Wittgenstein's conception of philosophy and the problem of private language

Bitar, Byron Ivan, Corcoran Department of Philosophy, University of Virginia
Thomas, George, University of Virginia

Although a fair amount has been written about Wittgenstein's concern with private language, very little of it has been illuminating. The reason for this is "that the issue has been treated in isolation from Wittgenstein's conception of philosophy. To remedy this, I have developed Wittgenstein's discussion of private language within the context of his view of philosophy.

In his later work, Wittgenstein considered his task to be therapeutic. Philosophy, as traditionally practiced, has sought to discern the essence of basic phenomena of human life, such as time, thought, knowledge, language, virtue, etc. Due to the difficulty of finding an adequate definiĀ¬ tion of these phenomena, their essence has been seen as something hidden behind the gross and often misleading appearances of everyday life. Attempts to articulate the hidden essence have resulted in puzzles and odd doctrines. Wittgenstein's aim is to resolve such philosophical perplexities and confusions.

Wittgenstein believes the issues are conceptual in character; e.g., about the concepts 'time', 'thought', 'knowledge', etc. In other words, the problems are linguistic, about our use of the terms 'time', 'thought', 'knowledge', etc. Thus, a therapeutic philosophical investigation is a conceptual and grammatical investigation. Its concern is conceptual confusion; its aim, conceptual clarity.

In treating philosophical quandaries and theories, Wittgenstein employs numerous therapeutic techniques. Among these are developing a philosophical doctrine to the point where its implausibility shows, becoming aware of the situations in which various philosophical statements seem plausible, imagining the ordinary use of philosophical statements, conducting mental experiments to get free of philosophical pictures, pointing out methodological mistakes, suggesting fruitful questions to replace misleading ones, citing important overlooked facts, and examining the ordinary use of words.

In keeping with this, Wittgenstein's concern with private language is a concern with a queer philosophical picture of language. The picture is that the meaning of words is private to each individual. Communication via language is problematic, if not impossible.

Commentators, rather than seeing Wittgenstein as attempting to therapeutically criticize this picture, have considered him to be advancing odd doctrines of his own. He has been presented as denying that words can refer to sensations, that sensations can be recognized, and even that sensations exist. This, however, is not the case, and goes against his purpose in even considering the problem.

The philosophical picture of private language, treated by Wittgenstein, arises from a theory of meaning. The meaning of a word is seen as an object separate from the word. The mind of each individual correlates the word with the object. This theory of meaning can be found in Bertrand Russell's works in his logical atomist period, and Ludwig Wittgenstein's own Notebooks and Tractatus.

On this theory, when the object is private, either ontologically or epistemologically, the result is privacy of meaning; only the person correlating the word with the obĀ¬ ject knows what the word means. This privacy of meaning applies to Russellian sense-data, which are ontologically private. Russell saw this. It also applies, it would seem, to sensations, colors, mental acts, concepts, and universals, objects which are epistemologically private.

In treating this picture of private language, Wittgenstein employs a number of therapies. Through them, our attention is focused on language's social setting. We see afresh that words are used to accomplish cultural goals. Their application has public criteria which we learn. We are taught the uses of our words; we don't invent them for ourselves. Their meanings are public. Our language is not a private language.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

Thesis originally deposited on 2016-03-14 in version 1.28 of Libra. This thesis was migrated to Libra2 on 2017-03-23 16:34:28.

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