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Wittgenstein & 'private language' (was: SemiOT: Revealing your conlanger status)

From:Mark P. Line <mark@...>
Date:Friday, June 18, 2004, 19:37
John Leland said:
> In a message dated 6/16/04 12:23:06 PM Pacific Daylight Time, > joerg_rhiemeier@WEB.DE writes: > > << When I mentioned it in his presence, he said that > what I am doing was meaningless because Wittgenstein said that > "private languages are impossible". I am not an expert on > Wittgenstein's philosophy, but I think my brother has interpreted > Wittgenstein's words wrongly. What Wittgenstein meant was, I think, > that a language can never be private in the sense that no-one else > can learn it. Conlangs thus *aren't* "private languages". >> > > One of my professional colleagues (without citing W.) made the same > objection to conlanging in an informal lunchtime discussion, and my > response was the same-- Rihana-ye is not a private language in the sense > that no-one else *could* understand it--it is simply a language no one > else has yet chosen to learn, but which in principle anyone could > learn.
Yep. Wittgenstein's "private language" argument was not really about conlanging. What he said (in _Philosophical Investigations_ (_PI_), paragraph 243) about a hypothetical private language was: "The individual words of this language are to refer to what can only be known to the person speaking; to his immediate private sensations. So another person cannot understand the language." His argument, as I remember understanding it (and I haven't gone back to study it -- I just extracted the relevant quote above and nothing more today), was focussed on the question of whether or not "private sensations" can be captured in words, period. If they can't even be captured in the words of a *private* language with which the person is free to make up words any way she wants -- then surely we shouldn't believe that any *public* language (such as a natlang) captures them. Although I follow the thinking of the later Wittgenstein pretty closely in my own, I don't think I ever made up my mind about this particular argument. The problem, I think, was epistemological: how do I know that I've captured a certain "private sensation" with a certain word, without the intersubjective semantic control that I have when using a _public_ language (natural or constructed)? I see his point, but I also think that a word I invent can capture exactly what I say it captures. If I feel confident that I can introspect and identify a class of "private sensations" reliably enough to attach a name to it, then I'm happy to do so -- and it doesn't matter to me (in the first instance) that nobody else has access to the particular sensations that this name refers to. Of course, I'm probably not thinking of "private sensations" in exactly the same way that Wittgenstein was........ That said, I reckon I *can* say that I don't think Wittgenstein's "private language" argument has any bearing at all on the feasibility of conlanging as we understand it. Esperanto is reported to have (presumably bilingual) native speakers, and Klingon will eventually have them if it doesn't already. We all know that a conlang doesn't need native speakers to exist, but surely this fact would suffice to convince even the most recalcitrant sticks-in-the-mud. Whatever conlangs are, they're not impossible. *shrug* -- Mark


Philippe Caquant <herodote92@...>