A Reflection from a Class at Holy Apostles College and Seminary
Why can’t there be a private language, according to Wittgenstein? What is the significance of the discussion?
Language is a social phenomena which we learn and confirm socially. To show we understand a statement is to respond accordingly in a form of language or action which is communicative.
Private language would suggest that we know our language without having any rules but our own. In other words, what makes language and communication correct is the social function which captures the vast and diverse uses of words and sentences. If we remove the social function we reduce to the representative function (the Augustinian mode) which Wittgenstein is trying to distance himself from, or at least to extend beyond.
Why can’t I talk to myself? One can, but the correctness of such speech if determined only by the individual loses an real validity. It becomes not a private language, but a moment to moment creation without an objective standard. It is untethered even from the necessity of temporal consistency.
What is fascinating is that in rejecting the inner life of language, the Augustinian correspondence theory, one would think that Wittgenstein would be doing away with the depth and riches of human thought. Perhaps he ultimately does. But he also uncovers where much of the depth and mystery lies. It is not in my private thinking, nor in the words or statements themselves, but in a relationship between the language and the speaker, and also the relationship between speaker and listener. Wittgenstein is interested in “the understanding that is embodied in an explanation of the sense of a sentence….’How is that meant?’…is a question about that relationship.”1
In other words, what gives life to human thought and speech is not the words themselves but the living spirit of communication. In this sense, Wittgenstein seems to border on presenting a Trinitarian picture of human logos, one which is not simply letter, nor simply thought, but understanding which comes about in the communion of such and therefore has manifold possibilities and functions. For this reason, it is wrong to call “words the description of a thought”. 2 To separate the words or speech act from the thoughts too completely is to negate the social function. We are deeply embedded in this social reality and in some sense already “masters” of it when we begin to ask questions or learn definitions.3
1 Wittgenstein, The Wittgenstein reader, Ed. Anthony Kenny, Blackwell. Malden, Mass. 2006, 207
2 Wittgenstein, The Wittgenstein reader, Ed. Anthony Kenny, Blackwell. Malden, Mass. 2006, 207
3 Wittgenstein, The Wittgenstein reader, Ed. Anthony Kenny, Blackwell. Malden, Mass. 2006, 73