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.)


  1. I have not seen the movie (though I have seen its two predecessors), so I will just go by your description of what happens.

    Obviously, the crucial expression in Jesse's (the Ethan Hawke character's) utterance is the pronoun "this": whether the utterance is nonsense depends on what that word is being used to refer to. After all, the mere combination of words "Is this really happening?" is surely not nonsensical at all. Someone could, e.g., use the same combination of words with reference to some video clips appearing on a television broadcast, if unsure whether the broadcast is a genuine news report or a parody of some sort. In such a case the utterance would be perfectly intelligible, and an answer of "Yes" or "No"—either of which would be possible in the case that I have described—would be in order.

    So the crucial question is, to what does does Jesse refer by the word "this" when he says, "Is this really happening?"? I would paraphrase his "this" not as "what is happening now" but as "what seems to be happening (here and) now." We then get the question "Is what seems to be happening now really happening?", which at least is not patent nonsense, as "Is what is happening now really happening?" is.

    I suspect that the utterance still lacks sense, but I hesitate to say that it is nonsense, which to me means that (for some specifiable reason) it cannot have a sense. It lacks sense because, as I have paraphrased it, it presupposes a contrast between "is happening" and "seems to be happening" to which no content has been given. But that does not mean that no content can be given to it. E.g., if what seems to Jesse to be happening is that a dog is barking nearby, the contrast could be between actually hearing a dog barking somewhere nearby and being deceived in various ways, such as hearing someone mimicking the barking of a dog, or hearing the recorded sound of a dog barking, or hearing several noises at the same time whose combination suggests a dog barking, and so on.

    On the other hand, I suspect that, if we were to make such moves to give content to the contrast between what seems to be happening and what is really happening, they would not satisfy Jesse as explaining what he means. But what would satisfy him? I suspect that nothing would. If this is what is going on, then his utterance is indeed nonsense, but it is what Wittgenstein calls "disguised nonsense" rather than "patent nonsense."

    1. It’s true that his words could have been used the way you suggest. I should have given more context. It is evident to me that (as I recall it) what he was saying was that from time to time he would have, concerning the things he actually knew were happening (his life as it was going on), the experience of wondering whether they were really happening. I.e. he had a sense of unreality which was not linked to any actual doubts about the events in question. He was not looking for confirmation of whether those things were ideed happening, yet found it natural to use this form of words to express the feeling he had.

      My point was that an argument could easily be constructed along conventional philosophical lines to show that such a question does not make sense. Yet I would suggest we may have no difficulty understanding what the character is expressing. My purpose was to make us question the conventional philosophical concern with nonsense (or, as I propose to call it, ‡nonsense‡), i.e. the idea that we could say, independently of any context, whether it was possible for a chain of words to express sense or not.

    2. Is there any such thing as the "conventional" philosophical concern with nonsense? The term "nonsense" was a prominent term of criticism in anglophone philosophy from the 1930s through the 1960s or perhaps 1970s, but it seems to me to have gone out of fashion since then, other than as a casual term bearing no special philosophical weight. And I don't know who today has "the idea that we could say, independently of any context, whether it was possible for a chain of words to express sense or not." Forgive me if I am merely ignorant on the point or have been thoughtless; perhaps you can cite examples.

      In my previous comment, I proposed a way of responding to Jesse's utterance (interpreted as a metaphysical one) that would show it to be nonsense, but I certainly did not argue that the mere form of words as such is nonsensical—quite the opposite. Rather, I argued that there are various ways in which the utterance could be explicated, but that none of them capture its supposed metaphysical significance. Its metaphysical significance consists in its evasion of explication, which is to say its lacking sense. We can understand the experience that issues in the utterance, but the utterance itself remains unintelligible. (This is, of course, accepting your interpretation of the utterance as a metaphysical one, contrary to what Duncan Richter suggests in his comment of 16 August 2013 22:47, below.) So it does not seem to me that to offer an argument that the utterance is nonsense (though I don't know whether an argument along the lines that I sketch counts as what you mean by an argument "along conventional philosophical lines"), is to presume to assess it as nonsense simply as a form of words, in disregard of its context.

      I grant you that there are philosophers—I am one of them—who will sometimes assess philosophical utterances as nonsensical. I will also grant, if not to you then to anyone who wants to make such a charge, that this way of using the word "nonsensical" is not congruent with how we ordinarily use the word "nonsense." In ordinary, non-philosophical discourse, to call some utterance "nonsense" is to dismiss it as unworthy of serious consideration. To do that with philosophical utterances, especially when they concern conundrums that have been with us for centuries, seems callow and obtuse. But it seems pretty clear that Wittgenstein is not dismissing philosophical utterances in this way when he assesses them as "nonsense." On the other hand, he really does mean that they fail to make sense, however powerfully they may grip our intellects.

      Getting back to the example of Jesse's question "Is this really happening?", perhaps you want to say that there are two ways in which we can make it intelligible: one, to explicate it in terms of some specific, ordinary ways in which "this"—it being specified what he is referring to by that pronoun—might be "not real"; the other, to explicate it as the expression of a certain metaphysical perplexity.

      But I don't think that this works. There is only one way to make Jesse's utterance intelligible, which to explicate it in terms of possible ordinary ways of making sense. If his utterance is the expression of a metaphysical perplexity then it cannot be made intelligible, because its "meaning," if we must speak of such a thing, consists in its evasion or refusal of all explications. At best, we can make Jesse, or the experience that issues in his utterance, intelligible, in the sense that we can relate his experience to experiences that we ourselves have had—if we have had similar experiences. We can make sense of what he is doing in asking that question. That is not to say that we can find a way in which his words make sense.

    3. There is indeed a rather extensive literature on the philosophical conception of nonsense from the last twenty years or so. It was sparked, I believe, by Cora Diamond’s essay “What Nonsense Might Be” (in her *The Realistic Spirit*, 1991). It is mainly connected with discussions of Wittgenstein’s *Tractatus*. See for instance Crary & Read (eds), *The New Wittgenstein* (2000). (I’ve commented on the discussion in my essay “The Sense is Where You Find it” .)

      I agree that in ordinary parlance “nonsense” usually means something like “not worth taking seriously”. But quite apart from the question of how the word is used, there is the philosophical notion that one can establish, on the basis of the look of a sentence, whether or not it is capable of expressing sense in any context whatsoever. That is the notion that I wish to criticize. You ask whether any philosophers have ever held that view. I would submit that it is not at all uncommon. Classical examples are Rudolf Carnap and Gilbert Ryle. It’s moot whether the view can be attributed to early Wittgenstein, to Cora Diamond, etc. (You yourself seem to be hinting at such a view when you say, “We can understand the experience that issues in the utterance, but *the utterance itself remains unintelligible*”, and when you speak of “possible ordinary ways of making sense”.)

      You assume (if I understand you rightly) that I propose to interpret the Hawke character’s remark as the expression of a metaphysical perplexity. Maybe this has led you to misunderstand my drift. I don’t take him to be making any kind of metaphysical (or other philosophical) point, simply to be expressing a feeling he has. The feeling can be construed, for instance, along the (quite different) lines very helpfully suggested by Duncan or by Reshef. (Thank you for the Wittgenstein quotation, Reshef! I had forgotten it, but it comes very close to the point I had in mind.)

    4. Thanks for the references and clarifications. I seem to have misunderstood you on several points (in particular about how you were interpreting Jesse's question)—which may merely indicate negligent reading on my part or may indicate the difficulty of being clear on such matters.

      "You ask whether any philosophers have ever held that view." No, I was asking expressly about philosophers of the present day, in contrast with philosophers of some decades ago (I specified the period 1930–1970, which would include Carnap and Ryle, whom you cite). I assumed that when you spoke of "conventional" views of nonsense in philosophy, you meant views that are commonly accepted in philosophy now, as against views that were accepted in a previous era, when "nonsense" was a frequently used term of philosophical criticism. Apparently that was an erroneous assumption on my part.

  2. Wittgenstein, Remarks on Philosophy of Psychology 1, §§125-126:

    The feeling of the unreality of one's surroundings. This feeling I have had once, and many have it before the onset of mental illness. Everything seems somehow not real; but not as if one saw things unclear or blurred; everything looks quite as usual. And how do I know that another has felt what I have? Because he uses the same words as I find appropriate.

    But why do I choose precisely the word "unreality" to express it? Surely not because of its sound. (A word of very like sound but different meaning would not do.) I choose it because of its meaning.

    But I surely did not learn to use the word to mean: a feeling. No; but I learned to use it with a particular meaning and now I use it spontaneously like this. One might say—though it may mislead—: When I have learnt the word in its ordinary meaning, then I choose that meaning as a simile for my feeling. But of course what is in question here is not a simile, not a comparison of the feeling with something else.

    The fact is simply that I use a word, the bearer of another technique, as the expression of a feeling. I use it in a new way. And wherein consists this new kind of use? Well, one thing is that I say: I have a 'feeling of unreality'—after I have, of course, learnt the use of the word "feeling" in the ordinary way. Also: the feeling is a state.

  3. He's expressing a kind of incredulity about his own middle-age, isn't he? Am I really living such a conventional life? Did the young man with an open future that I used to be really turn into this person? How did that happen? Something along those lines. Perhaps only the very words he uses can capture what he means exactly, but (as I remember the film) I don't think he has a sense of unreality about his surroundings. Or if he does, the surroundings in question are not the physical objects but the behavior he finds himself engaged in, the nature of his relationship with his wife, and so on. He can't quite believe, or accept, that this is what his life has become. And his wife's "Yep!" is her telling him to accept it. That's my take, anyway.

    Taken out of context his words sound like a form of philosophical scepticism. In context, as you say, they are both easily intelligible and, indeed, normal.

    1. As I said in my previous comment, I haven't yet seen the movie, but this sounds much more congruent with the character of Jesse as I remember him from the second movie of the series. Your observation, Duncan, suggests to me that Jesse's utterance is intelligible precisely because it is not metaphysical. Whether "This is not really happening" is nonsense depends on how the "this" is filled out. And if you are right, the way in which it could be filled out for Jesse concerns a completely real possibility: perhaps my whole understanding of what my life is about, what my relationship with this woman is, and so on, is fundamentally mistaken; if so, then "this"—what I have understood to be my life with this woman—is not really happening, i.e., is not really what is going on.

      So any impression that Jesse's utterance is "nonsense" comes from importing philosophical preoccupations that he does not share. If this is right, then, contrary to what I take Lars to be arguing, the fact that his utterance is intelligible to us shows nothing about what it means to describe philosophical utterances as "nonsense."

    2. this sounds much more congruent with the character of Jesse as I remember him

      My fear is that this is leading me to remember the remark a certain way, which might be inaccurate.

      I wouldn't say that the remark is intelligible precisely because it is metaphysical, since that implies that anything that is not metaphysical is intelligible. I don't think that's what you mean. But I agree that if it were (intended to be) metaphysical then I would not know what to make of it. Which is not to say I could never understand it, but I'd have to at least see the movie again to do so. The context matters.

      any impression that Jesse's utterance is "nonsense" comes from importing philosophical preoccupations that he does not share

      Maybe. But I think Lars's point is that there are philosophers who would regard it as nonsense, not because they take Jesse to have preoccupations that he does not have, but simply because of certain features of the sentence he uses. That is, they don't take the context and the speaker to be relevant. But they are relevant (I think we all agree), and that's an important fact about sense and nonsense.

    3. Yes, that's a good way of putting it. In fact, I don't think Miles and I are far apart (I may just have been hasty in my formulations). I believe my earlier blog "Waiting for Wednesday" helps clarify where I'm comin from.

    4. Yes, I wish now that I had read that post earlier.

  4. he has no difficulty expressing his experience.

    Is it possible that there is here a difficulty of expression in one sense but not in another? I did not watch the movie, but might it be the case that although the Hawk character doesn’t hesitate, and it doesn’t take him any time to find the words, and it doesn’t seem to him that there is anything “off” in the words he chooses, and that he is in some sense even easy to understand—might it be the case that there is yet a difficulty of expression here in another sense?

    I have this idea in mind: Wittgenstein in the Brown Book talks about the word “particular” (p. 158 ff). He makes this distinction between reflexive and non-reflexive uses of the term, and it seems to me that the words of the Hawk character may be described as having for him at that moment a sort of reflexive use. Now, Wittgenstein also talks in the same context of “straightening out” an expression that was used in a reflexive way, translating it effectively into a non-reflexive form. And to go back to the question of the difficulty of expression, my idea is this: might it be the case that in our case the hawk character had a difficulty of expression in the limited sense that there was no way to “straighten out” his words? Might it be the case that the Hawk character in that situation is “stuck” with the reflexive form of words? Could that be a useful notion of difficulty of expression?

  5. Perhaps one could imagine some sort of analogy here. The analogy might be something like this: when we encounter the reflexive use of certain words such as “particular” we are inclined to give it a non-reflexive reading. Somehow a non-reflexive reading seems more “natural”, more in line with how we think about meaning. (Similar points may be made concerning other expressions as concerning “particular”.) In the same way, there may be a temptation to construe the Hawke character’s (Jesse’s) question “Is this really happening now?” as the expression of some specific doubt about current events, as though he ought to be able to single out those aspects of his current experience that seemed to him particularly unreal (thus “straightening out” his words). Whereas he was actually talking (reflexively as it were) about whatever he was experiencing.

    If so, the “difficulty” would come from the philosophical prejudice that one must be able to straighten out such talk.

  6. the “difficulty” would come from the philosophical prejudice that one must be able to straighten out such talk.

    My worry here is that the inability to straighten out that talk might be indicative of something larger. I mean, it seems to me that part of the reason we keep coming back to such uses of language is that they are really very hard to clarify. We often end up resorting to “Well, don’t you get it?” or “You either get it or you don’t. I can’t explain further.” And that’s a bit worrying, because it is problematic to have a use of language that cannot be clarified.

    Now, I take it that “straightening out” is one method of clarification, and I understand that we cannot use that method here. Fine. But what other method do we have? Don’t we have to have some other method, or some other way to clarify? Is it a philosophical prejudice to take meaning to be something that can be clarified, explained?

  7. Very interesting questions. My inclination is to say: whether the meaning of what someone said needs to be clarified – and thus, what a clarification would amount to – varies from case to case, depending on whether and in what way someone is puzzled by it. The philosophical prejudice would be to say that for any given utterance there must be one way of clarifying it. And on the other hand: until I see why you were puzzled by what someone said, I have no idea what a clarification would amount to.

    Concerning Jesse’s remarks in the movie, one listener might identify right away with the experience he was expressing, while to another the account proposed by Duncan above might be called for, to a third one, again, one might need to point out (as in the above interchange with Miles) that Jesse was not expressing a skeptical worry. (In fact I suppose clarification will often take the form of explaining what the speaker was NOT trying to say.) In the case of a fourth listener there might appear to be no way of conveying what Jesse was trying to say. That would not mean that the meaning can’t be clarified, only it can’t be clarified to him. (Of course we might go on trying...)

    In what you say I sense the shadow of the following idea: some of the things people say are intelligible in themselves, others need to be translated into utterances of the first kind; those that can’t simply lack sense. (I’m not suggesting that’s you really want to say.) To this I would retort: there are no given criteria of intelligibility. Indeed, the use of the very word “intelligibility” varies from case to case, depending on the nature of the interchange.

  8. Thanks. That helps.

    You talk of that person to whom the use cannot be explained. But my question is really about the person himself—Jesse in our example. Does he understand what he said? – I mean, isn’t there the possibility that he is merely inclined psychologically to utter those words, because of some atmosphere surrounding the words? Or does this possibility does not exist in this case? Do you take it that since this is not a philosophical context—e.g. what looks like an academic discussion about some question that everyone in the discussion recognizes as a traditional philosophical question—we should assume that Jesse is not uttering the words because of such mere psychological inclination?

    One thing that motivates my questions to you is your calling the kind of propositions we’ve been discussing here “‡nonsense‡.” What I’m not sure I understand is how we should take this suggestion. Does it mean that you think these uses are nonsense, but are in some important way different from the philosopher’s nonsense (the relevant difference might not be logical)? Or do you mean that such propositions only have the appearance of nonsense, but are not really nonsense? I’m pretty sure you think the latter; I just want to make sure I understand.

    I think you are right, in a way, about that shadow of idea you sense in what I say. But I need more help. If I understand, you are trying to get me to stop making one distinction and make another group of distinctions. But it keeps seeming to me that even if I make the distinction(s) you are urging me to make, there would still be room for that other distinction—the one you are trying to make me see that I don’t need to make.

    I would say that there is not just that kind of things people say that are intelligent in themselves, but that this category includes a huge collection of all sorts of things, with all sorts of intelligibilities, and criteria of intelligibility. So there is a big collection of cases here, and the fact that something that one person says cannot be explained in a certain way (the fact that it doesn’t have certain criteria of intelligibility) does not by itself make it nonsense; it may simply be different—have a different kind of sense. But that would still put it inside that collection. In this way, I think I can make the distinction that you are urging me to make.

    But I still want to make a distinction between utterances that have and utterances that don’t have criteria of intelligibility—any criteria. And I wonder about is those things people say that really do not have any criteria of intelligibility, like that person in PI §279 who says “But I know how tall I am!” and laying his hand on top of his head to prove it. It seems that Wittgenstein here is trying to give an example of something that is outside the collection I spoke of. It seems that Wittgenstein was particularly alert to and interested in those moments in which people say nothing while thinking they are saying something—where there is a kind of lapse in their first person authority. Am I misreading Wittgenstein here? If not, and if that second distinction can still indeed be made, then my question now is how you think we should determine if what Jesse says—the way he understands his own utterance—is inside the collection or out.

    1. I’m sorry I’m late in getting back, I’ve been otherwise occupied for the last week.

      It’s a nice twist you wish to give to the issue, raising the question whether Jesse himself might not fail to understand what he is saying. It makes me ask when we would say of a person that he doesn’t understand his own words. The kinds of cases that come to mind are ones in which we are puzzled by what someone says, ask certain questions and then conclude that he was misusing some word or phrase (say, the speaker is a child or a learner of English), or that he is under some misapprehension about the facts, etc. Unless and until there is some puzzlement, it seems hard to get a grip on the question whether the speaker himself understands what he is saying.

      On the other hand, suppose someone suggests that a person who utters the words “*** ** ***” simply can’t understand what she is saying because they are in violation of the language system. That is the kind of suggestion of which I am suspicious.

      By “‡nonsense‡” I mean expressions that might be thought to be shown, by some philosophical argument, to be unintelligible (as in the above suggestion); my objection to this notion (to put it somewhat crudely) is that questions of intelligibility arise in a context of communication and that it is hard to see what it would mean to try to resolve them by philosophical argument.

      I’m glad you agree about there being different kinds of intelligibility. But again, I’m suspicious about the notion of “criteria” of intelligibility. (I’d be more comfortable speaking about criteria of someone having understood or failed to understand, and how they vary from case to case.)

      As for the “person in PI §279 who says ’But I know how tall I am!’ and laying his hand on top of his head to prove it” – I don’t know what to say about her until I encounter her case: she might have all kinds of things in mind. But of course Wittgenstein’s joke works in its context.

  9. Thanks Lars.

    If I get what you are saying, one thing you are interested in is in criticizing a kind of dull philosophical theoretical knife that makes some philosophers classify some kinds of utterances that people come up with as nonsense, and these people as confused. Is that right?

    If I understood, I think I also hear in what you say a kind of distinction between things that people say in philosophy and things people say in normal life. You seem, in a way, to suspect philosophers more than you suspect ordinary people. And to the extent that you do think it is useful to make this distinction I wanted to ask about it: Is it part of what you want, to recommend a kind of charity principle that says that we should avoid as much as we can saying that what people say is nonsense if they speak outside of a philosophical context?

    If so, do you not worry that this charity principle might make it hard for us to recognize it when people use nonsensical utterance purposefully? Or do you think that this idea or using nonsense purposefully is itself useless?

  10. I don’t think the dull knife metaphor really gets at what I’m saying, since that suggests that a sharper knife would do a better job, and what I’m worried about is the idea of there being a job to be done here.

    The temptation that I think should be resisted is that of saying that if a person were ever to utter such and such a sequence of words then she speaks without sense. It strikes me that there are two different ways of thinking about this. On the one hand, that idea about nonsense seems to presuppose that we can tell independently of the situation of speaking what the speaker’s intention will be if she were to utter these words. And I can’t see how this can be done. But without regard to her intentions, how can we say that it would make no sense for her to utter these words?

    On the other hand, suppose someone actually utters a sentence which we fail to understand, her words seeming odd or bizarre. If it matters to us, we will try to figure out what she was trying to say. In doing so, we may come to realize that we had taken her words in the wrong way, or that she expressed herself badly (the line between these is not a sharp one), or that she or we were under some misapprehension about the facts, etc. Thus, we might come to understand her intention, though we might still want to criticize her way of expressing it. Or we might discover that she was speaking in her sleep or suffering from some delirium, in which case we would conclude that her words were not (at least not in any straightforward way) expressive of any intention on her part. (Of course that might be so even if her words were grammatically in perfect order.)

    Putting this schematically: either she had some intention and succeeded in expressing it intelligibly, or she had an intention but failed to express it intelligibly, or she spoke without intention. (Cases of indeterminacy will fall between these.) Are we to say she spoke nonsense in case 2 or 3? Not at any rate in the philosophers’ sense of nonsense.

    You suggest a speaker might speak nonsense purposefully. That might seem like a paradox: the speaker aims to speak in a way that will thwart his purpose in speaking. But presumably you are thinking of someone who purposely speaks in a way that flies in the face of conventional grammar. I can imagine two forms of that: his aim is simply to produce words that will draw attention to their own nonsensicality (as with Lewis Carroll or nonsense poets), or, he means to express something or other but purposely chooses a form of words that will strike us as odd or as unconventional. He might do so, say, as a stylistic device or in order to draw attention to some peculiarity of the language. (Austen’s line about Wednesay coming when it might reasonably have been looked for would be a case in point.) We should note, though, that such an utterance may not at all be hard to understand,unlike what is presumably the case with what philosophers call nonsense.

    As for the kind of nonsense we commit when doing philosophy, that’s a large topic and I wish to get back to it.

  11. I completely agree that the temptation should be resisted to say that person speaks without sense merely on the basis of her having uttered a given sequence of words, and I also completely agree that we should not presuppose that we can tell independently of the situation of speaking what the speaker’s intention will be if she were to utter a given sequence of words.

    Now, you say: presumably you are thinking of someone who purposely speaks in a way that flies in the face of conventional grammar.

    Actually, I had a different sort of case in mind; although it may turn out not to be different at all in some important way. In fact, I have several sorts of cases in mind.

    (1) The first kind of case is the kind of use of nonsense that Wittgenstein makes in the Tractatus. It seems that there is some sense in which he thinks of himself as having done something, accomplished something, by means of what he says is nonsense. Perhaps this is part of what you are referring to when you talk of the “nonsense we commit when doing philosophy.”

    (2) The second kind of case is again from Wittgenstein; this time from the “Lecture on Ethics.” He says there:

    “For all I wanted to do with them [expressions used in absolute sense] was just to go beyond the world and that is to say beyond significant language. My whole tendency and I believe the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion was to run against the boundaries of language.”

    It seems—perhaps that’s wrong—that he has here a notion of an intention that can only be expressed by a nonsensical expression. That is, he wants something, this desire also takes the shape of wanting to say something, this shape is not accidental to the desire, the something that he wants to say is nonsensical, he fully realizes this, and this does not make him give up the idea that he wants something or makes him think that he is simply confused or ridiculous. Saying that the expressions uttered in an absolute sense are nonsense here does not seem to be the result of ignoring the situation of speaking, or of mechanically applying sense-criteria. Rather, it seems that the nonsense here is part of the intention, but not in a Lewis Carroll sort of way.


  12. (3) The third type of cases is the kind that Cora Diamond discusses in “The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy.” There is a host of cases there; I assume you know. She does not say that these are cases of nonsense, nor for that matter does she mention the ideas of absolute and secondary sense. But the family of cases she discusses there seems to have logical similarities to the kind of cases that Wittgenstein mentions in the “Lecture on Ethics.” In both cases there is, for example, a kind of wish to say a contradiction, or to wonder at a tautology, or to think what cannot be thought—to enter a frame of mind that has lost the conditions of mindedness. Reality, in such cases is taken to be mind-resistant. And it seems to me that a natural expression of that would be expressions that are thought-resistant, namely nonsense.

    Now, I don’t know how useful it is to say of those cases that they are nonsense (or to talk here in terms of absolute or secondary senses). It seems to me that from a didactic point of view it can be very distracting to say that. But this does not cancel the logical similarities. And what I wonder about here is whether we may use the term “nonsense” not as a verdict, not as a category, but rather as a way of characterizing a kind of intention. If so, it reopens the question what we may achieve by saying of something that it is nonsense.

    If there is here indeed a unified group of cases, then I also want to say that I am not at all sure that at least some of the cases you mentioned—e.g. the waiting for Wednesday case, the wondering whether ALL THIS is real case—do not have something in them of the logic of the group of cases I mentioned—at least under one sort of interpretation. So perhaps you are right about what sort of cases I have in mind after all; but it still feels I want to say something different about them.

    Anyway, I’m not sure—do we or do we not have the same range of cases in mind?


    1. The first type of case, as you say, would come under the heading “philosophical nonsense”, and that is something I wish to address in a little while – I’m a slow thinker, I’m afraid.

      It seems as if, in the “Lecture”, Wittgenstein may have thought about the examples he had in mind (“I’m absolutely safe”, etc), as being of a kind with what he characterized as nonsense in the *Tractatus*. Well, while I think it important to recognize that *Tractatus* nonsense is not a unified category in itself, I have a sense that it would be more illuminating on the whole to think of “Lecture” nonsense along the lines of your third type of case: cases in which the spontaneous expression of an experience is an utterance that seems to fly in the face of linguistic convention, and where this form is purposely adopted by the speaker.

      As far as these are concerned, the case, I take it, may be one in which the speaker actually prefers an unconventional form or one where she simply does not care whether the form is unconventional.

      What we need to resist here is the notion that what conforms or fails to conform to convention is in itself an absolute distinction. (This is a sense is the theme of my earlier blog “The limits of the language game metaphor”.) I would suggest it is more a matter of how an utterance strikes us. We may be bewildered, or we may even admire the expression (as perhaps in the cases Cora Diamond is discussing). “Unconventional” may have the ring of an aesthetic quality. Note that we MAY be struck by the unconventionality of an expression and yet have no difficulty understanding it, just as we may have a hard time understanding what we take to be a thoroughly conventional sentence (say, in an article on corporate law or particle physics).

      (I might mention, by the way, that Yaniv Iczkovits has some interesting, though slightly obscure, things to say about Wittgenstein and ethical nonsense in his recent book *Wittgenstein’s Ethical Thought*, which I review in *Philosophical Investigations* for October.)

  13. Thanks for the reference to Iczkovits’ book. Is there a way of getting hold of your review before October?

    I tend to agree with you that the example from the “Lecture” and the cases from Diamond’s paper can usefully be taken together. I separated the cases, because I didn’t want to just assume there is a similarity.

    The reason I mentioned the example from the Lecture is because Wittgenstein says there explicitly that his intention is to say something nonsensical, and I found that interesting and relevant. By extension, if there is indeed similarity to other cases, this may also apply to other cases. But the way Wittgenstein characterizes his own intention in the Lecture raises questions, and it seems go beyond what you would allow; at least not for this kind of cases. How do you understand Wittgenstein’s characterization of his intention there? Do you take Wittgenstein to be mischaracterizing his intentions?

    You keep coming back to the issue of conventionality, and it seems that a lot for you hangs on the distinction between what is and what is not conventional, even though you don’t think it is an absolute one. But I’m not sure the issue of conventionality is really at the heart of the matter for you, because I don’t think that you would say that the kind of uses we are talking about has to involve unconventional forms of expression. Saying that one is “absolutely safe” for example is quite conventional, and in a different way saying “I’m speechless!” or “Time stood still” or “I feel lighter than air!” are likewise quite ordinary, and even conventional. – I feel I’m missing something.

    Perhaps this question is relevant: Do you take there to be a kind of similarity of kind of intention in all those cases? Is the point of thinking about them all together just that they all may appear to say something that is strange in one way to another? Or might there be a deeper kind of similarity in the kind of speech acts involved?

  14. RESHEF: ’Saying that one is “absolutely safe” for example is quite conventional, and in a different way saying “I’m speechless!” or “Time stood still” or “I feel lighter than air!” are likewise quite ordinary, and even conventional. – I feel I’m missing something.’

    ME: I take it that this goes to show that what is unconventional is not an absolute notion. Maybe I should rather have said that it is context-dependent, or maybe even that there are different senses of the word. “I’m speechless”, “Time stood still” etc is of course very common, even trite, and yet one could point out that they deviate from many other uses of expressions of that form. (I don’t know, however, in what context or what sense I should say that “I’m absolutely safe” is quite conventional.)

    RESHEF: ‘Do you take there to be a kind of similarity of kind of intention in all those cases? Is the point of thinking about them all together just that they all may appear to say something that is strange in one way to another? Or might there be a deeper kind of similarity in the kind of speech acts involved?’

    ME: Off hand, I can’t think of any deeper similarity.

  15. I happened to read an interview with Zygmunt Bauman, in which he talks about the difference between Erfahrung and Erlebnisse,
    which seems relevant to your discussion (well, I hope so).

  16. Yes, Jesse is clearly expressing an *Erlebnis*, not an *Erfahrung*. It seems to me the criterion of an *Erlebnis* would primarily be the way the person herself articulates what she is undergoing, the criterion of an *Erfahrung* would be what she learns from a situation.

    The same distinction is made in Swedish, Finnish, etc. It is noteworthy that English makes do without marking it verbally. It would be interesting to consider whether the lack of this distinction has consequences for the way one does philosophy (e.g. for the way in which empiricism has been conceived).