Ethics and Private Language

Philosophical Topics 38 (1):181-203 (2010)
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Abstract

There are intriguing hints in the works of Stanley Cavell and Stephen Mulhall of a possible connection between ethics and Wittgenstein’s remarks on private language, which are concerned with expressions of Empfindungen: feelings or sensations. The point of this paper is to make the case explicitly for seeing such a connection. What the point of that is I will address at the end of the paper. If Mulhall and Cavell both know their Wittgenstein and choose their words carefully, which I will take as given, then the (to me) irresistible inference is that they see a connection between Wittgenstein’s thoughts on ethics and his thoughts on private language. Yet this connection has not, as far as I know, been made explicit. Can it be? Should it be? These are my questions. Even if no one ever intended a connection between the “Lecture on Ethics” and the remarks on private language, those remarks do at least touch on issues raised in the lecture, and it is worth thinking about what the author of those remarks would say about the lecture. So in this paper I summarize the “Lecture on Ethics” (in part I), look at the private language remarks themselves (in part II), and then apply some ideas from these remarks to the “Lecture on Ethics” in part III. My conclusion will be that Wittgenstein’s later remarks are largely consistent with his earlier ones, the main difference being that some of what he first called nonsense he later called secondary meaning. One result of this change is that attempts to express the feelings that Wittgenstein regards as fundamental to ethics, aesthetics, and religion are first treated as doomed to result in nonsense but later as risky. Like cries of pain, they might or might not find a sympathetic audience.

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Duncan Richter
Virginia Military Institute

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