August 16, 2013

Is this really happening now?

Still on nonsense.
In the film Before Midnight, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy play a middle-age couple, married for nine years, with twins, who get a chance for a one-on-one talk during a walk. I’m reconstructing a bit of dialogue from memory. The Hawke character tells his wife about an experience he sometimes has, in which he is wondering “Is this really happening now?” – referring, presumably, to his own current life. His wife answers “Yep!”
This gave rise to some reflections.

(1) Suppose we took someone to use the Hawke character’s words to ask for information, what information might he conceivably be asking for? (“is what’s happening now happening now?”, “is what’s happening happening at the time at which it is happening?”) It seems clear that the words are a prime example of what philosophers like to brand nonsense, in either the category-clash or failed-to-give-sense sense. I propose to call sentences of this kind ‡nonsense‡. (I’m not assuming that this is a stable category.)

(2) What struck me once again was how naturally some forms of ‡nonsense‡ , philosophers notwithstanding, fit into our (more or less) everyday conversation, for instance (but not only, I think), in expressing how we feel or what we are experiencing. Is this one source of the idea that some experiences are ineffable? Something that pulls us in the direction of the say/show distinction as it is claimed to be present in the Tractatus? The Hawke character, we feel like saying, is “trying to put into words” something that “cannot actually be said”? But actually I don’t think what is going on here is deep or mysterious: he has no difficulty expressing his experience.

(3) The wife’s response seems out of order. She is apparently treating his words as though he was expressing a genuine wonder, which is what alerts one to the fact that his choice of words could be thought to be irregular. I doing so she may be making fun of him – or her response may be a comment on his attitude to life: “Yes, believe it or not you are actually alive.”

(4) The words are more purely a first person expression of experience than Austen’s “[Wednesday] did come, and exactly when it might be reasonably looked for.” I should like to say I’ve had a similar experience myself. Can I say that? I guess I can as far as I’ve wanted to use those same words. The experience is constituted by one’s being inclined to express oneself in this way. (Of course, someone might then go on to articulate the experience in a different way, and to that extent she would not be sharing the same experience.)