Private Language and the Question of Truth

" 'So you are saying that human agreement decides what is true and what is false?'--It is what human beings say that is true or false; and they agree in the language they use. That is not agreement in opinions but in form of life." (88, s.241) (1)

Wittgenstein has presented us with a problem with the question of truth. The question of truth inevitably leads to a questioning of identity, of the self, within this context or environment of language, which Wittgenstein has already set-up as "a form of life" (s.19). (2) So following this, if language is a form of life, it too must have a true/false spectrum that it conforms to. This spectrum is called grammar. These are the rules that a language-game participant follows in order to proclaim themselves either true or false, which is evident in their coherence and their understanding of that certain language situation (context, environment, system, use, etc.). So in using language, a person is: 1) confirming true/false designations within a specific system (language with rules, for example, English), and 2) also confirming the true/false designation of themselves as beings. This latter designation leads to larger ontological questions that go straight back to ideas of being like the ones we see in the Presocratics leading up to Plato and Aristotle. I would like to concentrate, for a brief while, on trying to set-up where Wittgenstein begins in his presentation and refutation of the private language problem (if it is one at all). So in a sense, I would like to talk about how philosophy got to the point where this question necessitated itself, arising out of the ether and causing all of the trouble that it has in the latter part of this century.

"take into care being as whole" (3)

This phrase is historically attributed to Periander, who was considered one of the "seven wise men" of ancient Greece. This phrase, to me, seems to say that one who studies correctly or wisely is one who occupies themselves with the whole, with everything in its totality. While one who does not worry oneself with the whole, studies the smaller parts, the propositions that make up the whole. I am assuming that accordingly, Periander was talking about being, about life, and about the totality that life is. This has very religious undertones and reminds one that Greek philosophers were inextricably linked with the deities they worshipped. Philosophy and religion were one and same thing as were all questions about what it means to be. Thus language would fall under the aegis of this saying only as a matter of fact. The primacy of language as constituting "the world" was not understood as it is today in our "linguified" world. Remember that the so-called linguistic turn in philosophy and in other disciplines did not occur until this century, when words themselves and what they meant, represented, signified, used as, were brought under questioning and studied. Of course classical philology was already an established academic discipline by the Twentieth century, but only as a support discipline. What I mean by this is that the products of philological research was used, appropriated by other disciplines (philosophy, literature, anthropology, etc.). The Greeks understood language as a tool and as a medium of communication in its most essential sense--it remained unquestioned. Thus truth for the ancient Greeks was in accordance with the relationship between the philosophical-religious study of the meaning of being and empirical determinations. Truth remained an entity that was bound in the being of a person (or a thing for that matter--a rock is a rock because it is a rock).

Plato and, more specifically his disciple Aristotle, changed the determination of truth when they took it and placed it within the system of logic. Truth was now something to be discovered rather than assumed in its essential form of the being. Thus truth became a question, or a problem that was to be asked of all entities. Those entities that could not respond were designated scientifically through correspondence: a stone is a stone if it looks like, feels like, acts like the other stone over there in the corner. Truth became something that could statistically and empirically be derived through methods and formulas. Aristotelian logic becomes the language of truth, the designator of what is considered true and what is considered false. Heidegger, I think, rightly says that logic exists as study only because "the truth and its possession, or non-possession, are what make us uneasy, happy, or disappointed, and only for that reason does the assertion [proposition], as a place of truth, receive special attention..." (4) Logic takes over the study of truth by using those designators of propositions: p & ~p, if p then q, and so on. Logic takes away from the inherent richness and complexity the question of truth has and replaces it within a system that presents truth as a problem. Once truth becomes a problem rather than a question, we begin to see truth as lying outside of beings/entities/things and housed within a contrived formulaic system that lies outside, beyond time and space. The language of logic is predictable. It has rules that have been predetermined so that anything and everything can be easily and synthetically placed within the system and can have its "truth value" deduced according to its presentation as a proposition. This leads to all sorts of political-ethical dilemmas (5) that, unfortunately, can not be discussed here. With Aristotle we can see the emerging importance of language as dogmatically enforced truth, as truth according to what is conceived as true within a system.

The logic of Aristotle was rather simple in its design and its function. As Heidegger simply explains it, an assertion (proposition, subject, form of knowledge) is true insofar as it conforms to its object. Truth becomes correctness (adequateness, assimilation, correspondence). Aristotle then conceives of truth as assimilation, which has "its home in the logos." (6) Aristotle then extends his definition of truth to representation as well. A thing (being, entity, stone, car, computer, etc.) must conform to its being (truth) in an assertion. "Correctness [truth] is the standard and measure even for incorrectness [un-truth]" so that essentially, "truth is the correspondence of knowledge (representation, thought, judgment, assertion,) with the object." (7) Under this formula, language as the expositor of truth becomes key in understanding how truth "works;" language becomes the representation of not only beings but of being itself. Thus language refers to the truth determined by its appropriate correctness or incorrectness within the system of logic. Things correspond to their truth by being referred, by being placed aside and thought about, by plugging things into artificially created systems.

Returning to Wittgenstein (sorry for the detour), as he himself says, humans "agree in the language [that we] use." He presents this as a non-problem according to his designation of language as a life form fitting into specified language-games. But if language is a life form, what happens when one person does not understand another person? Do we have here a disagreement in language (contra s. 241) or do we have a disagreement between beings that use language? Wittgenstein says that "the individual words of [a] language are to refer to what can only be known to a person speaking; to his immediate private sensations. So another person cannot understand the language." (8) He is formulating a precarious problem (within a system of logic) about the "in between," about the designations of both the rules of grammar in a specific language and the idea of truth as reference and correspondence. In the next section, Wittgenstein continues with questioning this "in between" of the subject/object binary. Here we see a very subtle but important agreement (in language) with both Wittgenstein and Heidegger in connection with this middle ground, this transitory zone where truth and falsity are determined. Wittgenstein says:

How do words refer to sensations?--There doesn't seem to be any problem here; [italics mine] donít we talk about sensations every
day, and give them names? But how is the connexion between the name and the thing set up? This question is the same as: how
does a human being learn the meaning of the names of sensations?--of the word 'pain' for example. (9)

Wittgenstein goes on to say as well in section 245, "For how can I go so far as to try to use language to get between pain and its expression?" (10) This is where Aristotelian logic enters into the language game. The logic replaces grammatical rules with functional rules based upon truth values. This in turn distances the idea of truth even more from the truth as inherent in the being.

Heideggerís view, implicit in his critique of Aristotelian logic (and its foundation for all of Western metaphysics up through Hegel), also describes this "in between" area that is so cloudy and empty, yet so important when paired with the logical subject-predicate grammar rule. Heidegger says that "we do not find the slightest reason to concern ourselves with this distinction," because "things take their course,"--their truth is not problematic. (11) Heidegger is interested in what the "is" is in phrases like, "the weather is fine," or "the rock is shiny," or "she is beautiful." In all of these examples, we find that the things being talked about (weather, rock, a woman) are what they are. If we take the "is" out of these statements then the words preceding and following the "is" mean nothing except for possibly their ostensive definitions. Heidegger concludes that questioning the "is" "seems to lead to an empty hairsplitting, a hairsplitting about something that does not and need not trouble us...It is enough that beings are." (12) The idea that forms here is that the speaker/writer/thinker of any proposition/assertion must have the ability to understand the logic of grammar whereby the "is" is taken out of its emptiness and filled with meaning and richness when it is placed between the subject-object dualism. How can something be completely empty and full at the same time? This is an unending question, one that goes around and around in an eternal loop. But Heidegger posits a possible exit by stating that the 'in between,' the "is" "according to grammar, [is] a derivation and form of the verb 'to be.'" (13) Thus he concludes with the following:

The word 'is,' taken by itself, remains helpless and poor in meaning. The complexity of the meanings of the 'is' had its intelligible
ground in the fact that a different being is represented each time...According to grammar, the 'is' has the task of connecting [italics
mine] the 'subject' with the 'predicate.' The 'is' remains not only actually an empty word, but due to its essence--as a connecting
word--it may not be loaded down beforehand with any particular meaning. Its own meaning must therefore be totally 'empty.' (14)

Heidegger, in sticking with Periander's fragment ("take into care being as whole") is trying to allow for a more originary meaning of "is" to arise, and accordingly a more originary meaning of being in regards to its truth. The "problem" of truth arises when we logically try to analyze the relationship between things, the 'in between.' When the 'in between' is studied by such a static system like Aristotelian logic, then things like assumptions, conjectures, theories, and the like arise, distancing language (as a life form) and the being that uses it even farther from a truth. Wittgenstein and Heidegger are both interested in revealing this 'in between' so that for one the refutation of a private language can be discerned, and for another the truth of being can be acquired by going back past the dawn of logic when beings were taken as whole in their being.

Wittgenstein, though he presents us with this idea of private language is mystified himself about its possibility. He is subtle in his wordings of how a private language might actually be possible, but he is just as vicious in disproving that one actually exist. Wittgenstein alludes to memory throughout sections 250-285, and the ideas of remembrance, occurrences, correspondences, individualities, and the ability to understand language. But he seems to, time and time again, rely on the fact that language is always used with the possibility of an audience, where the 'in between' is mediated. All of his examples (the rod, the diary, pain, the dictionary, the color red, etc.) rely on the fact that we are once imagining for a purpose, we are imaging for an other, for someone who will understand what our determinations are about. Every time he tries to convince us that there really is a private language in our mind, un-communicable to the outside world, he always comes back with some reference that we constantly are thinking because we are in reply, we are in relation with either other beings who communicate with us, who play the language game (understanding grammar, logic, rules, systems). But he eschews a pretentious argument by allowing his mind to roam freely, allowing thoughts to play because he understands the intrinsic nature of his enterprise: to answer the "problem" of truth but within language as a life form and away from language as a metaphysical logic. I think that Wittgenstein is trying to suggest (along with Heidegger, though he is rather elusive and caustic on this front) that Aristotelian logic as a foundation of truth must not be what designates the idea of truth. This would then go hand in hand with his idea that a private language cannot exist due to the fact that all people strive to be understood, strive to be accepted by social groups and the like. If a private language were possible, would that person be accepted, acknowledged, able to get across desires and sensations like 'pain?' I am not sure, but I think that Wittgenstein would agree with me that even if I make "sounds which no one else understands but which I 'appear to understand' might be called a 'private language,'" (15) would still be invalid. Why? Because if I started talking gibberish (for example, "chick-a-ding-down-boing-baaaaaa-bop-shubity-bop-ahhh-bak-senin-azina-sic harim") Alan might say something like, "What the hell are you saying Onur!?" Then I would reply, "Sorry Alan, having a bit of the old Glenlivet before class." The assumption here is that I understand Alanís response to me that he doesnít understand me. Even if I understand what I am saying myself, or at least relate what I said to some mental thoughts, I will understand Alanís response because I am being incoherent within the context of that moment. The sounds, as they do correspond to some writable/speakable ideas and thoughts, will not work in a context with an audience who is trying to acquire meaning from the words. Thus the 'in between' arises again that implies and commands an agreement both within grammar and within the language game being played.

But is the "problem" of truth solved? That is a question that both Wittgenstein and Heidegger never came to a conclusion about. Wittgenstein ended up asking more questions and died, and Heidegger became an impenetrable, mediocre poet and a critic of technology, wasting away under the ominous revelations of Nazi collaboration. We continue to live under both of their shadows, still wrestling with the same problems.

30 November 1999

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