Monday, 23 February 2009

The Private Language Argument

Yesterday I digitalized an old paper of mine on Wittgenstein's Private Language Argument. The paper was completed 11 November 1980, which means some 29 years ago. I was in the second year of the MPh course at Jnana Deepa Vidyapeeth, Pune, at the time, and was working under the guidance of Lisbert D’Souza, SJ, who was fresh from his doctorate (at Oxford, I think) on Wittgenstein. The MPh course was a different kind of affair in JDV in those days: you had to write 12 papers, of which the last was the dissertation. We were free to choose our own topics, and find our own professors, and then it was sort of individual work with the professor, culminating in a paper. So here I was, working with the young Wittgenstein professor, and it was an extremely enriching and rewarding affair. (I learnt only much later that this is the way the tutorial system functions in Oxford and perhaps also in Cambridge. At that time we thought JDV was shirking its responsibilities!) Lisbert put me through the Tractatus and the Investigations, with weekly reading assignments. The primary sources were interspersed with judiciously chosen secondary sources. I still have a large file of my jottings and personal comments. My 'course' culminated in the paper on Private Language.

At Danny Monsour's urging, I am thinking of publishing this paper much as it is. True, Wittgenstein scholarship has in all probability made great strides on the topic in the intervening years. But, reading the paper these days, I find it still speaks to me, and that it still provides a rather nuanced interpretation of Wittgenstein. I think my conlusion was that Wittgenstein was neither a behaviourist nor a verificationist. I also hope that this will be a small step towards dialectic and dialogue between Wittgenstein and Lonergan.

Lonergan scholars know that Lonergan dedicates a section of his chapter on Dialectic in his Method in Theology (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990, 253-257) to Wittgenstein (section 7: The Dialectic of Methods: Part One), insisting rather strongly on mental acts and on the essentially private character of language in its origins. Lonergan, however, was no Wittgenstein scholar; he was reacting, as is evident also from the text itself, to questions posed him by Edward MacKinnon during one of his institutes on method in theology (see Transcendental Philosophy and the Study of Religion, Boston, 1968); so, despite the strong language he uses, the relationship between Wittgenstein and Lonergan still remains, to my mind, an open question.

I know I should be reading Lonergan closely, and then Wittgenstein again... But offhand, my impression is that Wittgenstein is absolutely right that private language is not possible, and Lonergan is prima facie wrong in rejecting that claim. But then, Lonergan is interpreting Wittgenstein via MacKinnon here; and besides, there is no guarantee that authors are their own best interpreters. Wonderful matter for a substantial paper here...

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