Home > Book Review, Philosophy > Notes on Wittgenstein: “The Private Language Argument”.

Notes on Wittgenstein: “The Private Language Argument”.

In our last series on Wittgenstein we focused on his critique of the ostensive teaching of words, in today’s discussion we will be looking at his critique of the private language argument. Let us allow him to state it for us:

But one could also imagine a person could write down or give vocal expression to his inner experiences – his feelings, moods, and the rest – for his private use? – Well, can’t we do so in our ordinary language? (Wittgenstein, p. 88, Philosophical Investigations, 1963)

Specifically Wittgenstein means:

The individual words of this language are to refer to what can only be known to the person speaking; this immediate private sensation. So another person cannot understand the language. (Wittgenstein, p. 88, Philosophical Investigations, 1963)

To discuss this argument, to see if it works,  Wittgenstein asks us how words refer to sensations, or rather how do we learn about the meaning of names of sensations? One possibility is that words are connected to the primitive, the natural, expressions of the sensation used in their place.” (p. 89)  As in instinctual expressions of pain, presented as pain behavior (crying) – we are then taught other pain behavior by parents and such (pain-language). We need to ask in what way sensations are private? Wittgenstein states that only he can know if he is in pain, while others can only surmise – but of course this is not so in any meaningful sense. To say that others “know” when you are in pain happens all the time (as in your expressions of pain-behavior), though they don’t know it with the same certainty you do – but can it be said you know you are in pain? Or that, simply, you are in pain.  He states that others do not come to learn of your sensations only from behavior just as you cannot, you have them.

From here Wittgenstein asks about inner experiences, which only he can understand – how would he use words to express such? He asks, how we normally do? If his words for sensations are tied up with his natural expressions of sensation, but if this is the case his language is not private, for someone else could understand it. He asks from here, what would it be like for humans showed no pain-behavior? Teaching pain-behavior would then be impossible. Wittgenstein asks us though, what if a child could invent some pain-behavior? Would she be able to convey it to others? Wittgenstein thinks not, the child would not be able to make herself understood – for an entire series of settings in the language would need to be presupposed in order to be understood. (p. 92)

Wittgenstein states that even the ground from which to begin a private language is flawed, for example he uses the case of someone naming a sensation “S”, but even this is troublesome, as the word “sensation” is part of a common language, not one intelligible to the user alone:

So the use of this word stands in need of justification which everybody understands. – And it would not help either to say that it need not be a sensation; that when he writes “S”, he has something – and that is all that can be said. “Has” and “something” also belong to our common language. – So in the end when one is doing philosophy one gets to the point where one would like just to emit an inarticulate sound. – But such a sound is an expression only as it occurs in a particular language-game… (Wittgenstein, p. 93, Philosophical Investigations, 1963)

The justification for a sound or a word in a private language needs something  independent, as this is the very nature of justification – to say simply that you can look up the meaning of your language in your mind means you are relying on subjective justification is not reliable (how can we be sure you have the right sound associated with the right memory?). As Wittgenstein states:

Looking up a table in the imagination is no more looking up a table than the image of the result of an imagined experiment is the result of experiment. (Wittgenstein, p. 94, Philosophical Investigations, 1963)

Wittgenstein is not doubting that you have private experiences only that they mean very little to the outside world:

The essential thing about private experience is really not that each person posses his own exemplar, but that nobody knows whether other people also have this or something else. The assumption would this be possible – though unverifiable…(Wittgenstein, p. 95, Philosophical Investigations, 1963)

To clarify, Wittgenstein isn’t saying that the sensation of pain is nothing, but he isn’t saying either that it is something, his conclusion is that a nothing would serve as well as something for which nothing can be said about it, this is a grammatical conclusion.


Wittgenstein, Ludwig. (1963). “Selection. I” Trans, G. E. M. Anscombe. Philosophical Investigations. Second Ed. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. Pp. 88, 93, 94, 95,

Categories: Book Review, Philosophy
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