An anti-orthodox reading of Wittgenstein’s so-called private language argument

Wittgenstein introduces his famous private language scenario in §243 of Philosophical Investigations. What should be beyond dispute is that Wittgenstein sets himself against the scenario. What is less clear is the how of this setting against. The character of this “how” is the main topic of my essay.

According to most commentators, Wittgenstein’s aim is to refute the idea of a private language, to prove that such a language is logically or conceptually impossible. Call this the orthodox line of interpretation. On the basis of the orthodox line, it becomes difficult to reconcile the discussion of the notion of a private language with the conception of philosophy and of philosophical problems that Wittgenstein expresses in his so-called metaphilosophical remarks. One might (as has been suggested by commentators such as Michael Dummett and Eike von Savigny) hold that this reveals that there is a tension between the way in which Wittgenstein describes his philosophical procedures and the manner in which he practices philosophy. However, one might also hold that the apparent mismatch reflects back on the assumptions that ground the orthodox line of interpretation itself. What I offer, is an anti-orthodox story about how to understand Wittgenstein’s remarks on the notion of a private language, a story which is more constrained by Wittgenstein’s strictures on methods and procedures as well as his conception of the character of philosophical problems than the stories told by those who fall within the orthodox camp.

Keywords: the private language argument, Wittgenstein, Wittgenstein’s conception of philosophy.