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Published December 1994 | metadata_only
Journal Article

Wittgenstein on private language: Exorcising the ghost from the machine


[Introduction] Wittgenstein writes in the preface of his Philosophical Investigations: "I should not like my writing to spare other people the trouble of thinking. But, if possible, to stimulate someone to thoughts of his own" (p. vi). If this is indeed the goal of the Philosophical Investigations, then few sections can claim more success than those that constitute the so-called private language argument. This argument has received a great deal of attention over the three and a half decades since its publication; the number and diversity of interpretations to be found in the secondary literature are daunting. Yet the enigmatic private language argument has defied definitive interpretation, and remains a focus of philosophical debate. To develop a new interpretation of the argument is no small task; I hope, however, to make it a smaller one by restricting my goals in a number of respects. Rather than starting from scratch, I will stand upon the shoulders of giants, drawing heavily upon the interpretations of Saul Kripke and Crispin Wright. My strategy will be to show that on both of these accounts, the argument - or rather, the conclusion - attributed to Wittgenstein is too weak to undermine the possibility of private language. Nonetheless, an adequate interpretation can be developed by preserving the appropriate features of each account. The disagreements over the private language argument have included such fundamental points of controversy as the location of the private language argument within the Philosophical Investigations. Traditionally, the private language argument is taken to be found in the paragraphs following §243, coming to a climax in §§258-260. By contrast, Kripke - and, for very different reasons, McDowell - has taken the heart of the private language argument to be found in the paragraphs preceding §201. According to Kripke, the impossibility of a private language follows as a simple corollary of the arguments concerning rule-following contained in these earlier passages. The paragraphs following §243, be concludes, simply rehearse an already familiar line of argument. There is, however, one source of general agreement: §§258-260 present an argument to the effect that in an attempt to identify private sensations, there is no distinction to be found between an identification's seeming to be right, and its being right.

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© 1994 Springer. I would like to thank John McDowell and Derrick Darby for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper.

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August 20, 2023
August 20, 2023