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  • Wittgenstein's Private Language: Grammar, Nonsense, and Imagination in Philosophical Investigations, §§243-315
  • Marie McGinn
Wittgenstein's Private Language: Grammar, Nonsense, and Imagination in Philosophical Investigations, §§243–315, by Stephen Mulhall; 160 pp. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008, $23.95 paper.

The primary concern of Stephen Mulhall's book is to investigate an interpretation of Wittgenstein's remarks on private language, associated paradigmatically with Norman Malcolm. On this reading, the grammar of our ordinary concepts of language, reference, meaning, rule, etc. is held to prohibit or exclude the idea of a private language. The attempt to give expression to the idea is held to result in a violation of the grammar of these concepts, which connects them essentially with the idea of public criteria that are accepted as establishing that a [End Page 265] word has been correctly used. Something that philosophers have been inclined to regard as a possibility is shown to be excluded: the attempt to describe it results in philosophers' using words in ways that are essentially nonsensical.

Mulhall calls this reading of Wittgenstein's remarks a "substantial reading." He questions whether its advocates have missed the fundamental point of Wittgenstein's remarks, even while they remain fundamentally convinced that they have grasped it. He opposes to this style of reading a "resolute reading," as outlined by Diamond and Conant in relation to the Tractatus, which holds that Wittgenstein's central philosophical purpose is to overcome our attraction to the idea that there is something that we cannot do, that the grammar of our language is a limitation on the thoughts we can express. Thus, the suggestion is that one should not see the grammar of our concepts as a limitation, or as a pre-established restriction, on the projection of words into new contexts. Rather, Wittgenstein's aim is to exploit our everyday mastery of language in the investigation, in particular cases, of what we might mean by our words. In the case of the idea of a private language, the aim of the investigation is to show that attempts to give meaning to words which, in a philosophical context, we feel compelled to utter cannot give them a content that succeeds in expressing what the philosopher had it in mind to describe.

This description of Mulhall's aims does not, however, do justice to the singular nature of his text. Many interpreters would dissociate themselves from Malcolm's reading of Wittgenstein's remarks on private language. Many would also see the idea that the grammar of our everyday concepts can be used to prohibit the philosopher's use of words as committed to a view of language that is completely rejected in the Investigations. Yet a concern to find a reading of Wittgenstein's remarks on privacy and private language that avoids the suggestion of constraint, and which does better justice to his rejection of philosophical theorizing, would not on its own guarantee sympathy with Mulhall's treatment of them. The fundamental principle of Mulhall's approach is the need to be attentive to Wittgenstein's voice, and to resist substituting assertion for something that is essentially more interrogative and exploratory in tone. The principle is clearly undeniable, and much of what Mulhall says in this book does clear and careful justice to it. However, there are also points in his discussion where his account of Wittgenstein's dialectic is unconvincing or unclear, and, more significantly, places where his discussion imports concerns that seem remote from the remarks he has focused on.

For example, Mulhall presents the dialectic of §§243–270 as one in which the idea of a language in which the expressions refer to the immediate private sensations of the person speaking, so that another person cannot understand it, is put forward by Wittgenstein's interlocutor, as something to which he—the interlocutor—is committed. Wittgenstein is held to respond to the interlocutor's idea by exploring how the notions of " refer," "immediate," and "private" might be used to give sense to the interlocutor's words. This, it seems to me, [End Page 266] makes matters more straightforward than they are and preserves—in this respect if in no other...


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