Private Experience and Intoxication

I’ve been reading Philosophical Investigations by Wittgenstein with some fellow philosophers over the last few weeks. We’ve reached the point where Wittgenstein argues against private languages and qualia, like pain.

Wittgenstein argues against private descriptions or recognitions of these experiences, according to him we learn how to use the word “pain” in a certain context, together with certain expressions and feelings. We may act as though we have indicated some internal sensation to ourselves when we use a word like “pain” but there is no way to verify the identity of this word with any of our previous experiences of pain.

In the Blue Book Wittgenstein proposes a thought experiment where the nerves and hands of two people are connected together and then the hand is stung by a wasp. “Both of us cry, contort our faces, give the same description of the pain, etc. Now are we to say we have the same pain or different ones?” (54)

I was trying to think up counterexamples for this problem and alighted upon intoxication. Surely when I take a drink I am the only person who becomes intoxicated and my feelings are definitely my own.

But my quest was futile. The sociologists are already at work destroying this objection.

Angus Bancroft was interviewed on BBC radio about his research on drugs and context. It turns out that the effect of drugs on people is much more socially determined than I originally supposed.

There are tribes in Africa who drink almost pure alcohol without any of the boisterousness or boorish behavior we expect to see on a typical Friday night. Howard Becker studied marijuana users in the 1950s and discovered that first-time users did not get high. Becker theorized that they did not know how to get high; they had to learn how to smoke, recognize the effects, and learn to enjoy the sensations.

Back to Wittgenstein:

ยง272. The essential thing about private experience is really not that each person possesses his own exemplar, but that nobody knows whether other people also have this or something else. The assumption would thus be possible - though unverifiable - that one section of mankind had one sensation of red and another section another.