A. J. Ayer’s Critique of Wittgenstein’s Private Language Argument

A. J. Ayer’s Critique of Wittgenstein’s Private Language Argument

(from ‘Ludwig Wittgenstein’ pp. 75-80, Pelican 1986)


The argument in favour of this position is most forcibly set out in paragraph 258 of the [Philosophical] Investigations. ‘Let us’, says Wittgenstein,

‘imagine the following case. I want to keep a diary about the recurrence of a certain sensation. To this end I associate it with the sign “S” and write this sign in a calendar for every day on which I have the sensation. – I will remark first of all that a definition of the sign cannot be formulated. – But still I can give myself a kind of ostensive definition. – How? Can I point to the sensation? Not in the ordinary sense. But I speak, or write the sign down, and at the same time I concentrate my attention on the sensation – and so, as it were, point to it inwardly. – But what is this ceremony for? for that is all it seems to be! A definition surely serves to establish the meaning of a sign. – Well, that is done precisely by the concentrating of my attention; for in this way I impress on myself the connexion between the sign and the sensation. – But “I impress it on myself” can only mean: this process brings it about that I remember the connexion right in the future. But in the present case I have no criterion of correctness. One would like to say: whatever is going to seem right to me is right. And that only means that here we can’t talk about “right”.’

But why could one not rely on one’s own memory to furnish a criterion of correctness? It need not be confined to linking a single present with a past sensation. To a very large extent sensations of similar types occur in groups. So one memory could be checked by another. Wittgenstein considers this suggestion and rejects it. He produces the example of a man‘s attempting to check his memory of the time of a train departure by calling to mind an image of the time-table and dismisses it with the comment that

‘this process has got to produce a memory which is actually correct. If the mental image of the time-table could not itself be tested for correctness, how could it confirm the correctness of the first memory? (As if someone were to buy several copies of the morning paper to assure himself that what it said was true.) Looking up a table in the imagination is no more looking up a table than the image of the result of an imagined experiment is the result of an experiment.’ [Investigations, para. 265]

The simile of the morning paper is brilliant but I am still not convinced by the argument which it is meant to serve. The crucial fact which it seems to me that Wittgenstein persistently overlooks is that anyone’s significant use of language must depend sooner or later on his performing what I call an act of primary recognition. In Wittgenstein’s example, it is supposed not to be sufficient for someone to check his memory of the time at which the train is due to leave by visualizing a page of the time-table. He has to check the memory in its turn by actually looking up the page. This would, indeed, be a sensible measure to take. But unless he can trust his eyesight at this point, unless he can recognize the figures printed in the table, he will be no better off. If he distrusts his eyesight, as well as his memory, he can consult other people, but then he must understand their responses; he needs to identify correctly the signs that they make. The point I am stressing is not the trivial one that the series of checks cannot continue indefinitely in practice, even if there is no limit to them in theory, but rather that unless it is brought to a close at some stage the whole series counts for nothing. Everything hangs in the air unless there is at least one item that is straightforwardly identified.

If this is correct, Wittgenstein is wrong in taking the corroboration of one memory by another, or that of a memory by an item of sense experience, as an inferior substitute for some other method of verification. There is no other method. Whatever I have to identify, whether it be an object, an event, an image, or a sign, I have only my memory and my current sensation to rely on. There is a difference only in the degree to which the memories and sensations are cross-checked.

I think it is very important to note that it makes no difference to my present argument whether it is applied to the use of signs to refer to what are counted as public objects or to their use to refer to so-called private experiences. If my apparent reference to a public object is judged by those who share my language to be deviant, they can explain this in various ways. They may ascribe to me a false belief, arising perhaps from some defect in perception, or they may judge that I am lying to them, or else that I am making a linguistic error. Which explanation they adopt will depend upon the circumstances of the case. In the same way, if they take me to be honest, they have to decide whether it is my use of words or my sensations themselves that are deviant when I report them in ways that do not consort with their observations of my behaviour. Again their decision will depend upon the circumstances of the case.

This does concede the point, on which Wittgenstein repeatedly insists, that we should not in practice be able to learn and teach the word for sensations like pain unless they were outwardly manifested. Indeed, Wittgenstein’s preference for pain as an example is no doubt due to the fact that it is characteristically associated with a fairly limited set of outward expressions; something which is not true of all sensations, let alone thoughts and images. Nevertheless, just as we are taught the use of words that refer to physical objects by being placed in situations where we undergo sense-experiences which are held to correspond with those of our teachers, so we are supplied with a vocabulary for describing our mental life through analogies which are drawn from our behaviour. In particular, we learn the use of the words which stand for various types of thought in relation to the acts of speaking and writing which are counted as their expressions, to the circumstances in which these expressions occur, and to the behaviour with which they are causally connected. Wittgenstein’s well-known dictum, ‘An “inner process” stands in need of outward criteria’, is pedagogically true.

[Wittgenstein] is misled by his use of the word ‘private’. An object like a tea-cup is said to be public because there is sufficient agreement in the reports of different observers on a series of occasions to give us a motive for saying that they perceive the same tea-cup. In the case of a headache this motive is lacking, and therefore we say that headaches are private. Nevertheless, in both cases, the meaning which any one of us attaches to the word is cashed, to echo William James, in terms of his own experience.

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