Monday, 8 December 2014

Why Wittgenstein’s theory of how language works might call into question the reality of the self.

For the vast majority of people, questioning the reality of the self is an absurdity.  It will almost always yield a common sense answer among the majority of people such as the self is my body; it is my physical existence.  Others may talk of a mental self; that is, a metaphysical self that nests within one’s brain.  Such common answers as these lead us down a dark alley with a picture of the self as a kind of mysterious form of mental cognition such as a process of thinking, or a mental swirl of energy that determine our volitions. 

Interpretations such as these go back to the time of Descartes with his idea of dualism.  Dualism simply states that there are things in the world that are either of a physical kind or a mental kind.  For Descartes, his Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) is an argument for the existence of a thinking self, a self in which he cannot come to doubt as this would be doubting his own internal thoughts and doubting one’s own thoughts is an impossibility since we are by nature thinking beings.  The idea that he cannot doubt is a declaration that the mental “self” can exist independent of the body as, for Descartes, we could be deceived in possessing such a body by an evil demon.

The problem Wittgenstein had with the self was one to do with language.  What do we mean when we talk of the self, and what words do we use to refer to the self?  For Wittgenstein language has a particular function for particular situations; to take language out of a specific context and apply it to other situations leads us to confusion and misunderstanding and thus creates what Wittgenstein believes are philosophical problems.

The first part of this essay will explain how language works according to Wittgenstein. The second part will explain his ideas about the self which will be followed by an evaluation where I will argue against the idea that the self is a nothing.


For Wittgenstein, every word in our language is like a chess piece: it has an individual function and plays a specific rôle.  For example, in a game of tennis there are words that can only be used within the context of tennis; ‘love’, for example, can only mean a score of zero and nothing else.  Thus the speaker of such words can only use them when he understands the context in which they are used; that is, when he understands the game that is being played.  Likewise, other people can only understand the language used in tennis when they come to understand the game of tennis.

The notion that words have particular uses in certain contexts is known as a language game.  To understand the meaning of words, we must examine how they are used in different situations.  This can also apply to aspects of non-verbal language.  For example, in western societies, the wearing of black during a funeral procession conveys the notion of death. 

Central to Wittgenstein’s thought on language is the idea that language is used within a form of life (PI §23), or to be more specific, a culture.  In order to understand a language one must understand the life within which this particular language is used.  For example, to understand Chinese as fluently as a native speaker, one needs to be fully familiar with his life and culture.  Wittgenstein supports this thought with the analogy of a lion.  “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him” (PI §223).  Wittgenstein is telling us that even if a lion, cat or any other animal could speak our language, we would fail to understand them because we are not cognizant with the world they inhabit.

In a nutshell, for Wittgenstein, language is formed through interactions with the environment, and determined by the society we inhabit and the culture it adopts.  To find the meaning of language is to look at its various uses.  But how do we learn language in the first place?  Wittgenstein shows us that before we learn the use of a word we must first see its use in action.  Words such as “this” and “that” are learned through the action of pointing at objects, where the action of pointing reveals the meaning of the word “this” or “that”.  For example, the expression “ that chair ” followed by the pointing towards the chair forms the connection between the word “that” and the object at which the finger is pointing.  Of course, gestures such as these are all part of the language game we play and can vary across cultures.  But this is not to say that the language of such gestures and words exists outside of us; on the contrary, it is manifested within ourselves through our response to our external environment.  Therefore, for Wittgenstein at least, language can only be used as a way of describing things in the world and not as an explanation of those things because, for him, there is no essence lurking behind the world.
 “Since everything lies open to view there is nothing to explain. For what is hidden, for example, is of no interest to us.” (PI §126)


Before questioning the reality of the self in the light of Wittgenstein’s theory of how language works, it is helpful to explain what the reality of the self means.  For many people, the reality of the self is a kind of personal identity.  This was the view taken by the 16th century philosopher John Locke.  For Locke, one criterion for personal identity was psychological continuity; that is to say, that the same person, or self, can exist at different time intervals, as memories we have of the past can demonstrate (ECH II.XXVII 9-12). But a notable problem with this idea springs from the fact that we cannot remember everything; for example, we cannot fully recall our early months and years as a baby. Nevertheless, this does not necessarily imply that when our memory fails us our personal identity or the reality of ourselves ceases to exist.

What do we actually mean by personal identity? The use of such a term seems to imply that there is something specific inside us, a glue that is stuck to us from the moment we are born to the moment we die, and that no matter what physical characteristics we possess, whether it be our height or hair colour, this personal ‘thing’ remains the same and enables us to refer to ourselves as something that exists, whether it be mind or body.

For Wittgenstein, to think of a person as a metaphysical entity is a mistake, and philosophy’s job is to dispel the confusions which befog the concept of person or self. According to Wittgenstein we use many words to describe ourselves; for example, we can describe ourselves in terms of a psychological or physical being; but there are many definitions of these, and, strictly speaking, it would be wrong to attach a necessary or sufficient condition to define a self as something objective or subjective because 
no matter how many terms we can think of, none of them really explain what our “self” is.

We must acknowledge the fact that when we wish to refer to ourselves the most common word we use is the first person pronoun ‘I’.  But what exactly does this ‘I’ refer to?  Wittgenstein claims that it doesn't refer to anything at all; it doesn't point to anything within the mind which can deservedly be considered an object that is fundamentally me.  Furthermore, the word ‘I’ neither describes nor explains anything about me for when we use the word we use it in discourse with other people as an object that processes psychological states without ourselves being aware of it.  Even if we consider someone with total memory loss, their inability to remember events would in no way interfere with their ability to use the word ‘I’. This informal use of the first person pronoun implies that the word ‘I’ is unable to describe a state, or states, of internal mechanisms.  For Wittgenstein then, the problem of the self is a problem that arises from the language we use.  We think of the self as an object like a table or a chair and come to regard the self as a type of object in its own right.  Yet the first person pronoun ‘I’ not only fails to refer to an object or entity of some kind, but is also misguidedly used in parallel with other words such as ‘this’ and ‘that’.  These words are used to refer to something objective; for example, ‘this chair’ or ‘that lamp shade’.  But ‘I’ cannot be used in this way at all ; in fact, ‘I’ has a similar meaning to the word ‘it’s’ in the phrase “ it’s going to rain[1] ”.  ‘I’, then, is a human construction made from language that is used to refer to the self, but this self doesn’t actually exist; our language creates it.

If we accept the validity of Wittgenstein’s theory about how language works, then the problem of trying to discover our self should not really be a problem at all.  If the meaning of words is found through their uses, which, in turn, are shaped by society, culture, history and the like, then we can only use words that refer to the self by using them as we do in everyday life.  But ‘I’ is used as a subject term (Blue and Brown books, p.66-70), and should the subject try to look inside its own mind, it will see nothing.  Our mental states are inobservable by us; we can never see inside ourselves and reveal the content of the mind.  Authentic knowledge of ourselves is therefore impossible since to have such knowledge requires a process of verification[2]

Words cannot describe nor explain our inner experiences and sensations; they do not name private objects within us, the reason being that the words we use in the everyday sense are words which are primarily public in nature; for Wittgenstein, therefore, there is no private language.  To take a well known example of his, to say “I am in pain” is a linguistic way of expressing a sensation of pain, but I cannot know that I am actually in pain independently of my physical experiences.  In addition, and perhaps more controversially, Wittgenstein declares that even thinking of ourselves as self-conscious is fallacious.  There is no such thing as even thinking about thinking of being self-conscious because it is only through the use of language that we come to think of consciousness in the first place[3]; this is to say that we can only express our thoughts and feelings through the medium of language, but, essentially, these inner experiences and sensations remain independent of the words we use to express them.  Consider yourself in pain : the language we use to express this pain is public while the mental cognition of being in pain is private ; therefore we are using two different language games to express ‘pain’, one inner and the other outer, and the outer expression doesn't reveal the actual inner state of being in pain.

Even the word ‘consciousness’ itself doesn’t refer to anything within us because we cannot use it to ‘describe or explain’ our psychological states of mind, the volitions of which we can only express through language games.  In this sense then, the reality of consciousness is fundamentally a nothing; that is, a “no-thing” for Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein thus delivers a blow to Descartes’ cogito.  To say “I think, therefore I am” is wrong primarily because self-consciousness as an entity or entities within our body cannot be located.  Secondly, the use of the first person pronoun “I” doesn't essentially refer to any object within us, and so it cannot refer to our self as the conscious being to which Descartes’ cogito refers.  Lastly, all language is public in nature and not private.  Descartes’ visualized the self as something personal, working from the inner to the outer, but Wittgenstein turned this centuries old model around from the outer to the inner.  

A problem arises when we try to define a relationship between the mind and behaviour.  Indeed, it is easy to read Wittgenstein as a behaviourist when he says: “An ‘inner process’ stands in need of outward criteria ” (PI, §580).  It is easy to read him in this way because of his belief that the ‘I’ is not an object (NB p.80)[4].  But essentially Wittgenstein is saying that without the external world in the first place, we would not be able to describe our mental states at all.  Instead, the position Wittgenstein takes is one opposed to both behaviourism and the mind in general (indeed, he has been described by some people as a negativist[5]).  The problem with behaviourism is that it maintains, for example, that utterances of pain and other emotions are descriptions of a particular behaviour.  But they are not actually descriptions of anything; it is simply the case that when we are in pain we express it in a form of language (a language game).  However, there are some instances when we don’t express pain through our behaviour even if we are in pain. This just reveals the phenomenon of subjectivity; that is, an ability to withhold pain that can only come from our mental side. Wittgenstein’s conclusion is that “The I, the I, is what is deeply mysterious”. (NB p.80)

Wittgenstein doesn’t provide us with a fundamental answer to the question of the self, but instead he provides us with the following analogy: 

“Think of a picture of a landscape, an imaginary landscape with a house in it. – Someone asks ‘whose house is that?’ – The answer, by the way, might be ‘It belongs to the farmer who is sitting on the bench in front of it ’.  But then he cannot for example enter his house ”. (PI, 398)

Wittgenstein is saying that the self doesn’t exist.  We can imagine an imaginary landscape that “might” belong to the farmer who just happened to be sitting on the bench in front of the house, but there is no real self that owns such things.  Likewise, we can imagine the farmer walking up to the house and entering it, but in reality he can’t.  This seems to imply that at least the phenomenon of subjectivity cannot be denied.  But objectively, the self is a nothing.


Wittgenstein’s theory of a self that doesn’t exist is problematic.  The fact remains that although language has a multitude of uses within specific contexts, this doesn’t change the fact that thinking must precede the development of language in the first place.  This is to say that although the first person pronoun ‘I’ is a human construction, it is no doubt used as a prima facie case, i.e. ‘I’ is a referring expression at first appearance[6].  But if it is a referring expression, then the only thing it can refer to is the ego which initially created it.  If we accept this view, it is difficult to see how we can come to doubt the reality of the self as a person who conceives and takes part in the world as a participant of some kind. 

The ‘I’, then, must refer to a form of identity, and one that is not solely private; that is, an identity in which “I” has both a personal and public use which enables me and others to interact.  Although it is true that the language we use to express our inner states is conditioned by society and by the language games we play, and consequently casts the ‘self’ as something non-personal, it seems irrefutable that there must be something within us that has the capacity to express itself in the first place.  It is surely some sort of personal self which initially enables us to express ourselves using language. If we reflect on our evolutionary past when language was not as developed as it is today, it seems obvious that an actual thought process must initially have been taking place within the self, thereby strongly suggesting that the latter is detectable through reason. 

Indeed, how would it be possible to refer to myself without using the first person pronoun ‘I’? If I want to describe my characteristics to others, it is inevitable that I will use ‘I’ as a starting point, but not only does it refer to me; a third person (e.g. a listener) would naturally understand the word ‘I’ to refer to the person speaking. A fellow philosopher and friend, Elizabeth Anscombe in her book ‘The first person’, attempted to defend Wittgenstein and argued that because ‘I’ can be used by individuals with extreme sensory deprivation, the ‘I’ must refer to something bodiless although Wittgenstein would surely have viewed this conclusion as illusory.  

Nevertheless, since in ordinary discourse we make frequent use of the first person pronoun ‘I’, there must be a something to which the ‘I’ does in fact refer[7] irrespective of whether we are suffering from extreme sensory disorder or, as mentioned earlier, a complete memory loss.  Although it may be the case that the self can only be expressed using language that is public, and that language itself can only express inner feelings and sensations without being able to describe and explain these inner states, it seems difficult to avoid the conclusion that, at the very least, the self exists as an appearance of some kind.  Overall, therefore, I would argue that to doubt the reality of the self, as Wittgenstein’s theory of language has done, is both impractical and inherently flawed.


G.E.M. Anscombe and R.Rhees (1953), Philosophical Investigations, Oxford: Blackwell

G.E.M. Anscombe, ‘The First Person’, in H.Glock (2001) Wittgenstein A Critical Reader, Oxford: Blackwell, p.243

H.Glock (2001), Wittgenstein A Critical Reader, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, p. 224 - 246

H.Sluga. “Whose house is that” Wittgenstein on the self, in H.Sluga and D.G. Stern (1996), The Cambridge companion to Wittgenstein, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, p. 320 – 354

H.von Wright and G.E.M. Anscombe, Notebooks, 1914 – 1916, Oxford: Blackwell, p. 80

J.Locke., (1996), An Essay Concerning Human,
USA: Hackett Publishing, Chapter xxvii

J.R. Searle (2004), Mind A Brief Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press, chapter 11.

P.F. Strawson (1959), Individuals, London: Methuen, chapter 3

The Blue and Brown Books (1958). Oxford: Blackwell, p. 66 - 70


G.E.M. Anscombe and R.Rhees (1953), Philosophical Investigations, Oxford: Blackwell

H. Glock (2001), Wittgenstein A Critical Reader, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers

H. Sluga and D.G. Stern (1996), The Cambridge companion to Wittgenstein, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

J. Locke., (1996), An Essay Concerning Human,
USA: Hackett Publishing

P.F. Strawson (1959), Individuals, London: Methuen

J.R. Searle (2004), Mind A Brief Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press

H. von Wright and G.E.M. Anscombe, Notebooks, 1914 – 1916, Oxford: Blackwell

The Blue and Brown Books (1958). Oxford: Blackwell

A. Kenny (2006), The Wittgenstein Reader, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing

G.L. Hagberg (2008), Describing Ourselves, Oxford: Clarendon Press

[1] This example is taken from Searle (2004)
[2] This is controversial for Wittgenstein as it assumes we take an empirical stance on the question of the ‘mind’ David Bakhurst, ‘Wittgenstein and I’, In Glock, Hans-Johann (2001), Wittgenstein A Critical Reader, Oxford: BlackWell Publishers, p. 238
[3] Wittgenstein’s thought here is controversial.  Surely thinking must precede the evolution of language?
[4] NB is work produced in the Note Books (1961)
[5] This view has been endorsed by Hans Sluga (1996)
[6] A similar view is expressed in Bakhurst’s chapter on Wittgenstein and ‘I’, in Glock (2001)
[7] Strawson takes this argument further and argues that the ‘I’ does refer to a person at the very least with mental powers, see Strawson (1959) 

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