Private language

Posted on 20 Nov 2016.
George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne
George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, etching. Courtesy of the Yale University Manuscripts


There’s two things that’s exactly right and one thing that’s possibly more questionable about the private language argument posed by Edmund Gordon in his article “Biography in the Twitter age” posted on The Times Literary Supplement on November 14, 2016. Let’s first recount briefly what Wittgenstein – UK’s philosopher of language and logic – said about private languages (see also the post here).

Essentially, Wittgenstein held that the notion that it is possible to generate a language that is truly private is absurd. For instance, in §241 of Philosophical Investigations he notes that,

So you are saying that human agreement decides what is true and what is false?—It is what human beings say that is true and false; and they agree in the language they use. That is not agreement in opinions but in form of life.

While contract theory would have it that we freely enter into agreements with each other with regard to what words mean, what is true, how the world is put together, and so on, Wittgenstein here clearly takes exception from such an approach. Rather, it is not so much perceptions of the world that are true or not, but how those perceptions are uttered. In other words, truth is a characteristic of language, and agreement is achieved in language. And yet, the parties are not private entities, since their agreements are achieved not on the level of voluntary contract, but as a constellation of forms of life.

Further, in §246, he asks

In what sense are my sensations private? —Well, only I can know whether I am really in pain; another person can only surmise it.—In one way this is wrong, and in another nonsense. If we are using the word “to know” as it is normally used (and how else are we to use it?), then other people very often know when I am in pain.

Here, Wittgenstein underlines the extent to which language is a requirement for perception. If what we are perceiving is someone else’s emotion, then we are guessing or inferring in so far as we do not have spoken affirmation to rely on. If W sees someone with a pained expression, he cannot be certain that this person is indeed in pain until it is verbally confirmed, in the view proposed in §246.

Can W know it himself, in a way that only he knows? What Wittgenstein shows in the so-called Private Language argument is that such a question implies something else than simply whether someone hides or does not communicate his thoughts. In order to speak of a language that is private it would be necessary to posit an entire vocabulary, sets of grammatical rules, etc., that would be known only to the person whose language it was the property.

What if W sought to make a language of his own by each time he had a particular emotion writing down the letter S? Wittgenstein counters this suggestion by noting how it would not be possible to affirm – even to oneself – that it was precisely the same emotion W encountered, so that the letter S could come to signify any number of different feelings.

Now, to examine more closely the argument proposed by Gordon regarding autobiography in the Twitter age, we should keep in mind Wittgenstein’s complex approach to the notion of private. Let’s first look at two senses in which Gordon is right:

1. The private has usurped the public

In his survey of the technological impact on the genre of autobiography, Gordon notes that

Among the main qualities and duties of contemporary biography is the way it measures the distance between a subject’s public and private selves – and if people don’t regularly take the measure of themselves in writing any more, that may no longer be possible.

What Gordon surely means here is that as we post more on Twitter and such like, we conceivably write less for ourselves, i.e., in private diaries, journals, etc., so that the entirety of our written production becomes immediately public. It’s an apt observation, and it is further supported by Gordon’s point that

If we’re always performing for an external audience, then the distance between our private and public selves will surely shrink.

We should remind ourselves of two kinds of historical arguments regarding the distinction between the public and the private spheres here, both of which render Gordon’s point as correct. Hannah Arendt noted that what we are experiencing today is the usurpation of the private domain of the public domain, so that the public arena is increasingly approached as if it was an extension of our household. In this view, the distinction between private and public is obsolete, and anything that happens “at home” immediately occurs in public. The recent proliferation of questions regarding private photos, sharing of information that doesn’t really belong to the public on the internet, and so on, belong to this category. Have we forgotten that what we post on the internet no longer belongs to the private sphere?

2. The public has usurped the private

A second sense in which Gordon is right is rendered by recounting the recent politically motivated research into what goes on in the household under the rubric “the private is public.” In this view, it is an oppressive order that maintains the distinction between private and public, and – as the argument goes – it is in the interest of the oppressed to abolish the distinction. There is nothing that goes on in the household that shouldn’t immediately be considered public acts. According to this kind of action research – politically motivated scholarship that seeks to change the order of the world – it is a good thing that, as Gordon notes, “the distance between our private and public selves” have shrunk. In this manner, it will be more challenging for the dominant and oppressive keepers of the household to keep their acts from public view.

The ideal invention here would be the contraption authored by Eric Blair in his momentous 1949 novel, where it is no longer the private citizens who watch television, but the television who observes the private citizens. Nothing – in this rendition of the world – remains private.

3. Is there a truly private language?

Now, let’s finally consider one sense Gordon’s view is a bit more challenging. In order to understand this sense, it is necessary to review the remarks on Wittgenstein above. Given that W asserts how we cannot arrive at a truly private language, it is necessary to make such a language in the presence of some instance that in some way is external to us. Let’s call this instance the Law-Issuing Instance. We can conceivably construct a language under the aegis of such an instance, debating with ourselves – our Law-Issuing Instance – whether or not we have truly encountered that same emotion as when we previously identified a feeling with the inscription of the letter S. However – and this is the crucial point – if this were the case, we would not be truly alone, i.e., in the private, when we made up the language.

In fact, would not the true horror scenario be a situation where we would be bereaved of our Law-Issuing Instance? It is such a horror that is suggested – and we believe wrongly – by Gordon’s notion of an evaporation of the boundary between private and public. It is in this sense it is possible to say that there never really was a private writing situation, since each entry in a diary or journal was always accompanied by an instance that – however made up by our selves – remains external to us. The crucial point is that this notion of writing in the presence of an Other does not entail the eradication of the private sphere. It simply means that we are never truly alone: there is always someone there that, as George Berkeley held it, watches over us.

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Exhumation

Posted on 17 Nov 2016.
Illustration by Patrycja Wrocławska, used by permission
Illustration: Patrycja Wrocławska, used by permission


After the Prince was torn away in tragic circumstances
Our debt to him could only be settled by uncovering the cause
In a spectral apparition the Prince said:
“Find out the reason for the tragedy,
and you will know your true friends.”
Only by gathering evidence could we put him to rest
And the evidence was written on his body.
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Dressage and illusio

Posted on 13 Nov 2016.
Pierre Bourdieu
Pierre Bourdieu


What should we make of the terms dressage and illusio in the context of sports?

Dressage is a way to make bodies submit, to domesticate and somatise, so that they can be governed and mastered. In sport dressage takes place silently: the skills required for practical mastery are often transmitted without words, and there is a knowledge of sport that never reaches the level of conscious awareness. This is why dressage entails a form of belief: through social orchestration we are led to accept what we would otherwise have considered ill-founded, since, as Pierre Bourdieu noted, “belief is what the body concedes even when the mind says no.”

The term illusio has three senses. First, it describes how participants are seduced as they get involved in the game.  It is a necessary component in the acquisition of mastery: the required immersion in the game seduces the player to forget that it’s “only a game,” and that, as a game, it always holds within itself the possibility of referring to something else. The capacity of sports to pose analogous relations to other forms of activity is what is brought out through the aristocratic disposition of disinterest – of not becoming too involved. The amateur ideal highlighted such relations, and regarded sports primarily as a physical art-for-art’s sake. The demise of amateurism and the attendant rise of sports as spectacles deeply affects our potentiality to unmask the illusio of physical activity.

Second, illusio indicates the effects of a society that is orchestrated through mass mediated spectacles. It is in this sense that we can say that major sports events provide fantasies that serve to regulate desire on the level of populations. It is the ritual character of sports that seduces us to invest a libidinal energy that can be garnered in the service of governance.

In the third sense, illusio shows the distinction between everyday and scientific interpretations of spectacles. To Bourdieu, illusio “directs the gaze toward the apparent producer” –- painter, composer, writer, or sports performer –- “and prevents us asking who created this ‘creator’ and the magic power of transubstantiation with which the ‘creator’ is endowed.” This is how audiences are kept in a state of awe by spectacular sports: through the effects of illusio fans are given to ascribe supernatural powers to characters they know only from mediatised events, and it is this mechanism that prevent viewers from uncovering the illusion and objectifying the fantasmatic.

The study Dressage and illusio: sport, nation and the new global body enquires into the ways nationalism and the forces of globalisation govern us through sport. It is presently available through amazon.com (http://amzn.to/2fCAlLu). More information is available here.

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Spinoza on Descartes

Posted on 12 Nov 2016.
Spinoza
Baruch Spinoza


The mind has greater power over the emotions and is less subject thereto, in so far as it understands all things as necessary.Spinoza, Ethics, V

It is thoroughly established that Baruch Spinoza drew on the work of his predecessor Rene Descartes when he assembled his philosophy. What is most often put in the centre of this assumption is the way Spinoza sought to reaffirm Descartes’ system through a geometrical – and therefore, as it was thought at the time, indefeasible – superstructure.

The full extent of Descartes’ influence on Spinoza becomes clear when we turn to the Ethics. Descartes held that there is a division between our biological nature – which is wholly subject to deterministic relations – and our spirit, which is exempted from such determinism. There is a logical insufficiency at work here: if it were so that our spirit is wholly outside the biological machinery, how are we to explain that the spirit cannot withdraw its body from the iron-laws of nature?

It is in response to such questions that Spinoza would mould his refinement of Descartes. To Spinoza it isn’t so much that the mind – which is what the spirit receives as its reformulation – is singular in its exemption from iron-cast determinism, but that we can become conscious of determinism, and that this raising to the level of consciousness is what enable us to withdraw from the biological machinations of nature.

Spinoza upends Descartes’ absolute division between nature and spirit: rather, it is the extent to which the mind apprehends its situation in a domain of necessity that indicates our ability to command our emotions. We are reminded of Schopenhauer’s’ later wisdom: “to obtain something we have desired is to find out that it is worthless; we are always living in expectation of better things.”

To desire is to be dissatisfied, and to be able to regard one’s desire as transitory is our only source of tranquillity.

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New poem in translation

Posted on 7 Nov 2016.
Göran Sonnevi
Göran Sonnevi


Snow can cover things up, bury people and objects, draw a blanket over the dead, turn darkness into whiteness, alter the light. Here’s a translation of a historical poem on a situation that was contemporary to the poet, Göran Sonnevi, and that would lead to mass upheavals and significant shifts in how we thought about our relations. We are compelled to ask about the legacy of recent armed interventions and what the future holds.

Read the poem here.

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Nietzsche’s rejection of happiness

Posted on 3 Nov 2016.
Friedrich Nietzsche
Friedrich Nietzsche Image by Wikipedia.


Nietzsche makes no secret of that it is Schopenhauer – Europe’s great pessimist – that is his true and most magnificent teacher. It is from him that Nietzsche got his idea of the will as essential to man and his existence, and it is against Schopenhauer that Nietzsche can finally announce the end of all values, or, to put it more precisely, the zero-point of morality that has as its entailment the transvaluation of all hitherto acknowledges values.

Let’s begin from the beginning: the question of the will. To Kant the world as it appears to us had a dark and hidden underside, what he referred to as the noumenon. Behind the phenomena were this entity, shrouded in darkness and knowable only as negation. To speculate about the noumenon, Kant believed, was tantamount to delving in metaphysics, and this was something Kant would advice strongly against.

To Schopenhauer things were different. While he acknowledges the division between the world as it is experienced and some hidden core or essence to this world, the noumenon was not beyond speculation. In fact, the noumenon was renderable as will. Hidden behind everything we see – the representations of our world – is a world-governing will, and the will manifests itself in people, but also in animals, in organic matter – trees, grass, plants – and even in dead objects: planets moving through space is governed by will. There isn’t anything morally laudable or desirable in the will – it’s on the level of what later philosophers would refer to as an existential facticity.

It is only with Nietzsche that the will takes on the appearance of something that is in itself beneficial. In his Genealogy of Morals he critiques Schopenhauer for claiming to have found an essence to ethics: the pessimist held that our ability to experience compassion lay at the core of our morality. It is this claim that Nietzsche cannot endure. The will, Nietzsche held, doesn’t rely on any preconceived ethical core. Not even compassion or happiness can hold that position. Instead, the will is nourished by that which supports and strengthens the will itself.

Such considerations tend to turn curious travellers away from Nietzsche: should life have some ethical core or daimonic goal? Commentators have claimed that Nietzsche’s will to power has to do with the kind of self-preservation that was hailed by biologists and 19th Century social critics influenced by Darwin. Such readings of Nietzsche should be complemented with a fuller understanding of what it is that Nietzsche’s Superman – the Ubermench – is above or beyond. And the answer is not other people or some such, but values that have been received as essential without being subjected to the kind of trans-valuation prescribed by Nietzsche.

To Nietzsche the essence of life lay not in “self-preservation,” but in a self-transcending enhancement. Valuable are those moments that supports, furthers, and awakens the enhancement of life.

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Gelassenheit and The Shining

Posted on 1 Nov 2016.
Jack Nicholson in Kubrick’s The Shining (1980)
Jack Nicholson in Kubrick’s The Shining (1980)


The experience of releasement Martin Heidegger develops in the concept of Gelassenheit has a precise analogy in the film The Shining (directed by Stanley Kubrick, written by Stephen King, released in 1980). What is curious is the way we are introduced to what is referred to as “the gift” of the child in the film and how it turns out to be the crucial divisor between survival and nothingness.

Already in the precursor to the famous scenes in the mountain hotel the child reveals his special talents when he in a conversation with his imaginary friend Tony is imparted visions of doom: blood flooding through hotel corridors, girls pale as corpses, and so on. He has some kind of seizure, and the physician who examines him suggests that it could have been caused by an imagination of the vivid kind. It is only when he arrives at the hotel and is left alone with the chef that he realises that he is not alone in having the visions and encounters that Tony has mediatised to him. The chef explains quite clearly how some people can see beyond the immediate coordinates of our spatio-temporal givenness and perceive events that have happened before or that have yet to happen.

Indeed, this is precisely what turns out to be the case. As his father works himself deeper into a state of obsessive compulsion, the horrid visions the child are realised, both as confirmations of past events and as actualisations of visions that can be perceived as nothing but premonitions on the side of the child. The temptation here is clearly to remain within the explanatory framework offered by the figures of the story, and, indeed, by the story itself. The boy is perceived as having the ability of recounting hidden events from the past and to foresee future events: thus is his gift.

Should we nevertheless not turn another page in Heidegger’s notion of

to find a more thorough and less speculative en-framing of the gift? There is no need to question the boy’s abilities as a kind of special skill. However, and this is the crucial point, the visions and perceptions that the boy have when he is in his particular state of reception are interpretations that are contingent on his transversal into a domain beyond the ordinary. We first get a clear sense if this kind of encounter the first time he meets the chef in the kitchen. While the chef is explaining to the boy’s mother the various components of the storage facilities, the boy is able to somehow take leave of the ordinary conversation and its literal references and enter into a state where he hears a more profound voice emanating from the chef, as if from the underside or beyond the immediate words. What the boy hears is the chef asking if he would like some ice-cream.

The situation is similar to the scene in the precursor in that the boy is able to access some level of experience that is not immediately available through a set of common references and literal readings. In the film this theme is developed further so that in the end the boy is able to use his skills to manipulate the perceptions of others, and, finally, bring to the rescue the chef from his vacation.

What the boy is able to do is to step into what Heidegger referred to as the clearing. It is a space where we move beyond our everyday literalnesses and can encounter some hidden truth that is revealed – however brief – before it is again covered over. The clearing is not a particular spatial location or domain that we can wilfully enter. Rather, to enter the clearing is to have the experience of releasement: it is as if we are unconstrained and let go into this domain of transversal on the condition that our perceptions there are subject to codification of a particularly enigmatic kind.

It is such experiences that lie behind the child’s pact with his imaginary friend Tony that whatever he is imparted while in this special state of transportation must remain hidden.

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More on things

Posted on 27 Oct 2016.


Things aren’t just things. At least they weren’t to Heidegger. In his Being and Time he makes an important distinction between two kinds of entities: most things come to us in our quest to solve something, do something or other, resolve a question or what have you. A nail sticks out. What are you looking for? A hammer. How do you approach the hammer? As an instrument to put the nail where it should be. The hammer becomes a thing to us as a tool to deal with the nail. This way of becoming present is what Heidegger referred to as Zuhandenheit, often translated as Readiness-at-hand.

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Recovering things

Posted on 27 Oct 2016.
Vincent van Gogh’s shoes
The shoes of Vincent van Gogh


It has been much discussed how Heidegger had a penchant from the beginning – and by beginning we mean in this context Being and Time of 1927 – for uncovering things, i.e., objects, from their stale and habitual relations. For instance, Heidegger would talk about the shoes on van Gogh’s painting in a 1935 essay thus:

This equipment [the shoes] belongs to the earth, and it is protected in the world of the peasant woman. From out of this protected belonging the equipment itself rises to its resting-within-itself.

This essence of the shoes – their shoe-ness – is what makes the shoes into shoes.

Heidegger’s approach is quite different from what we are used to from the world of non-natural – i.e., computer – languages. If we want to define a property in a programming language we give it attributes, and the property is by definition the totality of these attributive entitites.

Not so with Heidegger. With him the shoe – the equipment – is given its thingness through it place in the world. It belongs somewhere, it is cared for by someone, it has the potentiality to rest somewhere.

The Wittgenstein scholar – and, perchance, utilitarian – is eager to object that, surely, the meaning of the shoe lies in its use. An unused shoe isn’t much of a shoe, if even a shoe at all, is it? If the equipment hasn’t been used there is a sense – this scholar would add – in which is hasn’t been brought to existence as equipment.

This is the key to understand the difference between the utilitarian approach and Heidegger’s way: Heidegger was not alone in observing how we in our dislocation from tradition and historicity have come to disconnect from the things we surround ourselves with. Are the things revolting against or to us? Are they escaping our grip, avoiding our attempts to capture them in our instrumental gaze?

Heidegger would have it this way: we cannot rely simply on our received wisdom so as to know things. As John van Buren points out in Reading Heidegger from the Start, already in his theological studies of the 1910s, Heidegger was critically aware of the necessity to go back “to the things themselves.” Here we are situated in an anticipation of what Heidegger would later refer to as the clearing: when the young Heidegger would open Martin Luther’s biblical references he ventured into a domain in which the wisdom of the Greeks could be repositioned in relation to the “factic life experiences” of the early Christians.

These experiences – grace, power, glory – and the way they gave force to Heidegger’s attempt to question dogma in theology and philosophy was what provided the basis and foundation for the path-clearing Being and Time.

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Heidegger on theology

Posted on 25 Oct 2016.
Sein und Zeit first edition
Martin Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit, translated as Being and Time


In Being and Time Heidegger enumerates how a range of disciplines – sciences and humanist enquiry – have had their fields reconfigured as a result of deep-searching alterations in how their most basic objects have been grasped. The theory of relativity, the relation between tradition and historicity, and so on, have had such strong impacts on their respective fields of operation their their most fundamental beliefs have been altered. What is perhaps even more striking still today is Heidegger’s brief glimpse into the theological debate of his time.

Heidegger was thoroughly versed in contemporary theology: prior to writing Being and Time he had written papers on Luther, Calvin and others, and in the late 1910s he broke with his Catholic boyhood faith. It is in this light we should read his comments on the upheaval in theology, which, in Heidegger’s view, had been brought about by a renewed attention to Luther’s critique of a purely formal approach to belief. Heidegger comments that the crux of Luther’s argument was that the foundation of dogma at Luther’s time had not been consistent with attention to faith, and in certain respects would distort and falsify a relation to divinity that is faith based.

They key here is that to Heidegger the central concern of theology should be faith – how is man configured in his belief in divinity. Man and God, mortal and groundless ground, wesen and Being: these key concepts retain their sense in the context of faith and faith alone. Questions of dogma, tradition and denomination are secondary.

Where does such reflections place us in the most up-heaving debate concerning theology in our time: the claim that the core component of a world view – any world view – is faith? Theology today should embrace a notion of power that brings to the table precisely the question of belief: power is praised, upheld, cared for in so far as it is a power that is faithfully adhered to. And it is a view that has ample support in Scripture: in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians we read that

that which is sown in dishonour is raised in glory. That which is sown in weakness, is raised in power. That which is sown in a body of nature is raised in a body of spirit. [1 Corinthians 15: 43-44]

Glory, power, spirit: these are words that properly belong in the domain of theology, they are complex and challenging, and yet they provide us with key terms for investigations that truly situate us in the centre of what should inform our most critical debates today.

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About Torgeir Fjeld
Writer, publisher, and educational administrator, holding PhDs in Philosophy (EGS, 2017) and Cultural Theory (Roehampton, 2012). Latest publications include Introducing Ereignis: Philosophy, Technology, Way of Life (2022) and Rock Philosophy (2019) and articles in Sport, Ethics and Philosophy, International Journal of Žižek Studies, and others. Presently serving as Head of Ereignis Center for Philosophy and the Arts, Publisher at Tankebanen forlag, and Editor-in-Chief of the peer-reviewed journal Inscriptions. Fjeld has taught at universities across North America, Europe, and Africa. Here is section dedicated to poetry in translation. This page has a cookie policy.
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