This is just a short follow-up to last week’s post: Thinking to the limits of language.

The attentive reader may have noticed that I spoke there of two kinds of transgressions of limits of language:

  1. A tendency to make a sweeping gesture and say, “Space is everywhere; it surrounds me.”
  2. A tendency to interpret the limit that is transgressed in (1), and which can be highlighted by saying, “Space does not exist in space,” as a profound truth indicating that space itself must be something hitherto unthought.

If space isn’t out there, surrounding me, then what is it? And thus one moves on, to explore this radical question about space in a hitherto unthought sense.

Both tendencies give rise to nonsense. I want to say that (1) gives rise to rather innocent nonsense talk. Almost anyone can feel the temptation to make that sweeping gesture, but it often ends there. Tendency (2), on the other hand, reveals a philosophically minded person, and it is only the beginning of a possibly life-long investigation.

Now, it has been argued, by Wittgensteinian philosophers, that there is only one kind of nonsense: pure nonsense (like “piggly wiggle tiggle”). But if we put nonsense in context and consider its manner of arising, then I believe we need to distinguish between at least two kinds of nonsense: in order to know what we deal with when we deal with philosophy.

Significant philosophers typically acknowledge the limit that we easily transgress; but their interpretation of it as “deep” turns it into a starting line for philosophy. And thus they transgress it anyway, but in their own way.

Pär Segerdahl

Minding our language - the Ethics Blog