Frames /sing


A Wittgensteinian Conundrum

Below is a puzzle that I feel is a product of Wittgenstein’s over-reaching into the analogy of  grammar to explain what for him is a  fundamental distinction between sense and nonsense. Nonsense is that barred by hidden rules of (philosophical) grammar, Sense, that which is enabled by them. When someone speaks nonsense, it is because they have violated the rules of (philosophical) grammar, that is, the way that words should be used.

“If grammar says that you cannot say that a sound is red, it means not that it is false to say so but it is nonsense—i.e. not language at all”  (Wittgenstein’s Lectures, Cambridge 1930-1932, p. 47; Lent Term, 1931).

1. Let us say that I say sentence “x”, a sentence which you do not understand at all. You tell me that x is plainly in violation of hidden grammatical rules which prevent the formation of just such a word sequence.

2. I tell you are wrong, and you ask me several questions which you hope could help you understand what I mean by x. None of my answers help. This confirms for you that there are such a hidden grammatical rules which forbids x.

3. Now you come across some friends of mine who regard x as perfectly sensible. What they have to say when interacting with me over sentence x suggests to you that indeed perhaps x does have some sense (at least these people are behaving as if it did, similing, responding with looks of comprehension…your only evidence). You still claim that there are such hidden grammatical rules which forbid the formation of x, even if we think or act like it makes sense.

4. Now you come to a person who seems to understand x quite well. He gives you several explanations what x means which come to satisfy you. You come to understand that x, rather than being barred from formation, is sensical.

5. My question is, were there ever such a hidden rules which barred x from formation in the first place?… If there were not ever such rules, what use is a reference to them?

If indeed there were such rules, were the conditions for their employ ONLY confined to the circumstances of your incomprehension? If this is the case, what good is reference rules which have  theoretically only one circumstance for their employ…when sentence x is uttered in your presence before time t, that sentence is barred from formation?

6. Now let us say that the new, comprehending, you then utters in the presence of someone else the sentence x, and they do not understand you at all. They claim that there are hidden grammatical rules which forbid you from forming sentence x. All your explanations fail. Are these the same rules you referred to earilier, or different ones? How can we tell? In otherwords, what role do these unspoken rules serve to explain whether something is sense or nonsense?

7. Lastly, now imagine that sentence x is:

“If a lion could talk, we could not understand him”. (Philosophical Investigations, Third Edition, p. 190)

Are there or are there not grammatical rules which forbid this sentence’s formation? How can you tell?

There are of course several answers needed here, only the last as it pertains to Wittgenstein has the irony. On that, an average person would tell you that such a sentence violates Wittgenstein’s notion of the grammar of the words “talk” and “understands” and he may or may not be able to understand an explanation if offered. On the other hand a Davidsonian would tell you, I believe, even after elaborate explanation from a Wittgensteinian that on Wittgensteinian terms the grammar of the words in the sentence is violated: for us to be able to say that something “talks” this entails the necessity that we can “understand” him (by Davidson in his very rejection of scheme/content dualism). Is Wittgenstein talking nonsense to tell us what sense must be?

[Some additional thoughts on the Lion who could speak but not communicate sufficiently enough to be understood: Anselm’s Proof of God, Wittgenstein’s Lion, Davidson’s Belief ] 


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