Wittgenstein’s “Private language argument” and the Issue of God’s Omniscience

Richard McDonough


In his “private language argument,” Wittgenstein argues that the notion of a private language, a language that it is logically impossible for anyone other than the language user themselves to understand, is incoherent.  For example, it is sometimes claimed that since no one but oneself can be directly aware of one’s own sensations, everyone speaks their own private sensation language that cannot be understood by others. Wittgenstein argues that this is an illusion because, since there are no objective standards for what one means by the words in one’s private language, those words have no meaning at all, not even for oneself.  After presenting a summary of the private language argument, and explaining Wittgenstein’s crucial distinction between criteria and symptoms, the paper argues that Wittgenstein’s own prima facia religious beliefs about God provide a counterexample to his private language argument - which shows that it is fallacious.  The paper then considers whether Wittgenstein’s striking remark that even if God looked into our minds he would not be able to see what we are thinking about enables him to escape this criticism and argues that it does not. Finally, the paper shows how the present interpretation of Wittgenstein’s private language argument is different from Kripke’s interpretation, with which it is superficially similar in some respects, and sketches a positive model of how an omniscient God can know the truth about N’s private use of words.  Wittgenstein’s elusive notion of God is illuminated in the course of the exposition.


Wittgenstein, private language, metaphysics, criteria/symptoms, concept of God.

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