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).