Theiling Online    Sitemap    Conlang Mailing List HQ   

Wittgenstein on conlanging [was Re: relative weirdness]

From:Thomas R. Wier <trwier@...>
Date:Saturday, December 15, 2001, 8:11
Quoting Jörg Rhiemeier <joerg.rhiemeier@...>:
> > Well, I have no children to tell me that I waste time with > conlangs, but my (elder) brother does the job. When I recently > made the mistake mentioning the Conlang Translation Relay in > a conversation about translation problems, he thrusted > Wittgenstein's infamous argumentation against "private > languages" at me, stating that the translations were inevitably > meaningless and thus the whole thing a waste of time.
Not only was that unfair of him, I think he rather missed Wittgenstein's point. Wittgenstein conceived of rules as kinds of signposts that have merely made official the tendencies and customs of past usages, rather than rules being abstract laws (he analogizes these flaws to that of a railroad). As such, language is a matter of putting your uses into the context of what everyone else before you has done. This would seem to rule out conlangs by their very nature, but the question is not one of private versus public, so much as logically private versus empirically private. I'll quote A. C. Grayling's comments on the subject at length, since he puts it so much better than I can: "Wittgenstein gives the private language question an extended treatment for an additional reason. This is that in the tradition of philosophy beginning with Descartes, it is held that the starting point for all knowledge and explanation lies in our direct acquaintance with our own experience and states of mind. Thus Descartes's starting- point is the "I-think" recognition of which guarantees "I exist"; for the empiricists, it is sensory experience and our reflection upon it which provides the basis for our beliefs about external things and other minds. On these views a private language is imminently possible, for they permit the thought (in some cases, they *start* from the thought) of a Robinson-Crusoe-from-birth who constructs a language by means of private, inner ostensive definitions linking words with experiences. In a related way, the idea of a private language is implicated in our standard conception of how we come to have language expressions referring to our own pains, moods, feelings, and the rest, given that these are private to us: no one else can have access to such states unless their possessors give expression to them in language or behavior; no one else can experience my moods, or pains, or even detect their existence if I do not wish it. Since this is so we come to think that we 'name' our sensations by means of an inner ostension, as though when we have a stomach-ache, we 'point inwards' and say 'this is a stomach-ache'. And this suggests that an individual could construct a language for speaking to himself about his sensations and inner life which is _in principle_ closed to everyone else -- the "in principle" means that such a language is not merely a secret code which no one else as a matter of fact understands, like the Enigma code or Pepys' _Diary_, but which *cannot* be understood by anyone other than its speaker: a language, in short, which is logically private to its speaker." (_Wittgenstein_, p. 85-86) Wittgenstein's point, then, is that the kinds of things we do here in this group are perfectly possible, because all the languages that we create here are *in principle* capable of being learnt by all the other members of the group; in fact, many of us *do* learn the others' languages. If they were not, that would beg the question of how *any* language could exist at all, much less constructed ones. (You should tell your brother about this.)
> My parents, however, know nothing about my conlanging. > I have learned not to tell anything about my bizarre > worldbuilding and related projects quite early, when all > I got was utter indifference from my father and sharp > disapproval from my mother.
My father only learned that I conlang when he read my website a while back, on which I admitted taking part in the "secret Vice". He asked me about it, and seemed to keep an open mind, but did take a great interest. Like you, I tend to keep my conlanging to myself and to those few whom I trust not to belittle it in a serious way. (I've gotten plenty of *false* belittling, but that's all in good fun, and I know how it's meant to be taken.)
> Well, I know that I am somewhat weird -
All human beings have oddities about them, and none are based on that fact alone warrant for persecution. ===================================================================== Thomas Wier <trwier@...> <> "...koruphàs hetéras hetére:isi prosápto:n / Dept. of Linguistics mú:tho:n mè: teléein atrapòn mían..." University of Chicago "To join together diverse peaks of thought / 1010 E. 59th Street and not complete one road that has no turn" Chicago, IL 60637 Empedocles, _On Nature_, on speculative thinkers