Ostensive definitions for queer experiences


While I’m still on the subject of Wittgenstein’s private language arguments, I’d like to say more about how it relates to queer experiences.

You might notice that I’ve never stated exactly what the private language argument is. It isn’t really a formal argument, in the sense of having premises and a conclusion. Rather, the private language argument refers to a cluster of issues regarding personal experiences. For example, what does “pain” refer to, if anything? When I experience a thing, how do I identify it as pain or not pain? How do I know that it is similar to what other people are feeling when they refer to pain?

You must realize that I am not formally trained in philosophy. I’ve never read Wittgenstein first-hand and don’t know precisely what he says. But it seems to me that the private language argument is wasted on philosophers, when it’s so directly relevant to queer experiences. How does one know that one is experiencing sexual or romantic attraction? How about gender dysphoria? This isn’t philosophical abstraction to us, it’s something we live through and discuss amongst ourselves extensively. I would bet that it is also relevant to other minority experiences, such as chronic pain, depression, or aphantasia.


Usually, when we define a word, we explain it in terms of other words. But clearly we can’t do this for every word, because the definitions would eventually become circular. If you think about it, there is a way around this.  You can define a word by pointing to examples of it. For example, I can define an ant by pointing at one, or I can define an octahedron by pointing at one. This is called an ostensive definition.

Of course, there are many practical issues with ostensive definitions. If I point at something, how do you know which aspect of the thing I’m trying to indicate? If I point at an ant and call it an insect, do you know whether a spider is also an insect? If I point at Christianity and Islam, and call them religions, do you know whether Unitarianism-Universalism is one too?

But if you think that’s bad, try defining a personal experience, something that you can’t point to at all.

There are a number of strategies you can take. The very first one is to point at something that causes the experience. Every kid at some point falls down and scrapes themself, and that’s the sort of thing we can point to as pain. If you’re unsure what it means for a wine to have “blueberry notes”, I could point to some wines and you can find out for yourself. And if you don’t know what sexual attraction is, I can point to a woman who–wait, you say you’re not attracted to women?

Yeah, so this strategy becomes problematic when we’re no longer sure that we’re deriving the same experiences from the same things. Personally, I can never figure out wine descriptions because people tell me wines taste better the more you drink, but to me they just taste worse.

The second strategy is to point to another personal experience, and say that it feels similar. For example, consider the guy with aphantasia, who never visualized things in his mind’s eye. This experience is recognizable through a comparison between what it feels like to see something, and what it feels like to imagine something. When I imagine a beach, it’s feels a lot like seeing it. When the guy with aphantasia imagines a beach, it’s not at all like seeing it.

This experiential comparison is more mysterious than it first seems. Since imagining a beach isn’t exactly like seeing it, one what basis can I say it is “similar”? And in what sense does the thermal grill illusion feel like touching a hot pan? And where do I get this conviction that anger is closer to shame than either of them are to blueberry notes? Come to think of it, is that true for everyone? Maybe for some people, emotions feel a lot like flavors, and we just never talk about it.

Wittgenstein expresses skepticism that we can truly compare two experiences felt at two different times, because we can’t trust our own memories. I probably wouldn’t go that far though.

Of course, comparing different experiences doesn’t really cut it when there is no comparable experience. In these cases, we might resort to a third strategy, pointing to the behaviors or additional feelings that are caused by the experience. For example, some people have a gene that causes them to dislike cilantro, and though I don’t understand how cilantro tastes to them, I can understand well enough from the word “dislike”. “Dislike” implies a number of behaviors that you can point to, such as picking cilantro out of dishes. I understand that, because I’ve done it myself for eggplant so maybe cilantro’s something like eggplant.

This is the most frequent strategy employed to explain ace and trans experiences. Gender dysphoria makes you dislike when people classify you as the wrong gender, and/or dislike the gender characteristics of your body. Sexual attraction makes you want to have sex with people, or maybe it just makes your heart flutter at the sight of someone.

But these kinds of definitions are still difficult, because there isn’t a one-to-one correspondence between experiences and behaviors. In fact, that’s a mantra among aces, that asexuality is an orientation not a behavior. Non-aces can still avoid sex, and aces can still seek sex. This seems to confuse a lot of people.


So there are at least three different ways to ostensively define words for private experiences, and none of them are perfect.  And often enough, we just ignore the issues discussed above.  Despite subtle differences in our personal experiences, we manage to construct a shared language.  We may not truly understand what it means to feel sadness or love, but we have words to describe them, which is almost as good as understanding.

Queer people, too, need a shared language for their own experiences.  And the “shared” part is important.  I’ve known aces who, when they were young, invented the word “asexual” to describe themselves.  And yet, even for these people, it was still an epiphany to discover that there is apparently a community and shared language.  Knowing thyself isn’t quite the same as knowing thyself in relation to others.

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