Go ahead and speak nonsense

by Charlie Huenemann

Edward Lear, A Book of Nonsense

In discussion with Moritz Schlick and Friedrich Waisman in 1929, Ludwig Wittgenstein said he knew what Heidegger was getting at in his murky assertions about Dasein and Angst. The only problem, Wittgenstein thought, was that humans just cannot speak intelligibly about the highest or deepest things. Not even Heidegger.

“Think, for instance, of the astonishment that anything exists. This astonishment cannot be expressed in the form of a question, and there is also no answer to it. All that we can say can only, a priori, be nonsense. Nevertheless we run up against the boundaries of language. Kierkegaard also saw this running-up and similarly pointed it out (as running up against the paradox). This running up against the boundaries of language is Ethics. I hold it certainly to be very important that one makes an end to all the chatter about ethics – whether there can be knowledge in ethics, whether there are values, whether the Good can be defined, etc. In ethics one always makes the attempt to say something which cannot concern and never concerns the essence of the matter. It is a priori certain: whatever one may give as a definition of the Good – it is always only a misunderstanding to suppose that the expression corresponds to what one actually means (Moore). But the tendency to run up against shows something. The holy Augustine already knew this when he said: ‘What, you scoundrel, you would speak no nonsense? Go ahead and speak nonsense – it doesn’t matter.’”

In this discussion, Wittgenstein was still operating mostly in his Tractatus mode —  the one in which he imperiously scolds anyone who fails to assert a meaningful proposition according to the Seven Canonical Assertions carved into his monolithic Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. But we can sense in these remarks that a shift is taking place, as Wittgenstein is no doubt growing up and realizing that the main business of life is filled with nonsense. The meanings of our assertions, as he claimed later in the Philosophical Investigations, are inextricably tangled up with getting things done and living with others. A group of philosophers bound solely to the dictates of the Tractatus would be a sorry, feckless lot — like the logical positivists.

Wittgenstein’s favorable view of speaking nonsense aligns well with other reasons we have for regarding most of the things in our experience as manners of speaking. As Vsauce delightfully illustrates, it is very difficult to take the existence of chairs seriously, since there is no evidence of them among their component parts. Most of the things we care about and measure and toil against are, in the final analysis, stubborn illusions, and extremely compelling stubborn illusions, just as we ourselves are. Were we to imitate the early, stern Wittgenstein, and insist that we say only intelligible things about facts and objects, we would have to remain silent about nearly everything. But if we loosen up a bit, and allow ourselves to go ahead and speak some nonsense, then we can get on with the necessary nonsense of being medium-sized objects in a confusing reality.

Somehow, through our language, culture, and shared projects of both construction and destruction, we manage to invent a spirit-world of fictions and concepts that paper over whatever-it-is-that-really-is-there, and we think and act in that spirit-world. It is nearly impossible — or maybe it is necessarily impossible — to tear off the layers of interpretation and take a sneak peak at the In Itself. Instead, we form new spirit-worlds through which we can reference the previous ones, and through a kind of “semantic ascent” we find ourselves with being able to name everything many times over, connecting every alleged thing to every other alleged thing. When the layers upon layers of these spirit-worlds become sufficiently entangled, we come to believe we can speak intelligibly about all things, and we lose sight of the basic fact that it is all a bunch of very sophisticated nonsense we have ourselves summoned into intelligibility. Reification is the birth of (nearly) everything.

In short, somehow, out of some fundamental reality, there emerge layers upon layers of stories built from language and cultural values that, strictly speaking, are sort of like hallucinations, but hallucinations we cannot possibly shake, since we ourselves belong to them.

If we take this insight to heart — the insight that, ultimately, we are just making noises to “help each other get through this thing, whatever it is” (Vonnegut) — then one practical consequence is that perhaps we can listen more sympathetically to each other’s noises. The next time someone speaks to you of God, or healing crystals, or karma, or thermodynamics, or whatever, try to resist the urge to reach for reports from double-blind experiments and go hunting for falsifications. Listen instead to how this nonsense is functioning in their lives, or what role it is supposed to play in your interaction with the person. It may be that it is just a bit of nonsense used like spackle to smooth over some rough patches. It may be that it’s entertaining to them, like a light-up yo-yo, and is not really doing much more than giving them joy. Maybe asserting the nonsense is the other person’s way to score points in an argument, or to protect themselves against something they fear. Or maybe it is like some virus that has hijacked their minds and is slowly siphoning away their savings account and keeping their children from medicines and doctors. You don’t know what the function of the nonsense is until you hear a bit more of their story and think more broadly about the circumstance. (Christian Wiman’s poem, recently posted here on 3QD, discusses our plight more beautifully.)

In other words, don’t give the nonsense greater weight that it deserves. You’ve got your own fair share of nonsense as well, you know, as do I. Some of it is light and fluffy and ineffectual, like my own favoring of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. Some of it may play a useful role in navigating meaning, like my own devotion to semantic inferentialism. Some of it may provide moral guidance, like my own (very limited) concern for other people’s savings accounts and the welfare of their children. There is no escaping the nonsense — that’s what it is to be a medium-sized cognitive system, as Wittgenstein learned over time, and as Heidegger seems to have never learned. We can only distribute and redistribute various weights to the varieties of nonsense in our lives, according to the nonsensical values we hold tentatively, for a time.

(Postscript: How on earth can I have these thoughts and yet take the effort to think them and write them down? That’s the optics of nonsense for you. There is no way to think or speak or write or live without believing that some of the whole business isn’t nonsense, even when the thoughts we pursue while in this belief lead to the conclusion that, well, actually, nearly all of it must be nonsense. Anyone who tries to think and write in the light of this realization will gain a deep respect for Samuel Beckett.)