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197-208 July 1971
PROFESSOR AYER ON THE POSSIBILITY OF A PRIVATE LANGUAGE* P. S. WADIA
In this paper I propose to criticize the important case that Professor A. J. Ayer has made in recent years for the possibility of a private language. 1 We have here an extremely perplexing problem. My task in this paper is made more difficult by the fact that in recent discussions there has been serious disagreement as regards the nature of the thesis that Ayer is defending. Clearly, then, my first task must be to state what I take Ayer's claim to be. I will do this in Section I below. Generally speaking, the interpretation I support follows the lines adopted by Brian Medlin in his excellent "Critical Notice" of Ayer's The Concept of A Person and Other Essays. 2 In the course of these discussions I hope to throw some further light on Ayer's claim. Thereafter I will attempt to show, in Section II, that Ayer has not succeeded in demonstrating that a private language, stated within what I understand to be his own terms, is possible.
I Early in his contribution to the private language symposium of the Aristotelian Society, Ayer states that when philosophers speak of a private language, they have in mind a language "that is, in their view, necessarily private, in as much as it is used by some particular person to refer only to his own private experiences." 3 Turning next to Wittgenstein's view in the Philosophical Investigations, Ayer says:
* This paper was originally read to the American Philosophical Association Pacific Division, Portland, Oregon, March, 1969 197
Ayer says that the Wittgensteinian view of language "is based on two assumptions. .P. . 4 In taking issue with this view." 8 Ayer must now refute assumptions (1) and (2). . too." 7 (2) "for a person to be able to attach meaning to a sign it is necessary that other people should be capable of understanding it too. this evidence must be public: it must. left as an inarticulate infant to grow up solitary on an 198 . he would not succeed in saying anything at all ." 6 Continuing his examination. no test could establish anything. both of which I believe to be false. . but would have no meaning to communicate even to himself." The two assumptions are: (1) It is "logically impossible to understand a sign unless one can either observe the object which it signifies. be accessible to everyone. and he proceeds to do so by urging on us the possibility of an unsocialized Crusoe. then there is no reason in the world to deny that one can simply recognize all one's private experiences and describe them in a language comprising solely of words whose meaning is "fixed entirely by the character of the experience(s) I am using them to indicate. 5 But in that case. Apparently. . S. if it is not granted that at some point we are simply able to recognize without further public checks. Ayer points out that any public check one may employ must in the end depend on some act of recognizing one's own perceptions. at least in theory. W A D I A He seems to take the view that someone who attempted to use language in this private way would not merely be unable to communicate his meaning to others. A point to which Wittgenstein constantly recurs is that the ascription of meaning to a sign is something that needs to be justified: the justification consists in there being some independent test for determining that the sign is being correctly used: . or at least observe something with which this object is naturally associated. But if we do grant this.
But it is strange 199 . According to Ayer. Crusoe's language could have three kinds of words in it: those that refer to physical objects. uninstructed in the use of any existing language. makes up a language for himself. since the language Crusoe is supposed to invent does not go counter to assumptions (1) and (2) interpreted in this manner. those that refer to "sensations [which] are entirely private. in the sense that they have no 'natural expressions'" 1o The first two kinds of words are easily disposed of." But in that case. "it is not selfcontradictory to suppose that someone." 9 According to one interpretation. But he adds that it does not "necessarily follow in these circumstances. inventing a language. says Ayer. and finally. be accessible to everyone. directly into another's soul. The question of whether there can be descriptions that refer exclusively to one's own experiences is raised in the case of the third kind of words in Crusoe's language. what Ayer is thought to be doing here is attempting to refute the thesis that there cannot be a possible use of language where the test for the correct use of words cannot even "in theory. But Ayer is able to resolve this question in favour of giving an affirmative answer only to the extent to which he can show that such descriptions do satisfy the requirements underlying assumptions (1) and (2). 1 For we have no reason to deny a priori the possibility of Man Friday becoming telepathically aware of Crusoe's private experiences. Man Friday on his arrival is capable of being taught these words (2) which by definition signify objects which are observable or objects which have associated with them "natural expressions" which are observable (1). Ayer's whole discussion of the Robinson Crusoe issue seems puzzlingly besides the point. those that refer to his "private sensations" that do have "natural expressions". some human being must have been the first to use a symbol. as it were.AYER ON PRIVATE LANGUAGE island. that Man Friday will be incapable of learning the meaning of the words which Crusoe uses to describe his private sensations". After all. Surely. Ayer agrees that it is unlikely that Crusoe will in fact be able to make such descriptions intelligible to Man Friday. "It would indeed be very strange if someone had this power of seeing.
oddly enough. on causal grounds. correct interpretation. 15 Now Medlin's point is that what we should interpret Ayer as "doing is trying to break the entailment from 'L is privates' to 'L is private/'". S. we should not expect to happen. ''12 But this means Man Friday can observe 13 the experiences the words in question signify (1) and is. but it could not mean to them exactly what it meant to him" (p. 14 In a later discussion of "Can There Be A Private Language?" Brian Medlin saves Ayer from this embarrassment by attempting a different. WADIA only in the sense that it is something which.P. capable o f understanding what they mean (2). and what I believe to be in essential respects. 37). therefore. . In the second sense a language i s p r i v a t e 2 in the sense that a speaker's utterance "might indirectly convey some information to others. What he is disputing is the claim that 200 . and (2) that sensation-reports are not of necessity unintelligible to anyone but their maker. Medlin points out. The idea of its happening breaks no logical rule. I believe it was an interpretation such as this of Ayer's arguments that led to Judith Jarvis Thompson's summary dismissal of them in a footnote to her article on "Private Languages": Ayer in "Can There Be A Private L a n g u a g e ? " . first of all. and then. Ayer is not disputing the view that a language must in principle be intelligible to persons other than the speaker. says the thesis is. 16 In other words. . that there are two different senses of 'private language' involved in Ayer's discussion: In the first sense a p r i v a t e I language is "private in as much as it is used by some particular person to refer only to his own private experiences" (p. thinks he has refuted this thesis by proving (if he has proved even these) the quite irrelevant points (1) that there can be a language which is and always has been as a matter of fact unintelligible to anyone but its speaker. 37). there can be no language which of necessity unintelligible to anyone but its speaker.
a Jortiori eliminate the possibility of a language referring only to one's private experiences. According to Medlin. of course. in as much as words in this language are supposed to refer to what can only be known to the person speaking. descriptions in Crusoe's language referring only to his own experiences would not in principle be unintelligible to others. The Wittgensteinian thesis is said to be that (a) there cannot be a language that cannot at least in principle be made intelligible to persons other than the speaker and (b) that there cannot be a language referring exclusively to one's private experiences. since the question. is that there exist a public standard of usage to which he can in fact appeal. someone must have been the first to use a symbol. Ayer accepts (a) but rejects (b). and what the relevance is of his remark that. Medlin's interpretation would show the relevance of Ayer's claim that because of the possibility of telepathy. with taking such an interpretation is that it would commit Ayer to the view that a language that refers only to one's private experiences is of necessity unintelligible to anyone but its speaker. The fact is. Now. Such a requirement would. that Ayer has in mind a different interpretation of the Wittgensteinian thesis from the one we have considered so far. I suspect.AYER ON PRIVATELANGUAGE a language "used by some particular person to refer only to his own private experiences" could not of necessity convey to others the meaning it conveys to the speaker. For otherwise there would be no point in refuting (a). But clearly this is not a view that Ayer accepts. as we have seen. The trouble. All of Ayer's comments and criticisms become relevant if we understand him to be saying that the Wittgensteinian attack against 'L is private 1' is committed to the thesis that a condition of any language being intelligible to a speaker. however. Medlin's interpretation certainly has the merit of showing how it is that in recent years Ayer should have come to attach so much importance to the notion of telepathy. after all. whether or not such a 201 . Ayer's language certainly gives some grounds for the impression that he is out to refute (a). This would still leave unexplained why Ayer should raise the question of the possibility of a solitary individual inventing a language for his own use.
II Appealing to the possibility of telepathy plays a key role in Ayer's refutation of the thesis that 'L is private1' entails 'L is private2'. cannot arise. when cleared up. would show that the notion of telepathy cannot do for him what he wants it to do. I do not wish to discuss the question. S. this is where the crux is and it is to this point that I must now turn. further. W A D I A language is at least in principle inter-subjectively intelligible. "we can ["if it pleases us"] give a sense to saying that one person inspects or 'directly observes' the private experiences of another. according to present usage. But whichever way you look at it. that a language referring only to a person's private experiences is such a language." 17 But Ayer goes on to explain that "these points of logic are based upon linguistic usages which have. I very much doubt that Ayer has succeeded in this refutation. Ayer's parable of Robinson Crusoe can then be interpreted as a way of killing two birds with one stone: as attempting to show that a possible language need only be in principle intelligible to persons other than its speaker and. I believe. if he is to make good his claim. "It would be a contradiction to speak of the feelings of two different people as being numerically identical: it is logically impossible that one person should literally feel another's pain. In The Problem of Knowledge Ayer tells us that." 1~ For instance. Ayer. as it were. But. a muddle which. this requirement would also eliminate the possibility of language being invented. the usages might be changed. ''19 Yet very soon 202 . secondly. Regardless of what view Wittgenstein may have had in the matter. the empirical facts in view. interesting though it is. must refute the view that a language which referred exclusively to one's own experiences would necessarily be private to its speaker. If the facts were different. if the occurrence of telepathy became a widespread phenomena. But Ayer's whole discussion of this issue is.P. whether Wittgenstein does at any time make either the stronger claim referred to in the last paragraph with regard to the intelligibility of a language or the weaker claim attributed to him in the paragraph before the last one.
for it is possible. and considered merely as an experience of one's own it is logically independent of the experiences of anybody else. 2a For if some non-literal sense is at issue. As a matter of fact. for one person to detect another's experiences in the same way as he detects his own. if telepathic awareness is ever possible.AYER ON PRIVATE L A N G U A G E thereafter Ayer tells us: even a telepathic e x p e r i e n c e . of necessity. even now. according to present usage. . . or 'aware' in 'being aware1 of another's thoughts' do not have the same literal meaning they are now supposed to have in 'feeling 2 one's own pain' or 'being aware2 of one's own thoughts'. But if Ayer is not using words consistently. In his subsequent lecture "Privacy". but this does not make it any the less an experience of one's own. public9 For according to present usage all that is required for something to be public is that. Ayer himself suggests "one's mental states are not private in the sense that there is any single way in which. they are detectable by oneself a l o n e 9 In that case. is private to oneself. 22 I do not see how Ayer can avoid this conclusion if he is using words such as 'private'. and 'directly aware' consistently throughout. be detectable in the same way by another. the peculiarity which is attributed to it is that of revealing what is going on in someone else's mind. given this possibility. then it will remain necessarily true that only the person having the pain can feel 2 it and only the person having the thoughts can be aware2 of them. 'public'. it must even now be possible9 For surely such a logical possibility cannot wait upon a change in our linguistic usage. in whatever way it is detectable by some one person it must. in principle. then surely Ayer has not proved his contention that "one could publicize the experiences which existing usage insists on keeping private". are. 9 203 . however. our experiences. it would not be true according to present usage that to say experiences are private is to utter a necessary truth. even of that which it purports to reveal92~ There is something extremely puzzling about these views9 In the first place. so that words such as 'feeling I' in 'feeling another's pain'.
at least. when one of them described what he was feeling the other might very well follow the description. and so to understand the words that signify them. is it or is it not the case that Ayer believes that it is literally possible for one person to be aware of another's experiences in the same direct way he is aware of his own ? I think that there is little doubt. through having similar sensations of his own. and indeed that he should actually have it. we might well be led to revise our concepts of publicity and privacy. It is not even necessary to make the assumption that Man Friday comes to know what Crusoe's sensations are. It is conceivable that he should satisfy all the tests which go to show that he has this knowledge. how can two people ever know that they mean the same by a word which they use to refer to some 'public' object? Only because each finds the other's reactions appropriate . himself. In'that case. that he is not permitted) to maintain this thesis in the literal sense. W A D I A Now which is Ayer's real view? In other words. even though the experience which he rightly ascribes to Crusoe is unlike any that he has. what Ayer has to say on this in "Can There Be A Private Language?" We can imagine two persons being so attuned to one another that whenever either has a private sensation of a certain sort. the other has it too. or ever has had. 25 Ayer goes on to add: If the sort of insight which we have been attributing to Man Friday were commonly possessed. 204 . that he is not (or. even though he had no 'external' evidence to guide him. especially when we examine the examples of telepathy Ayer conjures up to make his point. But how could either of them ever know that he had identified the other's feeling correctly? Well. 24 In fact. for example. .P. Note. such 'awareness' turns out to be 'indirect' in the sense in which sense-data philosophers believe perception of physical objects to be 'indirect'. . . S.
repeats the word 205 . But then it is in terms of the present distinction that the problem we are considering here arises. meaning "by t h i s .. how convincing is the use Ayer makes of the possibility of "co-consciousness" to prove his point? It is well to remind ourselves at this point that Ayer is here dealing with the question of whether Man Friday could possibly understand the meaning of some w o r d . it has no tendency to show that there is a reason for calling one's experiences private "only if one chooses to find one. stooge that he is." 28 But then Ayer's remarks concerning a possible revision in our usage affecting the concepts of publicity and privacy are altogether irrelevant. Now let us suppose that whenever Crusoe has this sensation. that these thoughts and feelings are similar.t h a t Crusoe is alleged to be using to refer exclusively to one of his 'entirely private sensations'. thoughts and feelings. not that they are literally the same. it could hardly change the fact that our experiences do not satisfy our present concept of publicity. he utters the w o r d ' S ' and Man Friday. independently of our linguistic usage. in the senses which are relevant to this discussion.. so that one's experiences became public according to the new revised usage. z6 To begin with a comment on the last paragraph. or proceed from similar causes.AYER ON PRIVATE LANGUAGE The mistake which is made by philosophers like Carnap is that of supposing that being public or being private.' S ' . Even if we did decide to "revise our concepts of publicity and privacy". even now speak of two persons "sharing". and frequently do. are properties which are somehow attached to different sorts of objects. We can. With this point out of the way. . say. ''27 For the way in which Crusoe and Man Friday (the "two persons" in Ayer's example) are said to be attuned together is perfectly consistent with the view that our experiences are private. the referent of 'S' is necessarily accessible only to Crusoe and no one else. E x hypothesi. and it is hard to see how the possibility of being able to give what meaning we like to the words 'public' and 'private' can have any bearing on this problem. . It should be clear by now that even if the example of 'Man Friday's insight' described a possible state of affairs.
S. But in one o f its aspects. We. between the word and the experiences in question. then there should be no reason why two persons in a similar situation with regard to some other type of experience should not be able to make a connection. to understand what the word 'S' stands for.P. But neither Man Friday nor Cursoe know this. whatever may be its nature. but what possible tests could there be that showed Man Friday that he understood the word correctly if Crusoe's sensation is not even allowed to have any behavioral manifestation that Man Friday can recognize? (Medlin is surely correct when he says "The argument from analogy may or may not be good enough when we are considering sensations that do have recognizable behavioral manifestations. the problem of the possibility of a private language arises because of the insistence of philosophers of Ayer's persuasion on the view that "the claim that one is perceiving a public object. but it surely won't do here". so to speak. What they do not know and have no way of finding out is that the sensations they are having are 'similar'. could bring to Man Friday's attention that 'S' refers to the type of sensation he too is having at the time. who have been made privy to this little secret. All that Man Friday knows or can know is that he is having a sensation and this is all that Crusoe knows as well. if we were present. will always be founded on the fact that 206 . Ayer speaks of tests in this connection. What Ayer is saying is this: If two persons can understand a word referring to a public (physical) object when what the word ultimately refers to are two 'numerical different' series of 'similar' perceptual experiences of which only one is accessible to each person. the only answer Ayer gives comes in the form of the rhetorical question he asks about our knowledge of words that refer to public objects. 29 As far as I can see. W A D I A after him. But this argument is clearly a petitio principii. At such times it is true that Man Friday is having a sensation 'similar' to the one Crusoe is having but that fact alone is not sufficient to enable Man Friday to understand the meaning of the word Crusoe is using. The fact that two people can understand a word referring to a physical object is no more in question then the fact that we have words that refer to our sensations. that is.
" p. in Ayer. Ayer in the Australasian Journal of Philosophy.) 2 B. Ayer. for that matter. J. pp.. Originally in Proceedinos of the Aristotelian Society. 37.. I conclude that Ayer has not shown that a language that referred only to one's private experiences could be made intelligible to persons other than its alleged inventor. "Can There etc . XLII (Dec. 08903 U. .AYER ON PRIVATE LANGUAGE one is having a private experience. N. London: Macmillan and Co. ]" and the ook as The P. Medlin. To say that the language is in fact understood is not an answer to the question how it could be understood given these circumstances. . 1963. "Can There Be A Private Language?" (symposium).. "Critical Notice" of The Concept of a Person and Other Essays by A. the fact that we do have a language referring to publicly accessible physical objects goes counter to the claim that one's knowledge of the existence of such objects is ultimately based on the fact that one is undergoing a private experience. 1956 Cf. 4 Ibid. In the absence of any other considerations. . R U T G E R S UNIVERSITY UNIVERSITY COLLEGE NEW BRUNSWICK. to which he alone can have access. . And A. as "Can There [etc . or any other word. The Problem of Knowledge. II & V. 39-41. XXVIII (1954). Chs. And if what I have been saying is correct. J. with additional footnotes. The Concept of a Person and Other Essays. Suppl. . I do not see how he possibly could.S. J. Ltd. .A RECEIVED : 28 APRIL 1970 NOTES i See especially: A.J. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. reprinted. 1964). What is now in question is how two persons can understand a word referring to a supposedly publicly accessible physical object. of K. when the language in which the referring is done is said to get its meaning ultimately from each person's own private experiences. ''3~ This paradoxical view leads them to posit a "language" that refers exclusively to our private experiences as a kind of logical understructure to our language about physical objects. 207 . Ayer.
48. 2x A. p. of K. S. With regard to the possibility of telepathy. 15 Medlin. 202. Cit. 9 Ibid. 27 The P. ao Ibid. 41-42. but at other times he talks as if such 'observation' were analogous to the perception of physical objects." 6 The P. 52-53. 44. Op. pp. p. 19 Ibid. 29 Medlin. p. must in the end rest on the testimony of my senses. p. 208 . 200. or through seeing what they write. 47. p. Ayer vacillates between two senses of 'observe' in "one person observing another's experiences'. . 17 The P. Ayer. .. p. 58. . pp. Cir. 203. 414. I (1964) p. 14 Judith Jarvis Thompson "Private Languages". for' any definite view to emerge from it. 25 "Can There etc . American Philosophical Quarterly. pp. " p. . ax Ibid. a a This needs to be qualified. pp. 46. We will see later that this has serious implications for Ayer's view. 20. of K. that I am using it to refer to the 'right' object. or observing their movements. p. 30 The P. p. i2 Ibid. Op. of K. I s Ibid. 7 "Can There etc . 68. p. my assurance that I am using the word correctly. But the tone of this essay is altogether too tentative." And again: "It is through hearing what other people say. 418. p. 203.J. Vol.P. 8 Ibid. 49. He sometimes talks as if such 'observation' involved being aware of another's experience in the same direct (immediate) way in which one is said to be aware of one's own. " p. 2o Ibid. WADIA 5 Ibid. 199. that I am enabled to conclude that their use of the word agrees with mine. 23 The P. p. 22 Ibid. of K. 28 Ibid. 200-201. "Privacy" in The Concept of a Person and Other Essays. let the word which I use for this purpose belong to some common language. 204. 414-415. p. 26 Ibid. 16 Ibid. of K. . p. 48. . "Let the object to which I am attempting to refer be as public as you please. 24 This is true even of the examples given in "Privacy" where Ayer seems at times to be coming very close to accepting the view that our experiences are public according to the present usage of the term. p.
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