Photo by Jeffrey F. Barken

Private Language and the Greatest Scandal of Philosophy

– Essay By Pheroze Wadia, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, Rutgers University –  


Immanuel Kant thought that the greatest scandal of philosophy was that to his day no one had ever produced a rational proof for the existence of the external world. More on this at the end of this short article… 

A little while before this pandemic hit us, I was fortunate enough to see a wonderful play off-off Broadway dealing with Ludwig Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell. Toward the end of the play, one of the characters, G. E. Moore, I think, accuses Wittgenstein of denying the existence of an inner life for human beings because of his so called private language argument. In other words, he characterizes Wittgenstein as being some sort of extreme behaviorist. I believe this accusation to be totally false. Wittgenstein never denied the existence of an inner life to human persons.  What he did deny was the possibility of a language – the so called private language – that applies to just one person’s inner experiences and that can be understood only by that one person and no one else. He denied its existence on the grounds that if only one person was the arbiter of the rules, definitions etc. of such a language there would be no rules or definitions and indeed no language. If only one person can possibly decide what is right and wrong in regard to such a language – if it is all regulated by her single will – there can be no rules and no language. Rules by very definition must be independent of a person’s will.

The analogy here, though I am not sure if any one has ever drawn it, is with the Euthyphro argument developed by Plato in the eponymous dialogue. I will skip centuries to Leibniz’s modern characterization of the dilemma: Is something good and just because God wills it, or is it good and just in itself and therefore God wills it. If the former, and God is the sole arbiter of the good and just then the good and just are arbitrary. As are all moral rules, if they can change hither and thither at His mere whim (oops, sorry, will.) And so there would be no morality at all.

On a lighter note, I was once engaged in a discussion about the Ten Biblical Commandments with one of those ubiquitous urban side walk preacher/theologians— actually this one some of you New York City denizens might remember sitting at the Times Square metro station surrounded by placards covered with quotations from the Bible. At an appropriate moment I brought up the Euthyphro dilemma and he said, “My dear Sir, my God is no flighty God who frequently changes his mind.” And then with great emphasis he repeated something I have often seen on bumper stickers: “My God keeps his promises!”  Spotting my gotcha moment, I said, “So your God after all is not all powerful.” Confused he asks, “Why?” And I reply,  “Because he is under the thumb of one of the most fundamental of moral rules: Thou shall keep thy promises!” He looked at me puzzled and at the same time triumphant and said, “You philosophers, all you can do is confuse people.” Socrates to the sophist! And I withdrew with my tail between my legs!

But when I have presented my simple version of the private language argument to philosophy friends, their usual repost never fails to remind me of my sidewalk theologian: If the speaker of the private language in question remains consistent throughout its use there is no reason she cannot have a functioning language. I have to remind them that the rule of consistency is as fundamental to language as the rule of promise keeping is to morality and if it can be broken at will it’s no rule at all!

So where do we go from here? Say it’s established that a so-called private language is not possible, but we do have a functioning public language; how is the latter possible?  It is possible only if its rules etc. are not arbitrary, i.e. not dependent on the whim of a single person. The only candidate for this is convention. For a public language to be at all possible, the least that is necessary is that there must be at least two persons in the external world who agree on the use of rules and definitions in such a language. A single person cannot change rules or whatever by fiat herself in such a language but must reach out to that other (and more?) and they must agree together before any change is effected!* But there does exist such a public language. Ergo, there are at least two persons in the external world, and, what is more, THE EXTERNAL WORLD EXITSTS!  Good old Kant need not roll in his grave any more on that account!

* For years I have been trying to replace the monstrosity, ‘butterfly’, in the English language with the onomatopoeic, ‘flutterfly’, a word more in tune with how this beautiful little creature is referred to in most other languages. This change will not happen unless other English speakers agree and so far to my chagrin they have refused to go along!


Pheroze Wadia


Dr. Pheroze Wadia is originally from Mumbai, India, and immigrated to the US in 1962, where he pursued a PhD in Philosophy at NYU, where he met his wife, Judy, a multidisciplinary artist who was famed in the tri-state area for her large-scale mosaics. He has published widely in philosophy and religious studies, most notably on David Hume and A. J. Ayer, and his greatest interest outside of that discipline lies in film studies. He is a quintessential New York man-about-town, known far and wide in cinema houses and off-Broadway communities. He retired from teaching in 2004 and resides in Weehawken, NJ.