On The Folly Of Private Languages

The gulf between philosophers and the rest of humanity can be seen by the way that communication is a problem for philosophers and a solution for humanity in general.  For the philosopher, the platonic ideal of language must be expressed through a language that lacks ambiguity and contains a perfect correspondence between the reality that is being communicated and the communication that exists about that reality.  Of course, such perfect language does not exist, and instead of viewing this as a defect in the beings who engage in such flawed communication, philosophers are often at pains to view this as a defect of communication itself and to strive to create language where there is a greater correspondence between reality and communication than exists in the verbal language most of us use with more or less skill.  Indeed, some philosophers have become so enamored with the prospect of there being a pure language that they have pondered the existence and worth of a private language that does not have anyone else to communicate with at all as being something worth pondering the existence of.

This project has been seriously undertaken by contemporary philosophers even though the obvious point of communication is to interact with other people.  Namely, it is an essential and difficult task for us to both understand the reality around us, including those beings we must interact with because of their proximity and importance, as well as to convey to them the reality that is inside of us that they may not readily understand.  The importance of mastering communication is such that babies develop reasonably proficient skill within their native language by about two or three years of age in general, and frequently obtain literacy and some ability at engaging in written communication within three to six years of age.  While movies (like Baby Geniuses) are made with the idea that communication with others is a loss for babies who have so much innate knowledge in their head, for babies and toddlers and small children the gains in being able to express themselves and understand others is a great gain, one that is a massive aid to their own survival.  To be imprisoned within one’s own mind and to be unable to understand or make oneself understood is a horrible curse, and while a private language may be a dream or an ideal for philosophers, it is the fuel for nightmares for human beings.

Let us, after all, consider the sort of people who may find themselves trapped in a world where they can neither understand others nor be understood by them.  We have already mentioned small children, but we may add to them those who have problems with senses like sight or hearing, those who are foreigners in a place where they neither speak nor can understand the local language or understand local ways and habits, those who are autistic and thus not able to pick up on social cues around them, or those who have cognitive problems like senility and dementia.  All of these people are among the most vulnerable people in a given context, and that vulnerability consists in their not understanding what others are about or being able to convey their own thoughts and feelings and sensations to others so that they may in turn be understood.  However much one may have self-insight and understanding, it is of little value and considerable danger if that subjective understanding cannot be communicated to others, or if external reality cannot be communicated to the interior self.  Far from being an ideal communication, private language is worse than useless, and is positively dangerous, in giving an illusion of knowledge and security that simply does not exist when we can neither come to grips with external realities nor communicate to others how we feel or what we think, or what we may in fact need from others that we cannot provide for ourselves.

Even a basic understanding of communication will demonstrate the great lengths that people take to be able to communicate with others.  Before little children can speak in such a way that they may be understood by strangers, there frequently exists a time where immediate and close family members can understand them.  A tourist who visits a foreign country may point at things and master simple questions to ask “what is that” like a toddler learning the words for the external aspects of the world that one might want to communicate about.  Once, for example, I had an entirely silent conversation with a cashier in Estonia concerning food I bought from a local convenience store in Kuressaare, because we had no common language between us.  We need to know the words for foods so that we can express what we want and what we do not want.  We need to know where the bathroom is, or how much it costs to buy groceries or rent a hotel room and so on.  Those who are deaf or blind have invented languages so that one can have literacy through braille or be able to speak in a sign language that allows for communication.  Even someone like Helen Keller, who was both deaf and blind, was taught to communicate through touch so that she could understand others and communicate with them.  The need that humanity has for communication is so great that no matter how one struggles to communicate, it is worthwhile to make the effort to find some means of understanding the world as best as one is able and to express oneself within the world so that one may be understood.

It is not surprising that flawed beings like ourselves would have flawed languages.  It is difficult both to understand the world around us perfectly given our biases and perspectives and hard for us to make ourselves understood perfectly to others.  For those of us who are by nature greatly restrained people, what is a sign of great and intense distress may appear to others like a slight annoyance or irritation and may not lead to the appropriate response.  Similarly, if we are known to overstate the seriousness of things in our communications, others will discount the intensity of our expression to something that better approximates their own feelings and opinions.  Sometimes people want to make a joke, or have reasons why they would prefer to communicate mistruths (we may impolitely call them lies) rather than to communicate awkward and unpleasant truths to those unlikely to respond positively to them.  Even when we want to communicate the truth, we may not have the words to express what it is we are trying to communicate.  Indeed, our languages may lack the words that we would want to use to describe very specific aspects of our lives and the world inside and outside of us that we interact with, which means that we simply may not be able to communicate as exactly as we may wish.  Communication, like any useful tool that humanity possesses, has its limitations because there are tradeoffs that must be made regarding precision versus general applicability, or that which we may know and that which someone else knows.

Even so, what is most remarkable when it comes to communication is the extent to which human beings are compelled to learn ways to communicate with others for learning as well as expression.  Private languages, such as they exist, are entirely pointless in the necessary task of understanding the people and reality around us and in making ourselves understood by others.  Even the most private languages that we possess, those inside references that close friends and family can pick up on because of a great familiarity with our ways and personality tics, are public communication that is useful because of the way that it conveys truth about ourselves to those who care most about us and are around us the most.  Indeed, contrary to the desire of philosophers to have perfect communication that involves no ambiguity whatsoever, it is the ability of others to understand the general emotional states and to respond to them effectively even without precise understanding that marks the most harmonious relationships with others.  When we can complete the sentences of loved ones because we know how they think well enough to know where they are going, and when we know what they need and know their habits well enough to be able to respond effectively to them, communication has reached the level where it is working well.  Hopefully we can all enjoy those relationships where our needs can be met without our having to say anything at all.  For the rest of our existence, we may be compelled to write and speak at great length to be understood even a little.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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