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Nonsense and Logic (Rhyme and Reason)

"How is sense (language with meaning) distinguished from nonsense (marks or sounds without meaning) in philosophy?" For example, "nonsense poems" are absurd, but they are not therefore nonsense in logic of language. Noise such as an undefined word or combination of words (cf. the sawing of wood or the falling of rain ("mere sound without sense")) -- That is how Wittgenstein later used the word 'nonsense' as a tool in his logic of language.

And this is related to logic's conceptual tool 'logical possibility' -- or, "what can be described, because it is described". For example:

It is logically possible for a cow to jump over the moon, just as it is logically possible for a cat to play the violin or a dish to run away with a spoon.

However silly the verse written for children may be, that in itself does not make that verse nonsense in logic of language, because the word 'nonsense' is not used there to mean 'foolishness' or 'absurdity'. This is fundamental to making an objective distinction between language that has meaning and language that is meaningless in philosophy.

Query: nonsense poems don't make sense because none of the grammar rules are followed.

But we have to say what we mean by "grammar rules", because e.g. 'Milk me sugar' (PI § 498) isn't nonsense because it fails to follow the rules of syntax, but because that combination of words has no defined use [i.e. normally defined use, in contrast to one invented ad hoc] in our language, and so 'grammar' in this case means not rules of syntax but semantic, or in other words: meaning not form.

"I don't drink coffee." The question is: "Does coffee drink you?" The question is nonsense -- but not syntactic nonsense.

That is the basic of the criticism of the meaning of 'grammar', and the reason Wittgenstein revised the concept 'grammar' to use as a tool in his philosophical investigations.

When is nonsense not nonsense?

On the other hand, this is a complex question, as is "Have you left off beating your father?" (Diog. L. ii, 135) -- i.e. we call many different things nonsense, and therefore it is possible that sometimes the query's proposition is true, sometimes false, depending on the particular poem. For example, Lewis Carroll's "The sun was shining on the sea ... And this was odd because it was the middle of the night" is not nonsense because its syntax is improper.

The minefield of assumptions about how language "makes sense". Here is one possibility: Both the propositions 'The sun was shinning' and 'It was the middle of the night' make sense -- i.e. separately they have well-established uses in our language; but if those two propositions are joined together by the word 'and', the resulting complex-proposition does not "make sense" -- i.e. does not have a use in our language. (Cf. 'It was day' and 'It was night' and 'It was day and it was night'.)

This is the question of whether meaning (sense) is a matter of form (syntax) or of use in the language.

There are many meanings of the word 'meaning', as well as of the word 'meaningless' (or 'nonsense'). But not all can be used to make the meaning of language in philosophy clear. It was for this reason that Wittgenstein chose a particular meaning of 'meaning' for his work.

Words such as 'absurdity' and 'foolishness' belong to factual investigations rather than conceptual ones [//What did I mean when I wrote that, I wonder//]. And logic of language, indeed philosophy itself is about concepts, not about facts other than facts that are in plain view.


Topics on this page ...


The concepts 'nonsense' and 'absurd'

Query: the senselessness of a tautology or contradiction is not arbitrary like that of nonsensical gibberish.

When is senselessness not senselessness? When is nonsense not nonsense? According to the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus's philosophical theory about the relation between "the world", "thought" and language, language can be senseless without being meaningless ('meaningless' = the query's 'nonsensical gibberish', I think). [The word 'senseless' in Wittgenstein's early jargon.]

Is not the combination of words 'nonsensical gibberish' a pleonasm if we use the words 'nonsensical' and 'gibberish' the way we normally do -- or does calling something 'nonsense' twice make it somehow more nonsensical? The distinction between "arbitrary nonsense" and "non-arbitrary nonsense" is lost on me: because undefined language is just that, undefined, nothing more -- because meaning is not a matter of form, but of use. Any form of language can be given a use. [Confusion about familiar words in unfamiliar -- i.e. undefined -- combinations.]

The only difference between 'p AND ~p' and 'p OR ~p' and 'Space spoke while time slept' is that the first two combinations of "signs" are defined (in mathematical logic, that is) and the third is not (It is a combination of signs for which we have no use because it contains category mistakes, although we could, as poets do, invent uses for it, as we might do for any other sign as well). And 'undefined' = 'nonsense' = 'undefined' (The word 'nonsense' has no other meaning in logic of language).

Query: philosophy is nonsense.

As Wittgenstein's TLP defines the word 'nonsense' -- maybe. But to say that philosophy is nonsense -- i.e. "mere sound without sense" -- is foolish, as it is untrue. "Nonsense" that can convey meaning is not nonsense, not as Wittgenstein's later logic uses the word 'nonsense'.

In philosophy what is wanted is reason, and never mere rhyme -- i.e. combinations of words that although they look or sound English are in fact undefined in meaning. "Without rhyme or reason" -- Philosophy may be with or without rhyme (although according to Wittgenstein (CV p. 24) it oughtn't to be), but it is never without reason.

Undefined combinations of words

From the Minutes of the Moral Science Club, 6.12.1945 (in Wittgenstein in Cambridge (2008), Document 344, p. 391), the following:

It was asked whether, if the world were supposed to have begun 3 years ago, the expression 'four years ago' were senseless.

[Wittgenstein said that] given that 3 years ago was assigned as the date of the beginning of the world, then it is absurd to ask what happened four years ago;

though it would be a mistake, not an absurdity to say that the world began four years ago.

And so there are two words here -- 'senseless' and 'absurd' ('absurdity') -- but do they mark a distinction without a difference? or does 'senseless' = 'undefined', and 'absurd' = 'foolishness' = 'gross falsity'?

Without definitions -- i.e. without saying exactly what we mean by these words -- we have no way to distinguish sense from nonsense, meaning from meaningless language in philosophy. Our understanding drowns in a sea of unclarity. (This is the fundamental mistake that is made in philosophy: to ask about truth and falsity before asking about sense and nonsense; it is another instance of thinking you know what you don't know.)

The difficulty here -- the obstacle to seeing aright -- is that the expression -- i.e. combinations of words -- 'four years ago' is an expression that already has well-defined uses in our language, a concept-formation (PI II, xii, p. 230) that is maybe based on the very general fact that the world has existed for many, many years.

But the discussion bases itself on the supposition that the world began three years ago -- and by doing this it divorces the expression 'four years ago' from the context it which we know how to use that expression (or, in other words, its meaning). The trouble is that we think we still know the meaning of that expression despite its new, unfamiliar context.

The combinations of words 'one year ago' and 'two years ago' are defined in the context of the general fact of nature that the world began three years ago, but the combination of words 'four years ago' is not. The difficulty here is to recognize that the combination of words 'four years ago' is undefined = nonsense = meaningless in this context. Again, the combination, not the individual words themselves -- all three of which still have defined uses in the language -- is meaningless (cf. 'ago years four'). (To 'recognize' here means to 'see things in a new way'.)

The combination of words 'What happened four years ago?' is not "absurd" in the context of the discussion; it is nonsense -- i.e. an undefined combination of words (PI § 500). Because it is equivalent to trying to ask 'What happened before the beginning?'; the only response is: what part of 'beginning' don't you understand?

I myself don't care if it is "absurd" -- Since when has "foolishness" been a criterion in philosophy.[!] I only want to know whether it is sense or nonsense.

Grammatical possibility. It can be nonsense to ask what happened four years ago in the context of The world began 3 years ago -- without its also being nonsense to make the mistake of saying that the world began four years ago. And in the context of that mistake, it is not nonsense to ask what happened four years ago.

"But the question 'What happened four years ago?' does not appear to be mere sound without sense." That is nonetheless the best comparison to make for undefined combinations of words (And note that just because a combination of words has the form of a question does not give it the sense of one). It is the combination of sounds [-- words = spoken sounds --] that is sound without sense, not the individual words/sounds.

The rules of the game and grammar

Same sign, but different contexts -- and sense and nonsense depend on context. What happens here is that the rules of the game ("as in language-game" (cf. PI § 71)) get changed, and the rules of the game are what determine meaning, if we are using "grammar and sense and nonsense" to define the word 'meaning'.

As with the word 'nonsense', so too with the word 'absurdity', there is usage ambiguity, as the word 'absurd' sometimes does and sometimes does not mean "mere sound without sense". But we mustn't allow that ambiguity to blur the strict distinction between sense and nonsense that we have worked very hard to establish. Ambiguity can be averted by assigning a particular meaning to a word.

("Normally we use the words 'nonsense' and 'absurd' interchangeably, synonymously." That is true, but it is no justification for equivocation when philosophizing. That is why logic of language assigns particular meanings to the words 'nonsense' and 'absurd'. We want to get clear, not to contribute more obscurity: common practice is not the voice of God.)

If the world began 3 years ago, a joke could be made by asking about four years ago, by following a grammatical analogy which the rules of English syntax allows. (Cf. 'Where is the mind?' constructed by analogy to 'Where is the book?') This would be an example of a grammatical joke. (A grammatical joke is not an absurdity = gross foolishness/falsehood; it is nonsense: sound without meaning.)

And if there are no rules?

"The rules of the game ... are what determines meaning." But then suppose there are no rules (I mean, what we normally call rules and without any broadening of the concept 'rule')? Is the language nonsense, which it is if we make the rule that 'If there are no rules of grammar, then there is no meaning' -- despite "the appearance" that the language does convey meaning? Such a rule would be "metaphysical" -- i.e. it would be a proposition about "what meaning really is", despite, if we "keep to the appearances", it forcing us to acknowledge that there is "meaning without meaning" or "meaningless meaning".

[Cf. Wittgenstein and the definition of 'nonsense' in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which is an assigned meaning rather than a description of how we use that word (not merely "normally" but always in the context of sense and nonsense rather than absurdity).]

Grammar and forms of life

In Wittgenstein's logic of language, 'nonsense' = 'undefined' = 'grammarless', because by 'grammar' it means 'any explanation of meaning = use of language'. What belongs to grammatical explanation needn't have the form of rules -- only their use. Meaning what? -- what a does an explanation of meaning look like that "cannot" be given the form of rules -- i.e. Give examples.

Examples. I wrote about the concept 'beauty', that being able to use that word is a form of life (in the sense of "belonging to a life form"), as is being able to use the word 'humor' correctly. Wittgenstein: "But if anyone has not yet got the concepts, I shall teach him to use the words by means of examples and by practice" (PI § 208). But if he doesn't learn to play the game (as in "language-game"), then?

It seems clear that some of the concepts we have, we have because of the kind of creature we are -- and the names of these concepts (e.g. 'beauty', 'humor') are grammarless. "If a lion could talk" (PI II, xi, p. 223) -- if it could follow rules, then it could learn to use many words of our language; it could be taught to tell time e.g. Where there is a grammar, a use can be taught and mastered. And where there is not, ex hypothesi it cannot. (And so we can speak of "grammarless forms of life".)

[Neither Wittgenstein's method of grammar nor Socrates' method of common nature definition can define the word 'beauty' -- Each method has limits, but they are not therefore worthless. (I spoke before of "logics of language". Socratic definition is of course a grammar, an alternative to Wittgenstein's.)]

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Query: name a language which does not have a grammar.

That will depend on how broadly we want to define the word 'grammar'. (Words are tools; what work do we want to do with the word 'grammar?) Imagine a language consisting of nothing but single-word commands, none of which are ever used in combination. 'Go!', 'Come!', 'Run!' -- Do you want to call that a "language without a grammar"? It is certainly a language without syntax; nonetheless, each of its command-words is defined, and those definitions are what grammar describes, if by 'grammar' we mean 'any explanation of the use of language', as is Wittgenstein's jargon.

As it happens, that is not an entirely apt example, because the definitions of those particular words are rules of grammar, and in an apt example, they would not be. But it is an apt example if 'grammar' = 'syntax' only.

Query: is there a word that has no definition?

Cf. Is there "a deed without a name" (Macbeth, iv, 1)? For a deed may be described despite its not having a name. What are you calling a 'definition'? Can a description of use do the same work -- i.e. serve the same purpose, namely to give you an explanation of the word's meaning -- as a statement of rules would? But what are we calling a 'description of use'?

The concept 'description' cannot be extended indefinitely, not if the word 'description' is not to be nonsense. But nonetheless the concept 'description' is extremely fluid, even as concepts go; it would be hard to say where its limits are, where the limits to what we are calling a description would be. (Were my remarks about the word 'beauty' a description?)

Is it ever the case that a description of use cannot be rewritten -- i.e. put into the form of rules ("philosophical grammar")? Well, if "To imagine a language means to imagine a form of life" (PI § 19), there are "grammarless forms of life" -- i.e. forms of life (language) that cannot be put into rules.

The meaning of language (Humpty Dumpty)

Humpty Dumpty's words have meaning only after the fact: he speaks first and defines afterwards. But that only works as a language in Wonderland -- i.e. it doesn't work at all, because it also applies to the words in H.D.'s definitions -- their meaning is also determined by his whims.

[The connection between the concepts 'logic' and 'grammar' in Wittgenstein's jargon.]


Some does not imply all, not even in philosophy

Note: the following supplements the discussion Is Philosophy a Mistake?

I have always thought that Darwin was wrong: his theory ... hasn't the necessary multiplicity. (Recollections p. 160)

"It hasn't the necessary multiplicity" applies also to Wittgenstein's "SOME therefore ALL" in philosophy: for you cannot account for all philosophical questions with the thesis (theory) that philosophical questions are really only expressions of bewitchment (PI § 109) by language, of failing to distinguish between factual and conceptual investigations (Z § 458).

SOME therefore ALL is metaphysics, not logic.

Query: why does Wittgenstein say that philosophy's problems all began when "language goes on holiday"?
Query: all philosophical problems are problems of grammar.

That all (PI § 38) makes this a theory -- i.e. an insight in SOME cases generalized into a statement about ALL cases (and, because Wittgenstein does not state criteria for what would to count as an anomaly [demonstrating that SOME cases are NOT ...], it is a metaphysical theory or proposition). Either that or it is a tautology: "I am only calling questions or statements of that particular type 'philosophy'", or "I am only interested in that type of philosophical statement or question" ... but that will not have been Wittgenstein's intention, surely. But otherwise, it is the SOME to [therefore] ALL fallacy.

Does [or must, if this is a tautology of the type suggested in the paragraph above] all philosophy begin in the perplexity that is caused by [or, that issues from] conceptual-linguistic muddle? Is "how we should live" (the question of Ethics) a conceptual muddle -- or is it just not philosophy (according to Wittgenstein)?

"Philosophy is an activity for dissolving false problems [that are] hidden in language [problems that hide themselves in language]." (Cf. PI §§ 109, 464)

According to Wittgenstein's view "Philosophy consists of logic and metaphysics" (but does not include ethics). And that in metaphysics there are "false problems" can be shown with examples (as in Philosophy of Psychology's investigation of the notion of "private language"). But that all philosophy is "an activity for dissolving" such problems does not follow from those few examples.


Hippopotamus Grammar (Invisible)

Note: No, the following remarks are not about Wittgenstein, Russell and the imperceptible hippopotamus in the room [their differing views (according to Russell) about the verification of the proposition 'There is no hippopotamus in the room'], despite its misleading title, but about ....... The ether, this is Russell's hippopotamus in physics.

Query: confusion-pictures like is it a duck or rabbit.

The question: is it really a duck or a rabbit? is an example of metaphysics: it draws a logically possible picture (one among many) and says this one is really the truth. (Gestalt Shift)

Query: what is another expression used for the word 'point'?

Would 'location' or 'co-ordinates' or 'address in a geometric plane', do the same service in geometry as the word 'point'? And the service is the meaning (PI II, iv, p. 178). The word 'service' alludes to Wittgenstein's tool metaphor: if two tools are used to do the same work, then they are -- in that particular context -- the same tools.

Query: why does a point have no dimensions?

Because that is the way that tool, the word 'point', is defined in geometry -- because of the work its inventor wanted to use it to do. There is no other reason.

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How to stay stupid in philosophy

Or, How to stay forever confused both in philosophy and anywhere else language serves as the tool for thinking.

Query: indefinable vs undefinable - which is correct?

Both words are used by educated persons, and the words are synonymous. Sometimes they are used to mean 'hard or impossible to put into words', as in "I was deeply moved, but I can't describe in what way". However, those words never mean that in Wittgenstein's logic of language.

By the word 'concept' in logic we mean, if we mean anything, 'rules for using a word'; to say that an concept is indefinable is to say that it is impossible to state rules for using it, and that only means that the concept -- i.e. the word -- is meaningless, "mere sound without sense" like water drops falling from a roof ... if we are only willing to call a 'definition' a statement in rules (but then some words with a use in our language will be "meaningless", which is not how we use the word 'meaningless' normally).

I find this strange expression in the dictionary: "an abstract concept that seems indefinable". Or, in other words, "an abstract concept the meaning of which it seems impossible to say". (In this context at some point 'seems' must become 'is', if it is not to be nonsense; e.g. it doesn't "seem" that the word 'game' does not name a common nature. Permanently indeterminant meaning is no meaning.)

If 'abstract concept' = 'abstract meaning' -- and that does seem to be the point of the phrase "an abstract concept that seems indefinable", that notion is how to stay permanently confused in philosophy.

Couple all that with 'concept' = 'abstract object' [an imperceptible common nature or essence] = 'meaning of a word' and it becomes impossible to make an objective distinction between sense and nonsense.

(But in any case, the meaning of no word whatever is "the object the word stands for", even if there is an object for the word to be the common name or proper name of.)

Query: Wittgenstein - meaning as a superstition.

That the meaning of a word is the object the word stands for -- i.e. names -- whether visible or invisible ("abstract"). That is a false account of the grammar-logic of our language, and belief in that account of linguistic meaning is superstition. | The notion that the meaning of a word must be an abstract object is akin to superstition (word magic).

That the meaning of a common name is not the common nature it names is a way of defining the word 'meaning', a way of looking at language.

"Name of a person, place or thing"

Query: what's the name for a word that stands for a thing?

According to our textbooks, 'noun' = 'name of a person, a place, or anything else'. (That makes the concept 'noun' a dragnet [dragnet concept], a catch-all category, which limits its usefulness exclusively to form, because about meaning it contributes only ignorance.) It is an example of how to stay perplexed in philosophy, by asking the wrong questions -- because they are based on misconceptions, e.g. that "words stand for things". If you begin with that assumption, you will never find the way out of the language-trap ("fly-bottle").

Query: I think of piety as being ...

As if defining a word were making an unverifiable hypothesis about a natural phenomenon (about some "thing" -- as in "person, place or thing" -- named 'piety'). To give (i.e. to state) an "impressionistic meaning" is not to define a word but only to say what that word [that sound or mark on paper] suggests to you. "I think of piety as being [this, that or the other thing]" -- But what has that got to do with the definition of the word 'piety'? "This is what piety means to me" -- That is one meaning of the word 'meaning', but it is not one that be used to make an objective distinction between sense and nonsense, because the word 'piety' might suggest (or "mean") many different things to many different people -- and none of them (i.e. none of those "meanings") would be incorrect (i.e. nonsense).

Query: zero divided by zero - philosophy.

A profound question that is mere grammatical mystification, as if the combination of signs 'zero divided by zero' or '0/0' must somehow (I don't know how) have a meaning. One thinks: "Well, 'zero' is a defined mathematical sign -- i.e. it is a word we have uses for in mathematics, and so is 'divided by' or '/' -- i.e. the operator of division; and so therefore mustn't the combination of signs 'zero divided by zero' or '0/0' also have a meaning." But the relationship between the meaning of a sentence or phrase and the words it is composed of does not work that way: from that we have uses for individuals words -- for they are as a matter of fact words that belong to the English language, as e.g. 'zero' and 'divided by' are -- it does not follow that we have uses for just any combination of those words that syntax allows.

Cf. the child who presumes that its own marks on paper -- maybe it has learned no more than the letters of the alphabet and then put them together in a fanciful way -- must have some meaning if the marks (i.e. the letters joined together to form words) made by an adult do.

In mathematics don't ask for the meaning -- ask for the rule, beginning in this case with: Is there in mathematics any rule for how the combination of signs '0/0' is to be used? And that is a maths, not a philosophical question.

Query: what idea must one have in their mind to know what a word means - linguistics?

At the university we were given a book of which the author said its topic was: "How does an idea get from one mind to another mind? We are doing Cartesian linguistics." That is an example of a social science ["science", "if you want to be polite"], in this case linguistics, unable to distinguish between alchemy and science, between metaphysical pictures (What is "the mind"?) and logic (How do we use the word 'mind'?).

Logic of language is not concerned with anyone's "ideas", Cartesian or otherwise; private versus public, subjective versus objective phenomena -- There are many meanings of 'meaning', but not all can be used to make an distinction between sense and nonsense; logic's meaning of 'meaning' can be.

Philosophy does not come to an end when you leave the university: it is not a collection of notions you carry away with you from school and then base -- i.e. place at the foundations of -- the thinking of the rest of your life on. Philosophy is a lifetime of critical revision or it is a path up the garden (This is not to single Descartes out).

Sense and Meaning

Query: what distinguishes a word's sense from its meaning?

As if the "meaning" of a word were a hive of bees and its "sense" an individual bee ... But would that not make each bee "an essence reduced" and if not, then what need is there of the hive?

Query: Wittgenstein, knowing what a game is.

The sense is the meaning in a particular context (particular case), but must one be aware of other senses [i.e. ways in which a word is used] to use that word correctly: e.g. suppose you only knew of one game? So then, should we say: as if the meaning of a word were a hive of bees, and each bee were a sense of that word? Well, if we wanted to use the words 'meaning' and 'sense' to make this distinction: the class of all games is the 'meaning' of the word 'game/s', and individual games are 'senses' of that meaning. Does that metaphor-simile nonetheless suggest that 'meaning' = 'common nature'? Not if its meaning is explained, as I have done in this particular context. But otherwise it does suggest just that -- and so there is the danger of a misunderstood metaphor. (As we normally use the words 'meaning' and 'sense', those words are synonymous [i.e. equivalent in meaning], just as are 'nonsense' and 'meaningless'.)

But further. How many games can you name [are you familiar with/do you know]? Possibly quite a few. But can you name [are you familiar with/do you know] all the games that are played or that have been played or that will be played by human beings? Does that lack of knowledge of all members of the class named 'games' prevent you from using the word 'game' correctly? Does it mean that you don't know the meaning of the word 'game' if you can't list all the games?

[What do we mean by the expression 'to have a general idea of', a general idea of the meaning of a non-name-of-object word, e.g. a general idea of "what knowledge is" (Theaetetus 145e-146a)? Plato wants a general definition: what is the meaning of the common name? Wittgenstein: the meaning is not the common nature named by the common name, because most often there is no such nature (And so a different account must be given of the word's use). We say that we have a general idea of something when we can say many things about it, when we think we know our way around it more or less (orientated).]

We could call the revision of a concept (Wittgenstein's redefinition or extension of the concept 'grammar') a "conception" (or, maybe better, "re-conception"), or we might call the description of how we use a word -- we might call such an account -- a "conception". I, however, would not, because the word 'conception' suggest that the meaning of a word has a life of its own, ethereal and independent of us (cf. BB p. 27-28), something we try to pull down from the sky but which remains elusive. Contrast that picture of language with: words as tools we use to do work; words have no life except as instruments (They have no life of their own, such as Plato's Forms or the figures in Geometry's Heaven would have).

[Discussion: Is there an objective distinction between sense and nonsense? What does the grammar of the word 'game' show for Plato's Socrates and for Wittgenstein?]


Ramsey on the nature of the propositions of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

On Wittgenstein's theory [in the TLP? which was the work Ramsey discussed in Austria with Wittgenstein] a general proposition is equivalent to a conjunction in its instances, so that the kind of fact asserted by a general proposition is not essentially different from that asserted by a conjunction of atomic propositions. But the symbol for a general proposition means its meaning in a different way from that in which the symbol for an elementary proposition [i.e. a proposition that "asserts the existence of an atomic fact" (TLP 4.21)] means it, because the latter contains names [of atomic objects, which it appears are unique individuals. The TLP does not seem to discuss common names] for all the things it is about, whereas the general proposition's symbol contains only a variable standing for all its values at once. (Mathematical Logic (1926), in The Foundations of Mathematics and other Logical Essays, ed. Braithwaite, 1931, p. 77)

If I understand this, which I don't imagine I do, 'A book is on the table' is comparable, although it isn't one, to an elementary proposition, whereas 'An x is on the y' would be a general proposition, where e.g. the variable x may have e.g. the value 'book' or 'paper' or 'pencil', and y the value 'table' or 'desk' or 'shelf' etc. Something like this.

Each word of an atomic [i.e. elementary] proposition is a name that stands for an object [i.e. a logical atom or sense datum, I think], that object being the name's "meaning". But what those objects the name stands for are is a matter for the sciences to determine, apparently, based on Ramsey's account, the science of experimental psychology. For Ramsey lists the following examples of "psychological terms": 'meaning', 'defining', 'naming', 'asserting' (p. 76-77). He also includes 'belief' in this list [Cf. 'A believes that p is the case' is a "proposition in psychology" (TLP 5.541)]. (Note that in Wittgenstein's later logic of language, none of those words is a psychological term: the "grammar" (part of speech) of those words is not like the grammar of 'pain', 'anger', 'love' e.g. in philosophy of psychology.)

Atomic propositions [elementary propositions] are rather like atoms themselves, both the atoms of physics and the logical type [logical atoms] -- for no one has ever seen an atomic proposition. (Cf. PI § 48 (the remark with the color patch squares / absolute sense data).)


Is the philosopher a physician? (Hippocrates)

In the chapter on "The Law", section 1, in the Hippocratic writings (tr. Francis Adams) it says about those days: "... there is no punishment connected with the practice of medicine ... except disgrace, and that does not hurt those who are familiar with it."

And is that not still the case in the Humanities, for what punishment does an ignorant or incompetent teacher suffer. What punishment did I suffer for incorrectly attributing -- and this for several years -- the words of Ramsey (which were a parenthetical remark Ramsey apparently wrote to himself) to Sraffa (as a criticism Sraffa had directed at Wittgenstein in the discussions with Wittgenstein alluded to in the Preface of the Philosophical Investigations)?

Comparing translations, unclear and clear, forceful and ineffectual ("Aphorisms" i, 1). Other than "the Art long", none of this applies to philosophy:

Life is short, and Art long; the crisis fleeting; experience perilous, and decision difficult. The physician must not only be prepared to do what is right himself, but also to make the patient, the attendants, and externals co-operate. (tr. Adams)

Life is short and the Art long, the occasion urgent, experience deceptive, and decision difficult; yet not only must the physician be ready to do his duty but patient, attendants, and circumstances must co-operate if there is to be a cure. (tr. OCD 2e)

Also from the chapter on "The Law": "... inexperience is a bad treasure, and a bad fund to those who possess it" (Section 4, tr. Adams).


Why seek to have what is worthless. But is what Socrates seeks -- worthless?

Query: what does ignorance is not a virtue mean?

Ignorance is the opposite of wisdom = knowledge in Ethics -- i.e. the words 'ignorance' and 'knowledge' are antitheses [Note.--There are differences in use between the Greek and the English words 'sophia' and 'wisdom']. According to the Greeks, wisdom is a human virtue -- i.e. an excellence proper to or defining of man. But is ignorance therefore a vice ('vice' is the opposite of 'virtue')? Is it like drunkenness or envy e.g.?

Query: if human wisdom is in truth worth nothing, then why does Socrates think we should lead the examined life?

First, what are we talking about? (1) 'wisdom' = 'knowledge of how we should live our life', (2) 'knowledge' = 'ability to give an account of what we know to others' or, specifically in Ethics, "define" the excellence or excellences [virtues] proper to man: for according to Plato's Socrates "if we do not even know what courage is" (the limits of Know thyself: our lack of a universal standard to apply to the particular case), then our wisdom is truly worthless. (3) Implicit is the rhetorical question: And that which we do not know -- namely, Ethics = knowledge of how we should live -- should we not seek to know? (4) The "unexamined life" is the life of the man who thinks he knows what he does not know -- namely in this context, how we should live our life.

"Why seek to have what is of no worth?" But is that what Socrates says to seek? Questions: is our wisdom only "worthless" because it does not yet exist; and does it not yet exist only because we do not recognize our ignorance -- i.e. because we mistake our ignorance (our not-knowing, but presuming that we do know) for wisdom?

Is this correct: that we must seek to become wise, and that the first step towards wisdom is to discover our own ignorance?

Or are there no further steps in "the examined life" past the discovery of our own ignorance? because, Is it possible for man to be wise (according to Socrates' understanding of the words of Apollo's oracle, as that understanding is stated in Plato's Apology 23b)?

[According to Plato, wisdom is not possible "while we keep to the body" in which our soul is exiled from the Truth. But that is a Platonic, not a Socratic doctrine.]

Is the 'examined life', or the life of Philosophy, the way of life that begins with seeking to know [discover] "the state of one's own mind" (Epictetus, Discourses i, 26)? Or is that Philosophy's beginning and end?

Augustine: "he only errs who thinks he knows what he does not know": presumption -- presuming to know what one does not know -- or, over-reaching oneself -- is a theme of Greek tragedy. Not knowing oneself -- (presumption and its companion arrogance).

Query: Socrates' mission was to make men aware of their ignorance; we do not know what we think we know.

The "examined life" is the life that is aware of its ignorance, of the limits of its knowledge; it is the life that does not presume to know what it does not know. (Why should I want not to think I know what I don't know? I sense that I am trying to answer the question, Why should I want to be happy?) Even if discovering your own ignorance is all "the examined life" amounts to, that in itself is worthwhile and if it is the greatest wisdom man can have, then it is nonetheless worth having. For we act on the basis of what we believe we know, and the alternative to the examined life is the life of the man who acts on the basis of his own presumption of knowing what he does not know -- That way of living is "the unexamined life", the life that does harm both to oneself and to others (Xenophon, Memorabilia iv, 6, 1).

Finally, 'ignorance' contrasts with 'wisdom': It is human ignorance mistaken for wisdom that is "worthless".

Does Socrates tell you to seek something worthless, the very opposite of wisdom -- namely, ignorance? Of course not. In the image I have made for myself of Socrates, Socrates is the embodiment of the application of thoroughgoing reason to how we should live our life (knowledge of which we call 'wisdom' or 'ethics'). Thoroughgoing reason is the tool of philosophy called 'logic'. And that tool is the connection between Socrates and Wittgenstein, a connection that goes no further, however.


Philosophy as righting misconceptions and misperceptions (More logic of language clarifications)

Ground I covered long ago -- strangers' queries may refine or alter my earlier views. And I often learn from other people's misconceptions, by trying to show in exactly which way they are misconceptions. If they are misconceptions.

Query: combination of words to get new meaning.

The power of familiar words in new combinations to suggest new meanings, new senses, to us.

When Wittgenstein says that he is not concerned with "nuance" (cf. PG i § 44, p. 87), I think his statement can be applied to being concerned with subtle differences in feelings. For example, to describe how we use the word 'hope' or 'appreciation of music'. To state what a word's grammar is, in logic of language, does not require an account of all the subtle differences experienced by individuals within themselves, if those differences are not publicly definable (i.e. in rules). And it is not that type of nuance that I am referring to here, apropos of new combinations of words suggesting new "meanings".

The thing about rules: they are essentially public.

Query: Wittgenstein and things made in words.

"Things made of words" versus "We make for ourselves pictures of the facts" (cf. TLP 2.1). Thus e.g. the picture of the words 'elves', 'ideas', 'mind' as the names of invisible objects conjured up by our language [the surface grammar of our language] alone.

We make for ourselves concepts ["abstractions"/"abstract objects"] of thin air [out of thin air], pictures -- but these are not pictures of anything sense-able [i.e. perceptible]. We make for ourselves models out of words alone: we make for ourselves meanings (where 'meanings' = "pictures") made of words [or, made out of words], never asking ourselves how those words are actually used in the language [how we use those words], whether or not their part of speech is to name.

Query: words as tools Wittgenstein.

On the one hand. Exactly: 'as', not 'are', because this is a simile (metaphor, comparison). But on the other hand, the boundary of the concept 'tool' is very fluid -- i.e. the things we call -- [classify (In this instance, 'to classify' is 'to define', at least in the sense of 'to contribute to an account of the grammar of that word')] -- tools as opposed to only being like tools is not well-defined ('to define' = 'to set the limits to').

Query: there is one danger that we must guard against, Socrates said.

But not the one Plato says in Phaedo 89c-d, namely, the danger of becoming misologic.

Rather: the one danger we must always guard against in philosophy according to Socrates is: thinking we know what we do not know.

For the pictures we make for ourselves of reality: "Make sure you really do paint only what you see!" (CV p. 68). Because, according to Wittgenstein, "Grammar casts a shadow on reality", which is a nice metaphor [about the surface vs. depth grammar distinction], but whether it was Wittgenstein's own, I don't know.

Query: circle square combination, shape name.

This suggests another possible meaning -- i.e. use -- for the combination of words -- 'square circle' or 'round square': Do you mean a circle drawn (with four tangent points) inside a square, or a square drawn around a circle, e.g.?

Query: don't ask if it is true; ask what does it mean. Wittgenstein.

The first mistake philosophers make, according to Wittgenstein -- whose "new method in philosophy" is to ask about meaning rather than truth -- is to ask whether a proposition is true before asking whether that proposition is sense or nonsense. (Although it may have more, a proposition cannot have less than three values: true, false, and nonsense.)

Query: all words are names. Wittgenstein.

In the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus all words, if they are not "nonsense", are names of "atomic objects" (although thus the meaning of the word 'name' in the TLP is unclear). Question: Then are words that are not names "mere sound without sense" like the noise made by a tinker's hammering? (In Wittgenstein's later account of sense and nonsense, non-name words are not nonsense -- but what effect that account has on Wittgenstein's later view of the world-picture of the TLP, I don't know.)

Logical Positivism and Nonsense

Query: how does Wittgenstein's conception of nonsensical propositions differ from that of Logical Positivism?

Wittgenstein's "nonsense" conveys (or can convey) meaning (i.e. is not meaningless), whereas Logical Positivism's "nonsense" is meaningless because to its understanding (or misunderstanding) of language: unverifiable proposition = meaningless proposition, and 'nonsense' = 'meaningless'. ("When is nonsense not nonsense?" When the word 'nonsense' is defined in different ways.)

For the Logical Positivists, 'nonsense = meaningless'; whereas for Wittgenstein of the TLP, 'nonsense' ≠ 'meaningless'.

For the earlier Wittgenstein "nonsense" may have meaning: sometimes it may be "mere sound without sense", but not always; whereas for the Logical Positivists, it was always.

But if in the TLP 'nonsense' ≠ 'meaningless', then does it, when it is not mere noise, mean 'foolishness'?

Different "conceptions" -- different conceptions of what -- of "nonsense"? (Thus my mind rebels against this language.) Is there a phenomenon 'nonsense' to have a conception (a picture?) of? They focused on different meanings of 'meaning', the Logical Positivists choosing one meaning -- not that they thought their choice arbitrary: they thought they had found the truth about what gives language meaning (cf. someone who is convinced that the meaning of a word must be its corresponding thought in the mind), just as Wittgenstein had thought when he wrote the TLP -- and Wittgenstein chose another. Both were thinking metaphysically: neither thought they were only choosing one convention rather than another; both thought they had found the truth about language meaning: For both the Logical Positivists and Wittgenstein their definitions of 'nonsense' were analytic propositions, "insights", not verbal definitions.

"Philosophical thinking begins with a vague notion." Sometimes. The word 'conception', like the word 'concept', is a very blunt instrument of thought ("too vague by far", Wittgenstein called it).

The "verification principle" (theory of language meaning)

... whenever we ask about a sentence, 'What does it mean?' ... we want a description of the conditions under which the sentence will form a true proposition, and of those which will make it false. The meaning of a word or a combination of words is, in this way, determined ... (Moritz Schlick, "Meaning and verification," Philos. Rev., 45 [1936], p. 341

Schlick adopted Wittgenstein's use of the word 'grammar'. Thus the "description" he asks for is "a set of rules", "instructions" for using a sentence, the criterion of truth and falsity without which, Logical Positivism presumes, the sentence is meaningless. But Wittgenstein's response is that the grammar of propositions is not that way (The "general [i.e. essential] form of a proposition" is not "This is how things stand if it is true" (TLP 4.5)), but rather if you know that a proposition is essentially unverifiable (Essence here belongs to grammar (i.e. definition) (PI § 371)) you know something important about the rules for using that proposition, not that the proposition is necessarily meaningless (although in some cases an unverifiable proposition will be meaningless (Cf. Heinrich Hertz about the question 'What is force?')).

Query: religious language is meaningless. Wittgenstein.

According to the TLP it is "nonsense", but only in the TLP's sense of the word 'nonsense'. The Logical Positivists appear not to have understood Wittgenstein but to have taken him to mean "absolute nonsense" (mere sound without sense), as if the TLP's criterion of sense and nonsense were "the verification principle" -- i.e. that any proposition for which there is no ultimate method of verification by means of sense perception is meaningless -- although all the TLP says is that any proposition that is not a statement of natural science is "nonsense". But "nonsense" that can convey meaning is not absolute nonsense. And thus language as it appears in religion both is and is not "meaningless". (There are many meanings of 'meaning'; we use that word in a vast variety of ways.)

Query: what does the Sophist Thrasymachus in Plato's Republic believe justice is?

But note that Thrasymachus says, and Plato agrees, that it does not matter whether Thrasymachus believes it or not, for either way -- whether he believes it or not, or whether it is really what he thinks or not -- his thesis must stand or fall to reason in argument, i.e. Socratic dialectic (Republic 349a-b).

If we use the English word 'justice' in the usual way, then does not Thrasymachus' original thesis belong to sociology rather than to philosophy? As if to say: The rulers condition the ruled to believe that the rulers' interests are [also] the interests of justice (whether those interests are the same or not).

But that is not what Thrasymachus' thesis is in Plato's work, which appears to concern -- what is for us -- a foreign concept, perhaps belonging to the ancient Greeks or perhaps belonging only to Plato, as his invention.


"Wittgenstein's language-game theory"

Note: the partial background to these remarks is M. O'C. Drury's discussion of scientific theory, of how theories are distinct from facts.

Query: why does Wittgenstein's language-game theory provide the best understanding of religious language-games?

Now, that you can't say, either that in Wittgenstein's later work there is a "theory of language" or that his comparison of language to a game is useful for understanding how language is used in religion -- or, as to the query, whatever a religious language-game is when it's at home. As if no one had ever noticed before Wittgenstein that language is used differently in religious propositions than in testable (verifiable/falsifiable) hypotheses.

What could be said is that Wittgenstein's comparison is a corrective to the too-narrow "theory of language meaning" put forth by Logical Positivism -- and indeed also by the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus -- because, after all, forms of expression that have a use (i.e. that convey meaning) in our language are not what anyone calls 'meaningless'.

As to the word 'theory'. Are we going to call every account -- whether it offers a description or an explanation -- a theory? No, because by 'theory' we do not mean a simple description of things in plain view (or "the facts" as we normally use the word 'fact'), but something added to the facts -- but what? In philosophy/metaphysics, a way to account for why those facts are the facts. (For example, why do we have such-and-such concept -- are there general facts of nature that can explain the formation of that concept?)

So then is it correct to call Wittgenstein's concept 'language-game' a "theory of meaning"? Does that concept explain why we do what we do -- or does it only describe what we do -- i.e. 'describe' in the sense of 'make a comparison'?

Of course, a comparison is a way of looking at things and a way of looking at things is "something added to the facts" -- but do we want, therefore, to call comparisons by the name 'theory' as well? Well, we can if we find that helpful to the understanding of something or other. -- What is important, however, is to always make it clear why we are calling a thing a theory.

Because treating the word 'theory' as a "jack-of-all-trades" word (-- Cf. Guthrie characterizes the word 'logos' as a "maid-of-all-work" for the Greeks --) is careless thinking, unbecoming in philosophy.

As is using Wittgenstein's concept 'language-game' carelessly, for which see the next query.

Query: vagueness of "language-game".

It is careless to use the expression 'language-game' in ways that Wittgenstein never did: e.g. "autonomous language-games". -- What's that when its in Wittgenstein's home? An unwelcome guest at best. (Wittgenstein uses the expression 'language games' in three specific ways: (1) primitive language-games, (2) parts of speech, (3) proposition types. Of the three, possibly the third may help in understanding how language is used in religion.)

We cannot blithely speak of language as used in the various regions of our life as "autonomous" in the sense of answerable to no one and to nothing for their meaning. As Frederick Copleston said about the propositions of the theologians: there must be some standard of intelligibility that the theologian's propositions must meet if those propositions are not to be nonsense.

The word 'game' is defined as 'rules of the game'

What interests logic about a game is its rules (PI § 108): where there are no rules, there also are no games. And that is where Wittgenstein's "language-game" -- i.e. his comparison [metaphor] of using language to playing a game -- is unworkable, as is his logic of language -- because his logic defines 'meaning' defined as 'rules of grammar' (Those rules are [what] an explanation of meaning [states]).

Query: Wittgenstein's language-game theory provides the best understanding of religious language.

That is not philosophy, because philosophy does not amount to adducing support for a thesis. The philosophical query is: Does Wittgenstein's language-game metaphor make the meaning of language as it is used in religious rituals, prayer and belief clear? For maybe it does not.

The notion of "autonomous language-games" which escape our common standard of grammar and sense and nonsense does not belong to Wittgenstein's logic of language. To say that "my normal technique of understanding language abandons me" (LC p. 55) in the case of e.g. someone saying that he believes in a Last Judgment is not to suggest that there is some other technique. It is to say that the word 'believe' is not used here the way it is used when belief has defined practical consequences.

It's true that Wittgenstein says that "to describe a language is to describe a way of life" (cf. PI § 19) -- but is the reverse true, that to describe a way of life is to describe a language-game (whenever the way of life involves language)? Does the comparison of using language to playing games make the way language is used in religion clearer -- if we are defining 'game' in terms of rules -- because in the case of language use in religion, what are those rules?

How do I know that two people mean the same when each says he believes in God? (CV p. 85)

If there were rules of the game in this case, then those rules would tell us whether the two people mean the same thing or not. But here, according to Wittgenstein, when we describe this way of life we are not giving an account of language rules. [On the other hand, can't we apply Russell's theory of descriptions to this? Or is that not the meaning of 'meaning' Wittgenstein is alluding to here?]

Religious belief belongs to a distinct way of life, one about which, "We can only describe and say, human life is like that" -- but that does not mean that to describe that way of life is to describe game-like activities. Where there are no rules of the game, there are no rules of the game, and yet human beings live that way too.

Query: simple meaning for the word 'piety'.

Why can't all meanings, all explanations of meaning, be simple? Is it that 'piety' is an example of a word where "If a lion could talk", he would not understand us? (Schweitzer, 'Piety', and J.S. Bach.) This is a question, not an answer, about the concept 'piety'.

Query: is there a word which means able to tell the time?

The pattern of "being able to tie one's own shoes", of being able to do something. This is another instance, I think, of how if you want to know the meaning of a word, you should ask how its use is taught to us -- and not as if that teaching were a ladder you could afterwards throw away, no longer needing examples because you have "somehow abstracted the essence" of telling time.

For if you wanted to teach a child to tell time (and the child was not blind), your instruction would include drawings of the sun and the moon in the sky, of daylight and night. That belongs to our concept 'time'. And what then of Bertrand Russell's "language of educated people"? There is no essence of time; and that a physicist tells [measures] time in a different way [using different techniques] from the way a farm worker tells the time (by looking at the sky) shows this.

Here again you can talk about ways of life and the way language is woven into them (PI § 7), and here there are rules of game -- "as in language-game" -- but there aren't in every use of language/way of life.

Query: Theaetetus - the correct notion of anything must include the differentness.

According to Aristotle's account of Socrates' method, a Socratic definition must state what all things called by the same name have in common and what it is that makes them -- i.e. that class of things -- different from everything else. That "differentness" is defining because, Plato says, that in some cases a common name will not be unique to a common nature. And so without knowing that "differentness" we could not know which names are unique and which are not. All names that are defined by Socrates' two-fold standard will name the same unique Form (or Pattern).

And that common nature will be unchanging ("fixed from everlasting to eternity") because, according to Plato (from Heraclitus), otherwise it could not be knowable. And further it seems that we have some pre-knowledge of these Forms or Patterns. For if, for example, we had never known the Forms 'courage', 'temperance', 'wisdom', 'piety', or 'justice', words for which we are unable to state Socratic definitions, then how is it that we could we recognize instances of them? (Cf. the class of things named 'games' for which there seems to be no defining common nature.)

All metaphors compare A to B, but only similes compare A to B using the words 'like' or 'as'. That is what differentiates similes from all other metaphors. That "differentness" shows us that 'simile' is the unique name of a common nature and therefore the name of a Form. We begin with something in common -- namely that all metaphors are comparisons -- and then we look for defining (in contrast to non-essential) differences.

That may be in the neighborhood of what Plato is talking about, although he seems to set only one criterion for knowing a thing -- namely, being able to say ("put into words") in what way "the thing one is asked about differs from everything else" (Theaetetus 208c, 209a). But there is another criterion -- namely, having "a right notion of a thing" (208e). Thus, if you do not know both that the sun is "a heavenly bodies that goes round the earth" and that it is "the brightest of the heavenly bodies that go round the earth", which is its "differentness", then you do not know what the sun is (208c-d). A simile is a comparison, but there are various kinds of comparisons, and so we must be able to differentiate similes from all other kinds of comparisons, if we are to know what a simile is (i.e. be able to define the word 'simile').


Finding a way forward by not asking that question ...

For many years there was a gap in our door, allowing in cold or warm drafts. For many years I pondered the problem, but so long as I focused on the door itself I could see no solution. But as soon as I turned my attention to the door-frame instead, I saw a solution.

The great rock in the path

In the old days in Russia when roads were made by manual labor, they ran into a huge rock in their way. The engineers were baffled. They could not possibly remove a rock that large. But then someone suggested that rather than lift the rock out of their way, why not dig a hole under the rock for the rock to fall into? And that was what they did. They lowered the rock rather than removed it.

As long as they had focused on how they could lift the huge stone to pull it out of the way, they could see no solution. But as soon as they turned their attention to lowering the stone, they saw a solution. That seems to me what Kant suggests Copernicus did (although more modestly maybe).

... the words Professor Fuse often addressed to students working for examinations: "When you cannot solve a problem, think of the contrary." (Takashi Nagai, The Bells of Nagasaki [1984], tr. Johnston (Anthony Clarke, 1987), iii, p. 25)

Philosophical Redirections

What is an example of this in philosophy? What Wittgenstein called his new method in philosophy, of setting aside the question of truth and falsity and asking about grammar and sense and nonsense instead. ["My new method in philosophy leaves aside the question of truth and asks about meaning instead" (CV (1998 rev. ed.) [MS 105 46 c: 1929].) So long as we ask "Is this proposition true?" we see no solution. But as soon as we see that a proposition -- i.e. a combination of words appearing to assert a fact -- can have three (rather than only two) values, namely, true, false, and nonsense, we may begin to see a way forward.

Another example is Wittgenstein's seeing that defining 'word meaning' as 'the essence of the thing named by the word' has failed philosophy (BB p. 19-20), and therefore that 'word meaning' needs to be defined elsewise -- i.e. not "ontologically" (i.e. as essences, common natures, known by introspection) but conventionally (i.e. by public rules for the use of words).


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