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Tag Archives: Nonsense

Things Grammar Lets Us Say – Wittgenstein’s Burden

The quote first seen over at Methods of Projection. Much of the restriction Wittgenstein places on Sense (in his ultimate determination Sense vs. Nonsense) falls upon his notion of Grammar. As he explains, in a quote from his “middle period”:

Can we give a description which will justify the rules of grammar? Can we say why we must use these rules? Our justification could only take the form of saying “As reality is so and so, the rules must be such and such”. But this presupposes that I could say “If reality were otherwise, then the rules of grammar would be otherwise”. But in order to describe a reality in which grammar was otherwise I would have to use the very combinations which grammar forbids. The rules of grammar distinguish sense and nonsense and if I use forbidden combinations I talk nonsense.

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)

It is an interesting example, since in the usual Wittgenstein process of argument it is designed to strike one as absolutely obvious. But the example works to undermine itself, as soon as one looks at real world examples of when and where we might say such a thing. Kandinsky, the master modernist painter who tells us that Yellow is the color of middle C on the piano, is widely thought to be a synesthete, one who not only heard musical notes, but also saw them as colors or figures. As often is mentioned here, what happens when iron-clad examples of Wittgenstein break down upon examination?

When the lead singer of the band The Red PaintingsTrash McSweeney , says that he started seeing color produced when he heard sounds after a near-fatal seizure, is he condemned to only speaking nonsense? Or, is he only speaking metaphorically, barred from literal truth? When painter Steve Glass, a reported chromaesthete, paints a “red sound” and then uses sentences to tell us what he is doing, is he operating outside of Sense?

If anything, Wittgenstein attempt at obvious violation of rules, when seen in the use of words in the real world, allows us to see just how transitory and fragmentary the notion of Grammar is. One could say that in this historical milieu, in these kinds of conditions, it is often the case that one cannot say “this sound is red” with literal meaning, but such a determination certainly does not allow us a categorical determination. In fact, Grammar bends to use. We might be mystified for a moment, given our unfamiliarity, by what Kandinsky and any number of the world’s synesthetic artists mean when they say that a sound is a particular color, but given “the rest of the mechanism” as Wittgenstein would like to say, such non-grammatical sentences suddenly open up and become grammatical.

The prohibitions of grammar are momentary unto use and not categorical apart from history. 

(Not above) What Kandinsky “saw” the first time he experienced his synesthesia, attending the Wagner opera Lohengrin:

“The violins, the deep tones of the basses, and especially the wind instruments at that time embodied for me all the power of that pre-nocturnal hour. I saw all my colors in my mind; they stood before my eyes. Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me.”

Some Nonsense Thoughts: Wittgenstein’s Nonsense

For those worn thin by my constant investigation into Spinoza’s lens-grinding, a discussion developed over at Methods of Projectiona Wittgenstein weblog, some of it is perhaps worth repeating. There are more complex ways of talking about this, but these were some of my general thoughts off the top of my head (a few edits here and there). Here is my response to Quirinus Quine from Philosophical Pontifications.

Q.Q: “Something I’ve wondered about for a while is why Wittgenstein doesn’t consider metaphysics, or at least certain parts of it, to be a language game of its of its own on a par with others.”

This is really the key, I believe. The reason I suspect that certain uses of language are denied PROPER language game status [technically, “language games” are much more simple than what we are talking about, but any conceptual construction must rest upon a complex of its games one supposes] is that Wittgenstein has a slightly hidden Puritanism in his approach. He, out from his engineer’s background, wants to take language off holiday, and put it back to work doing what it is supposed to be doing. Buried in this play vs. work conception is that real games are mechanistic and rule-following (that is what gives them traction, connecting them to solid ground and keeping them off the ice).

It just so happens that historically in the fields of philosophy, when you spend time thinking about thinking, this isn’t really how things work. There is something about metaphysical conception (those kind of games) that is between Language being at Work (like the Slab Language), getting things done, and Wittgenstein’s alternate, language being like gears turning emptily without connection to the rest of the mechanism (the world), as if pure unadulterated ritual [rituals have purposes too!]. There simply are not only two positions, that of pure sense and that of pure nonsense, which Wittgenstein would like to propose. Metaphysical conceptions, arguments, debates, even if we grant them the status of complete and utter grammatical nonsense and confusion, end up producing empirical observations about the world and ourselves, for instance how Hegelian nonsense spinnings about the negation and the sublimation lead to all kinds of sociological descriptions which are definitively measurable. The conceptual refinement leads to research and focus. As such, metaphysical debate helps to organize communally shared perceptions, (which is not to say that metaphysical truths have authority over perceptions). To imagine that a game of words has only one kind of use, a use which grammatical confusions supposedly radically undermine, simply turns a huge blind eye to the actual historical processes that have employed metaphysical language games, all the while. In a sense, Wittgenstein’s empirical/grammatical distinctions is as cut off from solid ground (the path of history, concrete analysis of language use and its products), as any metaphysical word game.

In the end it is just that Wittgenstein (really more his followers than he himself, for he remained more playful than most of his adherents), neglected to apply the word game analysis to his own language use, hoping I suspect, to be able to achieve a vantage point where he could judge as good or bad, by category, some games (sense makers) as better than others (nonsense makers). One may of course take such a distinction as informative, even revealing, but it too rests on analogy, metaphor and perspective, all of which can be called into question.


Two worthwhile essays on the issue of Wittgenstein Nonsense are: “Wittgenstein’s Exclusion of Metaphysical Nonsense” and “Wittgenstein’s Grammatical-Empirical Distinction” each by Philip P. Hallie