Wittgenstein on the Puzzle of Privacy

“In what sense are my sensations private? – Well, only I 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 often know when I am in pain. – Yes, but all the same not with the certainty with which I know it myself! – It can’t be said of me at all (except perhaps as a joke) that I know I am in pain. What is it supposed to mean – except perhaps that I am in pain.”

Readers of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations will be familiar with this intriguing passage (PI, 246). But there are reasons for being dissatisfied with it. Wittgenstein’s argument appears effective against those who postulate an absolute division between body and mind. But this hardly exhausts what we need to say on the topic of the privacy of sensations, feelings, experiences, memories, thoughts, etc. Yes, it is true that people often know when another person is in pain. But even more often they don’t. We might grant Wittgenstein that sensations, feelings, etc. are not in principle private, but practically they often are. And that they are, we might add, is practically inevitable. Much of what goes on in us never sees daylight. Do I tell people all my dreams and if I do, will I succeed in communicating to them what made them disturbing or funny? Do others know what I feel and think when I shave myself in the morning in front of the mirror? Do I speak of the twinge in my ankle as I walk to work? Do I communicate all the associations and memories that some words in a book evoke in me? None of this happens and others could not even in principle come to know all these things about me. Nor do I or could I know all that they think and feel and experience in their lives.

Hence, the disconnect that always exists between us. As a result, there is an element of uncertainty in all our social relations. There is the reality of misunderstanding, also of coldness and cruelty. Yes, Wittgenstein is right when he writes that it is possible to see that another person is in pain. In such cases, there is no question of a laborious inference from the person’s behavior to his feeling. The pain is manifest in the sufferer. But Wittgenstein passes over the fact that we do just as often not see that pain. Or we may see it in someone close to us and fail to notice it in a stranger. This disconnect produces frictions in our relations with each other. It leads to breakdowns of friendships and marriages. At the level of politics, it produces hostility and war. Over the course of human evolution, our inner life has, no doubt, become increasingly richer and therefore more difficult to discern for others. At the same time, we have learned to expand the range of our words and the vocabulary of our gestures so as to be able to communicate more effectively with each other. The inner life and the external expression bear, moreover, reciprocally on each other. My most private thoughts are, no doubt, shaped by the words I have learned from others and the words I use are imbued with feeling. The boundary between the inner and the outer is thus blurred. That is something, Wittgenstein establishes, no doubt, in his reflections on privacy. But there still exists a boundary and that it exists gives shape to our social practices and our political institutions. Privacy is a political issue precisely because it is a practical fact and that is something Wittgenstein has failed to notice.


  1. I’m not sure he *failed* to notice it as much as he was obsessed with pointing out the limitations of our temptation in the opposite extreme, that privacy necessarily circumscribes the entire contents of our feelings, etc. It may even be a case of calling the kettle black saying he “failed to notice” it, when your point is that what he notices CAN in fact be private. He just talks almost exclusively in an attempt to show how there is much more to ‘internal’ things than we often assume. As you point out, what we talk about publicly is not ever by any means the whole story. Wittgenstein deserves that same courtesy.

    I may be reading too much into his words, but it does seem he was aware of the implications specifically when he gives us ‘anthropological’ examples to his points. What gets shown in these instances are that there IS a difference between how things appear in one form of life from how they appear in another. He is in fact, I take it, showing us that there often IS an insurmountable difference between things internal to a world view and those same things looked on from the outside. That cultural difference seems in principle, that the measures we use are not seen AS measures, unless others also know to use them as measures. That was my point in the comment to your previous post.

    And if this is true in general between points of view from a cultural aspect, in practice it is surely the same case by case within a shared form of life, that some things are necessarily hidden. How WE value things gets shown in what we do, but we don’t always wear such things on our sleeves. We can be ‘closeted’ about much of what we think and feel and value.

    To me it seems Wittgenstein was attempting to expose our mistakes in universalizing the privacy in individuals, and at the same time showing how privacy was in fact *constituent* of the differences in forms of life. The inner and outer are never more plain than when we confront an alien perspective (See this humorous take on Wittgenstein’s lion http://existentialcomics.com/comic/245).

    The mistake he was suggesting to us was in alienizing other minds to the extent that *nothing* was shared between us. Sharing a form of life IS a foundation that not sharing one can ever replace. To demonstrate that he had to show us the outlines of that agreement, how any of us learns things. This is not the same as suggesting that agreement holds everywhere the same within these forms of life. How we learn things is important, but it is not a guarantee of universal agreement. Privacy still matters, if only *not* in the way some were suggesting…..

    The leap from the individual to the political has to account for the wider context of what he says on matters *between* forms of life. Culture replaces the individual, to an important extent. What more does political thought demand from us?

    I hope that made some sense 🙂 I probably got most of it wrong, but this seems to be where he is pointing most persistently in On Certainty, at least.


  2. Wittgenstein’s interlocutor may have been right after all. If our connection to our own sensations is radically different from our connection to other people’s, why aren’t our sensations private “in principle”? Or does thinking that way lead to an insoluble skepticism about other minds, or at least risk becoming one of those “who postulate an absolute division between body and mind”?

    As problematic as it seems, don’t we infer—“surmise”— the feelings of others from their behavior? Sometimes it’s a “laborious inference” and sometimes it’s easy. Concluding that it’s an inference either way seems unavoidable. Wittgenstein relies on the immediate and non-inferential nature of our own sensations, “It can’t be said of me at all (except perhaps as a joke) that I know I am in pain. What is it supposed to mean – except perhaps that I am in pain”, which states another sense my sensations are private.

    Why couldn’t we say that “sensations, feelings, etc. are in principle private, but practically they often are not. And that many must become public is practically inevitable”, otherwise language and social relations would be impossible.

  3. Regarding Gregg Shores’s question about inferring mental states: Perhaps we should distinguish between knowledge that is mediated and knowledge that comes by way of inference. You can see my confusion by “reading” my furrowed brow, etc., somewhat as you can see what I’m thinking by reading my words. You normally do not /infer/ the meaning of my words. (If you are called to infer, it’s only in hermeneutically difficult or eccentric circumstances, and the inference would rely on non-inferred grasp of meanings.) But this doesn’t mean you access the meaning /unmediatedly/. Reading facial expressions, like reading words, is a learned skill: lots of personal and social stuff has to be in place for you to “surmise” what a facial expression means. But this doesn’t mean you’re drawing an inference to some mental state lying “behind” my expression (cf. you don’t draw an inference to the meaning lying “behind” the words). The meaning is manifest /in/ the expression (cf. the meaning is manifest /in/ the words).

    Which brings me to echo Professor Sluga’s point: Of course, mistakes are made, and there’s always a “distance” between “what I mean” or “what I’m feeling” and “what you think I mean” or “what you think I’m feeling,” but that distance is an important, constitutive part of our form of life. The distance is part of our grammar, part of our very understanding, of facial expressions and mental states. Only someone drunk on scientism would think this distance is some sort of inadequacy.

  4. Forgive the epigrammatic and dogmatic character of the following. If I had more time, I’d be briefer and more subtle.

    (1) To understand that P, Q, R, etc. are manifestations of X, is to understand (a) that X is not exhausted by P, Q, R and so on (they are, after all, manifestations of X, not X itself) but also (b) that there’s no other way of recognizing or identifying X than through recognizing its being manifest, or how it /would/ be manifest, in P, Q, R, and so on.

    (2) Neither (a) nor (b) nor both implies that a person cannot fail, on particular occasions, to recognize a manifestation of X or that a person cannot refrain, on particular occasions, from manifesting X in the recognizable ways. That many feelings, thoughts, etc. do not get manifested does not impugn any of the foregoing.

    (3) None of this means “nothing is hidden.” We can always ask more about whatever gets partially manifested; it’s not as if all questions about whatever it is that gets manifested (or all questions about the person manifesting it) are settled by one manifestation of it. And some questions just might be unanswerable, or some answers just might be unsatisfying.

    (4) The distance or disconnect between our reading of facial expressions and what they manifest is no more and no less mysterious that the distance or disconnect between our reading of words and what they mean. What gets manifested is inexhaustible in the same way that the meaning of words is inexhaustible. We may, with all the warrant in the world, say that we grasp the meaning of words that other people write. And we may, in the same breath, and with all the warrant in the world, say that we don’t grasp the whole meaning of the words that other people write.

    (5) This condition — this mixture of knowing what others mean and yet not knowing, of knowing what is manifested in a gesture and yet not knowing — is partly constitutive of our form of life, as Cavell has argued and as Professor Sluga pointed out. But we should not thereby be tempted to conclude that the not-knowing is evidence of our inadequacy, or that it could be remedied “if only we had better instruments” or “had more empirical knowledge” and so on.

    (6) In the paradigmatic circumstances — in those kinds of circumstances in which we learned the “grammar” of facial expressions and gestures and so on — we /read/ facial expressions; we do not infer from a facial configuration to its inner, hidden cause. Analogously, we read words; we do not see inky lines and then infer their meaning. For both — reading facial expressions or gestures and reading words — there are of course circumstances in which we have to infer the meanings. But those are hermeneutically eccentric circumstances.

    (7) The directness or non-inferential nature of our (normal) reading does not imply that our reading is unmediated. Lots of personal and social stuff has to be in place — we have to be participants in a form of life. A recently landed extraterrestrial could not read our facial expressions. This essential mediatedness may give rise to the sense that there’s inferring going on.

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