Skip to main content Accessibility help

Wittgenstein on Solipsism in the 1930s: Private Pains, Private Languages, and Two Uses of ‘I’

  • Tim Button (a1)

In the early-to-mid 1930s, Wittgenstein investigated solipsism via the philosophy of language. In this paper, I want to reopen Wittgenstein's ‘grammatical’ examination of solipsism.

Wittgenstein begins by considering the thesis that only I can feel my pains. Whilst this thesis may tempt us towards solipsism, Wittgenstein points out that this temptation rests on a grammatical confusion concerning the phrase ‘my pains’. In §1, I unpack and vindicate his thinking.

After discussing ‘my pains’, Wittgenstein makes his now famous suggestion that the word ‘I’ has two distinct uses: a subject-use and an object-use. The purpose of Wittgenstein's suggestion has, however, been widely misunderstood. I unpack it in §2, explaining how the subject-use connects with a phenomenological language, and so again tempts us into solipsism. In §§3–4, I consider various stages of Wittgenstein's engagement with this kind of solipsism, culminating in a rejection of solipsism (and of subject-uses of ‘I’) via reflections on private languages.

Corresponding author
Hide All

1 The source materials are all published posthumously. Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Philosophical Remarks, (ed.) Rhees, Rush (Oxford: Blackwell, 1964), written around 1930. Wittgenstein, , Wittgenstein: Lectures, Cambridge 1930–1933 (from the notes of G. E. Moore), (ed.) Stern, D. G. et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016); all citations are from Wittgenstein's ‘Philosophy’ lectures in February–March 1933, and are given as Philosophy (Moore). Wittgenstein, , Wittgenstein's Lectures: Cambridge, 1932–5 (from the notes of Alice Ambrose and Margaret MacDonald), (ed.) Ambrose, A. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1979); all citations are from the same lectures as before, and are given as Philosophy (Ambrose). Wittgenstein, , The Blue Book (Oxford: Blackwell, 1958); dictated in 1933–34. Wittgenstein, , ‘Notes for lectures on “private experience” and “sense data”’, The Philosophical Review 77.3 (1968), 275320; these are lectures notes from 1934–6, and citations are given as NLPESD. Wittgenstein, , The Big Typescript, (ed.) Luckhardt, C.G. and Aue, M.A.E. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005); this manuscript was composed in 1933–37.

2 Wittgenstein: Philosophical Remarks, §§61–5; Philosophy (Moore), 7:109–114, 8:6–16; Philosophy (Ambrose), §16; The Blue Book, 48ff.; NLPESD, 283. See also Wittgenstein, , Philosophical Investigations (Oxford: Blackwell, 1953), §253.

3 Wittgenstein: Philosophical Remarks, §62; The Big Typescript, 503, and also 510–11.

4 Anticipating §1.4, below: here the grammar of ‘my pain’ is doing too much heavy-lifting.

5 Wittgenstein, , Zettel, (ed.) Anscombe, G.E.M. and Wright, G.H.v. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1981), §547.

6 For discussion on these themes, see Wittgenstein Philosophy (Moore), 7:109, 7:111–12; Philosophy (Ambrose), §16; The Blue Book, 57; NLPESD, 286, 296.

7 Wittgenstein, Philosophy (Moore), 8:23; see also Philosophy (Moore), 8:11, 8:26, 8:30; Philosophy (Ambrose), §18.

8 Wittgenstein, NLPESD, 319; see also Philosophy (Moore) 7:109–10, 8:12; The Blue Book, 72–3. Cf. also Donald Davidson's suggestion on how to formulate scepticism about other minds in First-person authority’, Dialectica 38.2/3 (1974), 101–11.

9 Thanks to Brian King for this excellent example.

10 Wittgenstein, The Blue Book, 59. See also Philosophy (Moore), 8:6, 8:8–9; The Blue Book, 46, 57, 61.

11 Wittgenstein, The Blue Book, 48. See also The Blue Book, 56; NLPESD, 276–7.

12 Evans, Gareth, The Varieties of Reference, (ed.) McDowell, J. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 101. The entire quote is from Evans, but the name is mine (Evans introduces this Constraint en route to his famous Generality Constraint).

13 Including my own name. See Wittgenstein: The Blue Book, 61, 64–5, 68; NLPESD, 298; The Big Typescript, 512.

14 Wittgenstein Philosophy (Ambrose), §19. See also Philosophical Remarks, §61; Philosophy (Moore), 7:114, 8:29; Philosophy (Ambrose), §20; The Blue Book, 59–60, 66; NLPESD, 308; The Big Typescript, §512; Philosophical Investigations, §§402–3.

15 Wittgenstein, The Big Typescript, 508. See also Philosophy (Moore), 8:14; The Blue Book, 55; NLPESD, 283; The Big Typescript, 504, 510; Philosophical Investigations, §398.

16 Canfield, John, ‘Tractatus objects’, Philosophia 6/1 (1976), 8199, esp. 82. Canfield is of course writing about Wittgenstein, Tractatus-Logico Philosophicus (1921); henceforth cited as Tractatus.

17 See Wittgenstein, Tractatus, §§5.632, 5.641, 6.43.

18 Wittgenstein, The Blue Book, 56.

19 Wittgenstein: Philosophy (Ambrose), §16; The Blue Book, 54.

20 Thanks to Lucy O'Brien for suggesting something like this.

21 I take it that this is the thrust of Wittgenstein's remark: ‘What should this mean: he has these pains? apart from, that he has such pains: i.e. of such intensity, kind, etc. But only in that sense can I too have “these pains”.’ The Big Typescript, 508.

22 Wittgenstein, The Blue Book, 54.  See also Philosophy (Moore), 7:113, 8:11.

23 Wittgenstein, Philosophy (Moore), 8:11. See also The Blue Book, 54.

24 On grammatical statements, see Wittgenstein: Philosophy (Moore), 7:112–114, 8:6, 8:9–11; The Blue Book, 54; NLPESD, 283. The idea of proposing a rule comes through in Wittgenstein: Philosophy (Moore), 8:12–14; Philosophy (Ambrose), §16; NLPESD, 317–18.

25 Cf. Wittgenstein: The Blue Book, 55, 70; NLPESD, 277.

26 Wittgenstein: The Blue Book, 66–7. See also Philosophy (Moore), 7:110, 8:8, 8:22–3, 8:27–8, 8:31–2, 8:35–6; The Big Typescript, 511.

27 This literature gets going with Sydney Shoemaker, ‘Self-reference and self-awareness’, The Journal of Philosophy 65/19 (1968), 555–67, and Evans, The Varieties of Reference, 179–91, 205–57.

28 Wittgenstein, The Blue Book, 67.

29 I intend for this to be a universal generalisation of a definition due to Crispin Wright, in ‘Self-knowledge: The Wittgensteinian legacy’, 19. (Printed in Knowing our Own Minds, (ed.) Wright, et al. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).) Let g be some grounds for making a judgement; then Wright says that a statement is iem-given-g iff g is ‘such that in the event that the statement in question is somehow defeated, it cannot survive as a ground for the corresponding existential generalization’. That is: a statement is subjectival iff it is iem-given-g for all g that might justify the statement.

Wittgenstein's subject-use of ‘I’ certainly corresponds to the universal formulation. This is clear from the fact that ‘the wind blows my hair about’ is iem-given-g, when g is just ordinary sensations of my own scalp. But there is a much deeper point here. In §2.3, I show that Wittgenstein links his subject-use of ‘I’ to statements concerning pure phenomenology, or sense data. As I show, that link is necessary, for statements which are iem-given-g for all g (i.e. subjectival statements). But there is no such general link for statements which are iem-given-g for some g.

30 A similar point is made by Recanati, François in Perspectival Thought: A Plea for (Moderate) Relativism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 149–50. This disagrees with Shoemaker, ‘Self-reference and self-awareness’, 556–7.

31 NB: I do not ultimately want to endorse the idea that there is such a sharp distinction. My aim here is just to investigate what kind of content subjectival claims could possibly have (with the ultimate aim, in §4, of showing that they must have (almost) none).

32 Carnap, Der logische Aufbau der Welt (1928), §64, introduces the word ‘bracket’ in outlining his methodological solipsism: ‘the experiences must simply be taken as they occur. We shall not claim reality or nonreality in connection with these experiences; rather, these claims will be “bracketed” (i.e. we will exercise the phenomenological “withholding of judgment”, ἐποχή, in Husserl's sense).’ Hacker, , Wittgenstein: Meaning and Mind (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), 481–6, provides interesting commentary on Wittgenstein's relationship with methodological solipsism.

33 Cf. Evans, The Varieties of Reference, 219–20.

34 Such quasi-memories have been frequently discussed in this literature, post-Evans, The Varieties of Reference, 235–48.

35 Note: present-tensed and not present-continuous. Suppose I judge that I am composing a poem. This involves some ongoing activity: it suggests that I was composing it, and will continue to compose it. However, via something elaborately Sci-Fi, I can make sense of discovering that my apparent memories of composing the poem are really Chip's memories, and of discovering that Chip (not me) will continue to compose the poem. So, if we want an apparently present-continuous claim to be subjectival, we must bracket such claims down to instantaneous versions of those judgement.

36 Note: they can involve the phenomenology of intention, as in Wittgenstein's example ‘I try to lift my arm’. However, the subjectival use should not connote any ‘authorship’. To see why, consider a Sci-Fi set-up where Chip's intentions are being transmitted into my head.

37 Wittgenstein, Philosophy (Moore), 8.32.

38 Wittgenstein, Philosophy (Moore), 8:35; see also Philosophy (Ambrose), §19; The Big Typescript, 514.

39 Wittgenstein, Philosophy (Moore), 8:35.

40 Wittgenstein, The Blue Book, 70.

41 Or rather, if it does, it does so only indirectly, as in e.g. Carnap's Aufbau.

42 And also for any objectival statements of pain.

43 Wittegnstein, The Big Typescript, 506.

44 Wittgenstein, Philosophy (Moore), 8:6; see also Philosophy (Moore), 8:2, 8:4, 8:8; Philosophy (Ambrose), §19; NLPESD, 282; The Big Typescript, 506.

45 Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), Bk.1, Pt.IV, §VI. See also Carnap, Aufbau, §65: ‘the given is subject-less’. See also Schlick, , ‘Meaning and verification’, The Philosophical Review 45/4 (1936), 339–69, esp. 367.

46 See Wittgenstein: Philosophy (Moore), 8:22–3, 8:39; Philosophy (Ambrose), §18; The Blue Book, 67; NLPESD, 307.

47 Wittgenstein, The Blue Book, 70.

48 Both quotes in this sentence from Wittgenstein, The Blue Book, 67.

49 Ambrose remarks that Wittgenstein examined ‘the Cartesian question, as though it does not concern a fact of the world but rather a matter of expression’. Ambrose, ‘The Yellow Book notes in relation to The Blue Book’, Crítica 9/26 (1977) 3–23, esp. 9. This is clearly also a theme of Anscombe, G.E.M., ‘The first person’, in Mind and Language, (ed.) Guttenplan, S. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), 4565.

50 Wittgenstein, Tractatus, §5.62.

51 Wittgenstein, Tractatus, §5.64.

52 Wittgenstein, Philosophy (Moore), 8:29. See also Philosophy (Ambrose), §20.

53 Wittgenstein, Tractatus, §5.64.

54 Instead, I might say that this language distributes ‘the use of the word “I” over all human bodies as opposed to [L.W.] alone’. Wittgenstein, NLPESD, 281; also NLPESD, 298; The Big Typescript, 516.

55 Wittgenstein, The Blue Book, 67; see also The Blue Book, 68; NLPESD, 301–2, 309, 319.

56 Wittgenstein, NLPESD, 300; then compare Philosophical Investigations, §309.

57 Wittgenstein, NLPESD, roughly 287–97.

58 Wittgenstein, NLPESD, 297; and compare Philosophical Investigations, §§304–6.

59 ‘“I see so-and-so” does not mean “the person so-and-so, e.g., L.W., sees so-and-so”.’ Wittgenstein, NLPESD, 298.

60 Thanks to Rob Trueman for suggesting I consider this quick argument.

61 Coliva, Annalisa, ‘Which “key to all mythologies” about the self? A note on where the illusions of transcendence came from and how to resist them’, in Prosser, and Recanati, (eds), Immunity to Error through Misidentification: New essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012, 2245), 26. For a very similar example, see Frédérique Vignemont, ‘Bodily immunity to error’ (same volume, 224–46), 224. For a slightly different use of testimony, Daniel Morgan ‘Immunity to error through misidentification: What does it tell us about the de se?’ (same volume, 103–23), 107.

In fact, Wittgenstein explicitly considers subconscious thoughts whenever he considers subjectivality. For example, he asks why we might ever say something like ‘x has a subconscious toothache’, and concludes that the meaning of this phrase would have to be ‘bound up with a human body: I couldn't have it, if my body were destroyed.’ (Philosophy (Moore), 8:35; see also The Blue Book, 55, 57–8.) This contrasts with the insistence that I (subjectivally) can have conscious toothache, even if I have no body at all (see §2.3). That is: Wittgenstein would indeed have classified any claim about the subconscious as objectival.

62 Wittgenstein, NLPESD, 282.

63 Cf. Wittgenstein, NLPESD, 285, 301.

64 Whilst I will focus on examples concerning Relearning, it is instructive to note that a similar point can be made by considering mis-speaking. Example. I encounter a woman who is groaning in agony. I call an ambulance, and wait with her. When a paramedic arrives, I try to explain the situation. I say ‘I hurt, she is fine’. The paramedic looks at us both, confused, and says ‘Really? You seem ok.’ I realise my mistake: ‘Yes, I mixed up my words; she hurts, rather than me’. With Hilary Putnam, I think it is a mistake to dismiss this kind of phenomenon as a (mere) ‘slip of the tongue’. As Putnam points out, ‘in the case in question I didn't even notice I was misdescribing until someone questioned my report (and might never have noticed otherwise)’. See Putnam, , Reason, Truth and History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 70.

65 Wittgenstein, The Blue Book, 64–6; NLPESD, 307–11, 320; Philosophical Investigations, §398.

66 Wittgenstein, NLPESD, 288. See also Philosophical Investigations, §398.

67 Wittgenstein, NLPESD, 314.

68 Wittgenstein, The Big Typescript, 488.

69 Wittgenstein, The Big Typescript, 492.

70 I wrote this paper during a period of research leave which was funded by a Philip Leverhulme Prize (awarded by the Leverhulme Trust, PLP–2014–140). Many thanks to Bill Child, Jane Heal, Guy Longworth, Lucy O'Brien, Mark Sainsbury, Rob Trueman and Rachael Wiseman for comments on drafts of this paper.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements
  • ISSN: 1358-2461
  • EISSN: 1755-3555
  • URL: /core/journals/royal-institute-of-philosophy-supplements
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed