[hist-analytic] Philosophy as Nonsense

Baynesr at comcast.net Baynesr at comcast.net
Mon Oct 10 18:46:15 EDT 2011

A lot of interest to respond to in both Holbrook's and Speranza's response. Allow me a clarification of my own view in light of these remarks as well as indicating a couple of areas of agreement and disagreement. First Speranza. 

If we take 'nonsense' to be 'meaninglessness' then the Fregean notion of a sense becomes an issue, but if by 'nonsense' you mean a coherent idea that is inconsistent with common SENSE then Fregean senses are not of immediate concern. My thinking here is that the nonsense at issue may inhabit territory between these two. Plato often uses metaphor and parables. The cave and divided line being good examples as well as the two horses of the Phadrus, etc. I think Plato is trying to say a great deal, but finds it difficult to express all the content he has in mind in the space of philosophical remarks in the context of combination and division. 

Let me use an analogy or metaphor of my own. When you are working on small engines or tiny tools you make great use of the "precision grip" (typically). The best way to deal with delicate things manually is this way, most often. But when you work with very large objects the precision grip gives way to more awkward means, and as the tool gets larger you sometimes need a tool to work the tool. Now let's take a look at language. When I am dealing with "delicate" subject matters I employ the "precision grip"; that is, I make use of logic in a careful way. Such delicate matters as providing an alternative to Ramsey sentences (maybe Craig) in dealing with theory terms. Another example is modeling of causative constructions using, say, Montagovian grammar. Very delicate etc. But when my subject matter is indelicate, or when I cannot proceed in the same delicate way as in modeling, I make use of more imaginative and, sometimes, wild constructions. Thus the larger a philosophical issue (in the sense of generality) the more I rely on vagueness and metaphor. I cannot graspo the world in a "precision grip"; this requires tools for large tools. Metaphor is a large tool. 

Part of what Wittgenstein is saying is that the more you try to say the more you are drawn into making "nonsensical" statements. The propositions of logic are not nonsense, but applied to they largest "spheres" they all say the same thing: nothing. Similarly, when I try to say something very expansive about "being qua being" (Aristotle) I may be driven towards "nonsense": e.g. matter as pure potentiality. Much is said, but so much in fact that we are in the business of saying something "nonsensical." But this sort of thing is important: it is an expression (or account) of the idea of wonder from which springs philosophy itself. So it is important nonsense: good vs. evil; being vs. nonbeing; good and existence etc. A final point, more linguistic, point. 

What constraints are there on what I can INTEND to say. Can I say 'He likes him' with the INTENTION of saying 'He likes himself'? Not at the level of what Jerome Katz calls 'linguistic meaning'. In other words the possibility of intention, when intentions are complex concepts, involves constraint on our mode of representation. Sense in the Fregean sense circumscribe intentions otherwise understood. This is not to reject Grice. Not necessarily. No existential claim is essential to understanding circumscription in this sense. Grice was right about meaning but the point is, primarily, psychological (in the good sense) 



----- Original Message -----
From: Jlsperanza at aol.com 
To: hist-analytic at simplelists.co.uk 
Sent: Sunday, October 9, 2011 9:33:01 AM 
Subject: Re: Philosophy as Nonsense 

S. Bayne: 
"If you take 'sense' in the way Frege does and assuming senses  are 
intensions, then how can philosophy be nonsense and provide a way  of 

S. Holbrook: 

"It's been a while since I've read Frege.  All I really remember  about 
"sense" is that it's how the thing is presented to us.  So,  perhaps, 
the idea weighed heavily with me at the time, and, subsequently,  I've 
now sort of molded it it, added and took away some parts meshed  it 
with other things I've read and, possibly, lost the Fregean part in 
the  fray.  I can tell you that Wittgenstein, Carnap and some others 
have had  a heavy hand in this area of my thinking.  So, I'll have to 
rain check  you on this last question. 
Hopefully, however, everything else provides  enough controversy to 
stimulate some good conversation." 
---- When Bayne first posted his post, I reflected on it, but for some   
reason did not post to the group. Here is the post I compiled then. I add then   
the point about the 'sense' being: 
↓  ↑ 
I haven't checked with ALL European languages, but I think Frege was   
perhaps misguided with "Sinn". In English, 'sense', oddly, shares some cognitive   
map with things Bayne was also recently talking about: Putnam on Austin on   
_SENSE_ data. 
So perhaps Ramsey is talking that, say, mathematics is IMPORTANT nonsense,   
because it's a play with symbols (formalism alla Hilbert) that may have a   
practical application in the realm of SENSE-data (upon which physics is   
Philosophy, Ramsey quoting Witters suggests, rather, is UNimportant   
nonsense; because it lacks this direct concern with sense-data? Ramsey's  loss! 
In a message dated 10/5/2011 4:58:45 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time, 
_Baynesr at comcast.net_ (mailto:Baynesr at comcast.net)  quotes from Ramsey,  interestingly: 
"[T]he chief proposition of philosophy is that philosophy is nonsense. And   
again we must then take seriously that it is nonsense, and not pretend, as   
Wittgenstein does, that it is important nonsense." 
Foundations of Mathematics, p.263. 
and comments: "For me philosophy at its best must be nonsense; but I do   
think it is important nonsense." 

This would require some Griceian  (as I prefer to spell this) analysis! 
(At some stage!). 
E.g. the implicature of 'important'. 
Someone said (I think) that 'relevant' is a hateful (or odious, I forget)   
word (R. M. Hare has an essay on "Relevance", though!) 
Someone else (I, for example) may think that 'important' triggers some of   
the same implicatures that 'relevant' does! -- and it is a word that should 
be  avoided, in polite conversation (cfr. Grice, "be relevant!"; "say 
important  things". Note how 'import' interacts with 'sense'. In System of Logic, 
Mill  talks of the IMPORT of a proposition: its sense. Unimportant nonsense 
is a  double oxymoron, in this view! (And I agree!). 

I wonder what Ramsey, back in the day, did mean by   


strictly, being, in his words, then: 

1. not important, unimportant -- strictly  "~IMPORTANT" 
------------     2. important! 

For there is this oxymoronic nature of the phrase, "unimportant  nonsense" 
(a double litotes, almost) -- if the _sense_ is in the import,  that is. 

R. B. Jones may have something (important, let's hope!?) to say on the   

Personally, I never understood the sense of sense! 
I think I did check this with the OED, at some time. It seems that 'sense'   
(Latin sensus) refers to: 

↑  ↓ 

i.e. there is one  sense -- the right sense, say: ↑ 

But then there is ANOTHER (or  _the_ other) sense -- the left or wrong 
sense, say: ↓ 

THAT sense of  'sense' I do understand. 
In Italian, Latin 'sensus' (which connects then with 'sensatio') has uses   
which are not necessarily Fregean. In English, the implicature may be in 
things  like 'clockwise' and 'anti-clockwise'. It is THIS use of 'sense' that 
is  relevant in the Romance Languages like Italian or French. Not for 
nothing, as  Cicero says, Deleuze wrote a rather typical French book on philosophy, 
called,  "The philosophy of SENSE". I read it, and was fascinated that it 
was all about  Nonsense and Lewis Carroll! (for surely to know the boundaries 
of sense we need  to deal with nonsense, as a philosopher of rationality, 
like Grice was, had to  deal with _madness_ or lack of reason). Ramsey knew 
his Carroll alright, and I  treasure his reference to the White Knight in 

"I'll sing  you a song" 
"Is it long?" 

"Not so long," the White Knight tells Alice. "But it's very beautiful --   
and sad. Either it will bring tears to your eyes, or..." 

"Or else what?" asked Alice. 
"Or else it won't, you know." 

Ramsey quotes this in _Foundations of Mathematics_, as the point about   
bivalence. It would be NONSENSE not to abide with Bivalence in conversation,   
say. Yet, the White Knight is being NONSENSICAL in "flouting" the bivalence 
in  conversation: his "or..." suggests OTHER than ~p. He may assume that 
Alice is  rational and abides with the principle of Bivalence. His "or else it 
won't" then  comes out as a gratuitious, or as Albritton would say, 
nonsensical, almost,  otiose piece of 'info'. 
Absence of sense (as per nonsense) is more difficult to grasp. 
Only when we have made sense of sense can we hope to make sense of what   
Ramsey sensed was unimportant nonsense, I hope! 

----- Speranza 
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