March 03, 2013

Waiting for Wednesday

Catherine, the heroine of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (her parody of Gothic novels) is impatiently waiting for the incoming Wednesday, when Henry, the object of her ardent love, is due to return: “If Wednesday should ever come!”
The narrator comments: “It did come, and exactly when it might be reasonably looked for.”
We understand this sentence, but how can we understand it? What would it mean for the sentence to be false? “That week Wednesday came right after Monday”? “There was no Wednesday that week”? What the sentence excludes seems not to make sense, then how can it be used to make a point? The whole idea of waiting for a certain day of the week the way you may impatiently wait for a letter or the return of your loved one seems obvious nonsense.
This, any way, seems to have been the position Wittgenstein took in the Tractatus: “to say of one thing that it is identical with itself is to say nothing” (5.5303);  ”one cannot, e.g. say ’There are objects’”;  ”Expressions like ’1 is a number’ ... are senseless” (4.1272); ”If I cannot give elementary propositions a priori then it must lead to obvious nonsense to try to give them” (5.5571).
Wittgenstein makes a similar point in Philosophical Investigations (§ 50): “There is one thing of which one can state neither that it is one metre long, nor that it is not one metre long, and that is the standard metre in Paris. – But this is, of course, not to ascribe any remarkable property to it, but only to mark its peculiar role in the game of measuring with a metre-rule.
So there is a line of thought that would suggest that “Wednesday came when it was to be expected” should not make sense since it is hard to see what “Wednesday didn’t come when it was expected” might mean. The problem with this line of thought is that it is taken for granted that the sense of an utterance can be adjudicated on the basis of the words of which it is made up. (This assumption is shared by adherents of the traditional – “substantive” – view of nonsense; and mostly, it seems, by adherents of the “austere” view formulated by Cora Diamond in “What Nonsense Might Be” and attributed by her to Frege and Wittgenstein, early and late.)
Yet we have no difficulty understanding the sentence. The narrator is making gentle fun of the heroine’s impatience. Hers is a familiar feeling: we know what it’s like to wish to hurry on time itself, although there is nothing we or anyone else can do about it.
I believe two lessons can be derived from this. For one thing, it seems pointless to pass judgment on the meaningfulness or otherwise of a chain of words without regard to the actual situation of utterance or context of writing. A larger lesson is this: the idea that it’s a philosophers’ task to go around diagnosing nonsense in the ways people speak seems misguided. People may misspeak, they may have deficient command of the language, they may fail to make themselves understood because they’re under a misapprehension concerning relevant circumstances, etc. These problems will have to be sorted out before we can get clear what the speaker is trying to say. But the idea that – pathologies aside – a speaker may, in spite of her effort to say something significant, unwittingly end up producing an utterance that carries no meaning – where there’s nothing even to sort out – seems to me problematic.
(Nonsense as a literary genre is another matter. For instance, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, or the plays of Samuel Beckett or Harold Pinter, contain passages that are deliberately engineered in such a way that their unintelligibility will stand out – here we recognize the authors’ intention to produce nonsense; their aim, perhaps, is to draw attention to the vicissitudes of linguistic form.)
But here I seem to be up against a dilemma: I want to say that the philosophers’ idea that people may inadvertently speak nonsense doesn’t make sense. But then am I claiming that philosophers speak nonsense? Is the risk of producing nonsense a feature of this peculiar form of language use? My inclination is to answer yes. But I’m not sure how to defend this position.

Reference: Cora Diamond,  “What Nonsense Might Be”, in The Realistic Spirit (MIT Press, 1991).


  1. I have been waiting for someone else to comment, but no one has so I will try. This all seems too important to be left undiscussed, however clumsy my first steps toward a response might be.

    You say: People may misspeak, they may have deficient command of the language, they may fail to make themselves understood because they’re under a misapprehension concerning relevant circumstances, etc. These problems will have to be sorted out before we can get clear what the speaker is trying to say. But the idea that – pathologies aside – a speaker may, in spite of her effort to say something significant, unwittingly end up producing an utterance that carries no meaning – where there’s nothing even to sort out – seems to me problematic.

    I agree, but that word 'etc.' might cover a lot. Perhaps there are more interesting reasons than the ones you mention here why someone might inadvertently speak nonsense. If we take what you say is a problem as a problem, and investigate it further, we might find such reasons.

    And you do take it further, of course. Not only in your aside about nonsense literature but, more to the point, in your tentative suggestion that philosophers inadvertently speak, or at least risk speaking, nonsense even though people don't.

    It seems unlikely, without having given this much thought, that the only way that people can be led to speak nonsense unwittingly is when they become philosophers, but perhaps that's true. But that philosophy is an especially rich source of nonsense is plausible. That position might be defended either by looking at philosophy and finding much of it nonsensical, which would be very hard for the reasons you have explained (much would have to be sorted out before it was clear what the speaker was trying to say), or else by thinking about what philosophy is and how it might be expected to lead to nonsense. I don't have an answer to that, I'm afraid.

    1. I’ve been away for a week and I’ve been gratified to discover that this blog has inspired a flurry of comments, all of which help me get clearer about the issues I was addressing. I’ll do my best to catch up by and by.

      I guess Duncan and I are largely in agreement. Rather than suggesting that only philosophers speak nonsense, I should have said that the danger of speaking nonsense may be bound up with the attempt to *speak philosophically*, which is something most people do from time to time. As to why speaking philosophically should lay us open to the risk of speaking nonsense, the answer is suggested, I think, by Philip Cartwright in his comment below: because in doing so we may be tempted to treat “strings of familiar words as if they had meaning outside of any particular context”.

      Perhaps the point I was trying to make could also have been expressed as follows. In ordinary conversation, to accuse someone of speaking nonsense is in many cases to accuse him or her of being thoughtless. There may be many forms of thoughtlessness. One form of many is that in which people are thoughtless about the sense of the words they use (as when they confuse “accidentally” and “inadvertently”); even so, what they are *trying* to say may be perfectly in order. The form of thoughtlessness that is peculiar to speaking philosophically is that of neglecting the *conditions* for making sense – in consequence, there may even be a problem of making out what the speaker is trying to say.

    2. Thanks! I think I agree with all of this. Special problems are also likely to arise when people speak about language instead of just speaking language. And a lot of philosophy is like this, not just after the linguistic turn but going back to Socrates. As Socrates shows, it's remarkably difficult to give an account of certain concepts. We almost always overlook something. Which suggests that thoughtlessness of this kind (a kind of forgetting or neglect) goes with the territory of philosophy.

  2. I agree that this is too important to be left undiscussed. I have a slightly different concern about the precise way it is set up. Of the remark “It did come, and exactly when it might be reasonably looked for” you write: ‘We have no difficulty understanding the sentence. The narrator is making gentle fun of the heroine’s impatience’. But doesn’t that ignore a distinction that is central to much of the discussion in this area (and in particular, in presentations of the “austere” view): the distinction between understanding what is said and understanding the speaker? That distinction is seriously problematic if we think of ‘what is said’ in terms of ‘the sequence of words involved in the utterance’. Nevertheless, there is a genuine contrast between understanding what is said and understanding the speaker (understanding why he said it.) To take a standard example: We can imagine a situation in which it is clear to me what he was saying when he said ‘I saw her duck under the table’ even though I am puzzled about why he said it. And so, appealing in a different way to the same distinction, it might be suggested of the Jane Austen example that we grasp what the narrator is up to by recognising that what she says is nonsense. Well, I’m not at all sure that this is a particularly helpful way of articulating the matter. But to press this further it may be important to spend some time on just what is going on when we characterize what someone has said as ‘nonsense’ or ‘meaningless’. My guess would be that quite a range of different things could be going on. If so, a central worry about the kinds of view you are criticizing might be best expressed by saying that they involve an inclination to give these terms a ‘metaphysical’ sense.

    1. Can I really be confident I understand what someone said if I have no idea why he/she said it? I see a woman seated at a table with a duck underneath. Someone goes by and says to his company, “I saw her duck under the table”. If I have no idea what kind of comment that is, what point the speaker is making, can I know what s/he said? Do I, say, have reason to link his/her remark to the bird lurching under the table rather than to the speaker having witnessed some woman on some occasion undertaking an evasive move under a table? Can I, for that matter, be sure s/he is speaking English?

      I’m not quite sure I’ve caught your point, so let me ask about it. A conventional move would be to make a three-part distinction: between (1) understanding what the words mean, (2) understanding what the speaker is trying to say, (3) understanding his/her reason for saying it. Is there some part of that distinction you wish to defend? My problem with setting up a distinction like this one is that what would count as having each of these forms of understanding would depend very much on the context in which the understanding is spoken about, and that in some cases (1) and (2) or (2) or (3) are interchangeable, in other cases not.

    2. You ask: ‘Can I, for that matter, be sure s/he is speaking English?’ Well, I take that I may well be sure that she is speaking English; as I may well - almost certainly will if I saw the duck myself (and perhaps, further, noticed the speaker noticing it) - link her remark to the bird lurching under the table. The point is, perhaps, particularly clear if we imagine the speaker to be a young child: one who - as young children, but others too, do - has a tendency to remark on all kinds of things that strike her in what is going on around her. Now certainly, there is a clear sense in such cases in which we do know why he/she said it: she was, for example, giving voice to her astonishment or sharing her experience with her mother. But in so far as there is a direction of dependence here, it seems plausible to suggest that I grasp why she said it by way of the fact that I understand what she said.

      I am inclined to think that this kind of example highlights a phenomenon of more general significance. In relation to your (1), (2) and (3), I agree that what could count as having each form of understanding would very much depend on the context (I guess both that of the speaker and that of the one who is spoken of.) That said, I wonder if something of the form of (1), understanding what the words mean, may not deserve a more prominent place than some critics (such as you!) of the ‘standard’ view are inclined to give it. There is something not so very far from what we might call a ‘face value’ of certain sequences of words. (The ‘duck’ example features in the literature because it is a very obvious exception to this.) Much as there is a ‘face value’ of many facial expressions: the face suggests to us (no doubt generally defeasibly) a certain context and certain feelings. And this is important to the way in which our understanding of a situation may run through our understanding of other people. Similarly, I think, with our understanding of words. (I suspect that the grip of ‘standard’ philosophical views of language partly turns on this.)

      Of course, all of that needs defence. And I am not certain what are its implications, if any, for waiting for Wednesday.

    3. I guess I went a bit overboard in suggesting we wouldn’t know whether the speaker spoke English, etc. Though the reason we do is that we’re familiar with the use of those words in connections in which we do understand what’s going on. I take it you agree.
      What you say about face value is very interesting, and I’ll get to it in a separate blog.

  3. Perhaps the narrator's point about Wednesday is also a reminder that Catherine is not simply waiting (impatiently) for Wednesday, but for Henry. And there is something odd about waiting for Wednesday because Wednesday's coming might turn out not to bring Henry with it. But there is also something ordinary about waiting for the day to arrive, too, or not being "able to wait," say, for Christmas: "the anticipation is killing me!" Of course, Catherine's waiting for (Henry to arrive on) Wednesday is different from waiting (impatiently) for Christmas, since Christmas won't come late, get stuck at O'Hare aiport, etc.

    On this one at least, it seems the way out of the dilemma at the end of the post is to accept that it's nonsense (for the philosopher) to try to make sense of the narrator's statement without looking to the context in which it's embedded.

  4. catherine says something which it seems to me is quite ordinary to say. you can imagine anyone, or yourself, saying something like that, presumably in the same frame of mind, in similar circumstances.

    it's true that there's an oddity to it, something uncanny - which i think is what matthew gets at. (you could say a bit here about why be impatient for wednesday rather than for henry, if you're anxious about his not coming and aware of the various factors in his coming or not coming that are out of your control, how his not coming could be interpreted, etc.)

    but i think the most interesting thing about the narrator's remark is that she holds on to that sense of oddness. she doesn't simply repudiate it or distance herself (and with her, we the readers) from it on grounds of nonsense, etc.

    for wednesday comes (came, after the time that catherine cries out, from the point of view of the narratorial voice) 'when it might reasonably be looked for'. i think 'reasonably' is key - to my ear it's a word the narrator is knowingly 'misusing', i.e. using against the grain of what it ordinarily (in some other contexts) means to say something in a modified voice. but it's no less ordinary or unfamiliar to us for being modified.

    wednesday is going to come; and it's going to come exactly when (and where - after so many days, after the upcoming tuesday, etc.) it's 'supposed to', or when it's going to as a matter of course. it's not the sort of thing which one might look out for, reasonably or unreasonably, in the manner of making a prediction or a prophecy, or undertaking some kind of investigation or making observations. so it's not the sort of eventuality which we and the narrator could point to, to someone in catherine's frame of mind, saying what she said, if we wanted to console or counteract or criticize, somehow, that frame of mind by means of our pointing out that this eventuality is 'reasonably' to be expected, looked for, etc., as if what were wrong with her was that she was being or saying something unreasonable. —missing something whose reasons or grounds she ought to be persuaded of.

  5. part 2…

    i think what this suggests is that the narrator knows full well that this is not the kind of thing which can really help. (think of comparable things that could be said to catherine herself, instead of to us, in remarking on her: 'well, he'll come or he won't; well, wednesday will come just like it always does—you'll have to wait and see what happens; oh, i'm sure he'll come! let's just be patient.' is there reasoning in the background somewhere? reasonable grounds? etc. the distance between the narrator, and us, after the fact, and catherine, is important for the effect.) but it seems that there's a way in which that's what we have - all we have. recognizing this, the narrator calls our acceptance of what we have, as contrasted with catherine's frame of mind, 'reasonable'; but in a wry tone of voice, which makes sense if you consider how little reach our reasonable considerations ('commonsensical', the ones that guide how 'we' think when we're thinking like a 'we') have when at any point we might find ourselves in catherine's frame of mind.

    now, i said 'misusing' above to make my point, but i'm not attached to that term and would just as well replace it with a more apt one. i think the right approach, if you want a fuller account of what might be said to be going on in the narrator's remark, depends on a fuller account of the frame of mind of the person who gets the whole thing going above. in lars's case, he was putting on a little rehearsal of the kinds of things he takes philosophers of a certain sort to say - the kind who feel they are able to spot 'misuses' and instances of 'nonsense' against the backdrop of 'what words mean', construed in a certain inflexible way.

    about that - about those philosophers, in that frame of mind - i would just say briefly:

    1) notice that lars has to switch terms - restrictively or selectively, i think - to 'expectation' etc. to really work the moves on the narrator's remark. i don't know what you want to say about the fact that he is able to do that pretty readily despite, perhaps, wanting to distance himself from the moves.

    2) when the question 'what could this mean?' is raised, i hear a lot of possible answers crowding each other out; the implication quickly drawn, or insinuated, is that it doesn't make sense to say wednesday came when expected because it doesn't make (clear?) sense to say the opposite. but i think i can imagine telling a story—any number of stories, to be filled out imaginatively depending on a variety of other factors and choices—in which 'wednesday didn't come when expected'. a lot would be shaken up! and the resulting story would probably be better understood as saying what it says, meaning what it means, against the backdrop of our ordinary lives, than as doing something like 'showing that it DOES make sense after all to say 'wednesday came when expected''. rather: to understand the story you would have to draw on many of the same capacities and standing commitments that go into our being able to understand the narrator's remark in something like the way that i did above (if you want to put it in a cora diamond way).

    1. I agree with most of this. I didn't think about the shift from "looked for" to "expected". I was supposing that they would have meant more or less the same for Jane Austen ("look for" as in "look out for"). In other words, I didn't take her to be using a spatial analogy (which would have added an extra twist to the remark).

  6. "But the idea that – pathologies aside – a speaker may, in spite of her effort to say something significant, unwittingly end up producing an utterance that carries no meaning – where there’s nothing even to sort out? – seems to me problematic."

    Are you claiming that a non-philosopher cannot suffer from "misunderstandings concerning the use of words"? Wouldn't the consequence of such misunderstandings be that the person occasionally speaks nonsense?

    As for the narrator's comment, can't we say: I get the point of the sentence even if I don't understand it. I don't understand it because it's nonsense. Nevertheless, it conjures up a humorous picture in my imagination -- I imagine Catherine looking for "Wednesday" as she would look about the house for her keys. What sort of image is that? I actually pictured her searching for a square calendar day that also looked like a window out of which she could see whatever was happening on Wednesday. I expect others have different imaginings. (Similarly, whenever I think about "Caesar is a prime number" it's difficult not to picture, e.g., the numeral "3" wearing a toga). Isn't the point of the sentence to conjure up such images?

    1. My point was that, if the problem of understanding results from someone being mixed up about the meanings of words (the way someone learning English might mix up "construe" and "construct") then there is a way of sorting out what she is trying to say: there *is* something she is trying to say - it isn't nonsense all the way down, as it were.
      Whereas, to take an example from *On Certainty*, if a man points to a tree in plain eyesight and says, in the context of a philosophical argument, "I know that that's a tree", then chances are that when we get to the bottom of it, we end up with nothing - the speaker may be forced to admit that there wasn't even anything he had been trying to say.
      Perhaps there are cases in which we would say: I get the point though I don't understand the sentence. Even so, I get *what was said*. This shows, I take it, that we may mean different things by getting what was said.

  7. Regarding “If Wednesday should ever come!”, Catherine is idiomatically expressing her impatience and the way it makes time seem to pass slowly. It is similar to "this day will never end!" Of course, when one says such things one does not mean them literally. Indeed, as a literal statement "this day will never end" has an entirely different meaning from the cry of exasperation uttered in the middle of a particularly tedious task.

    The narrator's response (“It did come, and exactly when it might be reasonably looked for”) is ironic in two different ways at the same time. First, it pretends to take Catherine's complaint literally - as if she was seriously doubting that Wednesday would come (and, of course, we are supposed to understand that the narrator understands that Catherine meant no such thing). Facetiously taking Catherine at her word, the narrator highlights her "error" by reminding us of the grammar of time viewed objectively. Time passes steadily and regularly; this Wednesday will come, next Wednesday will come, and so on. That is how we play the language-game with time.

    So the narrator's comment could be seen as a (disguised) grammatical remark. But (and this is the second irony) as such it is intentionally wrongly expressed. That Tuesday will end and Wednesday will follow it is not (for us) a matter of "reasonableness". It is inexorable - and it is exactly this feature of our conception of time that the intentional error draws attention to.

    It is as if Catherine had said "I strongly doubt the time between now and Wednesday will pass" and the narrator had replied "I'm very confident that it will". That's like saying "I'm very confident that 2+2=4". It misrepresents the grammar of the concept.

    Now, does any of this mean that the narrator has stumbled into nonsense? If she has then she has done so knowingly. The narrator no more (literally) thinks it reasonable to expect Wednesday to follow Tuesday (thus allowing the possibility that it might not) than Catherine (literally) doubts that Wednesday will ever arrive.

  8. 2. But has the narrator done it at all? That is, does "Wednesday probably follows Tuesday" make no sense because its opposite is unimaginable?

    Of course, it's easy enough to imagine a language-game in which the name given to each successive day is a matter of conjecture beforehand (perhaps it's decided by rolling dice, etc). But what about the notion that it is not the name but time itself (or blocks of time) that come and go capriciously? Can we imagine that? Well, what if clocks started behaving in new and strange ways (yet all of them remained in sync)? What if the laws of physics were altered so that the Earth's rotation on its axis was unreliable? Indeed, what grammar of time would we have if celestial bodies were static, so that the Earth didn't rotate or go round the Sun?

    And what if we found a people who were genuinely unsure about the passing of time, so that they would ask each other in all seriousness "Do you think today will end?", express relief or regret when it did, etc - and all this despite the fact that each day was for them, as for us, 24 hours long? We might consider their doubts a strange behavioural quirk, but nonetheless for them the literal statement “Wednesday did come, and exactly when it might be reasonably looked for” would not be nonsense. That is, it would have an uncontroversial role in their language.

    So it is possible to mean something nonsensical? No, because "meaning" is internally linked to use. I can utter a stream of random words (eg "bread ten yellow"), but I cannot mean anything by them because in this context they have not been assigned a use. However, as soon as a use is stipulated then they have a meaning too. It is tempting to think otherwise because each individual word is familiar from other contexts. But what they lack is a role in this context. A hundred years ago "number", "your", "me" and "text" were all familiar words, but the phrase"text me your number" would've been a piece of gibberish.

    Finally, what about philosophical nonsense? This comes from treating strings of familiar words as if they had meaning outside of any particular context. One temptation to do this is that we mistake grammatical statements for descriptions. We think we are describing the world when actually we are stating the rules we use to describe the world. So we say "every rod has a length" and think this is a necessarily true description. But actually it expresses a rule which (partly) defines the meaning of "rod" and "length". The impossibility of imagining its opposite is to do with its status as a rule, not with some sempiternal truth about the world.

    Is it impossible to imagine the king in chess moving five squares at a time? Yes, but not because it's impossible to imagine a game in which that happened, but because the king in that game wouldn't be what we call "the king in chess".

    1. I believe I agree with all of this. (As for the chess example, though this is slightly off the point, I guess the limits of what can be imagined are not so sharply drawn. We could imagine a game *like* chess, only the king could move five squares at a time. We could easily imagine a game - would it be chess? - in which each side had only seven pawns (say, if we had lost one or two). But it isn't even clear what it would be to imagine a game of chess in which neither side had a king.)