300: Private Language: Three Complications15 October, 2011
Wittgenstein’s views on ‘private language’ have been concisely summarized by Radden (2011, p.70):
“… he insists that an ideosyncratic ‘private language’ could not be a proper language. Meaning and significance are tied to how words are used, and such use occurs within some linguistic community. Only a mistaken conception of meaning could permit us to envision the possibility of a ‘language’ for one person only.”
Complication 1: Suppose the inventor of Esperanto had never convinced anyone else to learn that language. Would Esperanto then be a private language in Wittgenstein’s sense? Well, no, you might say, because ‘in principle’ Esperanto could be taught to thousands of people and used fluently, which it in fact has been.
But how would that ‘principle’ be formulated? Validated? Applied to Esperanto? What are the criteria for determining that Esperanto would or would not be a ‘real’ (non-private) language in principle, if no more than one person were ever to speak it?
Complication 2: A program written in a computer language can be understood, obviously enough, by a suitable computer program (interpreter, compiler, or assembler, for instance). And we know it’s been understood because the resulting program can execute (whether or not it executes exactly as intended). Is that computer language a ‘language’ simpliciter, or is that only a metaphor?
Complication 3: A computer language is a language if programs written in it can be read and turned into executable code by a suitable computer program. ** Suppose there is only one such computer program (a compiler, for example). Is that language then a private language? Or would the existence of instances of that compiler on many different machines count as making the language a ‘real’ language, when otherwise it would not be? Why?
** Actually, the intelligibility and use of programs written in the Algol language was quite independent of their translatability into executable programs. Many short Algol programs were published to be read by people, not compiled and executed.
(Radden, J., On Delusion. Routledge, 2011)