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D. Philosophy of Language: 2nd Student Essay

Alan Long

Discuss the implications of the private language argument

Two friends talk

Jo: I just had an indescribable mystic experience.

Flo: Oh, yes, what was it like?

Jo: Overwhelming but, apart from this, indescribable.

One month later

Flo: How are the indescribable mystical experiences going?

Jo: Pretty regular. I've even got a name for them. I call each one an 'imex'.

Flo: Still varying a bit?

Jo: Yes, sometimes more intense, sometimes more profound.

One year later, in the company of another friend, Mo

Jo: Imexes are still running at about once a week.

Flo: Pretty much the same then?

Mo: No one can ever know whether they are having the same imex as you. (Mo is a Wittgenstein fan. He is quoting Wittgenstein Philosophical Investigations para 272.)

Jo, condescendingly: Can't argue with that Mo, an imex is — after all — indescribable.

Mo, ramping up his attack: I think there's more to it. In fact, you can't even prove that the imex you had this week was the same as the first imex you had one year ago.

Jo: Of course I can't prove it to you; you have no idea what I'm talking about; you may never have had an imex.

Mo (Going for the jugular): You can't prove it to me, but you can't prove it to yourself, either. Explain to me how can you tell it's the same?

Jo: It just is, obviously, the same. It may be slightly stronger or weaker but I just know it's the same.

Mo: But how do you prove to yourself that it's the same?

Jo: It's the same because it's the same. There's no need to prove it.

Mo: But even if there was a need, you couldn't prove it, even to yourself. The reason is that there's no way to independently prove it. (Mo is referring to PI 265.) It may be obviously the same to you, but there's no way for you to check that it's the same. After all, if I pick up a leaf and say that it's a gum leaf, there's an independent check: if it's from an apple tree, other people correct me. But, for your imex, there's no independent check: no-one can put you right.

Mo, continuing his overwhelming onslaught: Your 'imex' isn't even useful: it doesn't give you any practical information whatsoever. (Mo is using PI 260 and 270.) What's more, it's irrelevant as to whether you've actually had an imex. If you had one, or didn't have one, we could still have this conversation. The imex cancels out. (Mo has now brought in PI 293, the beetle in the box).

Jo, shaken by the strength of the attack, gathers his thoughts: No independent check? — I agree that there can't be — the imex happens to me, it's are indescribable — I'm on my own and other people can't check my usage. Not useful? — I agree: they've never helped me to achieve anything practical. Canceling out? — You're right again: it doesn't make any difference to you whether I am referring to a genuine experience, or whether I am using the words and pretending I have.

Jo counter attacks: All your tests are for checking public language. If you use them to test a private word about a private experience, it's not surprising that it fails. Your tests are meant for commonly understood, describable, experiences. An imex is an individual, indescribable, experience.

Mo, sensing a need to shift his ground: You can't even call an imex a 'sensation': sensations are related to public events: a dizzy sensation comes on when you spin around, a sensation of heat happens when you are near something warm. The public world is implied in the very grammar of the word 'sensation'. There cannot be a sensation which is not related to the public world. (Mo has resorted to his trump card: PI 261)

Jo side steps: I never said that an imex was a sensation. It has nothing to do with my senses. It is an indescribable experience.

Mo battles on: My tests for using 'imex' correctly may need some fine tuning, but you haven't come up with any of your own.

Jo: How about this: after every occasion I think I've had an imex, I compare it with the very clear memory of my first imex. I also compare it to another internal experience which I have yet to tell you about. You see, my internal world is full of different indescribable experiences. The second one I have given a name to is an 'ivef': an indescribably vague feeling. I check each potential imex against my first imex. I also check it against my first ivef. I only believe my initial impression that it is an imex if it is both like the memory of my first imex and unlike the memory of my first ivef.

Mo, again using PI 265: But that's like buying several copies of a newspaper to check that the headline in the first one was true: there's no independent check.

Jo: it's not independent of me, but it's referring to two different sets of memories, and it's as independent as I can get. It doesn't give me a full confirmation, but it helps. I plan to build my internal vocabulary so that I can distinguish more experiences and make finer and finer discriminations.

Mo, a confirmed materialist, decides that Jo is irredeemably mystical, or an irredeemable liar. He suddenly recalls an urgent appointment, and leaves hurriedly.

Comments on the conversation: some implications of the private language argument

Jo's method of confirmation may not discriminate fine nuances of meaning, but his internal world gives him the ability to cross reference and his plan for labeling and exploring his internal world seems worth a try.

The outcome of Jo's project may help him to get to grips with his rich internal world but, it's tempting to say, will have no impact on the public world. However, it's possible for us to imagine that, after much work, he discovers patterns of correspondence between imexes, ivefs and other indescribable experiences which remind him of patterns in the public world. And that this correspondence of pattern gives insight to both public and private world.

Jo is launched upon an empirical exploration. He will not be searching for revealed truths, all encompassing concepts of reality or the primary objects of experience. All of these are, in their different ways, projections of the public world into the private: to assert that they are primarily personal is wrong. As Mo points out, they cancel out and we are left with the public world as our basis of common reference.