Frames /sing


Amanda’s “Private Language”

Pace Wittgenstein?


Wittgenstein argued, in a rather slick and convincing way, that there is no such thing as a “Private Language”, a language that in principle cannot be learned by anyone else. He argued that logically the kinds of internal, untranslatable rule followings that anyone might do privately, can only be at most the impression of following rules, and only become, or are called language, when we are able to translate them, setting out the difference between merely thinking you are following a rule, and actually following a rule. When we are able to say, yes that is following a rule, it is then that we grant language status.

Some selections from his Philosophical Investigations which are relevant:

If the distinction between ‘correct’ and ‘seems correct’ has disappeared, so then as the concept of correct. It follows that the ‘rules’ of my private language are only impressions of rules (259).

My impression that I follow a rule does not confirm that I follow that I follow the rule, unless there can be something that will prove my impression correct. And the something cannot be another impression–for this would b “as if someone were to buy several copies of the morning paper to assure himself that what it said was true” (265).

The proof that I am following a rule must appeal to something independent of my impression that I am. If in the nature of the case there cannot be such an appeal, then my private language does not have rules, for the concept of a rule requires that there be a difference between he is following a rule and ‘He is under the impression that he is following a rule’.

Amanda, an autistic who painfully, to many observers, did not possess the capacity of intelligent thought, claims to have a Language of her Own, what she calls her “native language”, one that is not symbolic, and allows her to have “conversations” with water or sounds. She scolds others for having to wait for her to learn their language, before they granted her personhood. Is her Language a Language? Or is she just one more conceptually confused Cartesian? In making this video testament, is she somehow “translating” her language, and relieving it of its potential “private language” status.

This is the transcript of her written text from the film:

The previous part of this video was my native language. Many people have assumed that when talk about this being my language that means that each part of the video must have a particular symbolic message in it designed for the human mind to interpret.

But my language is not about designing words or even visual symbols for people to interpret. It is about being in a constant conversation with every aspect of my environment. Reacting physically to all part of my surroundings. In this part of the video The water doesn’t symbolize anything. I am just interacting with the water as the water interacts with me. Far from being purposeless, the way that I move is an ongoing response to what is around me. Ironically, the way that I move when responding to everything around me is described as “being in a world of my own”. Whereas if I interact with a much more limited set of responses and only react to a much more limited part of my surroundings people claim that I am “opening up to true interaction with the world”. They judge my existence, awareness and personhood on which of a tiny and limited part of the world I appear to be reacting to. The way that I naturally think and respond to things looks and feels so different from standard concepts or even visualization that some people do not consider it thought at all but it is a way of thinking in its own right.

However the thinking of people like me is only taken seriously if we learn your language, no matte how we previously thought or interacted. As you heard I can sing along with what is around me. It is only when I type something in your language that you refer to me as having communication. I smell things. I listen to things. I feel things. I taste things. I look at things. It is not enough to look and listen and taste and smell and feel, I have to do those to the right things, such as look at books and fail to do them to the wrong things or else people doubt that I am a thinking being and since their definition of thought defines their definition of personhood so ridiculously much they doubt that I am a real person as well.

I would like to honestly know how many people if you met me on the street would believe that I wrote this. I find it very interesting by the way that failure to learn your language is seen as a deficit but failure to learn my language is seen as so natural that people like me are officially described and puzzling rather than anyone admitting that it is themselves that are confused not autistic people or other cognitively disabled people who are inherently confusing. We are even viewed as non-communicative if we don’t speak the standard language but other people are not considered non-communicative if they are so oblivious to our own languages as to believe that they don’t exist. In the end I want you to know that this has not been intended as a voyeuristic freak show where you get to look at the bizarre workings of the autistic mind. It is meant as a strong statement on the existence and value of many different kinds of thinking and interaction in world where how close you can appear to a specific one of them determines whether you are seen as a real person or an adult or an intelligent person.

And in a world in which those determine whether you have any rights there are people being tortured, people dying, because they are considered non-persons because their kind of thought is so unusual as to not be considered thought at all. Only when the many shapes of personhood are recognized will justice and human rights be possible.

Amanda Baggs

Amanda’s point is that it is absurd to regard the very narrow band of relevance that which “neuro-typical” people consider “communication,” their “language” as the defining aspect of thought; she claims that she is communicating, and indeed languaging, with a much broader spectrum of differences, that those that “neuro-typical” do. In a sense, she claims to have a language of another order. She resists the idea that if she only pays attention to the “right objects” and ignores the “wrong objects” she is thinking (or languaging).

1. Prospectively,  if one accepts that in making and following the rules of “grammar and semantics” one is just forming more beliefs, more conditions of actions to be taken, then the narrowness of what one may define as a “language” is subsumed in a larger category. Temple Grandin, an autistic who has a doctorate in animal science, claims to be able to most functionally “think in pictures”. Is this “rule following”? Is it a “language” (it depends on your definition: you would like one definition, I might like another). A rule-governed process of the formation of beliefs that help one cope with the world seems to me to be a “language” despite not having all the prerequisites that one might like to impose to make it officially a language. That what would be perhaps because both symbolic/grammatical languages, and perhaps autistic picture languages fall under the same category, the dominant form masking a larger process of interpretation.

2. From a Wittgensteinian, rule-following, Private Language point of view, it Wittgenstein is motivated to deny the logical inability of others to “know” our sensations or thoughts (the notorious Problem of Other Minds), because in order to have them, we must be following rules; and the only thing that qualifies that our rule-following is not just seeming to follow rules, but actually following rules, is our rule oriented interactions with others.

But if we grant Temple Grandin her “thinking in pictures”, the homolous argument would be: when Temple Grandin designs something in her mind, using pictures, the only thing that keeps her from only seeming to design stuff in her mind, and actually designing stuff, is her interactions with others. When in fact this is absurd. What keeps her from only seeming to design stuff, and actually designing stuff, is that when she makes it, it works (with or without the language use that surrounds it). Wittgenstein’s denial of private language (and with it private knowledge of states) is based on the logical grounds of what constitutes “rule-following”. He claims that “private rule-following” has no way of accessing whether it is rule-following or not. This simply does not seem to be the case. The way that it is assessed seems to be the experience of coherence, and the outcome of preditions of future states.

In speaking of concrete example, how does Wittgenstein’s in principle concept of a Private Language fair? All “in principle” falls to analysis of real context. Amanda claims or at least implies, that if she hadn’t bothered to learn our language, she still would have had a “language”. The question would be: Is this language, having learned ours or not, in principle learnable? What would be the standard that it had been learned? She does seem to imply that it can be learned, but it is hard to understand what such a learning would consist of. The bottom line of course is that Wittgenstein’s distinction between only thinking one is following rules and actually following does not exist as a point of logic, but is only a position we take towards our own interpretations. I sense that because Wittgenstein wants so desperately to make “knowledge” public” (that is non-Cartesian) he is seduced into the factuality of this distinction: that there is a real difference between the two, rather than merely an operative and provisional one. The “subjective” experiences that Amanda would have, sans our language, are something more than what Wittenstein calls “characteristic accompaniments”. They are not adornments to “rules”, but of which they consist. And the correctives of whether she is “rule following” or not, is simply the interaction with reality.

3.Amanda’s main aim is not whether her “language” is categorized as “language”, but the way that that categorization conditions her status as a “person” (with attendant rights; and she has physically and emotionally suffered real consequential abuse from not having that status), and as a thinking being. There is an entire framework of moral, legal and cognitive assumptions that follow on with “language” status. Her point is that if she had not learned what she calls “our language” her social status, the status of her thoughts and feelings would be held at a very low level, perhaps just above animal. She is claiming (and a good Wittgenstein might like to argue with her), that if she had not ever learned this language, or more subtly, if she lived in an pre-computer age, she would still have had all these thoughts, or at least thoughts to this level. Her claim to her own “language” is really a moral claim.

And taking up this point. If history had made it such that we never knew what Amanda was “thinking”, because she just went around humming and tapping things, what is the philosophical, and therefore ethical or moral status of that “thinking”? And is there a framework that allows us to include that self-described capacity as “personhood” and “thinking” without ascribing to it “language” status. When Amanda Baggs describes herself, she rejects the idea that she is an impaired person. Yes, there are many things that she cannot do, but from her point of view, there are many things that she can do, which neuro-typical can’t (or won’t). What is the philosophical, and therefore moral status of this claim? Or is she, as matter of logic, necessarily only impaired? Do we simply extend our “citizenship” as in some modified and diluted manner to others, (not just to animals, infants or autistics, but to “blacks” and “jews” and “sunni”) or do we change how we concieve of personhood altogether?



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