The Private and the Public. What we can learn from Wittgenstein

On a Canadian website devoted to the translation of writings by contemporary Chinese intellectuals, its creator, David Ownby of the University of Montréal, writes: “China is, if not totalitarian, surely authoritarian, and I readily admit that I do not fully understand the relationship between the Chinese state and the intellectuals I study.  It is obvious that their published work is not a perfect reflection of their private thoughts, which surely means that many times they cannot say what they really think, but what trade-offs they make and how they make their calculations remain obscure.  While I prefer to believe that what they publish is a fair if perhaps partial reflection of what they think, many people do not, and I admit that now and again I wonder if I’m being played.”[1]

Those living in repressive societies will be familiar with the distinction between what they feel able to say or write and what they must keep to themselves. And they will also know to distinguish between what is written or said and the private thoughts of its author. The distinction is, in fact, known to all of us even in so-called free societies. Considerations of prudence, politeness, propriety, shame or guilt make us refrain from giving expression to many things we think or feel or they get us, at least, to modify and tame our words. I may not tell my boss what exactly I think of him for reasons of prudence. I may not give voice to the pain I feel in order not to upset my companions. I may not comment aloud on a lecture in progress for reasons of propriety. I may not use the swear word that has come to my mind for reasons of politeness.  But we also look at others and wonder whether any of those reasons have made them be silent about their inner feelings and thoughts or circumspect in expressing them. We describe the distinction that opens up in this way as one between the public and the private. Thoughts and feelings are private, we say, whereas words and actions are public.

I want to talk here about Wittgenstein’s remarks on privacy in his Philosophical Investigations but will do so in a roundabout manner. For his thoughts are narrowly focused on issues in the philosophy of mind and concern, so it seems, only what privacy is not. In his Blue Book Wittgenstein characterizes the proposition ‘A man’s sense data are private to himself’ as both metaphysical and misleading and he describes his own undertaking as an attempt to rid us “of the temptation to look for a particular act of thinking, independent of the act of expressing our thoughts, and stowed away in some peculiar medium.”[2] The formulation is awkward because it sounds, as if Wittgenstein meant to deny the distinction between thought and its expression. The Chinese intellectuals of whom Owenby speaks and, in fact, all those living in repressive societies will easily disabuse us of that idea. But Wittgenstein’s point is not to deny the existence of unexpressed thought; it is rather to deny their existence in a peculiar medium. His goal is, in other words, to dismantle Descartes’ metaphysics of mind and body. But as he focuses so sharply on this issue, he entirely bypasses the social and political aspects of the private-public distinction. I consider it useful to look first at the broader context in which that distinction occurs in order to situate Wittgenstein’s considerations in it and to ask only afterwards about the practical import of what he writes.

The first thing to note is that the term “private” has a wide range of uses and certainly a wider one than Wittgenstein acknowledges. We do, of course, speak of unexpressed thoughts and feelings as private. But we can also keep a private diary that records those thoughts and feelings and we can engage in a private conversation with close friends and associates. And there are other, broader uses of the term. My letter to the public media is considered my private opinion if I am not speaking in an official capacity. We have private phone numbers in addition to job related ones, and these may be listed as such in a public directory. The home is my private domain, but everyone in the family may also have their own private bedroom and we all treat the shared toilet as private.  There are private membership clubs whose doors  display the words “STRICTLY PRIVATE.” There are private collections of art that are shown in public. There are private businesses that operate as publicly registered companies. The private is, in these cases, what is unexpressed, what is personal, what is meant only for a few, what is of limited access, what is shameful, what is not official, what is owned by me, what is for my own use, what is a personal pursuit and not a business, and finally even what is a business but not traded on the stock market and not owned by the state. The private is, in other words, many different things and the boundary between the public and the private falls accordingly in different places. Note also that something can therefore be private in some sense and at the same time public and thus not private in another.

Wittgenstein wonders in his Philosophical Investigations what it is to say that sensations are private. An interlocutor insists that this means that “only I can know whether I am in pain; another person can only surmise it.” But Wittgenstein dismissively retorts: “In one sense this is false, and in another nonsense.”[3] In an adjoining passage, he considers the possibility of a private language which he describes as follows: “The words of this language are to refer to what only the speaker can know – to his immediate private sensations. So another person cannot understand the language.” (PI, 243) The two passages raise various questions about the notion of privacy. The “privacy” of our sensations and the “privacy” of the private language are obviously not the same thing, though they are related. The private sensation is assumed to be private by being “in the mind”; the private language is not in the mind, but it’s subject-matter is said to be private. The words “can” and “cannot” in the cited passages alerts us to further meanings of privacy. The private is that which another person cannot know. The private language is one which only the speaker can understand. Of what kind of “can” do these sentences speak? Are we to think of logical, physical, physiological, or psychological possibility? Think of these three examples: Chinese intellectuals cannot say everything they think. We cannot say who invented the wheel. I cannot adequately describe the sunset. In the first case, the “cannot” is due to a threat of sanctions; in the second to a lack of historical knowledge; in the third to the limitations of my vocabulary. Not only the word “private” but also the words “can” and “cannot” have multiple meanings and these introduce inflections into the meaning of privacy.

Speaking privately

We will find it easier to consider initially the idea of a private language and only then the privacy of thoughts and feelings. Can there be such a thing as a private language? In some sense of the word “private, the answer is: obviously yes. It is clearly not difficult to set up a language which only I understand, my own private code. Wittgenstein himself occasionally used a code to keep his thoughts hidden from prying eyes – though the code proves, in fact, easy enough to decipher. Criminal gangs, underground political parties, and anybody else who wants to keep a secret will often devise a code for their own private use. This may not be what Wittgenstein has in mind as a private language, but thinking about what it means to be able or not to be able to decipher a coded language throws light on the different ways in which we use the word “can” that Wittgenstein employs in his formulations.

If it is possible to decipher Wittgenstein’s code, in what sense can it be called private? The experts tell us that there is, in fact, only one unbreakable code and thus, only one inherently private language in the sense right now under consideration. Invented by Gilbert Vernam for use in the First World War, the code requires a key that can be used only once and must consists of a series of genuinely random numbers longer than the message to be encrypted. Those requirements make the code, however, practically useless. In encrypting messages for the internet, we use therefore codes that are in principle breakable but (hopefully) not in practice because the deciphering would take too long or we currently lack the computing power to do so. We are distinguishing thus two kinds of possibility and impossibility and thus two notions of privacy. There is what one can do or not do in principle and what we can or cannot do in practice. We may want to add here a further distinction between two kinds of practical possibility or impossibility. Something may be practically impossible for incidental reasons as when I can’t decipher a code because I am too sleepy. But the deciphering may also be impossible for reasons intrinsic to the code as that it would take five hundred years to break it. We can distinguish thus three kinds of potentiality (possibility/impossibility): potentiality in principle, practical incidental potentiality, and practical intrinsic potentiality.  Only the Vernam code is in principle unbreakable. Wittgenstein’s own code is easily broken and only some incidental reason will stop s from breaking it. But the code that is meant to secure the internet is not only unbreakable in practice but hopefully so for intrinsic reasons. We can call this third type of code also in principle practically unbreakable. We will see in due course that this three-fold distinction is helpful when thinking about Wittgenstein’s reflections on privacy.

I have spoken so far of how we keep thoughts and feelings private by not expressing them or by expressing them in a secret code. We can also attain privacy of a sort by restricting access to the expression of thought or feeling. I can keep a diary and hide it away in a hole underneath the floor so that only I have access to it. I can reveal my thoughts and feelings only to a circle of close confidants. We call an expression of thought or feeling public in this context when it is left open to whom it is addressed. Much of our speaking and writing is not in fact public in this sense and is not meant to be. What I say at my kitchen table is likely to stay there and is, in any case, intended only for those immediately present. The note I pass to you under the desk is meant for your eyes only. Both my kitchen table remarks and the note I send you are private in intention and, hopefully, also in fact. Much of our speaking and reading is of this sort. Our expressions of thought or feeling are, as a matter of fact, not promulgated to everybody and are commonly meant only for those specifically addressed. The assumption that our words have for the most part only a specific range is, in fact, inherent in and even constitutive of our common linguistic practice. Politicians, preachers, novelists, actors, and others of that sort may aspire to speak to the broad public but even that public has a specific range in that it consists of citizen, the faithful, the literate, theatergoers, etc.. Only philosophers are tempted to think that they are addressing the universe.

Even when we speak privately, we may, of course, be overheard. An outsider may catch what I say in confidence to a friend. A curious bystander may try to listen in to my private conversation. We may or may not be concerned abut that possibility. I sometimes overhear people in the street discussing their private lives on their cell phones. Long gone is the time of the glazed-in telephone cell. The standards of privacy seem to have changed. But we may still hesitate to let outsiders know of very intimate or embarrassing things or matters; we don’t want them to hear something that would be to our detriment or not in our interest. We operate in a sphere of privacy, but that sphere can grow or diminish according to circumstances. This is part of the ordinary use of language and of other expressive means.

  This should remind us of the fact that the idea of language as a medium of representation is a derivative and belated notion. The fundamental linguistic relation is not “A represents B” but “A communicates B to C.” The first question is never simply: what is said? But always: who is speaking to whom and who is heard by whom. That is a lesson Wittgenstein had to learn after he finished his Tractatus. It is as a result of this lesson Wittgenstein begins his Philosophical Investigations with Augustine’s account of the communicative use of language. It is, in any case, only by paying attention to this aspect of language that we will understand how considerations who is or is not addressed and thus considerations of privacy are integral to its use.

The deprivation of privacy

There are always those who want to know who spoke or wrote what to whom.  This holds in particular of repressive governments which have two reasons for keeping tabs on their people. Having eliminated free expression, public media and debate, polls and elections, such governments find it difficult to judge their citizens’ mood and thinking. To overcome that handicap, they will take active measures to peer into the lives of their citizens. Spying and surveillance become their substitute for the public sphere they have destroyed. The surveillance is, of course, not a purely cognitive undertaking. It is designed, rather, to help the authorities to shape their policies, manipulate the public’s thinking, feeling, and acting, and to ferret out and crush potential opponents. The intervention includes thus a massive intrusion into the privacy sphere of the subjects of surveillance but extends also to their public existence. This does not mean, however, that the division between the private and the public has been obliterated. It has, instead, become relocated and redefined. The results of governmental spying on its own citizens are not generally publicized. The information gained is most often kept in secret files by the secret police and only used when needed. Even the fact of surveillance is often denied or downplayed. The result is a peculiar deformation of the entire  domain of privacy. Boundaries of privacy remain in place between the subjects of surveillance but the government has now inserted itself as an intruder into every individual sphere of privacy and of all the information gained in this manner, it will publicize some and keep other bits private.

Governments are not the only parties keen to discover our private thoughts and feelings. These have also commercial value and the technology of the internet has made it increasingly easier to harvest what is useful and monetizable in them. Economic enterprises thus hack into the confidential data of their competitors. Criminal gangs snoop into private, corporate, and government accounts for purposes of theft and extortion. Companies operating on the internet accumulate information on the users of their services. In each case, the information used to be private in the sense that it was practically inaccessible (for incidental or intrinsic reasons) except to those specifically meant to have it. Technological advances have broken that barrier and have given the unauthorized access. And this naturally redraws the boundary between the public and the private.  The private information gathered by economic enterprises, criminal gangs, and internet companies has not, of course, become public in the sense of being now publicly accessible. Like government spies, those harvesting that information have an interest in keeping the results of their fishing to themselves. The information they have gathered retains its commercial value often only as long as they can keep it secret. The internet provider who exploits our private data is thus genuinely concerned with defending our privacy from other intruders though, of course, not from themselves.  And China’s extensive surveillance program is completely compatible with its recent adopted “Personal Information Protection Law” that seeks to assure the “legitimate rights” of individuals from “the use of new technologies such as user profiling and recommendation algorithms, the use of big data in setting [unfair] prices for frequent customers, and information harassment in the sale of products and services.”[4] Being free from governmental surveillance is, notably, not among those legitimate rights.

Shoshana Zuboff, who has studied the development of what she calls “surveillance capitalism” concludes that “the assault on behavioral data is so sweeping that it can no longer be circumscribed by the concept of privacy and its contests. This is a different kind of challenge now, one that threatens the existential and political canon of the modern liberal order defined by principles of self-determination.”[5]  Zuboff draws in these remarks on Hannah Arendt who has argued that all our classical forms of politics are built on the duality of household or family on one side and city or state on the other.[6]  But is the distinction between household and city the same as that between the private and the public? Were the households of ancient Greece or Rome private in the same sense as a modern home? Is there a distinction between the private and the public in simple tribal societies and their politics? A modern liberal political order certainly assumes the existence of a private domain to which the state has only limited access. Zuboff may be right in worrying that the foundations of this sort of society is threatened. That realization forces us to ask with what kind of politics we may be left, what kind of social order, and with what kind of distinction between the private and the public.

A recent report on China shows what is at stake.[7]  Its two authors have studied procurement documents of local, provincial, and national authorities to determine how surveillance capacities and objectives are changing. They write: “The PRC’s leaders have always excelled at surveilling their countrymen, and [the] lack of a “countervailing price” has allowed them to do so in varied ways over the past 70 years. During the first few decades of the PRC’s existence, the state-controlled labor system tethered workers and their families to their places of employment… Work units served as the eyes of the state, maintaining their residents’ dossiers, compiling information about them at work, at mandatory Party meetings, and in their homes—information often supplied by neighbors and coworkers. Reporting on members of one’s own community reached frenzied heights during the Cultural Revolution, when people had to publicly accuse their acquaintances, friends, and even loved ones of real or imagined political transgressions in order to avoid becoming targets themselves.” The frenzy came to an end in the late 1970s with Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms. “For a few decades, Chinese citizens became accustomed to relatively more robust levels of personal privacy.” But the procurement documents reveal that China’s government is now acquiring new tools to help the authorities at every level to monitor large swathes of the population at a time. The authors of the report write that the characterization of China in 2020 as an Orwellian surveillance state “is inaccurate and silly, but it could be reality down the line.”

The surveillance regime is currently most intense in Xinjiang where it operates with frequent ID checks at police cordons, self-incrimination campaigns in re-education camps, and surveillance cameras with face recognition capacity at street corners, police checkpoints, the entrances to mosques, and sometimes in individual homes. Access to printed and digital resources is strictly controlled. The internet is searched to determine who goes to what website, who communicates with whom, and who writes or reads what.  Surveillance is not as extensive in other parts of the country. The Xinjiang system of surveillance is a response, in the first instance, to some 200 terrorist attacks carried out by Uighur radicals in the 1990s. Their radicalism is linked to the Turkestan Islamic Party whose goal is to establish an independent East Turkestan Republic.  The desire for political independence is, in turn, due to the Uighurs’ consciousness of a distinct cultural, religious, and historical identity. The prevention terrorist attacks, the identification of potential troublemakers, The suppression of the secessionist movement, and control of the cultural expression of the region are thus the motivating factors of the surveillance system. In China at large, the system of surveillance is also used, as it is in the West, to prevent and solve ordinary crime, and to regulate public services, and to improve civic planning. The technology is thus seen as essential to the functioning of mass society. But the Chinese authorities’ understanding of what a well-ordered society should look like is peculiarly constricted. There must be no questioning of the status of the Communist Party. The bureaucratic state must not be challenged. Certain topics cannot be publicly discussed. “Politically harmful information” must be policed.[8] Yet another purposes the surveillance system serves is as a source of information for an envisaged social credit system. The system is meant to punish or reward Chinese citizens for socially detrimental or socially beneficial  behavior. Among the detrimental forms of behavior have been listed smoking violations, playing loud music, and eating on rapid transits, as well as jaywalking, failing to correctly sort personal waste, and even making reservations at restaurants or hotels without showing up, in addition, of course, to more serious matters such as fraudulent financial behavior and crime in general. Volunteering for community services, donating blood, and praising government efforts on social media have, on the other hand, been listed as deserving social credit rewards.[9] To gather relevant information the social credit system has to rely on mass surveillance systems, facial recognition software, big data analysis, and artificial intelligence. The envisaged system approximates the function, though not the layout and technology, of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon and sis meant to establish a society that is both disciplinary and biopolitical in character, to use Michel Foucault’s language. In addition to mass surveillance for policy purposes and the individualized surveillance is support of system of social control, there is finally the sharply focused surveillance of suspected or potential dissidents. It is in this last form of surveillance that the intrusion into the target’s sphere of privacy is most pronounced. The agents of this sort of surveillance want to find out not only what their targets say or write or but wan to penetrate also into the inner space of their private thoughts and feelings.

What would the expansion of this technology that is suggested by the Chinese procurement documents mean? “Would there be any semblance of privacy left—the sort of going-about-one’s-business, blend-into-the-crowd privacy that many of us implicitly expect in public spaces—to people living in the PRC? What does it portend for public spaces beyond China’s borders? A number of democracies are already struggling with the implications of these technologies, which often pit a desire for public security against an expectation of privacy and consent. What happens as China normalizes, or sells, these technologies to places where public debate about them is quashed before it can occur? Will PRC surveillance tech strengthen the wave of authoritarian governance that seems to be rolling across the globe?”[10]

Surveillance government and surveillance capitalism do not form a single institutional whole. They are often even at odds with each other. Functionally they belong nonetheless together. We still tend to think about politics in terms of its institutions and distinguish between the public institutions of the state and private corporate institutions. But politics is perhaps better looked at as a process involving the organized exercise of power and institutions are better understood as being among the products and instruments of that process. Surveillance government and surveillance capitalism both exercise power with the help of newly developed technological means that to some extent obliterate, to some extent weaken, and to some extent relocate various distinctions between the public and the private. Surveillance government and surveillance capitalism produce in in this way comparable effects. We see in this development the emergence of a system of power relations that overrides the traditional distinction between public political and private economic enterprises .We can cll the emerging formation provisionally by the name of “the corporāte.”[11] The history of the modern state has been described as a process of emancipation of economics from politics which has reached ts epitome in the free-market system of modern capitalism. If this were true, the historical process would mark the triumph of the private over the public. But the endpoint of this process has proved to be not a neo-liberal nirvana of complete economic autonomy but (in different forms in China and the West) the convergence of state and corporate power – neither liberal nor socialist, neither public nor private, the amalgamation of the two into the functional syndrome of the corporāte.

Private sensations

Will there be any privacy left in the corporāte? I return at this point to Wittgenstein’s examination of privacy. It will be obvious to any careful reader that Wittgenstein doesn’t use the term “private language” to refer to an encoded language or one that is restricted in its use.  The language whose possibility he considers is supposed to be private rather in the sense that its content is private. The words of this language, he says, are meant to refer to “immediate private sensations” and thus to something that “only the speaker can know.”  We must turn then to the idea of the privacy of sensations and to the thought that these can only be known by the speaker, that is by the one who has the sensations and who says that he has them. If our inner states truly have that characteristic, it appears that there is a sphere of privacy that cannot be punctured by any kind of surveillance.

But Wittgenstein seeks to reject this idea of absolute privacy. And that raises the question whether anything stands in the way of the complete surveillance and control of our most private thoughts and feelings. Is there any possible escape from surveillance and any possibility of resistance to the power of the corporāte? Can there still be a sphere of privacy protected from the intrusions of the corporāte?

Wittgenstein dismisses the claim that only the person who says “I am in pain” can know what his words mean: “It can’t be said of me at all (except perhaps as a joke) that I know that I’m in pain. What is it supposed to mean – except perhaps that I am in pain.”  I am not sure that we want to agree with this line of thinking. Is it in principle impossible to have knowledge of one’s own pain and why would that be so? We can certainly say “I remember I was in terrible pain when I had that kidney stone some years ago” and that utterance appears to be in all respects an expression of knowledge. But what then prevents me from having knowledge also of my present pain? Wittgenstein is right, however, in saying that being in pain is not the same as knowing that one is. I don’t mean here that the pain might be unconscious, but that having a consciousness of pain is still different from knowing that one has that pain. Feeling pain is not a state of cognition and we can add that thinking is also not the same as knowing that one has thoughts. But isn’t it possible that I am in pain in the sense of feeling it and also know that I am in pain? Feeling drunk and realizing that one is drunk are not the same. Similarly, I may have a thought and recall at the same time that I have had that same thought before. But why does Wittgenstein even raise the question whether the person who feels pain or thinks can know that he does? The decisive point is, after all, the question whether another person can know this. And here Wittgenstein is obviously right when he says: “If we are using the word ‘know’ as it is normally used, … then other people very often know if I’m in pain.” The interlocutor who insists on the absolute privacy of sensations objects at this point that another person cannot have that knowledge “with the certainty with which I know it myself.” That may or may not be true. But it does not bolster the interlocutor’s claim. Knowledge does not require absolute certainty. Otherwise, there would be no empirical knowledge.

On the view that Wittgenstein’s interlocutor advances we cannot have real knowledge of another person’s feelings because these are located in a sphere which is in principle inaccessible to others.  And this view may, in turn, be backed up by the Cartesian assumption of two different substances. But Cartesian dualism is not essential for the claim that what is in the mind is inaccessible to others. I don’t believe that Descartes himself actually assumed such an inaccessibiity. According to Wittgenstein’s interlocutor, however, the inaccessibility thesis means that the only thing others can know are verbal or behavioral expressions of private sensations. The interlocutor concludes that one can only make tenuous extrapolations about the other’s inner feelings from those expressions. But if we can in principle know nothing about the other’s inner states, our statement that the other is in pain can refer only to the other’s words and behavior. The interlocutor who wants to insist on the uniqueness of the inner life, is thus reduced to some kind of behaviorism. He seeks to avoid that behaviorism by concluding that if the other one says “I am in pain” he must be feeling what the interlocutor feels when he says “I am I pain.” But there seems to be no basis for that analogical inference. To avoid the behaviorist turn, we must, instead, follow Wittgenstein and argue that there is no absolute barrier between inner feelings and their external manifestation. The two belong together and we can therefore often know of the private sensations of others. That conclusion leaves many questions open. In particular the question of the exact nature of the link between the inner and the outer. It appears to be, however, the way we avoid the drift into behaviorism. That is ironic, in that Wittgenstein has been often accused of being a behaviorist, despite his claims to the contrary. To the question whether he will admit a difference between pain and pain behavior, Wittgenstein responds firmly in the Philosophical Investigations: “Admit it? What greater difference could there be.” (PI, 304) That there is such a difference does not mean, however, that there is not an inherent link between them. Sensations are not private in principle, though they are practically so in many situations.

Wittgenstein’s interlocutor will presumably want to make his case not only for sensations but also for thoughts. Thoughts, too, are, according to him, located in the private medium of the mind and must therefore be in principle inaccessible to others. All we have, accordingly to the interlocutor, are public expressions of thoughts. And from those, the interlocutor will say, we can tentatively derive conclusions about the inner thoughts. But it is once again difficult to see how the interlocutor can avoid a behaviorist turn. What reasons can he have for assuming that when the other utters the sentence “p” he must be thinking privately what the interlocutor thinks when he utters “p”? Wittgenstein’s rejection of an absolute division between the private thought and its public expression appears the only way to avoid the behaviorist turn.

Being in principle practically private

But let us assume for a moment that the interlocutor can maintain the absolute division between the private and the public which he is after. Can that give us comfort in the face of an expanding surveillance industry? The answer has to be no. The surveillance industry is after all, primarily interested in manipulating the behavior of the subjects of their surveillance and what they seek to survey are, the expressed feelings and thoughts of their subjects. If sensations and thoughts occur only in the absolutely separate sphere of the inner world, they will, presumably, be of small interest to the surveillance regimes. The inaccessible sensations and feelings would be like Wittgenstein’s imagined beetle in the inaccessible box. It would not matter whether they were there or not. The surveillance regime are interested in our thoughts and feelings only because they affect our speaking, writing, and doing. But as soon as we assume that there is such a link, we have abandoned the idea of an absolutely separate private sphere.  Some neuroscientists have suggested that we might one day be able to trace and decipher brain activity and thus gain direct access to people’s sensations and thoughts. But we are are certainly not there as yet and it is not obvious that this can ever be done. In the meantime, the surveillance regimes are busy recording what we say, what we do, where we go, whom we meet, what websites we visit in the hope of being able to control and manipulate our actions.

If the interlocutor is, however, pushed into revising his view and to adopt a form of behaviorism that view will prove to be even more amenable to the surveillance regime. There would then be no reason for it to worry that the secret thoughts and feelings of its subjects might escape surveillance.

Does Wittgenstein’s account offer us a contrasting way of distinguishing between the private and the public that allows us to identify genuine limits to the technology of surveillance? Does it have a place for thinking that there may be space for the privacy of feelings and thoughts and thus for a potential freedom from the intrusiveness of the powers of surveillance and a potential even for resistance to the manipulative power of the corporāte? How could that be? Wittgenstein assumes that there are internal links between the inner phenomena and their outer expression. We can know of other people’s private sensations because there exist natural links between them and their expression. Wittgenstein asks in this spirit whether the statement “I noticed that he was out of his humor” is a report about a person’s behavior or his state of mind. He answers compellingly – I think – that the report is both: “Both, not side by side, however, but from the one through the other.” But note that the published translation says at this point, instead, that the statement is a report “about the one via the other.” (PI, p. 188)  This would mean that the proposition is to be considered a report about a state of mind that has passed through a report on behavior whereas Wittgenstein’s German says more strongly that the proposition is a report on a state of mind by means of or even by reason of being a report on a behavior. Wittgenstein add at this point: “A doctor asks: ‘How is he feeling?’ The nurse says: ‘He is groaning.’ A report on his behavior. But need there be any question for the two of them whether the groaning is genuine and really the expression of something?” (PI, p. 188) And we can similarly speak of a natural link between thoughts and their expression. Does this mean that if there were no possibility of expressing thoughts or feelings they would, inevitably, dwindle away? We would certainly not be able to speak or to conceive of them in the way we do. Wittgenstein: “Look at the stone and imagine it having sensations – One says to oneself: How could one so much as have the idea of ascribing sensations to a thing? … And now look at a wriggling fly, and at once these difficulties vanish, and pain seems able to get a foothold here, where before everything was, so to say, too smooth for it.” (P!, 284)

On Wittgenstein’s account then there is nothing in principle that stands in the way of recognizing another person’s thoughts and feelings. Thoughts and sensations are not hermetically sealed off in an inner world of which others can know nothing. And this is, indeed, essential to the ways we interact and to what kind of beings we are. We can co-operate efficiently with each other and come to each other’s assistance in the way we do only because we can recognize each other’s thoughts and feelings in expression and action. One might look for an evolutionary explanation of why this has to be so. But if this is so, there seem to be no limits to the potential powers of surveillance and our worst fears about the consequences of losing the distinction between the private and the public seem to be realistic.

But that recognition is always limited in reach. There is always the possibility of misunderstanding and misinterpretation, of deception, pretending, acting, and lying. There is always the possibility of keeping one’s thoughts and feelings to oneself. The link between inner thoughts and feelings and their expression is never smooth. Our interactions are for that reason always marked by a degree of uncertainty. We may know another person well and may have known him for years but still be surprised about something he says or does, thinks or feels. That, too, is characteristic of human sociality.

Your thoughts and feelings may not be in principle inaccessible to others. They are not absolutely private. But, in practice, they may not be freely accessible. Consider all the things that go through your mind in the course of a day. None of them may in principle be beyond the reach of being known by others. But that other person would have to be at your side all day long and pay constant attention to everything you do and say, to every frown, every sigh, and every word you whisper. Once we abandon the idea of mind and body as separate substances, it become plausible to think that our mental states will be in principle just as accessible to knowledge as the other states of our bodies. But this knowledge in principle does not come to a knowledge in practice. So, are thoughts and sensations in principle private in the sense of being in principle inaccessible to others? They are accessible in principle but not always practically. And they are practically inaccessible not only for incidental reasons, but intrinsically so. We can say then that they are in principle practically inaccessible. Whether they are or not will depend on the means we have available for following the other’s words and actions. In our normal, everyday interactions there are narrow limits to this. Individuals are thus left to a wide sphere of privacy. The size of that sphere varies, however, according to how close two human beings are. But even between those who are intimate, the sphere of privacy remains intact. And it is, moreover, essential, if the parties will have mutual trust in each other, that this sphere of privacy shrinks to the same degree in both.

Technological means of surveillance have, however, created new ways of following the words and actions of others. Here the penetration into the sphere of privacy becomes one-directional. The agents of surveillance resist being surveilled. The shrinkage of privacy occurs only for the subject surveilled. This must result in a shrinkage of trust since the surveilled subject has less reason to trust the surveillor.  The defenders of governmental surveillance often reason that those who do nothing wrong, will have nothing to fear from surveillance. But that assumes that he surveilling government organs cannot or will not do wrong. Surveillance government and surveillance capitalism are thus likely to spawn a regime of deepening distrust. The technological means of surveillance are not likely to go away; the reality of increased surveillance is with us. The question must be how trust can be maintained in this situation. The simple answer is that there needs to be increasing transparency between the parties. Bu that will not be easy to attain. Repressive governments have an interest in opacity, so do exploitative commercial undertakings, so do criminal gangs. In an age of surveillance, citizens must insist on a form of government that fosters openness and responsiveness to its citizens, that constraints the economic exploitation of the means of surveillance, and that prevents the operation of criminal forms of surveillance. It is difficult to see how any but a genuinely free a democratic form of government could provide such services.

Hiding in plain view

I want to turn here at the end to a passage of the Philosophical Investigations that appears to me relevant to this discussion. Wittgenstein writes there that “we don’t have an overview of the use of our language.”  His next sentence is in German: “Unserer Grammatik fehlt es an Übersichtlichkeit.“ Our published translation makes this: „Our grammar is deficient in surveyability.” I would make it: “Our grammar lacks surveyability.” The difference in wording is due to two different interpretations of the entire remark. The translators (and many other interpreters)  take Wittgenstein’s words to be prescriptive. Our grammar is deficient. We must therefore devise a surveyable representation of it. The interpreters believe tat this is what Wittgenstein is after. I believe, by contrast, that Wittgenstein is speaking  descriptively. I take him seriously when he writes: “Philosophy must not interfere in any way with the actual use of language, so it can in the end only describe it.” (PI, 124) And when he adds: “We don’t want to refine or complete the system of rules for the use of our words in unheard of ways.” (PI, 133) I take Wittgenstein to have made an observation about the nature of our language when he speaks of the unsurveyability of our grammar and thereby implicitly also of the entire human form of life. That our grammar is unsurveyable is due to the malleability and openness of language. There are, after all, “countless kind of use of all the things we call ‘signs’, ‘words’, ‘sentences’. And this diversity is not something fixed, given once and for all; but new types of language, new language-games, as we say, come into existence and others become obsolete and get forgotten.” (PI, 23) Our language is not one thing, built on a single ground plan. It is like “a maze of little street and squares, of old and new houses, of houses with extensions from various periods, and all this surrounded by a multitude of new suburbs with straight and regular streets and uniform houses.” (PI, 18)[12]

I believe that these words tell us something about the limits of surveillance. Such a limit is not set by there being an unbreakable code, nor does it result from our ability to limit the circle of those to whom we speak, and it is also not due to our private sensations and thoughts being absolutely inaccessible to others. The limit of surveillance lies in our capacity to think and speak in new, unanticipated ways. This is not a merely speculative remark but one with immediate practical applications. Those who wo want to protect the privacy of their digital phones find it necessary to change them frequently to avoid an infection with malware.  Those who need the privacy of their internet communications will regularly change their addresses and servers. Those who speak and write in public will find it necessary to change the words they use and the ways they express themselves. We can learn here something the Chinese intellectuals on the Canadian website. They are often able to write in a surprisingly open and critical manner about the political, social, and intellectual realities of contemporary China. But they know, of course that they are under observation and that they need to tread carefully. They need to reconcile a number of different motivation. They are, of course, motivated first of all to communicate their own thinking. But they will at the same time want to express their thoughts in ways that escape the censor and do not provoke prosecution. They will also be concerned to keep private what they fear may get them into trouble with the authorities. Though they may also want to give others hints of those unexpressed thoughts. They are forced to become like foxes, outrunning the slow-moving hedgehogs of surveillance and censorship that seek to keep track of us with their cumbersome algorithms and rigid rules.

To be private does not mean to be confined in an inaccessible space. Privacy can also be found in the open where it is least expected. It is there where the agents of control cannot discriminate it. It is where the wind keeps shifting directions and contours keep changing. “Where do you hide a grain of sand?” G.K. Chesterton once asked. The answer, he thought, was: “On the Beach.”


[1] David Ownby, “Am I Being Played?” Reading the China Dream, February 15, 2021,

[2] Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Blue and Brown Books, Harper & Row, New York 1960, pp. 55 and 43.

[3] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, translated by G.E.M. Anscombe, P. M’ S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte, Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester 2000, 246. All subsequent references to this text marked as “PI” with the appropriate section or page number.

[4]  “China set to pass new law to protect ‘legitimate rights’ on personal data,” South China Morning Post, August 17, 2021,

[5] Shoshana Zuboff, “The Secrets of Surveillance Capitalism,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, March 5, 2016.

[6] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, Chicago U. P., Chicago 1958, Part 2 “The Public and the Private Realm.”

[7] Jessica Battke and Mareike Ohlberg, “The State of Surveillance. Government Documents Reveal New Evidence on China’s Efforts to Monitor Its People,” China File, October 30, 2020,


[8] “From ‘rice bunny’ to ‘back up the car’: China’s year of censorship, The Guardian, Dec. 30, 2018


[10] Battke and Ohlberg, loc. cit.

[11] Hans Sluga, Politics and the Search for the Common Good, Cambridge U. P., Cambridge 2014, chapter 8.

[12] Hans Sluga, “Our grammar lacks surveyability,” in Language and World. Part One. Essays on the Philosophy of Wittgenstein, ontos verlag, Frankfurt 2010.


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