Friday, June 3, 2011

The meaning of 'I am David G.'

To: David G.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: The meaning of 'I am David G.'
Date: 11 November 2002 12:48

Dear David,

Thank you for your letter of 28 October, with your fifth and final essay for the Philosophy of Language program, in response to the question, 'Explain the meaning that you associate with the statement, "I am David G".'

First of all, well done for completing the program! When you have had time to recover, let me know your thoughts about how you want to proceed from here.

This essay suffers from a major shortcoming in that, although (in paragraph 4) you report that Wittgenstein 'decisively refuted' the Cartesian view of subjectivity, in paragraph 5 you then go on to assert that 'According to Wittgenstein, each of us has his own private language, in which he refers to the 'inner processes' which elude the public "language game"...'

Wittgenstein did not believe in the existence of a private language. According to Wittgenstein, a private language is impossible. In schematic outline, here is how the argument is supposed to run:

1. Suppose that there exists a private language.

2. Then I could, say, invent my own private name 'S' for a particular inner experience. I would understand 'S' but no-one else could understand it.

3. But the supposition in 2. leads to absurdity [Wittgenstein spills a lot of ink explaining this].

4. Therefore, a private language is impossible.

5. Therefore...[the interesting part].

The argument in 'Naive Metaphysics' hinges on the acceptance of Wittgenstein's rejection of a private language. There is no way, in a public language, to explain the peculiar meaning that 'I am GK' has for me (or for you to explain the peculiar meaning that 'I am DG' has for you) but *nor* is there any other language or means of expression which I (or you) can use to express or 'mean' the thought in question.

In unit 15 of Language and the World, I attempt to break out of this apparent deadlock:
322. What can another person do for me in respect of my rule following that I cannot do for myself? That is necessarily a *first-person* question. If one had asked, ‘What can one person do for another that the other cannot do for himself?’ the answer would be, simply, ‘Nothing.’ One person’s correcting another has precisely the same significance from the external viewpoint as a person’s correcting himself. The philosophical problem of the objectivity of meaning only becomes visible in the form, ‘How do I know that my words mean anything?’ It is a question that Descartes, in pursuing his method of radical doubt, should have asked himself, but, notoriously, failed to do. Wittgenstein’s answer, as embodied in account of rule following and the critique of a private language, constitutes a radical subversion of Cartesian epistemology, yet – as we are now for the first time in a position to appreciate – an answer that is intelligible only in relation to a particular starting point: the ‘I’ that is asking the question.

What I have attempted to do here is connect the issue expressed right at the beginning of the Language program - the question of the normativity of meaning - with the question of the meaning of I-thoughts.

I propose that we forget about the 'two world metaphysics'. A less inflationary approach would be to say that perspective is not an inessential aspect that could somehow be eliminated in a logically perfect language. On the contrary, you cannot be asking the question if you are not a language user with a perspective. At the same time, what communication aims at is agreement about a common world (this world includes such things as an individual's pains, thoughts, ideas). So we need to take a dual view of language in terms of its significance in relation to any given language user, and the common meanings which language users are able to access through language.

The rejected 'private language' view is that we are dealing with not one but two logically distinct languages. Each of us translates the public language into our own private language. However, this theory is not only logically incoherent, but also fails to identify correctly where perspective enters the picture. The correct view of perspective is not in terms of the possession of private objects, but rather in terms of the asymmetry between self and other.

The hard thing here is knowing where to stop, knowing when you've said enough. I now think that my 'two world' theory probably says far too much. In the early chapters of the book I talk of the rejection of the metaphysical (Aristotelian) idea of 'totality' - the idea of a metaphysical theory that takes everything in from a disinterested point of view - and then go on to attempt a reconciliation between the total view and the irreducibility of perspective. It can't be done. But I no longer see that as a failure on our part. We are not, after all, obliged to swallow a 'metaphysical contradiction'.

Having said that, I am left with an inexplicable sense of mystery about the fact of my own existence. I wish I could find the words to theorize about it, but I can't. I no longer even know how to formulate the question.

All the best,