Wittgenstein’s “Private Language Argument” and the Limits of Language

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Richard McDonough


After explaining the “private language argument” (PLA) centered in para. 258 of the Philosophical Investigations, the paper first clarifies Wittgenstein’s notion of criteria. The paper then discusses the irony in Wittgenstein’s apparent objection to putative private languages that they have no criteria for the private use of words. It is then argued that PLA, viewed from a logical perspective, is fallacious. The paper then shows how there could be scientific standards (not criteria in Wittgenstein’s technical sense) for the existence of private mental states and argues that Wittgenstein did not argue that this is impossible. The paper then argues that the conclusion of PLA is a tautology. The paper then argues that since the conclusion of PLA is a tautology, Wittgenstein would be correctly unmoved by any of the aforementioned objections to PLA. Finally, the paper refutes the objection that there is an inconsistency in the present interpretation and shows how resolving this objection shows that Wittgenstein’s PLA is to be understood in the context of his longstanding interest in setting the limits of language.

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McDonough, R. (2019). Wittgenstein’s “Private Language Argument” and the Limits of Language. Humanities Bulletin, 2(1), 20-35. Retrieved from https://www.journals.lapub.co.uk/index.php/HB/article/view/472