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September 10, 2012 | by  | in Opinion |
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Philosoraptor: A Beetle In Your Box

We normally think of language as a medium of exchange. At a very basic level, we use words and meanings to take an idea or concept that lies in our own mind, and then transmit that to the mind of whomever we are having mean chats with. So when I write “Tony Soprano is wearing a polka-dot onesie”, I can take an image concocted in my twisted head and plant it firmly in yours with just a few taps of a keyboard. These kinds of observations are often taken to ground a distinction between public and private language. Public language is the body of shared convention that helps us communicate and private language is that special inner voice that we use to represent our own thoughts and feelings.

This position looks all too simple, and the Austrian aristocrat and ill-tempered genius Ludwig Wittgenstein trained his sights on it in the mid-20th century. He wanted to show that the idea of a private language is incoherent. Imagine a community where everyone has a special secret box, in which they have an object which they call a ‘beetle’. No one can peer into anyone else’s box, so everyone only knows what a beetle is by looking at the object in their personal box. If the term ‘beetle’ has any meaning in the language of this community, then it surely can’t be the name of a particular object, because it is entirely possible that everyone has something different in their box.

The thought is that by analogy, to imagine that each of us has a personal set of words and meanings which we then translate for public consumption isn’t really an accurate description of the nature of language. Wittgenstein is suggesting that all of our concepts are just determined by the shared language games they are a part of. These games are always going to be public, and so we can’t claim that we even have the monopoly on our minds that we might think. Language is just a tool we borrow from society to peer into our own thoughts.

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