Dec 20, 2008

On Wittgenstein and the Myth of the Private Language

The private language is a language that no one understands but oneself. It is communicable only to oneself. If Heidigger's theory on thrownness is true, then the private language functions as an indespensable tool. If, according to Heidigger, humans have no choice but to react to situations - not reacting or remaining impassive is also considered to be a form of reaction - than the private language is what communicates a person's earliest reactions to him or herself. The private language is what communicates a person's reactions upon encountering something - a sight, a smell, an emotion, a taste or something touched. The private language is uncommunicable, and remains uncommunicable, to other individuals due to the limitation of public language. The public language's seemingly infinite compendium of words does not correspond with what one feels or thinks.

In her novel Orlando, Virginia Woolf probes the limitations of the public language in communicating the private language. Woolf's protagonist, Orlando encounters Sasha, a Russian princess with whome he falls madly in love. Orlando was found at a lost for words to describe the fox-like beauty of Sasha and called her a myriad of things - a fox, a pineapple, an emerald, an olive tree - none of which hits the mark of what he saw in the Russian beauty. Yet, he fully understands the appeal that the Princess Sasha had.

Is the private language a myth? I think not. Upon encountering something, be it tangible or abstract, we undoubtedly experience an intellectual or emotional reaction. Whether or not that reaction can be translated into words differs from one individual to the next, and is achieved at varying degrees. A less articulate individual may be at a lost for words to communicate an emotion. Perhaps that is alleviates the mythical facade of the private language.


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