with the difficulties of language and meaning in multiple ways.
He believed that philosophers had misused language and asked meaningless questions to ignore the fact that language is fundamentally simple so he attempted to make things clearer for them in his book. He stated he wanted to “show the fly the way out of the bottle. ” Wittgenstein approaches language from various different angles, but predominately focuses on the idea of memory, definition and that meaning is use. His argument is that words are not defined by reference to the objects they are designated to or by the thought processes someone may associate them to but by how they are actually used.
He also goes into the idea that the actual meaning of the word limits our ability to use said word. He does this by first asking the reader to perform an experiment by thought: by requesting to come up with a definition of the word “game”. While at first a reader would think this is a simple task to complete, problems come from each attempted definition. The idea is that we can’t define it the way we would automatically think as many games have different feelings. We want to jump straight to the idea of game meaning “competition” or “amusement” but not all games fit into these categories.
The essential idea of this exercise is often missed by the reader, Wittgenstein’s point is not actually to define “game”, but to prove that we don’t have a definition and we don’t even need a definition, because even with no definition, we successfully use the word. He helps prove this argument by using the German word for “game” – “Spiele” or “Spiel” which actually extends to translate as “play” or “playing”. This helps the reader to better understand the idea that Wittgenstein was trying to establish.
Wittgenstein goes into memory and how it effects private language with the experiment of the sensation S, in which someone is to imagine that every time they feel a specific sensation they are to write S in their calendar. As the symbol would only be recognisable in meaning to the person who wrote it, Wittgenstein would consider this an example of private language. The idea is that S cannot be defined by using any other terms; for example, “I felt sick” as to do so this would be defining S, making it no longer private and giving S a place in public language.
However, the possibility exists that they might misremember the sensation and therefore S would no longer be accurate. So for example one day someone might experience and focus on that specific sensation and link it to the symbol S; but then another day, they might have a similar sensation but have no way of telling if that sensation is the same as the one before other than memory; and since memory is never accurate, they have no real evidence that the sensation this time is actually S. A similar experiment Wittgenstein carried out was the “beetle-in-the-box” experiment to explain difference in pain between people and how it is indescribable. The experiment was where the reader would have to imagine everyone owned a box with something inside, which we must call “beetle”. Nobody can look see into someone else’s box and everyone knows what a “beetle” is only from looking at their own “beetle”. Which means it could be possible for each person to have something different in their box or perhaps nothing at all.
The idea again though – much like the “game” experiment – is not the box at all or even the beetle, it’s the idea that we all perceive something differently and nobody truly knows how someone else feels no matter what, making it irrelevant to the meaning of the word itself. Making sensations and feelings private and undefinable by meaning, merely having words that indicate when the sensation is present but still meaningless nonetheless. This idea is similar to the thought experiment on the colour Red.
The question of: is the red I see, the same as the red you see? This idea has been thrown around and spoken about by many people, including Mark Changizi PH. D, who goes into the more chemical sides of things and the functions of colour qualia, which involves the structures of colours and the idea that it would be impossible to perceive “Red” without seeing its opposite, “Green” just as it would be impossible to see Purple without Blue and Red as it is the combination.
Also including Vsauce (Michael Stevens) a famous YouTube Vlogger who states: “Colour is just an illusion. Colour, as we know it, does not exist in the outside world beyond us like gravity or protons do. Instead, colour is created inside our heads. Our brains convert a certain range of the electromagnetic spectrum into colour. I can measure the wavelength of radiation, but I can’t measure or observe the experience of a colour inside your mind. ” Which of course, is completely true.
He also goes into the idea that if two people were to both look at a strawberry, they would both state it as being “Red” but they might see different; how are we meant to know whether we see the same thing as others? For example, although they may both state the strawberry is “Red”, one person may actually see another colour, (let’s say green) but have always called it “Red”, causing them to believe they are seeing the same thing, when they’re really not. Michael also goes into the diagnosis of colour blindness, and shows the difference between what a colour blind person might see, in comparison to someone who isn’t.
The same goes with animals too, they see differently to us in retrospect to colours; Some see less colour than us like dogs, cats, mice, rats and rabbits who have poor vision where they only see in mostly greys with some blues and yellows, where as some animals like bees and butterflies, can see even more colours than us, there vision extending into UV. It could also be argued that animals have their own private languages as although we are unsure whether the meows and barks that we hear mean omething to the animals or not, whether they have minds or if they just have survival instincts and basic intelligence, we still know they are able to communicate enough between each other in some way. This is also backed up by Koko the talking gorilla who has learnt to communicate to us in sign language. Although this concept is a breakthrough in crossing the language barrier between animals and humans, the peculiar thing that Michael later mentions is that Koko doesn’t ask questions. This means that she might not have thought processes like we do and may not be as curious as we think.
Michael unintentionally agrees with Wittgenstein’s idea of private language and Yezhou Yang’s idea of “body” and “soul” by stating that all of this stuff matters because it shows how fundamentally, in terms of our perceptions, we are all alone in our minds. This all relates to the idea that we will never truly understand another person’s mind, as we are all trapped in our own individual minds and Yang’s idea that my “world” would be different from your “world” and that everyone has their own “world” which would vanish when their “soul” vanished.
Your private language and personal view would die with you, as how are you meant to continue seeing and feeling when dead? Michael also refers to the idea of pain, reminding us of the “beetle-in-the-box” experiment by asking us how would we go about explaining pain to an individual who cannot feel it? Although in theory they could study how pain works in regards to the body and reactions, they could still not fully understand how it works or feels. This is the same with blind people, which Michael also mentions. He puts us into another imaginative situation by asking how do you explain the colour red to someone who cannot see?
Which the simple answer is: We can’t. Although, yet again, we could describe the meaning of Red as a colour or its use, they would never fully understand or see what we see. But it works in both ways. Just as the blind man will never see or understand what we see, we can never see or understand how he sees. Wittgenstein discussed this as well but in figures that can be seen and understood in two different ways, a famous one being the “duck-rabbit”. Typically, when someone first looks they will either see a duck, or a rabbit because the viewer is not interpreting the picture or looking for both, they re simply reporting what they first see. Illusions like this work effectively in groups especially or over social media as some will notice the duck first and some the rabbit. Illusions come with colour too though, a perfect example of this is the internet famous “white and gold” dress which hit viral very quickly because of a difference in colour perception. Some would see the dress as white and gold, others would see it as black and blue and some would even have it change between them some times.
This caused a lot of confusion through social media as obviously people didn’t understand how they could see different colours. The actual reason behind the difference is the lighting in the photo, because it is an evening shot in a white-light it causes some to perceive white instead of blue and gold instead of black. It is argued that the people who saw the real colour of the dress – which is in fact black and blue – in the photo have better colour constancy as they were able to take cues from the background and process the lighting.
This relates back to the idea of “Is my Red the same as your Red? ” but also argues and shines light on the idea as although it is proving that each person has a different perspective on colour, it is still within the guidelines of us being correct in the sense of all seeing one of the pairs of colours. To most of us the change in the colour of light over the day would be less noticeable, but it has been suggested that Monet was somehow able to disregard this automatic process in order to paint scenes showing how light was progressing from day into night and vice versa.
As artists we see this day to day in our works, when we have to consider the angle of the light in paintings and pieces. But we also have to consider people seeing things differently from their perspectives. For instance, when people visit galleries and look at some abstract pieces they may see different things, some may see a dog, some may see a house, a cowboy, etc. But it is believed what you see could not only be down to the difference in perspective but also to do with who you are as a person. The Rorschach inkblot test is another prime example of different perceptions.
The Rorschach inkblot test is a psychological test in which someone’s perception of a specific set of inkblots are recorded and then analysed using psychological interpretation and complex algorithms. The test is used to examine how a person functions emotionally and the characteristics of their personality. It has also been used to detect underlying thought disorder, especially in cases where patients were reluctant to describe their thinking processes openly. The goal of the test is to reveal the basic personality factors, such as, motivation, response tendencies, affectivity and personal/interpersonal perceptions.
The argument is that the person will see things based on who they are as a person, their upbringing and their life choices and other things like; necessities, conflicts, aspiration. It is believed that if you have bad characteristics you will see darker more sinful things like death, blood, sex or something threatening and good characteristics would see more ordinary things. Rorschach would use a specific system called the Exner system to analyse the results and score them based on how the person had interpreted each inkblot image, and if the score was high then it wasn’t a good sign.
In conclusion we are all living in our own independent worlds, and as Yang mentioned, our language will inevitably die with us. Although no one can see the Red we see, or speak a private language, or understand our pain, we seem to be on the right path to discovering these things about each other. Wittgenstein’s findings show a significant truth on the idea of private language and has helped create a leap in the philosophical aspects of language, still influencing the world to this day. I suppose in this sense; his private language may not have died with him.