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Do Philosophers Talk Nonsense?

Ian Dearden may or may not…

Imagine you’re arguing with someone and you say something which the other person dismisses as nonsense. The word ‘nonsense’ is often used to reject a claim as being patently false. You assume this is what is meant, and start to give reasons supporting your claim. But the other interrupts, saying that ‘nonsense’ was meant literally – that what you said was meaningless. You assume that the wording was at fault: perhaps you misused words or spoke ungrammatically. You try reformulating. But the other is unimpressed. It emerges that you are being accused of not meaning anything at all. Rather annoyed, you ask whether you’re supposed to be deliberately talking nonsense. You’re wrong again – you’re being accused of not having meant anything by what you said even though you sincerely thought you did mean something.

How would you react to this? I’ve asked several non-philosophers. Some see no difficulty in principle with the accusation. To them it is at least conceivable that there could be a ‘meaning-misfire’ in the brain, leading you to think you meant something by what you said even though you meant nothing. This might happen to the mentally or neurologically ill, or someone under the influence of drugs. Others don’t see how it’s possible to be wrong about this. You can make all sorts of mistakes in expressing what you mean in whatever language you’re speaking; but you can’t be mistaken about whether you mean anything – or about what you mean, as someone added.

Not everyone immediately grasps the problem, so let me say a little more in clarification. There are certain things where there seems no room for error. Most people would agree that you can’t be wrong about whether you’re in pain. You can’t believe you have a splitting headache when you don’t, nor vice versa. On the other hand, most people would agree that you can be wrong about your own motives. You can think you’re acting for high-minded, altruistic motives when you’re really acting for base, selfish ones. Now, surely you normally think you mean something by what you say. Is this like the pain case, or the motive case?

One point that comes up in discussion is that you can certainly be wrong about whether something has a meaning, or whether someone else means anything in saying something. Take a language you cannot speak, though you know what it sounds like and what it looks like when written. Someone could deceive you into thinking he was speaking that language, or that a written piece of gibberish was a meaningful passage in it. Even in English, you could be tricked into thinking a passage was a technical discussion of a subject of which you knew nothing when it was in fact nonsense. But can you be mistaken in thinking there’s something you mean by what you say or write?

Why does it matter? Well, philosophers have been interested in the relationship between thought and the world, and in how language succeeds in referring to the world, since the days of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. But in the last century the matter was given a sharper edge. It came to be held by many philosophers that in philosophy language often loses touch with the world and ceases to express meaningful thoughts. They concluded that philosophers, whilst thinking they’re asking genuine questions and offering possible answers, are in fact talking nonsense, producing meaningless verbiage.

This is not rhetorical exaggeration. We’re not dealing with the colloquial use of the word ‘nonsense’, meaning the patently false. It really was being claimed that philosophers sometimes think they mean something when in fact they mean nothing. For example, Wittgenstein claimed that we can’t talk about ethics without going beyond the limits of meaningful language, or as he said in the Tractatus, “Whereof one cannot speak, one must pass over in silence.” Philosophers talking about ethics, or various other problems, are the victims of illusions of meaning.

This is a remarkable claim. Philosophers who accused other philosophers of talking nonsense were in effect claiming to have discovered a new kind of error. It was a kind of error the possibility of which was barely suspected by non-philosophers. One can find suggestions of such accusations in earlier philosophers – in Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume and Kant, for example – but it was not until the Twentieth Century that this style of criticism really got under way.

One could compare this situation with that created by the theory of unconscious motivation which became influential a little earlier, and which also concerns error and ignorance about one’s own mind. It is disturbing in a similar way. Anyone who is persuaded that we can be motivated by desires of which we’re unaware will surely wonder how common this is – perhaps most of what we do is not done for the reasons we think. Naturally some people refused to accept this idea. Similarly, once we accept that one can be mistaken in thinking that there is something that one means by what one says, we will surely wonder how widespread this illusion is also.

Yet the philosophical claim about nonsense did not meet with the bewilderment and resistance which greeted the claim about unconscious motivation. No doubt this is partly because philosophy is widely considered a narrow, academic specialism, whereas psychology is everybody’s business. But even within philosophy the idea of illusions of meaning has not provoked much debate. Battles have indeed been fought over exactly which philosophical questions and answers are nonsensical. But that illusions of meaning are possible just seems to have been assumed, as though they were a well-known phenomenon and it was only the claim that they were common in philosophy that was new. Astonishingly though, this view that unrecognized philosophical meaninglessness is possible has no accepted name. I’ll call it ‘nonsensicalism’.

If nonsensicalism is correct, it should not be ignored. If some philosophical questions are meaningless pseudo-problems, we need to be aware of this. If the ‘doctrines’ that purport to answer them are also meaningless, then the ‘refutations’ that treat the answers as meaningful will be just as misguided.

A brief note on the vocabulary of nonsensicalism. ‘Nonsensical’, ‘senseless’, ‘meaningless’ and ‘unintelligible’ are stock adjectives of condemnation. Calling a problem a ‘pseudo-problem’ sometimes, but not always, implies meaninglessness. And that vague epithet which you may have met in philosophy – ‘incoherent’ – also sometimes seems to mean ‘nonsensical’.

A History Of Nonsensicalism

How did philosophers come to condemn their own subject in this way? As regards the Twentieth Century, the decisive move seems to have been made by Bertrand Russell (1872-1970).

Russell was interested in the nature of mathematics, in particular in the question: what is a number? He believed that the concept of number could be explained in purely logical terms, but discovered that the concepts of formal logic he was employing to explain it concealed a paradox. His key concept was that of a class or set. Some classes are clearly not members of themselves. For example, the class of all cats is not itself a cat. Other classes do seem to be members of themselves. For example, the class of all things that are not cats is not a cat. But what of the class of all classes that are not members of themselves? Is it a member of itself? If it is, it isn’t. But if it isn’t, then it is. Russell was confronted with a paradox which threatened to undermine both logic and mathematics.

After some pondering, Russell’s response was to prohibit certain ways of combining words as nonsensical. One cannot just talk about ‘the class of all classes that are such-and-such’, and expect to be talking sense. One must ask what one means by one’s words. And one might discover that one was wrong to think one meant anything. Russell’s paradox shows this. There are restrictions on the kinds of class one can meaningfully talk about.

It may well seem that we’re dealing with a highly technical point, of interest only to mathematicians and logicians. Russell does not seem to have thought at the time that he had discovered a new broom with which to sweep philosophy clean. And yet the idea that one can believe one is talking meaningfully when one is not was to prove seminal.

The next major step was taken by Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951). In the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicu s Wittgenstein tried to produce a general theory of how language describes the world. His view at that time was that language pictured possible facts – truly if such facts exist in reality, falsely if they do not. But Wittgenstein also held that this picturing relation cannot itself be depicted. Hence, describing in language how language describes the world cannot really be done. With a certain wry consistency Wittgenstein condemned his own attempt to describe how language describes the world as nonsense. But it was a benign species of nonsense – a gesture towards a correct view of language, even if that view must in the last resort be inexpressible. Not so the bulk of philosophers’ utterances – they were, he said, nonsense pure and simple, arising “from our failure to understand the logic of our language. (They belong to the same class as the question whether the good is more or less identical than the beautiful.) ” (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 4.003)

A group of philosophers known as the Vienna Circle, later morphing into the Logical Positivists, used Wittgenstein’s work as the basis for an equally thoroughgoing rejection of traditional philosophy. Whether they largely misunderstood him or simply adapted his views is disputed. (Little in the interpretation of Wittgenstein is uncontroversial, not even the brief sketch above.) The basic idea of the Logical Positivists was the famous Verification Principle: the only statements allowed as meaningful are analytic propositions (statements true solely in virtue of the meanings of the words composing them, eg ‘All bachelors are unmarried’) and those verifiable through sense-experience. Most philosophical claims, it was held, fell into neither category, and were accordingly dismissed as nonsensical. Claims about God were obvious examples, but all metaphysics was treated with similar scepticism.

Difficulties with this position soon emerged. Scientific laws, it was pointed out, can never be verified conclusively. Even if all the observations and experiments to date support the Law of Universal Gravitation, one cannot be certain that tomorrow something will not be discovered that goes against it. Yet the Positivists, who saw science as the paradigm of knowledge, did not want to reject scientific laws as nonsensical. Attempts were made to modify the Verification Principle so that it would condemn metaphysics but not scientific laws, but they’re widely believed to have been unsuccessful. This is not the most profound objection to the Verification Principle, I believe, but it does historically seem to be the one which led to its general abandonment.

You may be wondering why philosophers should want to condemn most of their own subject as nonsensical. It was because, unlike science, philosophy did not seem to be getting anywhere. No generally-accepted answers to philosophical questions had been found. (The situation is no different today.) Perhaps if it could be shown that philosophy was a systematic attempt to give silly answers to silly questions, this predicament would have an explanation. I should mention that some versions of nonsensicalism are more extreme than others: perhaps only some philosophical questions are nonsensical; or perhaps the questions are meaningful, but some of the answers are meaningless.

The next significant development was again the work of Wittgenstein. He had come to reject much of his earlier philosophy (just how much is controversial), but he stood by the view that philosophical questions and answers were mainly nonsensical. Perhaps the best way to explain the change in emphasis is to say that Wittgenstein now viewed the meaning of a word as its use, but in philosophy, words are often not used in the normal way, and yet no new use for them is properly specified – so, one might say, philosophical uses are non-uses. Wittgenstein now held that a careful comparison of philosophical utterances with the ordinary use of words would reveal that the philosophers have unwittingly deprived words of meaning. For example, he argued that the sceptical claim that one can never know what’s going on in the mind of another can be shown to be nonsense by a careful use of words such as ‘know’, ‘think’ and ‘feel’.

Problems Facing The Nonsensicalist

This is a very schematic account of the development of Twentieth Century nonsensicalism. Accusations that philosophers talk nonsense are not quite as common now as they once were – in the 30s when Logical Positivism was at its height or in the 50s and 60s when Wittgenstein’s later philosophy was most influential, but they’re still made. Perhaps only Wittgensteinians regularly condemn most previous philosophy as nonsense, but many other philosophers occasionally have recourse to such accusations. Yet no philosophical problems or views have been shown to be nonsensical to everyone’s satisfaction.

So do philosophers talk nonsense, or don’t they?

It seems to me that there are two questions. First, is it actually possible to be mistaken in thinking one means anything? Second, if it is, how could this error be detected?

Regarding the first question, I have tried to bring out what a remarkable error is being postulated by the nonsensicalist. Yet I do not know of a single passage in which a nonsensicalist clearly poses the question ‘Are illusions of meaning possible?’

As for the second question, take for example the Verification Principle – how could one apply it? To ask whether a claim is verifiable and conclude that it is not, it looks as though I have to first understand the claim, ie give a meaning to it. How then can I add that because it is unverifiable it is meaningless?

This difficulty is often presented as though it were a problem solely for Logical Positivists. But will not any criterion of meaningfulness meet the same objection? You have to understand what is being said in order to apply the criterion to it. And once you have understood an idea, whatever else you call it, you can’t call it ‘meaningless’. If, on the other hand, you can’t understand it, that might be just a fact about you.

Is there any way round this? It is often said to be a merit of the later Wittgenstein that he does not apply a general criterion of meaningfulness, but is more piecemeal. By carefully examining the utterances of individual philosophers, he argues, one can show that words have been deprived of their usual meanings without being given any new ones. I do not believe this will work. How can you criticise an utterance without understanding it? I suggest that the best way to appreciate the difficulty is to do your own experiments. Wait until you come across a philosophical utterance you think is particularly absurd, and try to show that it is literally nonsense – that the speaker is mistaken in thinking that he or she means anything by it.

© Ian Dearden 2008

Ian Dearden has taught philosophy at Bedford College, London, the Polytechnic of North London and the City University. He is the author of Do Philosophers Talk Nonsense? – An Inquiry Into The Possibility Of Illusions Of Meaning, Teller Press, 2005.

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