By Keith Tidman
Let’s hypothesise that everyone in a community has a box containing a ‘beetle’. Each person can peer into only his or her box, and never into anyone else’s. Each person insists, upon looking into their own box, that they know what a ‘beetle’ is.
But there’s a catch: Each box might contain something different from some or all the others; each box might contain something that continually changes; or each box might actually contain nothing at all. Yet upon being asked, each person resolutely continues to use the word ‘beetle’ to describe what’s in their box. Refusing, even if probed, to more fully describe what they see, even if not showing it. The word ‘beetle’ thus simply meaning ‘that thing inside a person’s box’.
So, what does the thought experiment, set out by the influential twentieth-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein in his book Philosophical Investigations, tell us about language, mind, and reality?
As part of this experiment, Wittgenstein introduced the concept of a ‘private language’. That is, a language with a vocabulary and structure that only its originator and sole user understands, all the while untranslatable and obscure to everyone else. The original notion of a private (personal) language was in being analogous to what a person might use in attempting to convey his or her unique experiences, perceptions, and senses — the person’s individualised mental state. However, one criticism of such a personal language, by reason of being mostly unfathomable to others, is in its not holding to the definitional purpose of a working language as we commonly know it: to communicate with others, using mutually agreed-upon and comprehended guidelines.
Notably, however, the idea of a ‘private language’ has been subject to different interpretations over the years — besides in expressing to others one’s own mental state — on account of what some people have held are its inherent ambiguities. Even on its surface, such a private language does seem handicapped, inadequate for faithfully representing external reality among multiple users. A language unable to tie external reality to ‘internal’ reality — to a person’s ‘immediate private sensations’, as Wittgenstein put it, such as pain the individual feels. That is, to the user’s subjective, qualitative state of mind. Yet, the idea that people’s frames of mind, subjective experiences, and sense of awareness are unknowable by others, or at least uncertainly known, seems to come to us quite naturally.
Conventionally speaking, we become familiar with what something is because of its intrinsic physical characteristics. That ‘something’ has an external, material reality, comfortably and knowingly acknowledged by others in abidance to norms within the community. The ‘something’ holds to the familiar terms of the ‘public language’ we use to describe it. It conveys knowledge. It denotes the world as we know it, precipitated by the habitual awareness of things and events. There’s a reassuringly objective concreteness to it.
So, if you were to describe to someone else some of the conventional features of, say, a sheet of paper or of an airplane or of a dog, we would imagine that other people could fathom, with minimal cognitive effort and without bewilderment, what the item you were describing was. A ‘private language’ can’t do any of that, its denying us a universally agreed-upon understanding of what Wittgenstein’s beetle-in-the-box might actually be. To the point about effectiveness, a ‘private language’ — where definitions of terms may be adversely arbitrary, unorthodox, imprecise, and unfamiliar — differs greatly from a ‘public language’ — where definitions of terms and syntactical form stick to conventional doctrine.
Meanwhile, such a realisation about the shortcomings of a ‘private language’ points to an analogy applicable to a ‘shared’ (or public) language: What happens in the case of expressing one’s personal, private experiences? Is it even possible to do so in an intelligible fashion? The discussion now pivots to the realm of the mind, interrogating aspects such as perception, appearance, attention, awareness, understanding, belief, and knowledge.
For example, if someone is in pain, or feeling joy, fear, or boredom, what’s actually conveyed and understood in trying to project their situation to other people? It’s likely that only they can understand their own mental state: their pain, joy, fear, or boredom. And any person with whom they are speaking, while perhaps genuinely empathetic and commiserative, in reality can only infer the other individual’s pain while understanding only their own.
Put another way, neither person can look into the other’s ‘box’; neither can reach into the other’s mind and hope to know. There are epistemic (knowledge-related) limits to how familiar we can be with another person’s subjective experience, even to the extent of the experience’s validation. Pain, joy, fear, and boredom are inexpressible and incomprehensible, beyond rough generalizations and approximations, whether resorting to either a ‘private’ or public language.
What’s important is that subjective feelings obscurely lack form — like the mysterious ‘beetle’. They lack the concrete, external reality mentioned previously. The reason being that your feelings and those of the other person are individualised, qualitative, and subjective. They are what philosophy of mind calls qualia. Such that your worry, pleasure, pride, and anxiety likely don’t squarely align with mine or the next person’s. Defaulting, as Wittgenstein put it, to a ‘language game’ with consequences, with its own puzzling syntactical rules and lexicon. And as such, the game’s challenge to translate reality into precise, logical, decipherable meaning.
All of which echoes Wittgenstein’s counsel against the inchoate, rudimentary notion of a ‘private language’, precisely because of its lacking necessary social, cultural, historical, and semiotic context. A social backdrop whereby a language must be predictably translatable into coherent concepts (with the notable exception of qualia). Such as giving things identifiable, inherent form readily perceived by others, according to the norms of social engagement and shared discourse among people within a community.
Shape-shifting ‘beetles’ are a convenient analogue of shape-shifting mental states. Reflecting altering ways our qualitative, subjective states of mind influence our choices and behaviours, through which other people develop some sense of our states of mind and how others may define us — a process that, because of its mercurial nature, is seldom reliable. The limitations discussed here of Wittgenstein’s ‘private language’ arguably render such a medium of communication unhelpful to this process.
We make assumptions, based on looking in the box at our metaphorical beetle (the thing or idea or sensation inside), that will uncover a link: a connection between internal, subjective reality — like the pain that Wittgenstein’s theorising demonstrably focused on, but also happiness, surprise, sadness, enthrallment, envy, boredom — and external, objective reality. However, the dynamics of linguistically expressing qualitative, individualised mental states like pain need to be better understood.