Wittgenstein's Beetle In A Box Says You'll Never Know What It's Like To Be Someone Else

Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's beetle-in-a-box analogy demonstrates the inability for people to experience the world from anyone else's perspective. It goes like this: Imagine that everyone has a box where they keep what's called a "beetle." (It might look like what you imagine when you think of "beetle"; it might be something completely different.) You're not allowed to see into anyone else's box, but everyone is asked to describe what's in their box. Because no one can really know what's in any box but their own, the word "beetle" ceases to have any meaning outside of "that thing that's in your box." The box in Wittgenstein's analogy is the mind. We assume that the inner workings of another person's mind—the feeling of love, the sensation of pain, the very experience of being conscious—are pretty similar to our own. But that's just an assumption. We can only see into our own minds and describe that experience in words to other people, and they can do the same with us. That's why this analogy is sometimes called the "private language argument": the language we use to refer to our private experiences is defined by the way it's used with other people, and to have language that exclusively describes your own private experiences is impossible. Explore the idea of consciousness and Wittgenstein's other theories in the videos below.

Wittgenstein's Beetle In A Box Analogy

The private language argument, illustrated.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Find out about this important thinker.

Can You Test For Consciousness?

There may be a few ways.

Written by Curiosity Staff November 4, 2016

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