Thursday, June 06, 2013

Wittgenstein's Private Language Argument

The entry at the SEP.

The PLA is one of the most famous--and, to my mind, oddest--arguments of 20th-century more-or-less analytic philosophy. It's almost impossible to even state the argument without running up against interpretive controversy. But, very roughly, the argument (if, indeed, it is an argument...) is suppose to indicate the impossibility of a "private language." A private language is not like a secret code, but, rather, something like a language that is in-principle understandable/speakable by only one person, (largely?) on account of the fact that its referential terms refer to intrinsically private objects, the contents of the speaker's mind (basically: the speaker's sensations).

The argument is extrinsically interesting because it would apparently show that solipsism is incoherent, and would raise serious problems for versions of empiricism that hold that we have indubitable knowledge of our own sensations.

This was the first major philosophical argument that I learned about in any real depth, back as an undergrad. I find myself returning to it as part of the relativism project, though I'm mostly interested in a more refined version of the argument than can be called the solitary language argument. On some interpretations of the PLA, it also rules out the possibility than an individual isolated from a linguistic community could follow rules or speak a language. That interpretation is rooted in some comments of Wittgenstein's, but also shows up in the Ayer-Rhees dispute, and, most notoriously, is articulated by Kripke in Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language. The SLA is extrinsically interesting because it has a bunch of implications for the realism-antirealism dispute.

Anyway, the PLA and SLA are possibly worth knowing about. I'm rather ambivalent about Wittgenstein, FWIW. I'm certainly no groupie, but I'm also not a hater. Dude is rather interesting, IMO, and I've spent an unusual amount of time on his stuff. I probably wouldn't put him high on the list of philosophers one ought to know about...but he might very well be on the list somewhere...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The PLA gets really interesting when you consider the possibility of a collective private language. More on that in my article: More details may be found in my new book:

3:13 AM  
Blogger Philolinguist said...

You may also be interested in the idea of a collective private language. There's been almost no research on that. I published an article on it last year, and its implications for philosophical methodology (erratum: on pgs. 60-61, condition b) is redundant). Any feedback is most welcome. Full-text is at A revised and extended version is available at

7:03 AM  

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