Monday, June 13, 2011

Wittgenstein: the world is MY world

To: Michael W.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Wittgenstein: the world is MY world
Date: 14 January 2003 12:13

Dear Mike,

Thank you for your e-mail of 5 January with your first essay for the Philosophy of Language program, in response to the question:

'The world is MY world: this is manifest in the fact that the limits of LANGUAGE (of that language which alone I understand) mean the limits of MY world' ('Tractatus' 5.62). - do you agree with that statement?

This is a good essay which raises a number of important issues.

I share your intuition that solipsism is, in some sense conditionally or partially true. The difficulty is in pinpointing the precise sense, if any, in which THE world is more (or less?) than MY world.

Your first point can be approached by considering an idea which will be familiar to engineers. Imagine we live on Bendyworld, where all physical materials have a tendency to twist and bend, expand or contract unpredictably. How would you measure length? A 'ruler' would seem to be useless. There would be no reliable way to tell, when I measured the width of my desk and got an increased value on a second occasion, whether the desk had expanded, or my ruler had contracted.

On second thoughts, we might get by using complex correlations between different physical objects. We consider the desk in relation to the carpet, the window, the bookshelf etc. So one can make judgements of probability, e.g. 'It is improbable that my desk, the carpet, the window, the bookshelf would all expand to the same degree at the same time, while the ruler remained constant.' In such a case, it is more probable that the ruler contracted.

Is this the way it is with language? (Wittgenstein talks about rulers in the Philosophical Investigations in the context of a discussion of what is 'a priori' about a statement such as, 'The meter rod in Paris is one meter long'.)

It seems that the difficulty with language - more precisely the impossibility of describing the relation between language and the world because that would require the use of language - is more profound. It is not a problem of physics, but metaphysics. Indeed, it is not necessary to frame the problem in the 'linguistic' mode. In the opening sections of the 'Phenomenology' Hegel addresses essentially the same question in terms of our cognitive capacities: how can we trust cognition, if the very same faculty is required in measuring our power of cognition against reality? (Hegel jests about 'catching a bird with a lime twig - surely the bird would laugh our ruse to scorn'.)

However, this provides a powerful impetus towards solipsism, ONLY when combined with the premise that the 'language' in question is understood only by me.

It would be consistent with the view that language is my language to talk of a model which is 'tried and tested indefinitely with each cause and effect difference between reality and my own model noted and then the parameters subtly adjusted...'. Exactly what the solipsist would say. Solipsism is not the view that all my judgements are true, but rather that the standard in question is MY standard. 'At the end of the day,' the solipsist will say, 'my judgement is all I have to go on, even when I heed the advice or views of others.'

It is not enough, in order to rebut this, to argue that language evolved, that the capacity for language in inextricably bound up with awareness of others with whom one communicates using language. All that, the solipsist can accept. These are all features - if you like, a priori or necessary features - of my world, the world which is the subject matter for my judgement, or the world of my possible experience. The crucial factor missing here is the idea that there is something OUTSIDE my world, namely the world of the other.

To make this point, we need to show that truth is our truth, not my truth. I take this to be the real import of the private language argument.

Consider what is a 'paranoid delusion'. I understand what it would mean to be suffering from a paranoid delusion. From the inside, my judgements are 'tried and tested indefinitely' making an ever-closer approach to reality. From the outside, they go further and further adrift from reality. What this shows is that there is more to truth than what truth is for me. Hence solipsism is false.

In what sense is solipsism true? Here is how I interpret talk of a 'private language consisting of experience and feelings'. Each of us stands in our own unique relation to the apparatus of a shared language and interpersonal communication. Because linguistic meaning is essentially relational, it is not possible to attach meaning to one term of the relation. Plato attempted this on the objective side with his eternal Forms. As Wittgenstein showed, such a move leads to an infinite regress of interpretations. I have to learn to recognize the Platonic Form of Red as 'red'. So that knowledge cannot itself be embodied in the Form of Red. On the subjective side, there is my own 'subjective knowledge' which cannot be expressed in language, because as soon as I vocalise my feelings, I am talking about what is objective, not subjective.

I still think that there is more to the 'truth' of solipsism than this, however, as you will have gathered from my papers on the 'Partial Vindication of Solipsism' and 'Truth and Subjective Knowledge' (Wood Paths web site But perhaps I had better stop there.

All the best,