Is a Private Language Possible? (Wittgenstein)

In the private language sections of Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein gives several subtly distinct arguments against various accounts of a ‘private language’. The first such purportedly private language considered in this essay concerns publicly used words that are thought to refer to something privately unique to each speaker of them. Typical examples of such words are ‘pain’, ‘joy’ and ‘anger’ but some philosophers1 take this conception a step further and take all words to refer to ideas, sense-impressions, sense-data or similarly private phenomena. I intend to show, focusing mainly on sections 257 and 293 of Philosophical Investigations, that such a conception of language, and the philosophies that assume it, is incoherent and that a publicly used language could never refer to a private object. A further issue is considered with this kind of private language, illustrated in sections 257, 261 and 294, that such a language presupposes an enormous amount of ‘stage-setting’ provided by public language which cannot plausibly be provided by the individual privately. The second kind of private language considered in this essay is one that is created by an individual to refer to his own private sensations. The most important argument against the coherence of such a created language is the impossibility of successfully giving it meaning. This impossibility is shown in section 258, where it is argued that a private definition gives no normative criterion for correctness, and again in section 265 by analogy. Together these arguments demonstrate the impossibility of any sort of meaningful private language.

It is important to make clear the kind of private language considered here: “The words of this language are to refer to what only the speaker can know – to his immediate private sensations.” (Wittgenstein, 2009: §243 – emphasis added.) In this language it is not a contingent fact that the speaker is the only one capable of understanding it, like the inventor of a code who chooses not to reveal how to break it. Instead, this language would be unteachable even in principle, as there is imagined to be absolutely no publicly available resources for teacher and learner to share. We might imagine, as in the old philosophical problem of the inverted spectrum, that our colour words are logically private in this way: If when I say ‘red’ I refer to my own private sensation of red, I could not show you what I mean by ‘red’ by showing you a red object, as I see it, because I would only be introducing you to your own private sensation of red which, we imagine, could be something different (say, my blue). It is a private language of this kind which Wittgenstein argues is incoherent.

Underlying the idea of a private language, like that imagined in the inverted spectrum argument above, is the conception of language described by St. Augustine in The Confessions, which Wittgenstein characterises in the very first section of Philosophical Investigations: “Every word has a meaning. This meaning is correlated with the word. It is the object for which the word stands.” (Wittgenstein, 2009: §1) Just as nouns like ‘table’ and ‘chair’ are imagined to refer to external objects, we imagine that sensation words like ‘pain’ and ‘joy’ refer to private inner objects i.e. the speaker’s own feelings of pain or joy. Augustine imagines that the teaching of language, on this view, consists in ostensive definition: pointing or gesturing toward objects in order to form an associative connection between word and object. It is this intuitive picture of how language functions that tempts one to think a private language, and the philosophical problems it entails, is possible.

The first problem with a private language of this kind occurs because on the Augustinian conception it seems impossible that one could ever learn and communicate using public sensation words as one only has access to his own sensations. What if there were absolutely no outward manifestations of pain whatsoever? This is not to say just that there would be no natural expression, like instinctively saying ‘ouch!’, but also that no-one would even describe pain using publicly available criteria, such as saying ‘pain is the sensation when you put your hand on the hot stove’ as to say that would be to incorporate publicly recognisable words such as ‘stove’ and ‘hand’, which would amount to a non-private language. Wittgenstein imagines such a scenario in section 257:

“”What would it be like if human beings did not manifest their pains (did not groan, grimace, etc.)? Then it would be impossible to teach a child the use of the word ‘toothache’.” Well, let’s assume that the child is a genius and invents a name for the sensation by himself! – But then, of course, he couldn’t make himself understood when he used the word.”

(Wittgenstein, 2009: §257)

So in this scenario the child wants to express his toothache and so says ‘toothache’ to communicate this. He does not gesture at his mouth, or grimace, or even say the word with any particular expression that might be helpful as he does this but just utters this word which has never been used by anyone else before. Of course he will not make himself understood using a made up word in isolation of any public criteria to define it. This shows that there must be something other than the sensation itself that constitutes the meaning of ‘pain’ (and other sensation words) or else their meaning would be unteachable and incommunicable.

Alternately, and also dealt with in section 257, we might imagine that even though we can’t learn the meaning of a public word from the private case, one could mean a private object by disregarding all public considerations when using a sensation word. However, a private linguist of this kind forgets just how much public criteria is assumed in the act of meaning: “When one says “He gave a name to his sensation”, one forgets that much must be prepared in the language for mere naming to make sense.” (Wittgenstein, 2009: §257) It is a consequence of the Augustinian conception of language that “we think that naming is merely a matter of attaching a name to a thing (be it an object, a shape, a colour, or a pain) and that the entire grammar of the name flows from the nature of the thing correlated with it.” (Hacker, 1990: p116) The private linguist, under the spell of this view, thinks that, by simply correlating a word with a sensation, he understands how the word is to be used, “as if what we did next were given in the mere act of naming.” (Wittgenstein, 2009: §27) However, naming is not as simple as the Augustinian picture assumes. Different types of names for things, though they may all be called ‘names’, can have diverse rules for their use. Naming a person, for example, has a use in the activities of “calling him, talking to him, announcing him, introducing him, attributing responsibility or liability to him, etc.” (Hacker, 1990: p116) and it is in these activities that the name has a use. This use determines the grammar of these kinds of names and thus the rules for correct use. In contrast, the name of an inanimate object, for example a table, is not used in any of these practices and so it makes no grammatical sense to use the name of table in the activity of calling it as to call someone by name is usually done to get their attention. It is impossible to get the attention of a table however and thus we don’t use the names of inanimate objects in the activity of calling them. Instead the name ‘table’ is useful as a name for different reasons. The names of sensations again have different uses and different grammar, e.g. in helping a doctor make a diagnosis or in complimenting a chef on their cooking, and it seems implausible that the private linguist could understand how a sensation word functions without such public examples to guide his use. Wittgenstein considers a private linguist who wants to name a pain of his ‘pain’ to get the word to mean his own private sensation of pain. By naming it thus, “the grammar of the word “pain” is what has been prepared here; it indicates the post where the new word is stationed.” (Wittgenstein, 2009: §257) The grammar, and thus rules for application, of ‘pain’ is determined by public examples but such a private linguist forgets this when in the mindset of the Augustinian conception. Because the rules for his use of ‘pain’ implies the public grammar of ‘pain’ he has not successfully it the logically private meaning he imagines.

To avoid this problem and salvage his private language, the private linguist may abandon calling a sensation a ‘pain’, and instead call it a ‘something’. He might imagine that ‘something’, being a seemingly general word, has no publicly determined rules for correct use. However, as the following examples show, the public use of ‘something’, and therefore grammar, is restricted to a certain kind of thing depending on the context it occurs:

“‘Something happened in the street just now’ determines an event; ‘Something is at the back of the drawer’ determines a physical object. ‘Something crossed my mind’ determines a thought or idea; He did something astonishing’ determines an act; ‘I felt something in my leg’ determines a sensation (a twinge or pain) or bodily state (a swelling or a lump); ‘He told me something interesting’ determines a piece of information; ‘I thought I heard something’ determines a noise – in short, the use of ‘something’ commits one to something, not to nothing.”

(Hacker, 1990: p209)

Presumably the use of ‘something’, as the private linguist intends it, would not be correctly used in the case ‘something is at the back of the drawer’. This shows how the grammar of a word he imagines is understood only by private ostensive definition is, in fact, determined by public rules for the correct use of something. For him to insist his use of ‘something’ is completely general and free of grammatical assumptions from public language is tantamount to admitting that he does not know what he means because he could therefore mean “money, or debts,.. an empty till” (Wittgenstein, 2009: §294), all these things, or nothing whatsoever and there is no way that the private linguist could say otherwise. If he is unable to say whether his private object is any of these things or none of them, as must be the case if his use of ‘something’ here makes no assumptions about the kind of thing it is, “then what seduces [him] into saying, in spite of that, that he has something before him?” (ibid.) There would clearly be no rules governing the use of ‘something’ here and therefore it would be meaningless. Finally, the private linguist may resort to emitting an ‘inarticulate sound’ (Wittgenstein, 2009: §261) to characterise the use of his word but, again, its use would need to be characterised and it seems this can only become coherent by appeal to a public language.

So far we have seen that apparently private words are incoherent in the absence of anything public. And just how much more there must be to sensation words other than the private sensation is illustrated in section 293. The conclusion of section 293 is that the sensation, far from exhausting the meaning of the word we want to associate it with, is actually completely irrelevant to it. To illustrate this, Wittgenstein asks the reader to imagine a society where everyone has a small box with something inside. The people call the thing inside the box a ‘beetle’. No one is allowed to look inside anyone’s box but their own. Nevertheless, the people still have a use for the word ‘beetle’. What does this word mean? Does it directly refer to the object in the box? Clearly not because in this scenario we might imagine everyone has something completely unique in their box – it could even be that the object constantly changes. But if the object did constantly change this would not change what the word ‘beetle’ means, because no one can see into anyone else’s box. So, the object itself must be irrelevant to the meaning of ‘beetle’. In this analogy the box represents the mind and the ‘beetle’ the private sensation. What the analogy shows is that “if we construe the grammar of the expression of sensation on the model of ‘object and name’ [i.e. the Augustinian conception], the object drops out of consideration as irrelevant.” (Wittgenstein, 2009: §293) Sensation words like ‘pain’ have a public use that can be understood by many different people and this shows that the meaning of such words is not completely restricted to a private object. When we recognise that this meaning wouldn’t change even if every user of the word ‘pain’ thought of a different inner sensation when using ‘pain’, it becomes clear that the inner sensation has nothing to with the meaning of the word at all, and further the inner sensation couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the meaning of the word.

The conclusion to draw at this point is that if we can talk about something in public language, then it can not be private because the private object would be irrelevant. A constantly changing object, or even no object at all, would do exactly the same job as a private object we cannot speak of. The contrapositive to this claim is that, if something is indeed private, then we cannot talk about it in a public language and this is shown conclusively in sections 257 and, particularly, 293. These arguments may be interpreted as supporting the view that ‘pain is pain behaviour’ and so someone who successfully conceals any outer expression of pain is not, in fact, in pain or that someone exhibiting pain behaviour with the intention to deceive is actually in pain. This is obviously absurd, as it is perfectly possible for someone to disguise their inner goings-on, and so would seemingly constitute a reductio ad absurdum argument against the preceding discussion. However, Wittgenstein does not intend this consequence and readily admits the possibility of deception. The interlocutor characterises the behaviourist view by saying ‘”So you are saying that the word ‘pain’ really means crying?”’ to which he replies: “On the contrary: the verbal expression of pain replaces crying, it does not describe it.” (Wittgenstein, 2009: §244 – emphasis added) Just because we can deceive, does not imply that the link between ‘pain’ and pain-behaviour is akin to the relationship between redness and sweetness in that “sometimes what is red is sweet, and sometimes not.” (Kenny, 1973: p183)What Wittgenstein is saying is that, if everyone, in all cases, masked pain then we would have no use for the word ‘pain’. The criterion for whether ‘pain’ is applied correctly is, in public language, settled by behaviour and not appeal to an inner object. Similarly, if all examples of pain behaviour were done to deceive then the word ‘pain’ would have a different use to that which we put it to, indeed it wouldn’t be that we could even call such behaviour ‘deceptive’ as there is no genuine case against which to compare. This is not to deny the reality of pain qualia just that it provides the criterion for correct application of the word ‘pain’. Thus I cannot compare my pain (the sensation) with another’s pain because the two instances of ‘pain’ have different criteria for application. I can only express this kind of pain and cannot be said to infer knowledge from introspection on it. Whether there could even be such a criteria in the private case is considered later.

Even if publicly used words can’t be used to refer to private sensations it might still be imagined that an individual could create his own private language to refer to them, despite the fact that he could not use it to communicate with anyone but himself, and that this language would be meaningful. Wittgenstein also rejects this possibility. In section 258 he imagines one way we might imagine such a language could be created: recording a sign, ‘S’, in a diary each time the sensation we want to be the reference of this sign is felt. Though this is not a typical ostensive definition it serves the same function as to forge a connection between word and object: “Can I point to the sensation? – Not in the ordinary sense. But I speak, or write the sign down, and at the same time I concentrate my attention on the sensation – and so, as it were, point to it inwardly.” (Wittgenstein, 2009: §258) We might imagine that this establishes a link in my mind between the sign ‘S’ and the corresponding sensation over time and that each time I am giving myself a definition of ‘S’: “A definition serves to lay down the meaning of a sign, doesn’t it? – Well, that is done precisely by concentrating my attention; for in this way I commit to memory the connection between the sign and the sensation.” (ibid.)

However, in the same section Wittgenstein expresses doubt that such a ‘ceremony’ could give a sign meaning:

“But “I commit it to memory” can only mean: this process brings it about that I remember the connection correctly in the future. But in the present case, I have no criterion of correctness. One would like to say: whatever is going to seem correct to me is correct. And that only means that here we can’t talk about ‘correct’.”

(Wittgenstein, 2009: §258)

If a privately defined word is lacking in any criteria to determine whether it has been correctly or incorrectly applied then it is clear that such a word would be meaningless. A word without any normative rules for application is completely useless as it would be incapable of expressing anything whatsoever. The speaker could be expressing literally anything but could also mean nothing at all. Quite why there is no criterion of correctness in the above case is not immediately clear however as the temptation is to say that the meaning of ‘S’ is limited to the sensation. One account of this argument, the verificationist interpretation, maintains that Wittgenstein is expressing scepticism regarding the reliability of memory. Committing the connection between ‘S’ and the sensation to memory cannot be said to provide a criterion of correctness, we might think, because it could be that the diarist is incorrectly remembering the connection and mistaking, say, ‘S’ for ‘T’. If this were happening then there’d be no external checks to correct his misremembering and so whatever would seem correct to him would be the only determining ground for correct application of ‘S’. Because it is possible that the diarist could misremember the connection, and that he wouldn’t be aware of doing so if he did, the private linguist could never be sure that what he means now by ‘S’ is the same as what he meant by ‘S’ in the past.

If memory scepticism of this kind is what Wittgenstein is proposing in the private language sections then a problem with this interpretation is that the scepticism applies equally to a public language as a private one. Though it may seem less likely, it is possible that the entire community of language users could simultaneously forget the meaning of a public word like ‘chair’ and, in such a case, there would be no way of telling whether this had happened, just like in the private case. Because of this, one could never be certain that he means the same thing each time he uses a word, and so we would have to remain sceptical about the possibility of all meaning. Further, it makes Wittgenstein’s claim that “in the present case, I have no criterion of correctness” (Wittgenstein, 2009: §258) difficult to understand because, surely, there is a criterion of correctness: ‘S’ is used correctly if the speaker means the sensation S and falsely if he means something else. Whether or not it is possible the speaker knows he has used ‘S’ correctly doesn’t matter; there is such a thing as using ‘S’ correctly.

Rather than saying that what you mean now by ‘S’ may be different from what you previously meant by ‘S’, Wittgenstein appears to be making a stronger claim that a language privately defined in this way could not even acquire meaning in the first place – that ‘S’ never has criterion for correct and incorrect application. “Scepticism about memory requires that it makes sense to talk of remembering incorrectly. But here there is no correctness or incorrectness; only that we sometimes write ‘S’ and sometimes do not.” (Hacker, 1990: p122) Firstly, if I want to define ‘S’ as this (meaning the sensation that I’m currently experiencing) then there is no criterion of correctness here as the truth of propositions such as “this is S” will be inseparable from the meaning of ‘S’ and so “whatever is going to seem correct to me is correct.” (Wittgenstein, 2009: §258) I can’t be wrong in identifying this as ‘S’ because I am calling it ‘S’ for the first time! How, then, could it be that I’m right in identifying this as ‘S’ when identification implies that I had an idea of ‘S’ before I used it? The following analogy makes clear how absurd the imagined criterion of correctness in such a case is: “‘This is S’ is related to the sensation which it purports to identify like a yard-stick which grows or shrinks to the length of the object to be measured.” (Kenny, 1973: p196) If there were such a yard-stick that grew to the length of the object being measured then everything, from an ant to the entire universe, would be reported to be 1 yard long. What use could be made of reports made against this yard-stick if such reports could not even determine such a basic facts as ‘an ant is smaller than the universe’? Similarly, a report of a measurement in which the unit of measurement is the very thing that is being measured, such as someone saying “I know I’m this tall” and laying a hand on his head to show this (Wittgenstein, 2009: §279), would be an entirely useless report. Such reports will always have the appearance of being true, as their very content guarantees this, but they are entirely without application. If whatever seems correct is correct in the case of ‘this is S’, as in the cases ‘I know I’m this tall’ and ‘x is 1 yard long’, then it makes no sense to talk about correct because the criterion for correctness can constantly change so that the proposition is always true.

Another tactic the private linguist may try to give ‘S’ meaning is to define it as the sensation I named ‘S’ in the past. This separates the truth of propositions about ‘S’ from their meaning as it is seems possible that I could correctly identify ‘S’, if I do in fact identify the same sensation I named ‘S’ in the past, but also possible that I might get the connection wrong, say, if I mistake ‘S’ for something other than the sensation I previously called ‘S’. The meaning of ‘S’ is imagined to be fixed by the sensation I previously called ‘S’ and so this sample is supposed to provide the rule by which correct and incorrect application of ‘S’ is to be measured. A meaning that is fixed in this way, i.e. by a private sample, is analogous to that described in the following extract:

“Let us imagine a table, something like a dictionary, that exists only in our imagination. A dictionary can be used to justify the translation of a word X by a word Y. But are we also to call it a justification if such a table is to be looked up only in the imagination? – “Well, yes; then it is a subjective justification.” – But justification consists in appealing to an independent authority.”

(Wittgenstein, 2009: §265).

The idea that there could be ‘subjective justification’ of this kind is flawed. In the same section Wittgenstein’s interlocutor proposes an example of such justification in a situation where someone is trying to remember the time of departure of a train from the station. He calls to mind how the timetable looked to check whether he has remembered the time correctly. In such a case, what provides the criteria of correctness? Surely not the memory itself because “if the mental image of the timetable could not itself be tested for correctness, how could it confirm the correctness of the first memory?” (ibid.) The memory must be the correct memory and correctness, in this case, is determined by the actual timetable, not the memory of it. This example is analogous to the imagined criteria of correctness when using a privately defined word in that such ‘subjective justification’ is lacking external criteria. A mental table of the kind described above is an appropriate model for how the criteria of correctness in privately defined words would work.

“To make use of such a table one must call up the memory-sample that belongs alongside ‘S’ and not the one which belongs to ‘T’. But as this table exists only in the imagination, there can be no real looking up to see which sample goes with ‘S’. All there can be is remembering which sample goes with ‘S’, i.e. remembering what ‘S’ means. But this is precisely what the table was supposed to confirm. In other words, the memory of the meaning of ‘S’ is being used to confirm itself.”

(Kenny, 1973: p193)

Though it may initially seem that giving oneself a private ostensive definition provides a criterion for correctness in the same way an ordinary ostensive definition does, the lack of external criteria means that the memory of the meaning of ‘S’ is the only thing to fix what I mean by ‘S’. But a memory can’t fix meaning in the same way, say, a timetable printed on paper fixes the correct departure time of a train or publicly available samples can fix the meaning of public words like ‘table’. Instead we have a situation, similar to that described above, where the meaning of ‘S’ is ‘fixed’ by a criterion of correctness that could constantly change and so is not fixed at all. ‘This is ‘S’ will always appear to be true but only because the very meaning of ‘S’, or lack thereof, guarantees this! ‘S’ would therefore be a meaningless sign because there is no way of using it correctly or incorrectly.

In conclusion, a logically private language, the words of which refer to the sensations or other mental phenomena of the individual speaking it, is an incoherent idea for a several reasons. The first way one might conceive such a language is if it were imagined that ordinary sensation words refer to the speaker’s own sensations. This is a temptation of the Augustinian conception of how language works as it is imagined that some kind of object is required to be the reference of sensation words because all words are treated as ordinary nouns. The reference, and therefore meaning, of sensation words, on this view, would be logically private because public communication of them requires another to have the same phenomenal experience as the speaker, which is impossible. However, if this were the whole story, it would entail that sensations were incommunicable, as in the scenario described in section 257. Because we can meaningfully communicate our sensations we must allow that the criterion for correctly learning and applying sensation words must be determined, at least in part, by something public. Section 293 shows that the only criterion to determine correct use of a sensation word, such as ‘pain’, is by appeal to public phenomena. This is made clear when one considers that constantly changing the private object that apparently corresponds to the word ‘pain’ would have no bearing on how it is used.

A further point that raises doubts about the coherence of a private language is articulated in section 257 and again in sections 261 and 294. Each attempt to characterise a use for a privately defined word, like ‘S’, reveals implicit assumptions as to the kind of function it is intended to serve and these functions are captured in the grammar of similar such words used in public language. For example, the meaning of naming is not uniform across all different kinds of names. The private linguist presumably has in mind the kind of name as used to name sensations and not, say, that of inanimate objects. Sensation names have a distinct grammar which determines correct and incorrect use that is too complicated for an individual to create in isolation and so the use of ‘S’ “stands in need of a justification which everybody understands.” (Wittgenstein, 2009: §261). Any attempt to articulate ‘S’ using public words, e.g. ‘something’, will either suffer the same problems or have no rules determining correct use. The private linguist cannot even utter an inarticulate noise to characterise the grammatical function of ‘S’ because this too requires a use to determine correct and incorrect application. It is highly dubious whether such a use could be created privately.

If I wanted to refer to my private sensations, if only to communicate with myself, I might imagine I could create a language to do so. The criterion for correct application of my symbol, ‘S’, is imagined to be fixed by private ostensive definition of ‘S’. Saying “this [meaning the current sensation I’m experiencing] is ‘S'” to myself has no criterion of correctness however because there is nothing external to the proposition against which to compare ‘this’ and ‘S’ in a manner that could determine whether the statement is true or false. Similarly, if I try to fix the meaning of ‘S’ by appeal to what I previously named ‘S’, the previous sample isn’t really fixed in a way that provides a genuine criterion of correctness. Though my memory may appear to do this, we might imagine by a mental dictionary of the kind described in section 265, this table is not fixed by anything but my memory and so “whatever is going to seem correct to me is correct.” (Wittgenstein, 2009: §258) Without a genuine criterion of correctness a word is meaningless and so the private linguist fails to confer meaning on ‘S’. This is the most devastating argument against a private language. It shows that a logically private language is, even in principle, incoherent.


1 E.g. Locke: “Words in their primary or immediate Signification, stand for nothing, but the Ideas in the Mind of him that uses them” (Locke, 2008: Book 3 chapter 2)


Hacker, P.M.S. (1990) Wittgenstein: Meaning and Mind. Basil Blackwell Ltd.

Kenny, Anthony. (1973) Wittgenstein. The Penguin Press.

Locke, John. (2008) An Essay concerning Human Understanding. Oxford University Press.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. (2009) Philosophical Investigations. Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Leave a Reply