Martinich's Wittgenstein and Private Language


         1. Nonsense on stilts

In another section of this site, I dismissed as absurd A.P. Martinich's claim, made in his popular anthology, The Philosophy of Language, Third Edition, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), that Wittgenstein holds that isolation from other people renders one unable to speak a language.  I suggested that Martinich's Wittgenstein's view was absolutely incredible and certainly too incredible to be Wittgenstein's view. However, the fourth edition of Martinich's anthology has recently been published and there has been no change in his introduction to the material dealing with private language. Because I found the view in question so absurd I assumed that merely presenting it was sufficient for one to see its absurdity. Although I still think this is the case, the publication of the fourth edition provides a nice excuse to present a detailed critical analysis of Martinich's arguments, which he offers as support for his Wittgenstein's incredible view. Not surprisingly, the arguments Martinich offers are obviously weak and unconvincing. But one must suppose that Martinich doesn't regard them as such. And so there is perhaps a need for showing where and how his arguments fail. As always, I write in the hope that bad arguments get recognized as such by everyone, including their authors. I do not suppose, however, that Martinich is going to see the light. He has obviously had sufficient time to reflect on his arguments and their reapperance in the latest edition of his anthology suggests that he finds them worthy of publication. I myself do not understand how one could find them so, save as examples of bad philosophy. If anything shows that an account of rules and language is not only off the mark but absolutely absurd, it would be to have a consequence of that account be that English speakers cease to be able to speak English upon becoming isolated. However, as we are all quite aware, philosophers not only are capable of saying incredible things and holding incredible positions, they actually revel in them. The paradigm case of this, of course, is and will always be, the ontological argument.  Sadly, it still has its proponents. I take heart in the fact, however, that for every absurd position held in philosophy there are legions of philosophers who stand up and laugh, or cry, or shout, "Absurd", whenever ontological argument-like positions or arguments are proferred. "Nonsense on stilts" is a philosopher's phrase after all.  So, it’s on to Martinich's nonsense on stilts.

On p. 503 of his fourth editon of Philosophy of Language, Martinich says:

“. . . Can a human language be spoken by only one person?" For the purposes of answering this question, one can assume that the alleged objects of meaning are not private in the sense that only one person could have access to them. And the question also does not concern how a sole individual might learn a language. To make both of these points clear, consider whether Robinson Crusoe, who was raised an English speaker, could continue to say such things as, "There's a coconut" and mean that there is a coconut; or whether, if all but one member of a linguistic community dies, the sole surviving member would have a language.
Wittgenstein, I think, would answer these questions in the negative and would deny that there could be language spoken only by one person."

To begin with, we should note that appeal to Robinson Crusoe can be misleading. For it is clear that for Martinich, the question of whether one person can speak a human language can be asked as follows: If I woke up tomorrow to a world without any other humans, could I continue to mean things via my "language"? And although I see absolutely nothing at all to prevent me, in such a bizarre circumstance, from meaning the usual thing by saying, "Everyone's gone", even this way of phrasing the question is needlessly dramatic, given Martinich's assumptions. For Martinich's assumptions and arguments seem suited to claiming that WHENEVER I am alone, no matter for how long, be it a minute, a half-hour, a day, etc., I cease to be able to mean anything at all by my "language". That is, I see nothing in Martinich's discussion to block an absurd conclusion, viz., that Martinich is committed to denying us the status of English speakers (or French speakers, or Spanish speakers, etc.) anytime we are alone. I really don't know what to say to this except that I hope Martinich does not really believe it.

To be sure, questions can be raised about how one understands the notion of "being alone". But given Martinich's appeal to Crusoe, it is clear that mere physical distance from other humans can render one "alone". For clearly, Defoe's Crusoe is recognized by Martinich as being alone but Crusoe is by no means the last remaining English speaker. Crusoe's predicament is that he is for a time the only inhabitant of an island, which island is well out of range of any area containing other humans or human communities. By my lights, Martinich is committed to holding that given a sufficient physical distance between one human, X and any other humans, typically renders X alone. For it is such physical distance which suffices to render Crusoe alone, and Martinich surely allows that Crusoe is alone. There could be exceptional cases however. For example, I could be by myself on an island that is 300 miles from any other human but still not be alone because I was talking to other humans via telephone. Still, in general, it seems obvious that for Martinich, a sufficient physical separation from other humans is enough to render one "alone".

But then it seems that whenever the rest of my family leaves our house for school or work, leaving me alone in the house (as is the case at this very moment, I might add), I am, at least temporarily, as alone as Crusoe on his island. Especially, it seems, if we are focusing on the question of private language. For there are no other people to hear what comes out of my mouth, and no other persons around to say things to me (save for the tele or the radio, but we'll assume none of these are present or turned on). As far as I can tell then, Martinich is committed to saying that if I say, "That woodpecker on the feeder seems especially ravenous today", that I somehow have failed to mean anything by these words. Of course, if my wife was in earshot of my remark, then my words would have been meaningful. Or at least, this seems to me to be a fair account of Martinich's position. I hope I am wrong but if I am, it would be nice to know why or how Martinich can hold that Crusoe ceases to be a language user once he becomes stranded on his island whereas I do not cease to be one whenever there are no other humans to hear me or to speak to me. Need I remark that any case against private language which has the consequence that we cease to be language speakers whenever we are alone in a house or a room or our car, etc., is a case worthy of being called nonsense on stilts?


2. Martinich's Arguments

(i) The Rule Argument

Martinich's first argument (or better, Martinich's first argument in the name of Wittgenstein) against our being language users whenever we are alone appeals to the connection between language and rules. I'll call it the rule argument, and it is as follows:

Linguistic communication, [Wittgenstein] believes, is rule-governed behavior, and it does not make sense to say that someone is following a rule unless there is some way of judging whether the rule has been followed or broken. The speaker himself cannot be the final arbiter of this. The judge of whether a rule has been followed or not, like any standard of evaluation, must be separate from and independent of the matter to be decided. (M, p. 504).

This argument, or something similar to it, is perhaps THE main argument used by fans of Kripke's account of Wittgenstein. Many seem persuaded by it. But it is an awful argument. However, I don't believe that those who reject it have sufficiently shown why it is an awful argument. Interestingly, Martinich himself helps show why this argument won't do when he responds to Ayer's own rejection of this argument (or something like it). Martinich characterizes Ayer's complaint as follows:

A.J. Ayer . . . said that . . . all justification must must end with some sense perception --for example, seeing or hearing the judgment of other people that one has or has not followed a rule of speaking corrrectly--so one may just as well end with one's own private sensation. (M, p. 504)

In response to this, Martinich says: "As part of an objection to Ayer's view, consider this line of reasoning: every judicial decision must end with some person's decision, so one may just as well end with the village idiot's decision." (M, p. 504). It is surprising, if not scandalous, that Martinich has over the years failed to recognize or be made aware of this objection's violence to Ayer's point. A more accurate account of Ayer's point can be captured in the following line of reasoning: Those who reject a judicial decision on the grounds that it was made by the village idiot need to appreciate that the village idiot's decision is all we ever have! Ayer's point is that we cannot escape reliance on our individual sense experiences in determining the accuracy of our language use or rule followings. As such, if one claims that such reliance is always inadequate, or otherwise illegitimate, it will turn out that there can never be an accurate or legitimate determination of our language use or rule followings. I do not see how Ayer's REASONING can be challenged. The only legitimate response to Ayer is to reject one of his premises, for his reasoning is impeccable.

It has become clear to me over the years that those who think there is a problem with rule following in the solitary case fail to appreciate that the complaints they bring against the solitary case have the unavoidable consequence of making rule following impossible under any circumstances. So although there does seem to be a problem with the solitary case, it turns out that the problem is extendable to any case of rule following. So long as one fails to see the extension, one will be convinced that the case against private rule following is clear, cogent and successful.

Suppose we agree with Martinich that a "speaker himself cannot be the final arbiter of [whether the rule has been followed or broken]", on the grounds that a judge of rule following "must be separate from and independent of the matter to be decided." Now consider the following situation. I say that according to the rule for plus or +, 2 + 2 = 5. By hypothesis, I cannot be the final arbiter of whether 5 counts in this case as following plus. Presumably then, someone else must be the final arbiter. But who?! If another comes along and agrees with my answer, saying it is correct, does that end the matter? Is s/he the "final arbiter"? Surely this is problematic. Two people, or three people, or three million people saying that 2 + 2 = 5, doesn't make it so. But even if everyone else determines that I am incorrect, claiming that 2 + 2 is 4, not 5, do they count as the final arbiter? There are two problems with this. One, each of the members of the group we're regarding as the final arbiter is giving what s/he thinks is the correct answer. But this is supposed to be problematic, ex hypothesi. How does the conjunction of 2 or 3 or three million problematic views about what is correct come to constitute a legitimate final arbiter? I don't see how this can be done. But still there is a more telling problem here, and that is that not only am I still obliged to rely on my own understanding of the final arbiter's view as to what is correct (no matter what the community says, I must still interpret what it tells me is the "correct" answer, making my interpretation of the final arbiter's answer the bottom line. But the final arbiter was supposed to be the community, not my interpretation of the community!), I can and must also assess the community's answer for correctness. Once again, I, not the community, end up as "final arbiter". Thus, if one agrees with Martinich that there is no rule following and no meaningful language whenever the judge and the speaker are identical, it seems that there can be no rule following, regardless of how many people are included. The bottom line is that it is NOT solitude or isolation that makes a solitary agent unable to follow a rule or speak a language, for there is no saving rule following or language use by appeal to more people.

It should be clear that there is something wrong with the assumption that "it does not make sense to say that someone is following a rule unless there is some way of judging whether the rule has been followed or broken. The speaker himself cannot be the final arbiter of this. The judge of whether a rule has been followed or not, like any standard of evaluation, must be separate from and independent of the matter to be decided. (M, p. 504)." The first part of this notion, viz., that rule following requires a difference between following the rule and breaking the rule, is unproblematic. If I say that I am following a rule but anything I do counts as following it, I am not making sense. A rule that cannot be broken or adhered to (as Wittgenstein reminded us, a rule that cannot be broken also cannot be adhered to), is not a rule. The problem with Martinich's assumption is the idea that the speaker (or, one presumes, a solitary person) cannot be the final arbiter of whether a rule has been followed or broken.

To begin with, the "support" for this idea comes in the final part of Martinich's assumption. The reason the speaker himself (or herself) cannot be the final arbiter of whether a rule has been followed or broken is that the speaker is NOT "separate from and independent of the matter to be decided", and this violates, allegedly, some rather obvious principle governing legitimate judgments. To be blunt, this is false. The truth is that "the speaker himself" does not always and everywhere fail to be "separate from and independent of the matter to be decided". To see this, suppose I decide to create a game for myself. I draw a small circle on a piece of paper, put the paper, circle side up, on the ground and then endeavor to try to toss paper clips into the circle. My game and its rule or point is simple. Success requires that a tossed paper clip stay in the circle and failure occurs when a tossed clip fails to stay in the circle. It is obvious that this game and its rule satisfy the requirement that there be a way of judging whether the rule has been followed or broken That way consists of simply looking and seeing whether a tossed paper clip has or has not stayed in the circle. Once I have devised this game, it is clear that I am, in a perfectly ordinary sense, "seperate from and independent of" my game and its rule. Indeed, it is clear that there is nothing at all problematic about my playing the game while alone. That is, it is perfectly possible for me to play my little game and to speak of my success or failure at getting clips into the circle. I could even count the number of times I succeeded in getting clips into the circle and tell others of my success. For the game and its rules are, "separate from and independent of [me]”.  As such, we can and should appreciate that I very well can be "the final arbiter" of whether I have or have not tossed a clip into the circle, whether or not I have played my game successfully or not.

Of course, Martinich and his followers may shout: But if you're all alone, you could misjudge your success or cheat or even change the rules as you go so that any clip you toss, no matter where it lands, gets counted as a successful toss (or an unsuccessful toss, as the case may be). Such responses are, however, rooted in misplaced if not mistaken scruples. The problem with these responses is that they do nothing to show that solitary rule following is impossible, unless of course, one supposes that the possibility of misjudgments, or cheatings or changing the rules renders rule following impossible. And of course, this is exactly what Martinich et. al., suppose. But the supposition is a case of mistaken scruples. The possibility of mistakes, of cheating and rule changings, in any case of alleged rule following does not render rule following impossible, but if it did, rule following would be impossible. For the fact is that a possible mistake is not an actual mistake, a possible cheat is not an actual cheat, nor is a possible rule change an actual change. Indeed, it should be obvious that the very idea that a solitary agent has misjudged his/her success at following a rule presupposes the notion of successful solitary rule following. Ditto for cheating and changing the rule. (Here I am reminded of Wittgenstein's remarks in the second paragraph of §201).

Clearly it is possible for me to invent my game and to judge whether any particular clip toss has or has not landed in the circle. So much is obvious. The fact that I MIGHT, in any particular case, be mistaken about whether a clip has or has not stayed in my circle, does not rule out my being correct, my not being mistaken, in any such judgment. Nor does the fact that I MIGHT cheat, rule out my being honest. Nor does the fact that I MIGHT change the game, or some of its rules, at any point, rule out my playing by the rules I initially laid down. As such, successful rule following by solitary agents is not threatened by the possibility of such agents being mistaken, cheating, or changing the game. Couple this with the fact that such worries about what might or could happen in the solitary case, also apply in non-solitary cases and it becomes clear that the rule argument fails to show that solitary rule following is impossible.

(ii) Kripke's Wittgenstein's-style arguments

After setting out his rule argument, Martinich begins a brief discusssion of Kripke's Wittgenstein. The discussion consists of six paragraphs which run from p. 504 to 505. The connection between Martinich's rule argument and Kripke's Wittgenstein is unclear to me, for in the course of this discussion there is no direct mention of the impossibility of solitary rule following or language use. However, Martinich seems to think there is a connection and so I will do my best to tease one out. One possible connecting idea is Martinich's claim that "Kripke's Wittgenstein argues that there is no . . . mental fact [to account for a person's arithmetic performance]". (M, p. 504). Presumably, if there were such a mental fact there could be private rule following or language use, but as there isn't, there can't. (That's logic). Of course, the emphasis on the nonexistence of a mental fact is misleading, for as Martinich himself notes, there is no nonmental fact of the sort sought by KW's sceptic either. But once we appreciate that there is no fact, mental or nonmental, of the sort sought by the sceptic, it should be obvious that the request for such a fact, along with the idea that without such a fact our responses in particular arithmetical cases (and responses in cases of rule followings generally, of course) are nothing more than unjustified leaps in the dark, is ILLEGITIMATE. And this is, of course, precisely what is wrong with Kripke's account of Wittgenstein, viz., it offers us an absurdity as if it were a profundity. The absurdity is the idea that unless there is something we uniquely meant in the past, we are reduced to unjustified leaps in the dark in future rule followings. And then Kripke compounds the absurdity by offering a so-called "sceptical solution" to the absurdity that is the sceptical problem. What's absurd about the "sceptical solution" is that it doesn't solve anything, save the pseudo-problem generated by KW's absurd sceptical "conclusion", viz., the alleged impossibility of rule following and language. In short, we get a "solution" to a bogus problem.

By my lights, the only legitimate result of KW's sceptic is that there is nothing that warrants saying that language users make use of unique rules or unique meanings in following rules or speaking a language. This result is certainly reminiscent of Quine's indeterminacy and inscrutability results. However, KW's sceptic gives us a much weaker version of each in that KW's sceptic argues for his result via limiting the data, at least in comparison to Quine. For KW's sceptic, the data we have to go on in trying to determine another's rules or meanings (or our own rule or meaning) does not include, as Quine's does, access to all actual and possible evidence concerning the totality of a speaker's speech dispositions (to use Quine's phrase). For Quine, unlike KW and his sceptic, the question of whether Jones means plus or quus is quite readily solved by appeal to Jones' linguistic dispositions. For Quine, those dispositions readily reveal which of these two functions Jones does not mean. As such, Quine's indeterminacy thesis gets to the heart of the matter in a way that KW's sceptical argument never does. For Quine shows that even given access to all possible linguistic dispositions, one still does not get unique meanings. Needless to say, Quine's case for indeterminacy is not and cannot be made via appeal to functions like quus, i.e., functions capable of generating uniqueness problems only on a limited portion of their extensions.

Be this as it may, the bottom line is that KW's sceptical result, viz., that no one does or can make use of unique rules and meanings in following rules and using language, is well taken. (Well, more or less; one can be less than impressed by the sort of uniqueness that is denied by the sceptic, viz., unless one can find a rule formulation that resists alternative interpretations, one can't be said to be following a unique rule; so stated, we see that KW has shown that we're confined to learning and using rule formulations in following rules and since no rule formulation can resist alternative interpretations, it appears that talk of someone following a unique rule is nonsense. We must also not neglect the sceptic's idea that correct or justified rule following is a matter of according with past usage; which of course makes it necessary for us to be able to determine THE unique rule we were following in the past in order to justify the claim that our next response counts as following the rule correctly). However, KW's musings are incapable of generating any genuine difficulty unless one assumes that without unique rules of the sort argued against by the sceptic, there is no distinguishing our rule followings from unjustified leaps in the dark. This assumption is, of course, KW's great mistake. Not surprisingly, it is never argued for but foist upon us as part of the sceptic's conditions for meeting his sceptical challenge. (See K, p. 11). Once we recognize it for the absurdity that it is, once we appreciate that the sort of justification of our rule followings sought by the sceptic is both ungettable and unneeded, we can stop the sceptic before he gets going. We can stop the sceptic before he offers us assertability conditions as the key to (only way of ?) avoiding the sceptic's case against the impossibility of rule following and language.

To be sure, by claiming that we don't need the sort of justification sought by KW's sceptic, I perhaps can be said to be offering a solution of the sort offered by KW. But this simply reveals the absurdity of calling KW's solution a sceptical one. For KW does not sceptically solve the sceptical problem of the impossibility of meaning but rather rejects his sceptic's assumption that without the sort of uniqueness sort by the sceptic, there can be no justifying our rule followings. So, contra Kripke's myopic vision of the sceptic's work, it is the case that there is a straight solution to the paradox, for we can and do find a mistake in the sceptic's case against rule following, viz., the idea that uniqueness is necessary for justification of rule following (and the related assumption that correct rule following is a matter of according with my past usage; clearly this is FALSE; as I have argued elsewhere, many times we wish not to accord with our past usage, viz., when our past usage is mistaken; cf. Chomsky's remarks on his use of 'livid' in his Knowledge of Language ). Clearly too, this reveals the differences between KW's sceptical solution and Hume's sceptical solution. No part of Hume's sceptical doubts are rejected in Hume's sceptical solution.

Kripke is guilty of offering us a false dichotomy between facts or truth conditions on the one hand and legitimating circumstances or assertability conditions, on the other, as if there is some significant difference between facts which legitimate particular assertions and conditions which do so. The bottom line is that during the sceptical paradox discussion, Kripke focuses on the impossibility of our finding unique meanings (and, relatedly, something in the past for us to accord with in the future, as if merely according with some past meaning were required for correct rule following. This is silly, of course, given that our past meaning may very well be something we don't wish to accord with) in our past behaviors and mental musings and claims that without such unique meanings, rule following and meaning are impossible. But when it comes time to provide the sceptical solution, he simply gives up the idea that the lack of unique meanings (and the lack of something in the past to accord with) renders us unjustified leapers in the dark. But once we see the absurdity of this idea, we can also appreciate that Kripke's sceptic has not threatened meanings, or our meaning talk, nor has he shown that there are no meaning facts. There are meaning facts but there are no facts that establish a unique meaning. Like many other facts, they are capable of yielding a variety of competing accounts, in short, our account of meanings is underdetermined by the facts. That is what KW's sceptic shows. However, underdetermination does not warrant saying that we are unjustified leapers in the dark, whether one is asking for truth conditions or assertabililty conditions.

Martinich also notes a problem with the official Kripke line that because there are no meaning facts we must instead look at "the role and utility in our lives" of our practice of asserting (or denying) the form of words under these conditions. (See, M, p. 505 and K, p. 73; actually, Martinich is a bit sloppy in his discussion of Kripke's book. Martinich attributes to Kripke the view that "[t]he proper way to understand the meaning of '+' ('plus'), like many other words, is to understand its "role and utility in our lives." Clearly, this formulation won't do. For it suggests that we arrive at meanings via focusing on role and utility of words. Kripke himself focuses on the role and utility of attributions of meanings to ourselves and others and holds that so long as we can give assertion conditions for such attributions we have somehow given substance to the idea of rule following. Frankly, neither M's account or K's account makes much sense but nonetheless they are certainly different). Martinich notes that for Kripke, this focus on role and utility leads to the conclusion that there are neither internal (mental) or external facts that determine what '+' means. However, Martinich suggests that be this as it may, nonetheless there is, according to Kripke, a fact of the matter that '+' means addition, viz., "complex behavioral facts about a community: "the success of the practices . . . depends on the brute empirical fact that we agree with each other in our responses." (M, p. 505). Martinich rightly notes that this is unsatisfying, for one is led to ask why the community agrees. Simply put, we can challenge Kripke's claim that agreement is a brute empirical fact. By my lights, it's obvious that our agreement is due to teaching and training and that such teaching and training is impossible without the existence of the sort of facts denied by Kripke's sceptic.

(iii) The Voice-Synthesizer argument and related complaints against Crusoe speaking a language

In the last paragraph on p. 505, Martinich returns to the Crusoe case and Ayer's contention that there is no difficulty in our imagining Crusoe to have and speak a language, both a public and a private one. Interestingly, Martinich contends that there are no differences between, e.g., pains and coconuts, as the alleged meanings of Crusoe's terms, since Crusoe is alone. For Martinich, Crusoe cannot be speaking a language, whether the language is deemed to be public or private.

Martinich begins by considering Ayer's bewilderment as to why or how Crusoe's saying, "That's a coconut", can fail to mean that that's a coconut, or why Crusoe's saying, "I have a pain", fails to mean that he has a pain. Similar questions arise, as noted above, about one's vocalizations while all alone in one's house. Just here there is a need to invoke the distinction between a language user who becomes temporarily or permanently isolated from others, and someone who has never been in contact with others. For in the latter case, one can come to have doubts about whether such a person could arrive at such vocalizations at all. (This is not to say, of course, that such doubts are legitimate in any and all discussions of the possibility of private language). But it is surely nonsense on stilts to hold that an English speaker in good standing ceases to be such upon becoming isolated from others.

Martinich's surprising reply is to charge Ayer with "confusing" Crusoe's vocalizations, "which are isomorphic or isophonic with English, with genuine communicative instances of English." (M, pp. 505-6). This is certainly an interesting response but there are two difficulties with it and both have to do with lack of support. First, Martinich needs to support his claim that communication, in his sense, is a necessary condition for language use, and second, Martinich needs to justify the charge of confusion. Claiming that someone is confused and showing that someone is actually guilty of a confusion, are quite different things after all.

Not only am I dubious of the connection between language use and communication simpliciter (indeed, isn't this quite contrary to Wittgenstein's thought; Wittgenstein claims, after all, that our mistake is supposing that language always serves the function of communicating our thoughts to others!) but I am unsure as to what Martinich requires of a vocalization to count as a "genuine communicative instance" of langauge. It appears, however, that he simply assumes that it always requires two or more persons. As such, Martinich has simply asserted, rather than established, that communication is required for genuine language use and has also defined 'communication' so that Crusoe (and other isolated folks) can't do it. Not exactly a sterling case against Crusoe having a language.

According to Martinich, ". . . the point and purpose of describing something is to inform someone of the described situation." Now although I think this is both false and contrary to Wittgenstein's thought (although it is true that typical cases of vocalization have as their point and purpose informing someone, usually another person, of something, I see nothing to warrant the claim that any genuine language use must have such a point and purpose, and most importantly, Martinich provides no argument for this claim) I also see nothing to prevent us from regarding Crusoe as at least informing himself. The best and only reply Martinich can muster here is to describe this possibility as dubious; but there is nothing dubious about it all and it should be seen as less dubious if one keeps in mind that Crusoe could be taken to be talking internally to himself. While many wonder why Crusoe would ever bother to vocalize, "That's a coconut ", everyone must admit that there is nothing odd at all about Crusoe mentally saying such a statement. Indeed, I would wager that Martinich wholeheartedly accepts that English speakers think in English, i.e., that their thoughts are propositional in character. Surely Martinich would agree that Crusoe could think, to himself, English propositions, whatever one might wish to say about the possibility of Crusoe bothering to vocalize his thoughts. If he can be said to do this however, i.e., utter English propositions to himself, why then wouldn't this warrant saying that Crusoe possesses a language? (And don't say: Because no one else could verify it. That's not in question here; we have the situation described to us and all that is in question is whether it describes a circumstance or circumstances that constitutes possession of a language).

Bizarrely, Martinich also claims that it is tendentious or question begging for Ayer to argue that Crusoe is speaking English! Martinich says: "Ayer has shown only that Crusoe's ability to vocalize remains the same after the shipwreck as before, not that these vocalizations continue to count as a communicative use of language." (M, p. 506). But this gets the question begging the wrong way around. Ayer is asking the opponents of solitary language to show why Crusoe's vocalizations fail to be meaningful, fail to be genuine instances of English, assuming that such vocalizations counted as English before. Ayer's idea is that prior to the shipwreck, Crusoe was deemed a language user, on the strength of vocalizations like, "There's a coconut" in the presence of coconuts. Clearly then, the onus is on those who would deny Crusoe the status of language speaker to show why isolation suddenly causes Crusoe to cease being a speaker of English. For Crusoe is, ex hypothesi, an English speaker before his isolation.  As such, Ayer is asking for some reason to deny Crusoe a language. And the obvious answer to Ayer, viz., "Crusoe's vocalizations no longer count as English because he is alone", (or Martinich's claims that there is merely a isomorphism between Crusoe's statements before and after his isolation) begs the question. What needs to be shown is how or why Crusoe's isolation results in his ceasing to be an English speaker.

Besides the argument considered above, viz., that genuine language uses have as their "point and purpose' informing someone and that one cannot genuinely inform onself, Martinich offers the following consideration to help us to see why Crusoe's vocalizations on his island are not genuine instances of English: "If a voice synthesizer randomly fit together sounds until it emitted the sound, "I have a pain," it would not follow that the voice synthesizer meant that it had a pain." (M, p. 506). Assuming that Martinich understands the voice synthesizer to be a metal machine of some sort, the point is well taken. But I am unable to see how or why Martinich's claim bears on the Crusoe case, or how it bears ONLY on the Crusoe case. For clearly this argument does nothing to show how or why isolation makes any difference to Crusoe's, or anyone else's vocalizations counting, or not counting, as genuine, meaningful instances of English. For whether the voice synthesizer is "alone" (does it make sense to say that a voice synthesizing machine is alone?!), or surrounded by a roomful of English speakers, some of whom respond with, "I'm sorry to hear that", or surrounded by a roomful of voice synthesizing machines, some of which "respond" with, "I'm sorry to hear that", we wouldn't regard the voice synthesizer's vocalization of "I have a pain", as a genuine, meaningful instance of English. And the reason for this is that a voice synthesizer doesn't "mean" things by its vocalizations because it's a voice-synthesizing machine, not because it's isolated. But humans are not voice synthesizing machines. And Crusoe is not a voice synthesizing, ex hypothesi! So we know, ex hypothesi, that Crusoe is not a voice-synthesizing machine. Thus, Martinich's voice synthesizing machine argument is irrelevant to the Crusoe case.

I suppose Martinich wants us to believe that there is a difficulty with the claim that Crusoe's vocalizations differ from those of the voice-synthesizing machine. Perhaps Martinich is arguing that since all we have to go on in determining whether Crusoe is or is not a genuine speaker, a language possessor and user, are Crusoe's vocalizations, and since vocalizations alone are not sufficient to warrant the claim that the vocalizer is a language possessor and user (as evidenced by the voice synthesizing machine case), we can not legitimately regard Crusoe as a language possessor and user. The problem with this argument is similar to that raised above, viz., it does not show that isolation is the source of the difficulty. I see nothing to prevent such an argument from being used to show that none of us can ever be regarded as a language user. For all I ever have to go on in determining whether someone is a genuine speaker, follows rules, etc., is his/her vocalizations.  If that is deemed insufficient (and that is the moral, according to Martinich, of the voice synthesizing machine example) then I can never legitimately declare another person a genuine speaker (and maybe I can't even declare myself a speaker). While I am sure this reveals a serious flaw in Martinich's argument, the bottom line is that Crusoe's isolation is not the source of the difficulty raised by Martinich's voice synthesizing machine case. (If one is unable to see around Martinich's example, I offer the following. Humans speak language; voice-synthesizing machines do not. As such, avoiding Martinich's problem is simply a matter of being able to determine whether the vocalizer is a human or a voice-synthesizing machine (assuming, of course, that the vocalizations in question are sufficiently similar to those a genuine speaker would make). This, it seems to me, brings out another sense in which Martinich's argument is irrelevant. The distinction between humans and voice synthesizing machines can be made by appeal to data other than vocalizations.

Suppose Crusoe is at the mall with his wife and children, gets his toe stepped on by another shopper and then says, "I have a pain". Surely this is a meaningful English statement. None could judge otherwise. Now imagine Crusoe on his island, dropping a coconut on his toe and saying once again, "I have a pain". Ayer asks: If the first such statement is an English statement, why isn't the second one a meaningful English statement as well? Ayer asks how or why the isolation affects Crusoe's status as an English speaker and contends that it doesn't affect it all. I see nothing in Martinich's discussion that provides an adequate answer to Ayer's query.

Martinich also claims "it is illegitimate for Ayer to think of himself as part of Crusoe's audience". (M, p. 506). According to Martinich, "Crusoe is alone; his utterances cannot serve any function that language must have in order to deserve the name, and for all that Crusoe knows, his utterances do not have the purpose or regularity one must know they have in order to count as part of language." (M, p. 506). This last passage constitutes Martinich's ultimate complaint against the claim that Crusoe is a language user, a bona fide English speaker.

To begin with, Martinich never makes clear what is illegitimate about Ayer "thinking of himself as part of Crusoe's audience". To be sure, Ayer is imagining (and asking us to do so as well) Crusoe on his island saying things that, prior to his isolation, we would all regard as meaningful instances of English uttered by Crusoe. Or, to be a bit fussier, Ayer is asking us to imagine Crusoe saying things on an island such that were we present at the time of Crusoe's vocalizations, we would regard them as genuine meaningful instances of English. So basically Ayer makes use of a counterfactual. I see nothing illegitimate about this vis-à-vis the question of whether Crusoe is a genuine speaker. The only remaining question is whether we are or are not imagining ourselves as parties to a conversation with Crusoe. I see nothing that forces us to imagine ourselves holding a conversation with Crusoe. To be sure, we could do so. We could imagine Crusoe saying to Ayer, "Do you stand behind every thing you wrote in Language, Truth and Logic ?" and we would readily convince ourselves that such a statement is not one Crusoe would or could legitimately make in isolation. But Ayer is simply asking us to imagine Crusoe saying things that would not require an audience (and here there might be disagreement on particular cases but we would all agree that there are vast numbers of things one in fact says in the absence of others, e.g., "So that's where my reading glasses went", or "I'm tired of grading these damn tests", etc.) and asking why it wouldn't or shouldn't count as language, given that we would none of us hesitate to call them such were we actually to overhear Crusoe or someone else saying them. So far as I can see, Martinich does not question the possibility of our imagining Crusoe saying things that one typically does, or could, say without others around but which would be counted as English by anyone who in fact heard them. The question Ayer then raises is: Why shouldn't we count such imagined vocalizations as genuine instances of English? I do not see how Ayer can be accused of illegitimately making himself part of Crusoe's audience. It would only be illegitimate if Ayer assumed that Crusoe was aware of another's presence at the time of Crusoe's vocalizations. Ayer does not do this however.

We should also note Martinich's softening of his case against solitary language in his final remarks. Martinich there says that Crusoe's "utterances cannot serve any function that language must have IN ORDER TO DESERVE THE NAME." (My emphasis). To begin with, I have already noted above the difficulties and gaps in Martinich's claims about the functions language has, and his claims that Crusoe's utterances do not or cannot serve those functions. However, I am troubled by the phrase, "in order to deserve the name". To be sure, one could simply say that solitude so changes one's linguistic environment that one can no longer be considered a speaker of language in the fullest sense. But this is simply a semantic maneuver and has all the advantages of theft over honest toil.

Finally, Martinich's last salvo rehashes (I think) his earlier remarks about the limitations of solitary agents vis-a-vis rule following and language. As for Crusoe not knowing that his vocalizations have the requisite regularity, why can't he know this? After all, we are surely to credit Crusoe with such knowledge prior to the shipwreck. Why or how does isolation serve to rob him of this ability? As I noted above, Crusoe can know, at least as well as any one or any group can know, that his utterances do have the regularity necessary (if it is) for bona fide instances of English or language generally. As for purpose, I also noted above that Martinich's case for particular purposes being needed (e.g., the purpose of describing something is to inform someone of the described situation), is false or overstated or tendentious or could be satisfied by Crusoe.  Relatedly, while Martinich is correct that Crusoe cannot marry while in isolation, or trade or converse with others, etc., it is false that Crusoe cannot order, question or promise by means of his utterances. (M, p. 506). But even if Martinich is right that Crusoe cannot order, question, or promise by means of his utterances, it doesn't follow that Crusoe cannot or should not be deemed a language user. For he could still describe, assess, categorize, wish, dream, hope, count, lament, pray, etc., via his utterances. Furthermore, it is obvious that if Crusoe could know he was satisfying these purposes via his utterances prior to isolation, he would continue to know this upon becoming isolated. Be this as it may, I am unconvinced of the need for such knowledge in order to be a speaker of a language. Long before I ever reflected on the regularity and purpose of my utterances, I was speaking English. And the same goes for every one of us. In solitude then I say of Martinich's case against Crusoe being a speaker, nonsense on stilts.

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Last modified September 9, 2011
JAH, Professor
Dept. of Philosophy