Private Language
Candlish (Stewart) & Wrisley (George)
Source: Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, 1996-2014
Paper - Abstract

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Authors’ Abstract

  1. The idea of a private language was made famous in philosophy by Ludwig Wittgenstein, who in §243 of "Wittgenstein (Ludwig) - Philosophical Investigations" explained it thus: “The words of this language are to refer to what can be known only to the speaker; to his immediate, private, sensations. So another cannot understand the language.”
  2. This is not intended to cover (easily imaginable) cases of recording one's experiences in a personal code, for such a code, however obscure in fact, could in principle be deciphered. What Wittgenstein had in mind is a language conceived as necessarily comprehensible only to its single originator because the things which define its vocabulary are necessarily inaccessible to others.
  3. Immediately after introducing the idea, Wittgenstein goes on to argue that there cannot be such a language. The importance of drawing philosophers' attention to a largely unheard-of notion and then arguing that it is unrealizable lies in the fact that an unformulated reliance on the possibility of a private language is arguably essential to mainstream epistemology, philosophy of mind and metaphysics from Descartes to versions of the representational theory of mind which became prominent in late twentieth century cognitive science.

  1. Overview: Wittgenstein's Argument and its Interpretations
    1.1 Recent Developments and Their Consequences
    1.2 Are Claims Affirming the Possibility of a Private Language False or Nonsense?
  2. The Significance of the Issue
  3. The Private Language Argument Expounded
    3.1 Preliminaries
    3.2 The Central Argument
    3.3 Interlude: the Rejection of Orthodoxy
    3.4 The Central Argument Continued
    3.5 Are the Orthodox Objections Met?
  4. Kripke's Sceptical Wittgenstein
    4.1 The Community View Revisited


First published Jul 26, 1996; substantive revision Sep 2, 2014

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