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Why I Love Wittgenstein #1: Private Language and Solipsism
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Why I Love Wittgenstein #1: Private Language and Solipsism

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How the iconic philosopher's brilliantly subtle and original thoughts on language can be used to dispel a two-thousand year old philosophical problem. Possibly a misappropriation and possibly an …

How the iconic philosopher's brilliantly subtle and original thoughts on language can be used to dispel a two-thousand year old philosophical problem. Possibly a misappropriation and possibly an oversimplification, but what the gee-whizz. I love Wittgenstein.


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  • 1. Why I love Wittgenstein #1
  • 2. Solipsism• An age-old problem in philosopy.• “Solipsism” refers to the terrifying possibility that you are the only being that actually exists – that everyone else is a figment of your imagination.• Most famous version: Descartes doubt• Cogito ergo sum – I think therefore I am• ie. The only thing I can be sure of is that I exist. Everything else is open to doubt.
  • 3. The problem of other minds• How to reconcile your “inner” (subjective) experience with the “outside” (objective) world...• How do we know other people think, feel and experience like we do?• How do we know anybody or anything has a conscious perspective like ours? There is no observable test we can carry out that consciousness/a perspective is present in anybody/anything.
  • 4. • For hundreds of years this seemed to be an intractable problem that would never be answered:• We simply have to accept that others do think and feel and experience like we do. But we simply have to accept that we can’t prove it.• The problem lies in the fact that we haven’t even agreed on what we mean by consciousness, let alone found a direct way to study “it” – if it is an “it”.
  • 5. WittgensteinObsessions:LanguageLogicConsciousness“If a lion couldtalk, we couldnot under--stand him.”
  • 6. To know the rules you must play the game.• Or, to know what a game is in the first place you must have played a game.• What is the “Chess King”?• Language is also a product of human interactions and behaviour – the sounds and symbols alone are not enough, they must be accompanied by activity.• “D-slab-here” “Five Red Apples”.
  • 7. Language games• “Water!”• Language is used in a multitude of different ways, some ways bearing little resemblance to each other, each with its own set of rules.• Language is woven into the various activities and modes of being we can slip into – it is meaningless outside of these.• Language is an extension of action and behaviour and the way we use it – for example commanding, requesting, pleading, joking, debating - denotes which mode we are in, and requires a response appropriate to that language game.
  • 8. The impossibility of a private language• Without interaction it would be impossible to learn language in the first place – without feedback from others in active situations there would be nothing to tie the system of rules and symbols to.• Say someone decides that each time she has a particular sensation she will place a sign S in a diary. Wittgenstein points out that, without a public setting to check this against, one could have no criteria for the correctness of ones use of S.• You cannot learn language by watching TV in a room on your own – like the “Chess King” there would be no feedback to tell you what “game” was being played, what the rules were, what was a right or wrong response –no frame of reference for the meaningless sounds and pictures on the screen.• But it’s not just that you could not develop your own language on a desert island on your own – you would not. The need would never arise.• For a language to come into existence you need to communicate with at least one responsive other.
  • 9. The link between language and consciousness – a hypothesis• Thought and language develop side by side, and both through communication and interaction with the world and others – language does not just express thought; thought is influenced by language, since language solidifies and gives shape to concepts, perspectives and ways of thinking – it structures thought, to the extent that developing language may be essential to developing a reflective consciousness, certainly to developing rationality.• Without language we have no way to consistently pin down thoughts and concepts, let alone analyze them; and in having to consider how we are going to present our thoughts in language, it makes us analyze and reflect on them.• Without the need for, and practice of, communication with others, there is really no need to be that conscious or reflective at all. Language does not arise, neither does rational thought.
  • 10. Conclusion• We have language.• Language only arises in a public setting (via interaction with others).• Language is interwoven with the formation of “concepts” and “thought”.• To some extent, then, the our “concepts” and “thought” only arise in a public setting too.• There must be others to interact with.• WE ARE NOT ALONE. (And yet... That also means the “content” of our “heads” is never exclusively self- generated....)