Wittgenstein’s Beetle in a Box Analogy and his Investigation of Pain

Wittgenstein’s Beetle in a Box is an analogy he introduces as he investigates the individual experience of pain. By comparing the idea of the beetle to the sense of pain, Wittgenstein is able to show that, even though one cannot fathom how someone else’s sense of pain can compare to their own, the experience can still be shared and understood  — or at least recognized —  through conversations and public language. His investigation of the notion of pain enables Wittgenstein to emphasize the significance of public language and its distinction between private language.   

Wittgenstein’s Beetle in a Box analogy can be found in remark §293 of his Philosophical Investigations. The analogy begins with Wittgenstein stating that it is in his own case, where it is only in his own experience, that he knows what the word “pain” means. He wonders if he can refer to the word pain to other people as well; if the notion of pain can be applied similarly to others as well as his own. And when referring to the sense experience of pain, Wittgenstein says that everyone knows what pain is only from their own experience. That is, an individual can understand another person's feeling of pain only by relating it back to their own individual experience of pain. To further illustrate this point, Wittgenstein introduces a scenario where everyone has a box with something in it that they call a “beetle”. However, he supposes that no one looks into anyone else’s box, yet, everyone knows what a beetle is by only looking at their own beetle as the sole referent. Consequently, it would be possible for everyone to have something completely different in their box; Wittgenstein even suggests that one may also have something constantly changing in their box, or, that the box may even contain nothing at all. And if everyone’s notion of “beetle” is different from everyone else’s, the name of the thing in the box would not be the same as everyone else’s.  

The significance of this analogy shows that, without public language — that is, conversations made with others that have meaning — our experiences cannot fully be understood by others, and in turn, the experiences of others cannot be fully understood by ourselves. If experience were confined to just private language — that is, the language that the individual only knows from their immediate and private perceptions (PI: 243) — there would not be a common definition of such an experience. For instance, if one refers to a word, and it means something else to another, the word would have a different understanding that would ultimately be rendered unintelligible if such a word could convey multiple things. If our experiences, like the ones that constitute our senses and thereby what we feel or how we feel, are exclusive to just private language, what has been experienced cannot be fully realized until it is conveyed and discussed with others. It is only through public language that ideas are shared and recognized as significant. By using Wittgenstein’s analogy of the beetle, sharing experiences of pain can be understood through public rather than private language by reiterating this feeling to others and recognizing how other notions of pain can be experienced. By limiting the experience of pain to one’s own immediate and private perceptions, one may never fully understand the meaning of pain itself; limiting one’s individual understanding of the sensation of pain limits the entire awareness of the sensation of pain and its definition. The notion of pain must be discussed in public language so that its understanding can be shared and fully defined as numerous accounts of pain may integrate in order to construe a conventional representation of the sense. Wittgenstein ends this analogy by stating that, “... if we construe the grammar of the expression of sensation on the model of ‘object and name’, the object drops out of consideration as irrelevant,”  (PI: 293). His last sentence suggesting that, since there are two parts of an experience (the name and its definition), in private language, the definition of the sensation is usually disregarded and the name is often used just by itself in the experience. 

This understanding of the importance of public discourse can be referred back to Wittgenstein’s prior assertions in §241 to §244 and §256 to §257. It is here that Wittgenstein introduces the definitions of private language and his investigation of the experience of pain. Remark 241 begins with Wittgenstein stating that what is true or false is what human beings say to be true or false, and that it is in human language that individuals agree to what is true or false. He says that this agreement is not a matter of opinion, but a form of life. He asserts that the agreement of what is true and what is false is an agreement in definitions and an agreement in judgement, that of which is required for communication by means of language (PI: 242). This notion can be referred back to the importance of public language and how experiences must be relayed back to others: that it is in human language that individuals agree to what is true and what is false. Private language can result in conclusions that are false when they are supposed to be true, or true when they are supposed to be false, because when such conclusions are not discussed, they are secluded in individual minds without certain perspectives. 

Wittgenstein points out that, as an individual is able to encourage, give orders, obey, blame and punish themselves, they are also able to ask and answer questions for themselves. He exemplifies a scenario with beings who speak in monologue, accompanying their activities by only talking to themselves. From this scenario, Wittgenstein introduces an outsider who watches them and listens to their dialogue in hopes of succeeding in translating their language into the outsider’s own, which allows the outsider to predict these people’s actions by hearing them make resolutions and decisions. Witggenstein suggests that one may also imagine a language wherein which a person could write down or vocalize their inner experiences (like their feelings, moods, and the like) — this being the introduction to his definition of private language, where “The words of this language are to refer to what only the speaker can know - to [their] immediate private sensations. So another person cannot understand the language,” (PI: 243).

He wonders how words refer to sensations and points out that one does not usually talk about their sensations everyday, let alone name them. Wittgenstein questions how the connection is made between the name and the object’s name; to which he relates to the question of how human beings learn the meaning of names and sensations, and exemplifies the word pain. He gives a possibility: that words are connected with the primitive, natural, expressions of sensation and used in their place (PI: 244). He exemplifies when a child hurts themselves and begins to cry. An adult would then talk to them and teach them exclamations and later sentences; the adult would teach the child new pain behaviors and ways to express their pain. In this case, if the child misunderstands the word “pain” to directly mean “crying”, they would be taught that the verbal expression of pain replaces crying, not necessarily describing it. This discussion between the child and the adult is a simple instance of the use of public language: the child exhibits a language only they are familiar with to express a pain, but once they discuss their experience with the adult, the child is able to apply their further understanding of the experience of pain. 

Wittgenstein then refers to language that describes the inner experiences that only the individual can understand, or private language. He asks how one may use words to signify their sensations and asks if his words for sensations coincide with the natural expressions of sensations (PI: 256). In this case, he supposes that he does not have any natural expression of sensations, only sensations themselves. He considers what it would be like if human beings did not manifest their pains, for instance, by not physically exhibiting their pains by groaning, grimacing, and the like. Wittgenstein states that he would then associate names with sensations and would use these names in their descriptions. Would it then be impossible to teach a child the use of the words that would describe certain pains? Words like toothache, or stomach, or headache. From this scenario, Wittgenstein suggests a child who comes up with a name for the pain they feel, a name they come up with all by themselves. However, the child would not make themself understand the use of the word, because they understand the feeling of that pain to speak for the name itself. So does the child understand the name without being able to explain its meaning to anyone? And what do they mean when they reiterate the name for the pain they feel? Wittgenstein considers how the child managed this naming of pain and its purpose. He finds that, when one names a sensation, they tend to forget that there must be a preparation language for the name to make sense; in this case, the grammar of the word “pain” is what has been prepared, indicating the post where the new word should be placed (PI: 257).

From his investigation, Wittgenstein finds that private language is incoherent; to express an experience through a language only known by the individual can be incomprehensible, especially when the individual is trying to convey that experience to another. Wittgenstein has given many instances to exhibit that the definition of a name that distinguishes a certain experience — as in the case of investigating pain felt by a child and reiterated to an adult, or the beetle in a box analogy — must be established and discussed with others, rather than one individual experience. In the case of the child who experiences pain and wants to express their pain to an adult, the child cannot communicate their pain because the word they came up with that expresses that experience is not something the adult can understand. In the case of the beetle in the box, many people refer to one word to describe a thing, however different people have different understanding of the same word thereby cannot understand the other’s definition of the same word. In both cases, it is only through public language that experience can be discussed. 

Although Wittgenstein investigates the feeling of pain to demonstrate his argument regarding private and public language, other experiences can be used to justify the importance of public language and the seclusion that forms within private language. For instance, the sensations of love or happiness or sadness can be used to establish the significance of public language over private language. Nevertheless, different experiences cannot be understood completely unless they are deliberated with by others, because the conversations made with others regarding these experiences leads to further understanding of the different aspects an experience may have. To understand an experience through another perspective — after discussing an experience in public — enables one to anticipate that experience and realize certain aspects of that experience that would not have been realized if it were solely discerned in private. And although one cannot fully relate their experience to another, they can at least understand where the other is coming from by relaying back to their own experience. The only way to recognize the similar experience is only by recognizing the public experience. 

The experience of senses can only be intelligible using public language, but any human phenomena or idea can be conveyed to others so long as it is through public language. Philosophical phenomena, for instance, like phenomenology or idealism, can be understood and further investigated when it is discussed publicly. If philosophical phenomena like phenomenology or idealism were only to be pursued by a single individual, it’s arguments would not have gone very far. There is only so much an individual mind can fathom and the discussion stimulated with others encourages further understanding.

As much as Wittgenstein emphasizes the importance of public language, I wanted to note that it seems that the use of private language holds some significance. I believe that a lot of individual experiences, feelings, thoughts and human phenomena alike are, first and foremost, perceived by the individual themselves. The mind generates thoughts a lot clearer and more freely in private than in public, and sometimes it is hard to reiterate these thoughts out loud. Before private thoughts are brought to public, they are comprehensively deliberated by the individual and sometimes, it is hard to fully articulate these ideas out loud. Sometimes the thoughts are clear, but how they are to be spoken into existence cannot be expressed to its fullest extent. I also want to suggest that, sometimes in public language, an initial thought can get distorted when they are discussed with others; an idea might be shared, but can get misinterpreted or influenced by different perspectives that try and comprehend and interpret the original thought. 

Nevertheless, Wittgenstein’s work regarding the differentiation between public and private language, his investigation of the experience of pain, and his analogy of the Beetle in a Box brings light to the many importances of public participation. When ideas or experiences are not discussed with others, they can get muddled in private language and appear incoherent. Language persuaded in public gives way to the experience or phenomena to be thoroughly investigated by those who wish to further comprende a similar experience, and would like to name and properly define such an experience so that it may be appropriately referred to and understood. Experience and phenomena cannot be fully realized when they are investigated privately, and although it is in private thought that such ideas are initially recognized, it is only through public discussion that these experiences and phenomena can be understood and recognized in others.                   

Works Cited

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophische Untersuchungen (Philosophical Investigations). Translated by Peter M.S. 

Hacker et al., Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. 

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