“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.