Saying what is unsayable. Or in what sense there is a private language

If I try to tell you what’s on my mind, I’ll fail. This is partly because not everything can be said. When I tell you how I feel, you won’t feel how I feel. When I tell you what I see, you won’t see what I see. You’ll see the sun, too, but it doesn’t have the same colours and it doesn’t mean to you what it means to me. At the same time, I know that you know this, too. You know that you would fail much in the same way that I would. Although our experiences might be worlds apart, I know exactly that you will understand me when I say what I just said. Although I probably know hardly anything about you, I know that we are very much alike. At least in this, and probably in quite some more respects, too. In my last post, I tried to say why our thinking in language and images might not be suited to think about ourselves. However, I think that this attempt remains incomplete without pondering on the opposite, that is, on the attempt to express ourselves as best we can.

What shall we do with this insight? The insight that there are things we might wish to express but cannot say? The attempt to tackle this has been with me for a long time. It drove a desire to say what was unsayable, and it drove a desire to see whether it really is unsayable, and it drove a desire to understand why it might be unsayable. This desire seems to be everywhere. You, ordinary people, philosophers, poets, musicians, all kinds of artists and scientists have looked into this at some point. “You don’t understand me.” This simple sentence testifies the paradox. Yes, it is true, there is always something lacking. And yet, we all know that we don’t understand. The phenomenon has a long history, ranging at least from the ancient saying that “the individual is ineffable” to Wittgenstein’s famous argument against the possibility of a private language. The individual cannot be captured, at least not by concepts. – However, the idea that we should resign to this insight sparks fury. It strikes me as unacceptable.

Why unacceptable? At least among philosophers I sense that we have indeed resigned to this insight. After telling first-year students that language cannot be private or providing some other version of this insight, most of us move on and expect people to come to terms with it. Subjectivity is a loser! (Liam Bright has a nice post showing that the arguments we standardly advance against it are not even very good. And I agree.) – But this, I submit, is a mistake. While it is true that there are a number of good ideas and arguments in favour of this insight, it strikes me as a mistake to stop trying to push against it. Why? Even if you believe that the unsayable really is unsayable, there remain at least two unsettled issues: first, there remains the mystery why exactly it should be so; second, there is the desire to express the unsayable anyway. Let’s briefly look at these two issues:

  • Looking at the history of ideas, there are a number of very different reasons for the claim that there is something unsayable. Some believe it has to do with the contingent nature of the individual; others think that nothing is conceptually accessible as a simple given; others think it is the nature of language defying such access; others still think the individual is a fictitious construct or reification anyway. At the same time, there always have been ways of retaining something of what counts as inexpressible, for instance by referring to God, the individual par excellence, or by introducing non-conceptual content, or by advocating varieties of relativism. Simply resigning to the insight, taking it as a fact, strikes me as accepting that this is a matter of yes or no. But I don’t see a principled reason for seeing this as a categorical matter. Neither do I think it can be reduced to one single insight. If this is correct, there is no reason to give up on it, whatever ‘it’ may be.
  • Even if you believe that it might be illusory to believe that saying the unsayable is possible, it would be a mistake to deny the presence of this illusion. As already noted the problem does not only inspire philosophers to write refutations; it also gives rise to artistic and other attempts to express the inexpressible. Compare freedom: Many philosophers believe that libertarian freedom, alternative possibilities, is an illusory idea. But that doesn’t disqualify the topic. In the same way, the resignation to the insight strikes me as a mistake. Yes, Wittgenstein wrote that we should remain silent whereof we cannot speak. But there are good reasons to disagree.

Ok, you might say, fine! But how do we move on? What can be gained, and how? And what are you talking about anyway? – Right then, I can only try, and this is a first attempt. So here goes: As I said in my previous post, I think that thinking about ourselves works according to the money model. This means that the crucial point in thinking (and speaking) lies in interacting with others. (So, like Wittgenstein in the Philosophical Investigations, I assume that language is a social institution from the getgo.) Again, the point of crying, for instance, is normally not to express a very particular kind of pain, but to interact with others. Crying is a communicative act; and it receives an apt response if the person in question is consoled or something like that. In the same vein, language works as a form of interaction, not as a form of decoding of what has been encoded. Now, I think the same is true when we want to express something that we deem inexpressible. When I attempt to express my innermost experience or something I deem totally private or personal what changes is not the kind of content (from something public to something private). What changes is the (imagined) interlocutor. So what makes the difference between a private and a public speech act is the relation I have to my interlocutor. Thus, communicating something supposedly unsayable works by speaking to an interlocutor whom you trust very much or know very well. Ranging from a conversation, say, with your employer to one with your lover, your closest friend, your parents or even yourself – the levels of privacy can differ accordingly.

So, yes, I think there is a private language, not in that you can encode your private experiences but in that you can speak to someone in a very personal mode. It is the kind of interaction that creates the degree of privacy. To illustrate this, let me suggest a small experiment: Take the sentence “I love you.” We all know it’s a very common kind of sentence. Now imagine that sentence spoken to you by different people. My guess is that your experience and understanding of that sentence will be quite varied in accordance with the imagined interlocutor. So what makes the difference is the person talking to you; not the content of what is said as such.

To return to the more general point, then, I think that when we think about private language we often might be looking in the wrong place. Privacy is not constituted by a kind of content only knowable by you. That would indeed be something self-defeating. Privacy is constituted by the intimacy of the interlocutor. Of course, you can only use a public language even when speaking to yourself. But the conversation can become more intimate, richer and more private in associations and in its relation to concrete experience when we are sufficiently close to our interlocutor.

So if we look for modes of privacy, it might be good to look at different relations between interlocutors or people more generally. These don’t always have to be people close to us in an emphatic sense. If we look at ritualised forms of interaction, we might find other pertinent forms of privacy. So in adition to thinking about personal interlocutors, we might want to think about the relation between language and music, linguistic-musical rituals (such as prayer, meditation and interaction between musicians or other artists), the development of language use in children etc. – As I said, this is just a beginning. But it strikes me as important not to give up on the quest for modes of expressing what we deem unsayable.

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