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What was Ludwig Wittgenstein's private language argument?

In applying his method to introspection or the reports of people's feelings, intentions, and beliefs, Wittgenstein constructed his well known and controversial "private language argument." He reasoned that because words derive their meaning from public criteria that influence correct usage, there can't be a wholly private language used to report only the private states of one person. He did not mean to claim that we do not have inner experiences, accessible only to those whose experience them, but rather that there are natural expressions of such experiences (pain, for example) that enable us to know the minds of others.

Who was O.K. Bouwsma?

Oets Kolk (O.K.) Bouwsma (1898-1978) was famous for his humorous manner of teaching Ludwig Wittgenstein's (1889-1951) ordinary language philosophy over a 50-year teaching career, most memorably at the University of Texas at Austin. He would classically expose the absurdity of philosophical claims with elaborately silly examples of the kind of world that would be necessary for them to be true or plausible. René Descartes' (1596-1650) dreaming and evil demon sources of doubt were among Bouwsma's favorites. In a course on prophecy, he lauded Wittgenstein as follows:

What is a prophet like? Wittgenstein is the nearest to a prophet I have ever known. He is a man who is like a tower, who stands high and unattached, leaning on no one. He has his own feet. He fears no man. "Nothing can hurt me!" But other men fear him. And why? Not at all because he can strike them or take their money or their good names. They fear his judgment.... [T]he acquaintance with Wittgenstein has given me some inkling as to what the power of the prophet was among his people. "Thus saith the Lord" is the token of that being high above all fear and all blandishment, fearless and feared, just and conscience. Thus saith the Lord!

Bouwsma's papers are collected in Philosophical Essays (1965), Toward a New Sensibility, (1982), Without Proof or Evidence (1984), and Wittgenstein Conversations (1949-1951). The Humanities Research center in Austin, Texas, has archived Bouwsma's notebooks and class notes.

Who was Norman Malcolm?

Norman Malcolm (1911-1990) was an American interpreter of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), perhaps even his leading U.S. advocate. He had met both Wittgenstein and G. E. Moore (1873-1958) during studies at Cambridge University, and described his association with Wittgenstein in Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir (1958). O.K. Bouwsma (1898-1978) was also an early influence.

Malcolm discussed Wittgenstein's private language argument in Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations (1954) and argued that dreams are not genuine experiences in Dreaming (1958). In Memory and Mind (1976) Malcolm analyzed philosophical and psychological ideas of memory, concluding that there was no scientific foundation for "memory traces." (By "memory trace," it was not clear what earlier thinkers had meant. Anyone can imagine different meanings for such a term, but none of them has objective, observable qualities.) He rather thought that the idea of memory traces was an example of how thought can be falsely "tempted."

What is the other minds problem in philosophy?

To the philosophically innocent, this question sounds ridiculous: "Do other people have minds?" The ordinary answer is something like, "Of course they do!" However, the philosophical problem is the theoretical one of explaining how we know that other people have minds in accord with other philosophical commitments. Thus, an intuitionist might say that we know or feel the mind of another directly. A logical positivist would have to base our knowledge of other minds on what we perceive of the physical behavior of others and justified inferences that we can make based on those perceptions. This approach generates the interesting question of whether it would matter to us if someone close to us turned out to be a robot. Insofar as language usage does not cover interactions with robots that are sophisticated enough to perfectly mimic human behavior, it's difficult to see how an ordinary language approach could solve this problem.

 
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