How Private Are Our Private Thoughts?

How Private Are Our Private Thoughts?

Kellie Zhao

Kellie Zhao

I was having a conversation with a friend the other week when he, struggling to formulate a response, said something that gave me pause: “I know what I'm thinking, I just can't put it into words.”

My friend is not alone in feeling this way. Many of us use a similar rationale when we find ourselves at a loss for words to express the thoughts we have. We know what we mean, even if we sometimes have trouble articulating it.

However, several philosophers in the 20th century have called into question the validity of this reasoning. Do we really have fully developed ideas independently of our ability to communicate them to another person? Is such a confidence in private thoughts justified? What is at stake in questions like these is whether an individual can have private thoughts independent of language, or whether one requires a social community to even make language and thought possible.

Below I examine the decisive contribution of one such philosopher: Ludwig Wittgenstein. In his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein defends the social character of language and thought by arguing against the possibility for an individual to devise a private language based solely on their own sensations. Wittgenstein’s claims carry great consequences for our conception of subjectivity. Indeed, it seems we are far less linguistically capable on our own than philosophers have previously thought.

To understand how Wittgenstein objects to an ‘essentially private language,’ it useful to see how Wittgenstein departs from his teacher, Bertrand Russell. In The Philosophy of Logical Atomism, Russell contends that language can be broken down into ‘logical atoms’ — basic words which correspond directly with the most basic objects of the world, what Russell calls ‘simples’. One comes to know these simples through the process of ‘acquaintance,’ whereby one experiences a sensation and names it, and thereby weds both mind and language to basic units of the world. For example, one experiences the sense-datum ‘red,’ names it ‘red,’ and upon storing the word ‘red’ in their lexicon has constructed a logical atom of language that refers directly to a building block of reality. According to Russell, all of language can be reduced to these constructions of logical atomic signifiers that refer directly to signified ‘simples’ of reality.

The fact that one names a sensation means that one has reacted correctly to such a sensation, not that one possesses any knowledge of the ‘thing in itself’.

Of course, Russell believes there are other aspects to language, such as words we come to know by ‘description,’ words we learn from conversing with others. After all, most of the words we learn, whether ‘Egypt,’ ‘Attila the Hun,’ or ‘Transcendental Deduction,’ we first learn through other people, not through our own experience. Russell’s point in his Philosophy of Logical Atomism is that though language consists of many words we know by ‘description,’ those words can be reduced to those which at least someone knows by ‘acquaintance.’

With an outline of Russell’s philosophy of logical atomism in the background, we can gather a better sense of the private language Wittgenstein has in mind. In his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein alludes to “a language in which a person could write down or give vocal expression to his inner experiences — his feelings, moods, and the rest — for his private use.” This private language relies on two abilities: (1) to perceive one’s “private experiences,” and (2) to use words whose meanings are only available to a single user — “So another person cannot understand the language.” For Wittgenstein, this language is called into use when one attempts to “keep a diary about the recurrence of a certain sensation.” Each time the journalist experiences a given Sensation, they mark ‘S’ in their calendar to denote the sensation. It is this notion of a private language manifested in the diary of sensations that Wittgenstein dismantles. For perhaps Wittgenstein sees in the diary of sensations the foundational moment of Russell’s theory of acquaintance — when something is presented to me and I name it, thereby internalizing a basic piece of reality (a ‘logical atom’) as knowledge.* The question of whether or not one can maintain a private language emerges from the argument Wittgenstein takes up against Russell.

When Wittgenstein objects to a private language, he objects to the two abilities that render a private language possible: namely, that (1) one has exclusive knowledge of a private sensation; and that (2) one can use words to refer to these sensations that only the user understands. As Wittgenstein does not present his arguments systematically, we might organize his objections into three categories: one epistemological, which contests the notion that one can know sensations; another ontological, which challenges the existence of a sensation prior to linguistic conditioning; and a third based on Wittgenstein’s understanding of language, that a single user cannot conceive of a new linguistic scheme without having recourse to how they learned to use public language; and that a single linguist could not apply their own terms meaningfully. We will proceed with the epistemological, then the ontological, and finally the linguistic.

Wittgenstein’s first argument against Russell’s notion of acquaintance calls us to reconsider what takes place during Russell’s foundational epistemological moment. Upon confrontation with a certain sensation, the private linguist inscribes the sign ‘S’ into their diary to signify this sensation. An earlier example of this foundational moment can be found in §239, where Wittgenstein explains how signification works by referring to the relationship between the word ‘red’ and the color ‘red.’ According to Wittgenstein, “Red means the color that occurs to me when I hear the word ‘red’”– would be a definition. Not an explanation of what it is to use a word as a name.” According to Wittgenstein, words indicate; they do not provide any “explanation of the essence” of that which is indicated. The fact that one names a sensation means that one has reacted correctly to such a sensation, not that one possesses any knowledge of the ‘thing in itself’. Similarly, Wittgenstein elaborates that “I cannot be said to learn of sensations. I have them.” The subject may have sensations and indicate their presence, but this signification reveals no knowledge of its object. Sensations can be referred to, but they cannot be known in themselves.

Words acquire meaning from having their application policed by other users — an extra-subjective standard of corrigibility.

Another way Wittgenstein challenges the possibility of a language of private sensation is to abolish the concept of ‘private sensation’ altogether. As Wittgenstein demonstrates in §244, one becomes aware of their sensations as they develop linguistically. A baby cries when it is in pain, but as it grows older, its parents teach it more complex ways to relate to and express its pain. Thus, the very attunement to one’s inner life is already a learned social behavior — the notion of a sensation as we use it does not exist prior to our language which calls it such. Hence, Wittgenstein likens the experience of sensation to playing solitaire — one is ostensibly alone with one’s object of contemplation, but one has already learned the rules of relating to sensation from public language. When one is linguistically capable, sensations are not simply there calling to us; their very relation to us is already something situated by our language. Public language is what makes ‘private sensation’ possible.

Wittgenstein’s subsequent arguments focus on the linguistic aspect of a language of sensations. Here Wittgenstein argues against (1) the possibility of creating a private language; and (2) the ability of a single user of a language to use words meaningfully.

Wittgenstein’s first linguistic objection follows from his ontological critique of a ‘private sensation.’ One cannot devise a language for the phenomenon of a private sensation if one’s notion of a private sensation is already learned from a public language. As Wittgenstein puts it, “‘Sensation’ is a word of our common language, not one intelligible to me alone.” Even if one were to create new words to refer to sensations, one has already learned how to use words from a public language. Hence Wittgenstein’s rhetorical question: “Is it to be assumed that you invent the technique of using the word; or that you found it ready-made?” Linguistic cognition — the act of applying linguistic terms — has its roots in our public language. Just as the word ‘sensation’ is originally public, so too the process of thinking in language is originally public.

Wittgenstein next contests the ability of a private linguist to use their terms meaningfully. Pace Wittgenstein, an individual cannot be the sole determiner of meaning. If one committed signs for certain sensations to memory, there is no telling whether or not one will recall the meaning of that sign in the future. A private language has “no criterion for correctness” — no recourse to an independent authority to justify their use of a term — and as Wittgenstein emphasizes, “justification consists in appealing to an independent authority.” Thus, words acquire meaning from having their application policed by other users — an extra-subjective standard of corrigibility. If a private linguist has no possibility of making an error, they have no possibility of asserting anything meaningfully.

Curiously, Wittgenstein entertains an argument which has the potential to redeem a criterion for meaning within a private language. He describes an example of someone who takes their blood pressure on a manometer, and associates rising blood pressure with a given sensation. Yet the criterion for confirming the experience of the sensation has become publicly available; whether or not one perceives the particular sensation “correctly” is irrelevant. Wittgenstein maintains that an individual alone cannot enforce the proper application of their terms. And when the criterion for meaning is no longer dependent on the individual, the language is no longer private. Thus, not only is the very practice of language a publicly derived activity, but even if one were left to one’s own linguistic devises, one would not be able to meaningfully maintain any language.

We have seen how Wittgenstein challenges Russell’s notion of acquaintance by devising an example which rests on the same epistemological and linguistic assumptions that Russell does — namely that knowledge and experience of sensation and use of language are each a private affair — and demonstrating the impossibility of such an example. Wittgenstein concludes that sensations are not known in themselves — we merely use words to indicate when certain sensations come upon us — and that sensations are not private, for though our attunement to inner sensation is a solitary action, it is a socially learned disposition. Language is also not a private affair, for an individual user of a term has no criteria by which to measure the accuracy of an applied term, and because the cognitive substructure of language is derived from social interaction.


* There are a couple of reasons to suggest that Wittgenstein is in direct dialogue with Russell: In §239, Wittgenstein uses the same example as Russell — that of seeing red — but comes to a different conclusion; in §253 Wittgenstein objects to indication by uttering “this” as a meaningful designation; and in §298 Wittgenstein objects to pointing “to a sensation” as an informative source of knowledge. All these examples are foundational epistemological moments for Russell — they are moments in which a subject becomes acquainted with basic units of knowledge (‘simples’)

Cornel West on the Academy, Activism, and the Purpose of Philosophy

Cornel West on the Academy, Activism, and the Purpose of Philosophy

Achille Varzi on Philosophy and the Academy

Achille Varzi on Philosophy and the Academy