Friday, August 16, 2013

She has five toes

I've been thinking more about Reshef's comment:
Is what you are saying, then, that factual language has all the ethics we need in it already?

If so, then what do you make of this, at least apparent, difference: Suppose someone asks me how many books I have on my shelf, to decide how many boxes I need to pack my office, and I say "I have five." Compare this to looking at the toes of a newborn and counting them and saying "She has five." 

This is not a difference between factual and ethical, but it seems to me that the wonder is there in the second case, and it is not there in the first. At least to me it feels that there is a deep difference of grammar, or a of point, between the two utterances.

Is Wittgenstein recommending that we say everything in the second full-of-wonder kind of way? And if not, is there a room here for a distinction?
I think the answer to the first question is Yes, although of course much depends on what we mean by "factual language." I mean something like ordinary language, language whose meaning can be explained or is quite clear. (Or I want to mean that. Am I cheating?)

One thing I want to say about the "I have five"/"She has five" cases is that these sentences could be used in various ways, even sticking to the examples involving numbers of books and numbers of toes. "I have five books!" could be said with great excitement by a Robinson Crusoe anxious that he would lose his mind without company or books. (A silly example, perhaps, but Chesterton recommends thinking of all that exists as if we were Crusoe, and his attitude toward the world has been likened to Wittgenstein's.) On the other hand, one can also imagine a tired nurse doing a standard check of a newborn and reporting that, yet again, this one has five toes on each foot just like all the others without the slightest trace of wonder.

So what is the difference? I'm imagining a loving parent looking at the baby and doing a kind of inventory: she's got a nose, and two eyes, and two hands, and ... But the point is not to report facts. It is a reveling in the facts. Does this make it nonsense? I don't think so. There is no great mystery about what the parent is saying. It's a lot like Hooray! Even if they want to talk about the miracle of birth or life, they still are not going so far as to talk about wondering at the existence of the world. They are wondering at one thing in the world. This is love, isn't it? Maybe there's a problem for my position here: what is love? I won't try to answer that now.

Is Wittgenstein recommending that we say everything in a full-of-wonder kind of way? He certainly doesn't say so, and it would seem like a weird thing to say. But on the other hand, how would we talk if we took Chesterton's Crusoe-attitude, or agreed with Wittgenstein that everything is a gift from God? How would a good actor playing Father Zossima (or Jesus or the Buddha or whoever you like) speak? Not with an exclamation point or "Wow!" at the end of every sentence, certainly, but maybe not the same way I speak. Thankfully it doesn't really matter. If we live in wonder we will speak however we speak. And if we don't, it's our loss. What Wittgenstein would have thought is neither here nor there.

Reshef's next set of questions was this:
So, to say something with an ethical intention is to say something that uses normal vocabulary, but uses it in a way that somehow charges it with special meaning?

Also, what would make a sentence nonsense: (1) the vocabulary it uses, or (2) the intention (or lack thereof) with which the vocabulary is used, or (3) something else?

Part of what I'm not sure I understand--if that's what you mean--is how there might be logical room for using the same words with a different, ethical, intention.
I don't really like the sound of special meaning, but the answer might be Yes, depending on exactly what terms like "special meaning" and "ethical intention" mean. I don't think that ethics requires a special vocabulary, so my inclination is to say Yes. Here's a possible example of using the same words with an ethical and with a non-ethical intention. Take the words "You'll kill him." If two people are debating what to do about someone who has been causing them problems they might quickly agree that this person needs killing, and then it might become clear that one of them has the better chance of success. At this point one says to this other: "You'll kill him." It's just saying out loud the rational conclusion of their conversation, given their goals, etc. In another case I might be beating a prisoner to get information from him, but he isn't being very forthcoming and I hit him harder. Seeing that I am behaving this way, and hoping to stop me, someone might say "You'll kill him" to point out the danger of my committing murder. This might be motivated by a desire to avoid trouble with the police, but it might also be motivated simply by a desire to prevent murder. That, I take it, would be an ethical intention. Same words, different context, different intention. But there is no need to refer to human rights or moral duties or higher pleasures or anything of that sort. In fact that kind of talk would be unlikely to have the desired effect. "You'll kill him" is an ordinary sentence that can be used for different purposes, one of which is trying to get someone to stop what they are doing. There is nothing absolute or mysterious about that. It isn't nonsense

What nonsense is is hard to define, I think. In the Lecture on Ethics Wittgenstein refers repeatedly to what is obvious, to common ground, to the common sense of a word, to perfectly good and clear sense, and so on. Nonsense might best be understood as what cannot be translated into terms of this kind. So what makes a sentence nonsense would be neither the vocabulary used nor the intention but something else--the impossibility of its being explained in ordinary language. But I can't define 'ordinary' in any precise way. Perhaps this is a problem, but the position seems to be inherently non-technical, imprecise. It depends on appeal to common ground and what's obvious. And perhaps anything that relies on that kind of appeal can only be defended to one small audience at a time, or needs to avoid dogmatism completely.    

What about other possible objections to what I've been saying? Here's something I wrote in an email recently:
I'm not convinced yet that "Cruelty is bad" is really nonsense. I can imagine a military leader urging his troops to believe that cruelty is necessary, perhaps as a means to a desirable end. Or someone giving relationship advice suggesting that sometimes one has to be cruel to be kind. And I think Nietzsche advocates cruelty at some point. These are all different cases, but in each of them isn't it possible to imagine someone responding, "But cruelty is bad!"? This would be a rejection of the advice given (or a suggestion that 'cruelty' can't really be the right word), and perhaps a reminder of commonsense ethics. It doesn't seem like nonsense unless one has a theory of nonsense according to which this kind of thing counts as nonsense, [...]. I can also imagine, I think, a philosopher going step-by-step through an argument designed to show that something or other is wrong, and getting to the conclusion that X is cruel, only to follow this with the unnecessary "And cruelty is bad" for the sake of completeness or just as a joke. Either way, again, the word 'nonsense' doesn't seem quite right. 

Secondly, I wonder about other kinds of propositions that one might use or encounter in ethics. Not "cruelty is bad" or "murder is wrong" but, say, "abortion is wrong" or "no matter what the case may be, it is always best to maximize good consequences." There are also less obviously evaluative claims, like "water-boarding is torture". These all seem more debatable and less redundant than "cruelty is bad."  
How would I respond to my recent self? In the first part of the first paragraph that I just quoted I give various things that "Cruelty is bad:" might mean, or that someone might mean by these words. If they mean any of these things then the words have a meaning. And so they aren't nonsense in the sense I've been talking about here. They aren't attempts to articulate anything absolute or beyond the world. In the philosopher example I think "cruelty is bad" means something like "we all agree that cruelty is bad." It is a statement of fact, not of ethics. If it were meant to express an absolute value then it would be neither funny nor redundant.

I'll go through the other three examples one by one. "Abortion is wrong"--this could mean that abortion is never a good idea prudentially, but it probably more often means something like "abortion is unjust" or "abortion ought to be illegal." In the "there oughta be a law" sense it probably isn't nonsense. Otherwise it might be. People do talk a lot of nonsense about abortion, e.g. comparing it with murder without thinking for a second that it ought to be treated like murder, i.e. saying things they don't mean. I would call that nonsense. And claims that it violates the rights of the fetus might turn out to be nonsense too, depending on whether this talk of rights, and the attribution of rights to a fetus, and so on, can be explained. If they just mean "I don't like it" or something like that, then that's a statement of fact. So that's OK.

"It's always best to maximize good consequences"--there are things to be explained here, perhaps most obviously 'best'. If it can be explained, OK. If not, there's a problem. But if the sentence is just a report of the speaker's love of consequentialism then that's a factual statement and not nonsense.

"Water-boarding is torture"--this is perhaps most likely to be said in a discussion about whether people like the CIA should carry out water-boarding. It could mean something like, "water-boarding naturally belongs in the same category as the use of thumb-screws and the rack." As a statement about similarities it looks like  a fact to me. There is also a history of people, including the US Government, I believe, objecting to the use of water-boarding by other nations as torture. Or it could be a statement of fact about the speaker's position. If it's meant to be something else, though, then it does start to sound like nonsense. That is, I don't know what else it might mean.

I hope I haven't contradicted too much of what I said in my last two posts. I also hope I haven't defended them in a way that removes all interesting content from them. But please feel free to point it out if I have.

26 comments:

  1. if this is far afield pls feel free to ignore it but to the degree that I am communicating anything to another person with the hope/intention of generating some particular
    response/co-operation on that person's part isn't there always already an ethical aspect to such gestures?
    -dmf

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    1. That sounds right. I'd like to say there's an ethical aspect to everything, but that would be asking for trouble, i.e. inviting objections with difficult counter-examples. If there is an ethical aspect or dimension to everything, or just to all uses of language, then this is one problem with the fact/value distinction. If there are no neutral facts then with what are values supposed to contrast? But also, and this is more what I have been focusing on, what value can value judgments unrelated to any facts have? And what meaning can they even have? If facts are already value-laden, or if they just have the potential to be so, who needs (other) values?

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  2. You talk of reveling in facts, and this seems to me connected to what is right now happening in Larz Herzberg’s blog, in which he mentions what I think we can describe as another similar kind of attitude, or set of attitudes, towards well-known facts. As you formulate the examples there: “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?” – These two cases look similar to me. My inclination is to say that in both we have a similar kind of wonder towards well-known facts, even if wonder here takes different forms (reveling and astonishment, or whatever). Am I connecting to unrelated things?

    My question is about the grammar of such wonders. In case you also sense the similarity, I would like to ask about your saying that reveling in the facts in this case is not nonsense. What is the criterion in this case for something having sense? Is it enough that it is the kind of thing we say ordinarily? Does nonsense always have to sound weird? Might nonsense have the appearance of sense? Might it be possible that some things that people say quite ordinarily are nevertheless nonsense? And if that’s possible, then what exactly is the grammar of this wondering at the fact—this reveling in the facts, astonishment at the facts, or whatever?

    Is it a legitimate type of wonder? If someone said, for instance, “Did the young man with an open future that I used to be really turn into this person,” would it be appropriate to say “I’m quite sure you are, but, you know, alien abduction is always a possibility”? Would that not be missing the whole point of the wonder—that is, missing the wonder, taking it to be an honest question? But if it would, if it’s not an honest question, then what answer is there to someone who so wonders at such well-known facts? Is there even supposed to be an answer? And if not, then—and here is this question again—is it a legitimate type of wonder in the first place?

    There is a worry—a closely related worry—with your “You’ll kill him” example. The worry is that what allows you to say that the sentence is not nonsense might be the fact that there is a non-ethical use of the same words. This context confers an “air of legitimacy” on those words. The worry is, though, that theses words being sense is not guaranteed once and for all. It is not that once you find a context in which they make some sense, you can go on to trust that they are meaningful in all other contexts. So the question I think you need to answer is whether in the ethical context, when the words are used to make a person look (wonder?) at what they are doing, those words make sense or not. And the fact that words are so used ordinarily, or the fact that the words in such context don’t sound weird, I think, is not enough to guarantee that they are meaningful.

    So I’m not arguing that such wonders are all nonsense. I’m just asking you to clarify the sense they make, their grammar—in particular clarify the grammar of WONDER in these cases.

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  3. These two cases look similar to me. My inclination is to say that in both we have a similar kind of wonder towards well-known facts, even if wonder here takes different forms (reveling and astonishment, or whatever). Am I connecting to unrelated things?

    They do look similar, I agree.

    What is the criterion in this case for something having sense?

    I don't have one. I realize that isn't a satisfactory answer, but actually I suspect it is important not to have one. That is, I think looking for a technical definition or theory of sense would be a mistake. (That is my hunch or intuition, anyway.) Even I don't think that's enough though. Theory or no theory, I ought to be able to say something more in response. All I've got at the moment is this: things make sense if you can say what they mean (but see below, where I qualify this). What counts as doing that? Maybe just giving an account that everyone finds satisfactory.

    Is it a legitimate type of wonder?

    How could it not be? Marveling at a newborn baby isn't confusion. It isn't bad in any way that I can see. Astonishment at one's own life might be bad in some ways (a failure to accept reality, a kind of complaint, a symptom of having lived an inauthentic life, etc.) but it needn't be all that different from saying/thinking "Huh!" or "Would you look at that!" It can't be illegitimate to be surprised that of all the ways your life could have gone, of all the expectations you might have had for your life, it turned out this way. (It also might be beneficial, leading to a realization that other choices could have been made, which could be a good thing, although I suppose this is also the kind of thinking that leads to terrible mistakes during mid-life crises, e.g. affairs, divorces, etc. That's not directly relevant to the question whether such wonder makes sense though.).

    if it’s not an honest question, then what answer is there to someone who so wonders at such well-known facts? Is there even supposed to be an answer? And if not, then—and here is this question again—is it a legitimate type of wonder in the first place?

    I don't think there is supposed to be an answer. It isn't really a question. Is that what you mean by 'illegitimate'? It's like a question though, in the sense that it expresses a kind of uncertainty. Not that there is any doubt about the facts, but there is doubt about what to do with the facts. If sure-footedness is a kind of bodily certainty then this type of wonder might be called a kind of unsureness, not of the body or the intellect but of life. In the baby case, everything seems much better than the person is used to. In the middle-aged case it's not the opposite, but it isn't as good. In both cases, though, the familiar feels unfamiliar. So here I'm using a kind of metaphor of certainty/uncertainty without being able to say how to cash this out in ordinary, straightforward words. In that sense it's nonsense. But I don't think many people would accept that it really is nonsense. Maybe my way of putting it wouldn't be widely accepted, but expressing wonder or amazement by asking questions that aren't really questions is perfectly normal and not hard to understand.

    Your point about "You'll kill him" is well taken. I had in mind a use that I think is straightforwardly meaningful, namely pointing out to someone who does not realize it that they are going farther than they intend. But someone might say "You're killing him!" to someone who knows quite well that that's what they are doing. And then there is a kind of horrified wonder or disbelief. Again, whatever criteria of sense we might identify I think this kind of thing has to count as meaningful. Even though it is interestingly like nonsense in the sense that it resists analysis and looks like something (a mere statement of fact, a question) that it is not.

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  4. Let me try again. I feel as if I need to bring the different parts of my worry together better to make it clear what the worry is.

    Let me begin by saying that I agree with you that whether a sentence does or doesn’t make sense is connected to our ability to explain what it means—give a grammatical explanation of the speech act in context. You leave room for differences between kinds of explanations of meaning, and in particular for figurative explanations. I’ll say something about figurative explanations later. What is important now is that we agree that a sentence being meaningful is not a matter of our merely having a strong sense that it is meaningful, or of it being regularly in use. – Are we in agreement so far?

    I’m not sure we are in agreement here, because you say that using language like this “is perfectly normal,” and that people would not think that it’s nonsense, and that these propositions “have to be meaningful.” As if this is supposed to reassure us of our certainty that they are meaningful. The point is that if people find something meaningful, but they don’t do so after serious enough reflection, then it doesn’t count. It is not enough to put your foot down and insist. Determination is no argument.

    So what I need now is a serious enough reflection. That is, I need a clarification of (the grammar of) propositions, uttered in relevant contexts, and with relevant intentions, like “she has five toes” or “what has happened to the young man I used to be?” I need a grammatical account of the speech acts. A serious reflection here would be one that seriously attempts to spell out the grammar of the relevant language. It is not enough to say here “how could they not be meaningful?” or “don’t you know what they mean?” This does not explain what meaning these propositions have—the very particular meaning.

    Cont.

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  5. Here you say some helpful things. You talk of a kind of uncertainty, and of unsureness of life, and of the familiar feeling unfamiliar. But that is all rather figurative. (I say why I take this to be a problem in the next paragraph.) My talk of these types of wonder involving legitimate questions was meant to point out that at least in the middle-age case (and in the toes case as well, to the extent it involves wonder), the speech act looks like it is that of a question. That is, that’s the relevant object of comparison—questions. However, questions have a particular grammar, and the particular speech acts we are investigating don’t seem to have the relevant grammar. For one thing, they don’t seem to call for answers. And if so, then the speech acts involved are not that of questions after all, not really. (Hence my use of the term ‘legitimate question’; it is not meant to imply that that there are illegitimate questions, but only that there are things that look like questions surface-grammar-wise, but aren’t really. Sorry for being obscure.) But if these are not questions, if this object of comparison is not helpful, then what is their grammar?

    The problem with using questions as an object of comparison to explain what the speech acts in our cases are is that the object of comparison is used for a bit, but then retracted. When we call such things “wonder” we give the impression that there is a question involved in the speech acts, but then under pressure we take it back. We may have bought some time, and kept the conversation going, but we gave no explanation. And there is a similar kind of problem with other figurative explanations. So, for instance, saying that in those cases the familiar looks unfamiliar seems to suggest, as an object of comparison, cases in which things look different then they are. The stick looks broken in the water, the stars look as if they are all at the same distance from us, and so on. In those cases, however, it is possible to say how things actually are, as opposed to how they look. That’s the grammar in those cases of “looking different than it actually is.” But in our cases we don’t have that distinction; we don’t have two things to point to and compare, but only one. And once again, we have to retract the object of comparison with which we thought we might explain the grammar of our propositions.

    We still don’t have an explanation of the grammar of our propositions. So I don’t care if people unreflectively would or wouldn’t accept that it is nonsense. Unreflectively, I’m not accepting it myself. Like you, I think, I feel strongly that these things have to make sense. I just want a grammatical account. And if it turns out I can’t have one, that is, if it turns out that any account that I may think of I will reject under reflection, and if it turns out, for example, that no object of comparison would do the job, then I seem to be confused. And if Wittgenstein is claiming that such uses of language—unclarifiable uses—are perfectly meaningful, then he seems to be confused.

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  6. Thanks, Reshef. You make a number of good points. Here's one:

    you say that using language like this “is perfectly normal,” and that people would not think that it’s nonsense, and that these propositions “have to be meaningful.” As if this is supposed to reassure us of our certainty that they are meaningful. The point is that if people find something meaningful, but they don’t do so after serious enough reflection, then it doesn’t count. It is not enough to put your foot down and insist.

    I agree, but with some reservation. Or rather, I agree completely but think the words "serious enough reflection" are very important. It seems possible to me that perfectly meaningful uses of language might come to seem meaningless after a certain kind of serious-seeming reflection. A bad philosophical argument might have this effect, for instance. So then such arguments have to not count as serious enough. That is, identifying serious enough reflection might not be easy. It calls for some evaluation of the quality of the reflection, and there is room for disagreement about what counts.

    my use of the term ‘legitimate question’ [...] is not meant to imply that that there are illegitimate questions, but only that there are things that look like questions surface-grammar-wise, but aren’t really.

    Sorry, I misunderstood what you were saying. I agree that these things look like questions but aren't really. Or, if we want to insist that they are a type of questions, then they are importantly different from other, more paradigmatic questions.

    If they are not questions then what are they? I don't know. But I don't know whether that's because their grammar cannot be explained or whether it's because I haven't done enough serious thinking about it. I'm not sure what would count as an answer. What is it to spell out the grammar of a form of words? If I say, "This is a question," then I seem to be counting on your knowing what a question is. I can't explain everything. And this is why I put my foot down (perhaps too early) and say that these utterances have to be meaningful. No account of meaning that does not count them as meaningful is plausible, it seems to me.

    I just want a grammatical account. And if it turns out I can’t have one, that is, if it turns out that any account that I may think of I will reject under reflection, and if it turns out, for example, that no object of comparison would do the job, then I seem to be confused.

    Why? Because it is a confusion to want something that you cannot have?

    if Wittgenstein is claiming that such uses of language—unclarifiable uses—are perfectly meaningful, then he seems to be confused.

    I don't know that he ever says this, but what if he did? Why must uses of language be clarifiable in order to be meaningful? And what is it to clarify a use of language? I do see that if someone says he believes in the existence of something but when you ask him what it is all he can say is "it's a something, I know not what" then this sounds like nonsense. One characteristic of nonsense is that its meaning cannot be explained. But I don't want to say that talk about games, for instance, is nonsense just because the word 'game' is hard to define. Maybe giving some examples is enough to count as an explanation. But then what is wrong with giving examples of things that look like questions but are not really questions and saying this is a type of language-use, not nonsense?

    (continued below)

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  7. (continued from above)

    I sense that none of this will be very helpful, and it certainly isn't the kind of thorough defence of a position that one might want after requesting serious reflection. But I don't know how to begin such reflection. What would be a grammatical account of a question, for instance? I can't think of a definition that doesn't seem circular. And I can't think of a way to explain the kind of language-use we're talking about without just giving examples of it, like the patsy in a Socratic dialogue.

    If I look at one of my children and think something like "Is he really real?" or "I can't believe he is real" (I'm not crazy about these examples, but I hope they'll do) then there is something odd about these thoughts. The former is not really a question (I know he is real) and the latter is not a statement of fact (I do believe it, after all). They are not what they superficially appear to be, in other words. In fact I think they mean much the same thing. What is that? I want to say "Don't you know?" But if you want more than that, I'll try to say more. I am wondering at the fact that I have a son, reveling in his existence, enjoying my good fortune. In a way I am expressing my love for him, but it isn't like saying "ow" when I'm in pain. It's more intellectual, more genuinely a thought, than that. But it isn't a thought with real propositional content. It's more like a question than a full-blown proposition.

    There are works whose point is to pose the question: Is this art? For instance, someone might pour molten lead in the corner of a warehouse. This is not the same as writing or saying "What is art?" It's the creation of a state of affairs that is designed to destabilize not just thoughts but people's relationship with art, artists, museums, and other spaces (such as warehouses). The point, as I understand it, is not to change people's minds this way or that, nor to make them think per se, but to unsettle. Some people see value in unsettling itself. (I'm not sure I do, but that's not the point.) In a case like the one I'm imagining where I look at my son I am unsettled by him (in a good, happy way). I am, one might say, taken out of time and space (or at least time), made to stop, to suspend whatever else I might be doing or thinking. But of course there is a lot of figurative language here, and you didn't want that. What is really, literally going on? I am looking at my son with love. My thoughts, or the words that might go through my head as I do so, don't mean "I love you," but they are part of the phenomenon of love, something like symptoms of it.

    I don't know whether this is a grammatical account or the admission of failure to be able to provide such a thing though.

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  8. You ask: “Why must uses of language be clarifiable in order to be meaningful?” (I don’t know how to italicize here. Please teach me.)

    Well, what does it mean to clarify a proposition? I don’t take it to be necessary for clarifying a proposition to say something ABOUT the proposition. My challenge is much more modest: to say or write the proposition in a clear way: to use it clearly. (I take it to be Wittgenstein’s conception of clarification.) Surely, if there is a proposition here, then SOMETHING is done with it. And if so, then DO IT! And that’s what the method of clarification needs to be here: to USE the proposition, and demonstrate what it is doing.

    Now, if my considerations are right, then the propositions (in context) we are discussing are not really in use. This goes for all the examples we gave. Here you are probably saying to yourself “But what does he want from me, I AM using them.” And my reply is “Are you really? Show me that!”

    The problem with those uses is that they are all equivocal: Questions but not really questions; exclamations but not really that either; factual assertions but then again not really; evaluations but without any standard of evaluation so not really evaluations after all; etc. etc. This is a recurring theme with those propositions, and it comes out in what you yourself say. That is, in using them, we want to do something with them, but then again we don’t want that. I tried to demonstrate that last time by mentioning how, in clarifying their use (in trying to use them), we retract the objects of comparison under pressure. And that’s why trying to explain them by giving more and more examples of using them would not do. The equivocation—the blurry use—is there in all the examples.

    This connects to your question why I say that if it turns out that I can’t have a grammatical account, under proper reflection, etc. etc., then I am confused. My answer is that it is NOT that this would reveal that I cannot have something I want. It would rather reveal that there is nothing I want in the first place, namely, that my desires are unclear to me. I’m not really using the propositions. THAT’s the whole point of the grammatical account: to clarify what I want, to make me do something, something in particular, with the propositions.

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  9. Relatedly, you mention my point about what a serious enough reflection should be, and you say—very truly, I may add—that there might be a disagreement here. I’m not sure why you say this. Do you mean to hint that you disagree with me here? That is, do you mean that the type of investigation I suggested (and I explained it a bit more above now) is not the one we need? If so, do you have another kind of investigation in mind? Or perhaps, when you claimed that the type of uses we’ve been discussing are perfectly normal, and drew the conclusion that they make sense, was it the result of applying a different method? Anyway, if you don’t disagree with me about the method, (and if my challenge is indeed modest as I claimed above, then I don’t see much to disagree with, for I’m just asking you to use the propositions), and if you still think that the propositions we’ve been discussing (in relevant use) are meaningful, then—if I am following the logic of this reasoning correctly—it seems you are committed to the possibility of showing how they are meaningful using THIS method. – Is that a fair assessment of the situation?

    You say: “No account of meaning that does not count them as meaningful is plausible, it seems to me.”

    You are, I think, taking Lars’ position here, so I’m in the minority. Anyway, I disagree. But the disagreement is not important, because it’s a disagreement about the verdict, whereas what seems to me important is that we postpone the verdict until we have done the proper investigation. – Does this seem like a good suggestion? The reason I make this suggestion is that otherwise we risk imposing on the issue our own views, deciding what the outcome should be before we have conducted the investigation. Does that seem reasonable?

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  10. I don’t know how to italicize here. Please teach me.

    Type < then i then > before the relevant text and < then / then i then > after it.

    Surely, if there is a proposition here, then SOMETHING is done with it. And if so, then DO IT!

    I don't know. For one thing, I'm not sure that we really are talking about propositions here. A seeming proposition said in disbelief or wonder might (I think, at least sometimes) mean exactly the same thing as a seeming question. For another, I'm not sure exactly what it means to do something with a proposition. If "She has five toes" (said in wonder) does something then I can do this, but presumably this doesn't count for you as doing something. Or you want to be convinced that it really is doing something. But what would count as its doing that?

    The equivocation—the blurry use—is there in all the examples.

    I agree. The use is blurry. Does this make it nonsense? I can see how it is like nonsense, and I (think I) understand why someone might want to insist that it is nonsense. But why must a blurry use be labeled the same way that non-use is? Or why must a blurry quasi-use count as nonsense?

    Relatedly, you mention my point about what a serious enough reflection should be, and you say—very truly, I may add—that there might be a disagreement here. I’m not sure why you say this. Do you mean to hint that you disagree with me here?

    No, I didn't mean that. I meant more to get at the fact that there is no mechanistic procedure to go through that will determine whether something makes sense or not. We have to rely on our sense of what is serious, of what is sufficient, of what makes sense, and so on. Now, you never proposed that there is a mechanistic procedure, and I wouldn't expect you to, but in the absence of something like that it seems we have to rely on something rather subjective. I'm not putting this well, but I think I'm resisting your distinction between conducting the investigation and imposing our own views. Or resisting the idea that we can conduct the investigation in some way independent of our own views about what the verdict should be. (Sorry, I can't think very well at the moment. I'll try again later.)

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  11. presumably this doesn't count for you as doing something

    I’m not laying down criteria for what makes sense, or what doing something is. I’m asking what counts for you as doing something. I’ll accept anything you say. But I admit that I do not see a use yet. Which is simply to say that I don’t have a sense that I see a use in what you are describing. Qualification: I do have an impression of a use. I just suspect it might be an illusion—especially because the cases we are discussing are somewhat logically strange.

    The use is blurry. Does this make it nonsense?

    It depends on where you take the blur to be, and what kind of blur it is. There are hazy blurs, like seeing something through an unfocused magnifying glass. And there are also blurs of the shifting kind, in which things never settle, jumping from one form to another, and this is the case with the examples we’re discussing. And so if the blur is logical, grammatical, and if the blur is of the shifting kind—and this seems to be the situation here—then this means that the use does not have a settled logic yet. That is, we don’t yet have a use.

    I'm resisting your distinction between conducting the investigation and imposing our own views

    I think I understand what you are getting at. There is indeed an element of judgment in this method—a moment in the investigation where we have to look and say what we see, and if we see anything at all. One way of saying what I’m worried about here is, perhaps, that this moment sometimes arrives too soon. That is, we come into this discussion about those examples, feeling that there is something there to investigate. And we may stop the investigation here and make our judgment, and say: ‘If it seems like there is something to investigate, then this must be the case.’ But we may also become suspicious—especially in the kind of cases we are talking about, which all seem somewhat logically fishy—and want to postpone our judgment, ask for more clarifications, and wait until we really feel we have something concrete to judge.

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  12. Is the blur of the shifting kind? Rather than dealing with forms of words that seem now to be a question and now to be a statement, for instance, I feel as though we are talking about forms of words that are a kind of cross between a question and a statement. The fact that there isn't a name for this kind of thing need not be a problem--we could invent one. I know that doesn't answer your concerns, but I feel as though I'm running out of things to say. We have (what appears to be) a class of (apparent) language-use, and the question whether it is really what it appears to be. I don't know how to settle that. The 'uses' in question are characterized by the fact that they are not what they superficially appear to be and that explaining their meaning seems always to require figurative language. My inclination is to stop here and say that we can call this kind of language-use whatever we like (including non-use or nonsense) as long as we acknowledge its existence, i.e. the existence of this phenomenon in language.

    On the one hand this feels like taking the easy way out. On the other, I don't know how to begin to do whatever work it might be that I am lazily avoiding (if that's what I'm doing, and I feel as though it is). Elsewhere you say what seem to me to be similar things, but you add an expression of a worry that people might think of uses of words in a secondary sense as just another kind of use of words. I wouldn’t be surprised if I had made that mistake at some point. But the way to avoid the mistake is to avoid the mistake—nothing will avoid it for you or guarantee that you won’t make it. In particular, insisting that secondary uses of words are nonsense provides no immunity. Because they aren’t nonsense in the sense of having no role in ordinary life. Or rather, secondary use is indeed secondary—it is not a kind of primary use. But part of the point of calling it secondary sense or secondary use or use in a secondary sense is to distinguish it from plain nonsense. Once that distinction is seen I don’t see what further work there is to be done with labels or distinctions.

    What about the danger of thinking we have said or meant something when we really have not? This is only a danger in cases in which one thinks one has said something. And I’m not sure we are talking about such cases here. If I say “She has five toes” and someone, overhearing, asks what I meant, what would I say? I don’t think I would try to insist that I had uttered a true proposition. I wasn’t trying to state a fact (even though it is a fact that she has five toes). And if I said, “Did she really agree to marry me?” I wasn’t really asking a question. That doesn’t (in my view) make it nonsense.

    (continued below)

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  13. You have said that: Using language that is essentially ļ¬gurative does not reveal a way of making sense of a situation any more than it reveals the way—the particular way—in which the situation escapes our ability to make sense of it. Is this always true? Perhaps the word 'particular' is carrying a lot of weight here. Figurative language seems better than nothing when it comes to making sense of things.

    One last thought. You have also said that: using an expression in a secondary or absolute sense is thus not playing a language game. I wonder whether we need to distinguish different kinds of cases here. Talking about the colours of vowels seems like a good example of not playing a language game. But talking about people calculating in their heads seems quite different. As does talk about God's having created the world (an example from the Lecture on Ethics, where Wittgenstein says it is a way of describing wonder at the existence of the world). Don't expressions like these have a grammar? We might also want to distinguish between the thoughtless, everyday use of language like this and the struggling or wondering use. The latter might be called nonsense even by those who utter it. But for anyone else to call it nonsense is, it seems to me, for them to call for the withdrawal of those words from circulation or to deny those words currency. And I'm not sure what business (as philosophers) we have to do this.

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  14. I don’t think I made my challenge clear enough.

    I think you keep taking me to force a decision on you: either to say that these uses of language are nonsense or that they are sense. – But I am not trying to get you to categorize. I’m rather interested in characterization. I want to be able to see the face of this particular kind of speech act. (It seems to me that categorization depends on characterization. Without characterization we don’t know what we categorize; we merely play at categorization.) As I understand this, this means, by the way, that even if something is nonsense, we may still need to characterize it—we need to recognize, identify, exactly what it is.

    Here, in a way, I am merely endorsing what you say about acknowledging those uses—wholeheartedly I might add. However, I think, just nodding at the phenomenon is not yet acknowledging it. Acknowledging the kinds of uses of language we are speaking of requires that we have a decent logical-grammatical characterization of them. Otherwise we would not be acknowledging them, not really. It would be making the outward signs of acknowledging something without making sure there is something to acknowledge. It would be playing at acknowledging. (And the same goes for the distinction you make between talking about the colors of vowels and talking about people calculating in their heads: making sure there really is a distinction here and not something illusory requires that we make the distinction in logic, and not just nod at a distinction.)

    The worry here is constantly that we are under some illusion of sense. You speak somewhere about having a nose for nonsense, which is a really good expression by the way. But what is the point having such a nose if there aren’t cases in which people fail to identify, recognize, acknowledge nonsense—in which this may happen to us?

    Cont.

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  15. I’m not sure what our last verdict should be. But if we decide that we need to acknowledge nonsensicality here, it would not be like taking anything out of circulation. It would simply be acknowledging that something hasn’t been in circulation in the first place, despite appearance. – I feel this moment in our conversation keeps coming back. You speak as if I’m trying to take something, a use, from you. But I’m not. I am, however, worried that we are speaking about something illusory. And if this is the case—which I’m not sure it is, but until we have solid logical clarity, it remains a possibility—then disturbing it, is merely disturbing a structure of air.

    So now the question is what it would be to properly logically characterize those cases. You mentioned that I’m struggling with that in my blog. But part of what motivates me there and here is the following thought, which is a kind of constraint on proper characterization of the relevant cases: In the sorts of cases we are discussing, it seems to me that failing to account for their logical strangeness is failing to acknowledge what we are dealing with. And here it seems to me that it is not enough that we say things like: “the account has to be figurative,” or “they involve amalgam of speech acts,” or “it is a special kind of language game,” or even “the use is secondary.” All this, I worry, makes these uses look too much like ordinary cases. To use Cora’s favorite term of criticism, it would not make the difference deep enough. It makes it seem that we can change the wording a bit, make slight qualifications, and then we will be in a position to put these phenomena in the same theoretical row alongside everything else. It would be to favor the theoretical organization over the phenomena. At least that’s my worry.

    My worry here, again, comes from the fact that the logic here is strange. Now, strange logic in this case is not necessarily like an exotic animal (“a special kind of use”). It may be more like a mere appearance of logic, appearance of use. And mere appearances are not realities, as a painting of a dog is not a kind of dog. At least, until we have a solid logical characterization of those cases, this would be a worry here. My nose at least is full with a suspicious smell.

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  16. if we decide that we need to acknowledge nonsensicality here, it would not be like taking anything out of circulation. It would simply be acknowledging that something hasn’t been in circulation in the first place, despite appearance. – I feel this moment in our conversation keeps coming back. You speak as if I’m trying to take something, a use, from you. But I’m not. I am, however, worried that we are speaking about something illusory.

    It's not so much that I feel something is being taken from me, as that it is being (potentially) taken from other people. And the thing in question is the right to speak a certain kind of way, a way that people (it seems) very often speak.

    When you say that the logic here is strange I feel that there is such a place as here, i.e. a class of (possibly pseudo-)uses of language that we both recognize. So the worry is not that there really isn't some area of language that we are talking about. Rather it's that this area, this class of language 'uses', might not really be meaningful despite appearances to the contrary. We have already said various things about these cases, so I don't know what else there is to do but to examine some particular examples. But that feels like the wrong approach, not what you want. You want a characterization, but not what has been said already by way of characterization or description. You want acknowledgement rather than nodding. I don't have a good idea of what it is that you want, what the difference is. (I do have some idea, but it's not at all clear.)

    I share your sense that there is something fishy here. But I don't know what a solid logical characterization of these cases would be--I don't know what kind of thing I'm supposed to be looking for. Let me try a couple of examples, just in case this gets us somewhere. First, imagine that my daughter is competing in the Olympics and I find out that she has won her event. I respond: "She won? She won! She won. Shewonshewonshewonshewonshewon!!! Wooo!" etc. By the end I am talking nonsense, if it even counts as talking at all. At the beginning perhaps I make sense. Maybe my initial question is a real question--I'm checking that I heard correctly. But in between I am partly expressing joy and excitement, partly just trying to process the news. Words come out. Are they nonsense? I wouldn't say so, but I don't see either that it matters much what I call them or that there is much at all to be said on the matter.

    Here's a second example. I find someone staring at something, a patch of ground or a tree, say. He looks as though he's in a state of wonder, and his voice is full of wonder too. He is saying "This is real." My first thought would be that he is on drugs or has lost his mind. Maybe he is, but instead of being crazy he might be trying to hold onto his sanity by focusing on something that he knows is not a hallucination. Or he might be an extreme environmentalist with a spiritual attachment to nature. Or he might be some kind of philosopher trying to get himself to think clearly about ontology or phenomenology or epistemology. In short, I don't know what he is doing or saying. I might interrupt him and ask if he's OK. It might become clear that he is sane and not on drugs. He still might be talking nonsense, presumably. But it might become clear that he isn't, that what he says makes perfect sense. At what point will this be? What must he do to prove that he is making sense? It can't be enough for him to say, "I know my words don't make sense, but I was using them in a secondary sense." That doesn't explain anything. At least not on its own. But what if I feel that I know exactly what he means, and the two of us strike up a conversation that goes swimmingly? Can there still be a question of whether we are making sense then?

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  17. (continued from above)

    Do I want to say that there cannot be a shared hallucination of sense? No, I think there can be. I don't think there can be a universal hallucination of sense though.* That is, if we all think our (shared) words make sense then they surely do. The difficult cases are those where there is a shared but not universal belief that certain words make sense. Imagine Wittgenstein talking about the feeling of absolute safety and half his audience nods in recognition and half complains that this kind of talk has no meaning. Don't we have to say that a) it cannot be meant literally, but b) it means something to some people? Insisting that it is nonsense sounds like telling these people that they don't know what they are talking about, that they should shut up. And I might say that to some people in some circumstances, but I wouldn't say it to Wittgenstein (someone I know to be intelligent and talking about matters where sophisticated error seems impossible) in those circumstances (in which I know he is being serious).

    I have in mind the following also:

    500. When a sentence is called senseless, it is not as it were its sense that is senseless. But a combination of words is being excluded from the language, withdrawn from circulation.

    501. "The purpose of language is to express thoughts."—So presumably the purpose of every sentence is to express a thought.
    Then what thought is expressed, for example, by the sentence "It's raining"?—

    502. Asking what the sense is. Compare:
    "This sentence makes sense."—"What sense?"
    "This set of words is a sentence."—"What sentence?"


    Typically if a sentence makes sense you can say what its sense is, i.e. it's possible to paraphrase it. But metaphor, for instance, cannot be paraphrased. Non-paraphrasability seems to be a necessary but not sufficient condition of being nonsense. That doesn't mean that every sentence accused of being nonsense can plead that it is a metaphor (or a member of some other, similar class of sentences), but some must be allowed to. Which metaphors, or purported metaphors, are OK? I don't want to say that a metaphor is whatever you can get away with calling a metaphor. That's too cynical or meta. But I can't say much more than I know it when I see it.


    *Time might have to be taken into account here. Maybe no one alive regards some form of words as nonsense but later generations do after a Copernicus or whoever has pointed out a reason to think this. In that case the thing to say might be that it was nonsense all along. But if words have a use in a language then they seem to have a meaning. And if they seem to have a use to everyone who speaks the language then they do have a use. Or at least I think the onus would be on the person claiming otherwise to prove it.

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  18. But what if I feel that I know exactly what he means, and the two of us strike up a conversation that goes swimmingly? Can there still be a question of whether we are making sense then?

    I think there can. All sorts of things may happen in the second scenario you described that may make both of you ignore or suspend criteria of meaningfulness, which you would take for granted in other situations. This would include, presumably, criteria for distinguishing between real and fake. When the words “it is real” have their normal sense, we take it that such distinctions are possible. That’s part of what is implied; that’s part of the grammatical scaffolding of the expression. And I think it is a fact of life that sometimes we speak as if the scaffolding is still in place, where this is just a presence.

    Do you take the fact that the conversation goes swimmingly, and the fact that both of you feel that you understand, to replace this scaffolding? Are you saying that the idea that even in such situations the meaningfulness might be illusory, that this idea is incoherent?

    I feel there might be a possible confusion here that might need preventing. So I’m saying the following just in case: I think that in many of the examples we discuss there is a perfectly meaningful expressive use for the expressions. So, for instance, in the first example you give, suppose that “she won!” is an expression of joy. (You seem to be using the words in the example several times and each time in a possibly different way, but the example can be construed in more than one way. It is possible, for example, to take the whole string of “she wons” as one single expression, and then the analysis would have to be different.) But suppose that one of the “she wons” is an expression of joy. In this case “Woohoo!!” would be logically equivalent. That’s part of the grammatical scaffolding of that particular use I’m assuming the words have—what gives them the particular meaning they have in this case. The words “it is real” in your first example also have such an expressive use. In this case, they do not imply: “it is not fake,” and they are perhaps replaceable by “That’s cool man!” If all you want to say is that these words have such a use, I don’t disagree. If, however, you want to isolate a different use, then the question is: what is the grammatical scaffolding of this use? That is: What is implied by it? What it implies? What is it equivalent with? – Answering such questions is describing a use. That’s what I mean by doing more than just nodding at an apparent use. And if it turns out that this use has no grammatical scaffolding, then that would show that it is merely an apparent use: it has no logic, no grammar.

    (I forgot to ask last time: how do you insert hyperlinks into these comments?)

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  19. One more thing it might be useful to mention: Sometimes people perform more than one speech act with a single utterance. So, for instance, “In this house we take our shoes off before we enter” may serve both as a request, and as an insult at the same time. In the first case, it is replaceable with “please take your shoes off.” In the second case, it is replaceable with “You stupid inconsiderate person.”

    The point I’m getting at is that if an utterance has more than one use on a particular occasion, then the different grammatical scaffoldings of its different uses should all be describable—each would have its own separate description.

    Now, in the cases we are discussing, something similar might happen. To the extent that “she won” is an expression of joy, it is replaceable by “Woohoo!” To the extent that it is also something else, that too needs to be separately describable.

    And the point I’m getting at now is that we cannot take the fact that one of its uses can be clarified—its grammatical scaffolding described—to guarantee that the other uses can also be clarified. If one of its uses cannot be clarified, if the relevant grammatical scaffolding is absent, then it doesn’t have that use. And it doesn’t matter if it has other uses. In such a case, the expression will not be nonsense, but not because it has the special use we are discussing, but because it has some other use—perhaps an expressive use like “Woohoo!”

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  20. It is true of many of the cases we are talking about that they involve as you say “a shared but not universal belief that certain words make sense.” In some of them there is practically universal sense that this is the case—the sense that the picture is looking down on us from the wall might be one of those. And now you ask:

    Don't we have to say that a) it cannot be meant literally, but b) it means something to some people?

    Why? What gives us the right? What gives us the right to even think that this is a possibility? I confess that I don’t even understand what this possibility is supposed to amount to. So I don’t disagree, I simply don’t understand your suggestion. It seems to me that all we’ve done by saying this is gave ourselves an impression that we now know how to categorize the utterance: Not nonsense, but not literal either; “means something” to some people, and doesn’t to others. – It is all very vague. I don’t see here the face the special character, the life of any particular act of language. It is still empty categorization.

    I want characterization, not categorization. Categorization is pointless, I feel, if I don’t know what I’m categorizing. So I feel that some of the questions you demand answers to are not questions that we even need to ask. Asking them indicates that we are not trying to do the right thing. The question “which metaphor is okay?” is one of them. Answering it might allow us to categorize something, but it won’t give us a sense of its reality.

    And again, I’m not insisting that anything is nonsense! This is something I really really mean. That you keep assuming I am, I think, is connected to the fact that you are sometimes treating nonsense as a category (e.g. when you say: “Non-paraphrasability seems to be a necessary but not sufficient condition of being nonsense.”) You treat it as something that has criteria. This is not how I’m using the term. When I use the word, I’m saying that I don’t understand. I ask for explanation. And for that matters, those metaphors you speak of that are non-paraphrasable are not a logically safe category. There are problems with them that are very similar to the problems with the kinds of uses we’ve been discussing.

    And I’m also certainly not trying to get anyone to shut up. I’m just asking to be included in the conversation. And this is really another way to formulate the challenge—another way to ask for a description of that grammatical scaffolding I spoke of: How would you teach someone to use language this way?

    You say: ”I know it when I see it.”

    This is perhaps the biggest distance between us: I don’t trust myself as much as you do yourself.

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  21. All sorts of things may happen in the second scenario you described that may make both of you ignore or suspend criteria of meaningfulness, which you would take for granted in other situations.

    I agree. That's why I said that there can be shared hallucination of sense. But that ended up in a different comment box, so its relevance might have been less obvious.

    if it turns out that this use has no grammatical scaffolding, then that would show that it is merely an apparent use: it has no logic, no grammar.

    I think the uses we are talking about, when they are not just things like expressions of joy, don't have a grammar. There are no rules for their use. In this sense they are like Wittgenstein's example of writing S in a diary. And I would call that nonsense. But they are also unlike the diary case in the sense that other people join in or at least accept the words used as part of normal life. (This at least is one difference. There might be others.) And in some cases, such as "God created the world," there might even be a grammar after all.

    (I forgot to ask last time: how do you insert hyperlinks into these comments?)

    Type < then a then space then href=[url] then > then the text then < then / then a then >

    I confess that I don’t even understand what this possibility is supposed to amount to.

    I assume that we agree that these cases cannot be meant literally, so that what you don't understand what I mean when I talk about uses of words meaning something to some people (but not to others). Part of what I mean is that some people will say that they understand these uses, others will not. The people who claim to understand then will also feel that they understand them. They might well say the same things themselves, i.e. use the same words in what they say is the same way. In these cases it might be odd to say that the words really do mean something to these people, but it would also be odd to say that they did not (assuming the perspective of someone who doesn't understand the words in question). Perhaps the right thing to say is something like, "These people seem to mean something by these words, but I don't see what," or "Apparently these words mean something to these people." I think this is what people usually mean when they say that something means something to someone (but, by implication, not to them).

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  22. (continued)

    I’m not insisting that anything is nonsense! This is something I really really mean. That you keep assuming I am, I think, is connected to the fact that you are sometimes treating nonsense as a category (e.g. when you say: “Non-paraphrasability seems to be a necessary but not sufficient condition of being nonsense.”) You treat it as something that has criteria. This is not how I’m using the term.

    I think I see. The kind of thing you have said that might have thrown me off is this: "I would like to ask about your saying that reveling in the facts in this case is not nonsense. What is the criterion in this case for something having sense?" That suggested to me that you did think these cases are nonsense, and that you were looking for criteria for sense (and nonsense). There's also this: "I feel strongly that these things have to make sense. I just want a grammatical account. And if it turns out I can’t have one, that is, if it turns out that any account that I may think of I will reject under reflection, and if it turns out, for example, that no object of comparison would do the job, then I seem to be confused." I took that to mean that in the absence of a grammatical account you would reject (or categorize) these uses as nonsense. So I've been trying to give such an account while sharing your view that categorizing won't really help, and also feeling unsure what would count for you as a grammatical account.

    How would you teach someone to use language this way?

    In the case of "calculating in the head" I don't think it's hard or mysterious. But the cases we've been focusing on are ones where I don't think this can be taught. It isn't a game with rules. Or so it seems to me, and I think to you too.

    You say: ”I know it when I see it.”

    This is perhaps the biggest distance between us: I don’t trust myself as much as you do yourself.


    Well, maybe 'know' is too strong a word. Or might suggest a standard that I don't mean. But nonsense is often easy to spot, and metaphors are often easy to understand. Of course mistakes are possible. But I don't think they are the norm.

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  23. (continued)

    Knowing a language involves recognizing the difference between sense and nonsense, and this is often not at all hard (e.g. in a children’s exercise where the words of a sentence have been jumbled up). But there are borderline cases, or disputed cases, and you had seemed to me to want criteria to sort them out, or at least something approaching such criteria. And I don’t think there are any. Now I think I have misunderstood you.

    At this point I'm not sure where we stand. I feel as though we might actually agree, but I suspect you don't have that feeling. I'll try to say more later.

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  24. You say that the uses we talk of are partly like the ‘S’ in Wittgenstein’s diary, and partly unlike it. Fine. I agree. But what I don’t understand is how to stop here, because it seems that this is where you stop. Are you satisfied that having placed things separately you now understood them? And the same thing goes for other distinctions you make (more or less explicitly): between those occasions where people say the expression means something to them, and those occasions where they say it doesn’t; between what is and what is not a game with rules; between games that can be taught and games that can’t; and between nonsense that is and nonsense that is not easy to spot. – This is all feels to me like mere categorization.

    Do these separations of categories explain to you what we are dealing with? I don’t see that. For myself I’m not sure what all that gives us, except categorization. And this feels rather empty external and extensional. I want something internal and intensional. This categorization doesn’t give me, I feel, an insight into the life of the kind of uses we are discussing, but only a mechanical way of separating them from other uses. It is a criterion that a Martian can use. But I want—I need—to see how things look from within the life of those who use those expressions with meaning—that’s the kind of criteria and grammatical account I’m looking for. Do you feel that saying what you say about those uses, making those distinctions, gives you an insider’s view?

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  25. No, I don't. That's why I plan to try to say more later.

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