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11 The Private Language Argument and the Philosophy of Psychology


The essentiality of such a language is an inward pointing (ostension) referring ... And an individual cannot be the only arbiter of the correctness of her own usage. ... – PowerPoint PPT presentation

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Title: 11 The Private Language Argument and the Philosophy of Psychology

11 The Private Language Argument and the
Philosophy of Psychology
Private Language
  • A plausible example of a private language would
    be our language for sensations.
  • Why? Because is through introspection that we
    grasp the essence of our particular psychological
  • The essentiality of such a language is an inward
    pointing (ostension) referring to our immediate
    (private) sensations.

  • Eight main arguments against the idea of a
    private language.
  • See Wilson, B. 1998. Wittgensteins
    Philosophical Investigations. Edinburgh UP

  • 1. The Consequence Argument
  • A private definition is not a real definition of
    a world, for it is impossible for it to have a
    practical consequence, i.e. a genuine practical
  • Let say that I name S a given sensation How
    can S have a practical use?

  • 2. The Stage-Setting Argument
  • There is a gap between knowing a correlation and
    possessing a definition.
  • One could not use S as a name unless one
    already possesses a language in which S has
    already a role.

  • Privately established correlations could not be
    the basis of a language because they could count
    as definitions only for someone who already has a

  • 3. The Practice Argument
  • A person could not obey a rule only once.
  • And an individual cannot be the only arbiter of
    the correctness of her own usage.

  • 4. The Interpretation Argument
  • Without a degree of regularity, of correlations
    between utterances and action, there is nothing
    we can call a language.

  • So in the case of an agent writing S in her own
    diary we do not find the required regularity.
  • Hence S would not be a sign of a language and,
    therefore, a private language cannot be possible.

  • 5. The Identification Argument
  • If a private language were to exist a criterion
    of identity for my sensation would be needed.
  • How do I know that my last week headache is the
    same as this week headache without mastering the
    word headache?

  • 6. The Verificationist Argument
  • If a private language were possible, a private
    language user would be required to check each
    time she uses S whether or not it means the
    same today as it meant yesterday.
  • That is, for an appropriate use of S it would
    be necessary to be able to check any present
    utterance against the original definition if
    this check is impossible, S is meaningless.

  • 7. The Beetle-in-the-box Argument
  • If I name what I have in my box beetle and you
    name what you have in your box beetle, how do
    we know what we are naming the same thing?
  • This also suggests that the language of
    sensations cannot be understood on the model of
    the name-object relation.

  • 8. The Use Argument
  • Questions about meaning can often be replaced by
    questions about use.
  • Meaning and understanding do not consist in any
    experience of fitness or mental act of grasping.

  • They have to be understood as practical
  • As such meanings do not have to be reified as
    abstract entities
  • E.g. what gets named by a numerical) or mental
    entities (e.g. what gets named by a colour or
    sensations word).

  • General remarks against the possibility of a
    private language
  • In looking at how we teach a child the world
    pain, Wittgenstein draws our attention to the
    fact that we teach the use of the word without
    ever attempting to direct the childs attention

  • We train the child in the use/exploit of a
    linguistic technique which enables her to express
    what she feels, not merely in cries and
    exclamations, but in articulate language.
  • The verbal expression of pain replaces crying
    and does not describe it. (PI 244)

  • The grammar of pain.
  • The connection between the word pain and the
    relevant sensation is not secured by an inner
    ostension, but by the fact that this word is used
    as a mean to express what it is felt.
  • It is by making ourselves aware of how we use
    words such as pain that we articulate the
    criterion of identity for pain, and not by
    looking inwards and saying this.

  • The act of naming presupposes a grammar or
    technique of employing a word within a language
  • The mere act of looking inside or inwards does
    neither supply this grammar nor provide a
    technique of employment.
  • For sensation is a word of our common
    language, not one intelligible to me alone. So
    the use of this word stands in need of a
    justification which everybody understand. (PI

  • General moral
  • (i) Introspection plays no role in defining
    psychological concepts.
  • (ii) The distinction between psychological
    states and behaviour, which the appeal to
    introspection aimed to capture, is a
    grammatical distinction which is properly
    understood through a careful attention to the
    differences in how we use the relevant concepts.

The Philosophy of Psychology
  • The Cartesian picture
  • It pictures sensations as inner processes.
  • So if one, God, could see into human
    consciousness, she would know what we can only
    guess is happening. Humans cannot penetrate what
    lies behind behaviour.
  • So our use of psychological expression, unlike
    Gods use, is indirect.

  • The Cartesian picture legitimates the following
  • What is the connection between a sensation, S,
    which is supposed to lies inside us and the
    behaviour triggered by S?
  • This question suggests a kind of spatial
    distinction between a sensation and the
    behaviour, a distinction between what is inside
    (S) and what is outside (the behaviour triggered
    by S).

  • To understand the connection or link between S
    and S-behaviour merely on the basis of S causing
    S-behaviour, would be to oversimplify the
  • For there is also conceptual (or grammatical)
    connection between the concept of S and
  • It comes to this only of a living human being
    and what resembles (behaves like) a living human
    being can one say it has sensations it sees, is
    blind, hears is deaf is conscious or
    unconscious. (PI 281)

  • When we investigate psychological concepts and
    the way they are used in our language games, we
    see that they do not work on the basis of a
    distinction between what is inside (private) and
    what is outside (public).
  • We do not say that a stone does not feel pain
    because we have been able to investigate what is
    inside the stone.
  • It does not make sense in our language game to
    speak of a stone feeling pain.

  • These are conceptual data.
  • Our linguistic practice describes living human
    beings it does not describe bodies.
  • We do not say that a body feels pain, we do not
    attribute pain to a hand.
  • We say that a person feels pain, we do not
    comfort a persons hand,

  • When a child comes to learn how to use sensation
    concepts she does not learn it on the basis of
    what is inside, a hidden object.
  • She does not learn it using ostensive
    definitions, etc..
  • So the Cartesian picture, which rests on the
    distinction between what is inside and what is
    outside, is not relevant and cannot be applied in
    describing the learning process.

  • Sensations
  • The must not be conceived as objects.
  • This, though, does not entail that sensations do
    not exist, i.e. that a sensation is a nothing,
    i.e. that there is nothing behind behaviour.
  • It is not a rejection of qualia. It is a mere
    rejection of the latter as objects.

  • But you will surely admit that there is a
    difference between pain-behaviour accompanied by
    pain and pain-behaviour without any pain?Admit
    it? What greater difference could there be?And
    yet you again and again reach the conclusion that
    the sensation itself is a nothing.Not at all.
    It is not a something, but not a nothing either!
    The conclusion was only that a nothing would
    serve just as well as a something about which
    nothing could be said. We have only rejected the
    grammar which tries to force itself on us here.
  • The paradox disappears only if we make a radical
    break with the idea that language always
    functions in one way, always serves the same
    purpose to convey thoughtswhich may be about
    houses, pains, good and evil, or anything else
    you please. (PI 304)

  • Visual experience
  • If we focus on what it is like to see something,
    we tend to think of visual experiences as images
    we know directly by introspection.
  • This, though, is not the right picture.

  • For the visual impression as a private object of
    experience is a philosophical illusion.
  • To overcome this illusion Wittgenstein invites
    us to investigate visual experiences in a
    different way, i.e. as a grammatical
    investigation on the way this concept actually
    works within our language game.

  • Goals
  • (i) To overcome the exaggerated sense of the
    importance of introspection in understanding
    the nature of visual experience.
  • (ii) To reveal the grammatical links existing
    between this concept and the way agents behave
    and react, i.e. to underline the link between
    visual experience and being able to do

  • Seeing and seeing as
  • E.g. the rabbit-duck picture.
  • Without noticing the ambiguity I see either a
    picture-rabbit or a picture-duck, while noticing
    the ambiguity I see the picture as a
    picture-rabbit or as a picture-duck.
  • It is only when one knows that she is presented
    with an ambiguous picture that one can answer the
    question what do you see? with I see it as a
    rabbit or as a duck.

  • The difference involved in seeing the picture as
    a rabbit and as a duck can be captured neither in
    invoking two different (inner) pictures one can
    point to when saying Now I see it as a duck and
    Now I see it as a rabbit, nor in the objective
    world (the picture itself).
  • The difference ought to come from elsewhere. The
    difference in the two visual experiences arises
    from a difference in how the agent places the
    pictures in two different contexts, i.e. in the
    way she makes reference to other pictures of
    rabbits or duck, etc.

  • General Moral
  • Introspection is of no help in characterising
    the difference between seeing and seeing as.
  • The same happens with sudden recognition.
  • Our visual experience is not linked with a
    change in the object perceived, but with a change
    in how the perceiver is situated or disposed to
    act vis-à-vis the object perceived.
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