The Importance of Nonsense

The transcendent is often alleged to be ineffable. Some will quickly accept this supposed characteristic of the transcendent and tie it to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s statement, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” in order to insist on the irrelevance of the transcendent or in order to disdain as nonsense all discussion of and reference to the transcendent. Indeed, in his Lecture on Ethics, Wittgenstein himself appears quite willing to assign matters of the transcendent to the realm of nonsense (without, in his case, being disdainful):

You will say: Well, if certain experiences constantly tempt us to attribute a quality to them which we call absolute or ethical value and importance, this simply shows that by these words we don’t mean nonsense, that after all what we mean by saying that an experience has absolute value is just a fact like other facts and that all it comes to is that we have not yet succeeded in finding the correct logical analysis of what we mean by our ethical and religious expressions. Now when this is urged against me I at once see clearly … that no description that I can think of would do to describe what I mean by absolute value …

That is to say: I see now that these nonsensical expressions were not nonsensical because I had not yet found the correct expressions, but that their nonsensicality was their very essence. For all I wanted to do with them was just to go beyond the world and that is to say beyond significant language. …

Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science. What it says does not add to our knowledge in any sense.

To say that there “can be no science” which investigates the transcendent is to reveal something essential about the nature of science without addressing very much about the transcendent. Inasmuch as science seeks to attain knowledge, and insofar as knowledge regards awareness of truth(s), science is necessarily committed and restricted in its efforts to those matters which are (presumed to be) actually determinate since a truth regards, describes, or references some definiteness about a state, condition, or context.1

More specifically, science is concerned with determinate matters which recur consistently (and, hence, predictably). This is to say that at the heart of science is the attempt to discern patterns and, in particular, the range of conditions – the limits - within which those patterns recur. Were there no such recurrent patterns – were there not the determinateness which makes those patterns discernible – none of what we refer to as science could be accomplished.

With this in mind, it becomes quickly apparent that the absolute as put forth by Wittgenstein itself gives the impression of being the sort of condition – a determinate condition – which can be subject to science. However, if “ethical value and importance” are absolute (in the sense of determinate) and, therefore, subjectable to scientific inquiry, it seems to be the case that none of the attempts at ethical values expression has yet managed to provide – as have other scientific endeavors - a sense that the relevant determinate absolute is being conceptually or expressively approached.

Whereas other sciences have been able to impart a sense of progress towards a fuller understanding about many investigated relatively (and, as noted, presumably) determinate conditions, in the case of “ethical value and importance” there does not seem to be any comparable advancement in understanding. Other sciences have managed to devise consistently applicable formulas, principles, and laws that anticipate specifiable details which themselves are at least practically invariant in otherwise distinctly different situations.

On the other hand, when it comes to principles concerning “ethical value and importance”, the details of different situations very often seem to present exceptions to – rather than confirmation of – any such principles, with the result being that, for the sake of consistent applicability, these principles - when revised - tend towards more indefinite expressions. Such a tendency is precisely the opposite of what is to be expected if there is some determinate absolute undergirding ethical value and significance and if the principles being devised are moving towards a fuller understanding of this determinate absolute.

However, there is a term other than absolute which has often been used in reference to the transcendent. That other term is the word infinite, a term which Wittgenstein does not address in his lecture.

For Emmanuel Levinas, any proper reference to the absolute is a reference to “the infinity … of the absolute”, a “transcendence beyond every end and every finality” such that, whatever there is of the infinite absolute that becomes effected in thoughts which have the determinate form that is necessary for these thoughts to be recognized as knowledge, there always remains still more “novelty of the absolute”.2

Accordingly, the term infinite indicates (the expectation of) an endlessness and - given the apparent lack of successful progressive analysis (reduction) to more precise patterns or principles - an indefiniteness rather than a determinate absolute.

Indefiniteness does not necessarily indicate either chaos or unreality or even an immutability of the indefiniteness, and this term can be epistemic or metaphysical or both. Infinite as indefiniteness can merely indicate an indeterminateness persisting beyond whatever determinateness there may ever be. Particularly as a not necessarily immutable indefiniteness, to say of the transcendent that it is infinite is to say that it persists with indefiniteness despite all possible knowledge and regardless of whatever changes there may be from indeterminateness to determinateness.

Although the term infinite can impart a sense about the transcendent which the term absolute in itself does not, when that which is described as absolute is also recognized as infinite, then the term absolute serves primarily to indicate a perpetual and unremitting otherness to the transcendent, and this is to say of the transcendent that it does not originate from (nor is it wholly contained) within this-worldliness, the conditions of this world – certainly those aspects of which certainly seem to be well studied empirically by means of science.

Even so, the sort of indefiniteness associated with the transcendent tends to support Wittgenstein’s contention that “there can be no science” which establishes “ethical value and importance” if that value and importance always remain to any extent transcendent. The matter to then be considered is whether an intractable but not necessarily unchanging indefiniteness is necessarily nonsensical and non-important.

For Wittgenstein, nonsensicality only indicates the condition of “not add[ing] to our knowledge”; accordingly it would seem that for Wittgenstein what can be termed sensicality (to indicate the negation of nonsensicality) or referred to as meaningfulness, sensibleness, or some other such term is – essentially by definition – only a matter of knowledge. Science, by its very nature or by definition, is the pursuit of knowledge. As such, science is related to the philosophical field of epistemology. Accordingly, philosophy is no less interested in knowledge than is science; however, unlike science, philosophy is not limited to matters of knowledge and the determinateness upon which science depends. Instead, philosophy is ultimately most properly identified with the pursuit of wisdom.

It is with wisdom rather than with knowledge alone that the indefinite is navigated. So, while science seeks knowledge, it necessarily depends upon wisdom in order to be able to mine the determinateness which science presumes is there to be recognized and described so as to become knowledge. This means that, even if the identification of “sensicality” (meaningfulness, sensibleness, etc.) with knowledge is accepted, it is nonsensical to insist that what nonsensicality there is within wisdom necessarily renders that wisdom non-important. Indeed, it is arguable that wisdom is more closely tied to importance than is knowledge (alone).

Of course, it seems that wisdom is always to be identified with that which follows from and because of wisdom – which is to say that wisdom is ultimately recognized and identified owing to what it effects. Within science, wisdom becomes recognized and maybe even appreciated only when knowledge is (or seems to have been) produced, but to claim that wisdom attains importance only upon the production of knowledge is simply to deny that there is anything important other than knowledge, and that in turn is simply to insist upon the identification of importance with knowledge without having established the exhaustiveness and, therefore, the necessity of relating or identifying knowledge with importance.

It might be argued that wisdom as the attempt at navigating the indefinite produces knowledge even when that attempt fails to produce a new solution to whatever happens to be the problem being addressed; this attempt at navigating the indefinite would be said to be important because it produces knowledge that the manner of that attempt does not provide a solution. However, by this reasoning, ethical investigations would qualify as having produced knowledge no matter how often these investigations fail to provide solutions in the form of principles which can be applied across differing situational details in a way that eliminates the need for judgment such as occurs when well defined scientific principles or laws are produced.

The knowledge which science seeks to produce is that which can be expressed as principles or laws which, having been abstracted from differing already-occurred situations, can then be applied in other distinct situations. The ultimate goal of such knowledge is to minimize the need for judgment and, therefore, wisdom. In effect, then, this knowledge is important to the extent that it makes redundant the very wisdom – the judgment – which brought the knowledge to fruition. Even so, it is absurd to insist that only knowledge in terms of principles is important when judgment in wisdom is essential – which is obviously to say important – to the production of knowledge.

This suggests that there is something amiss in exclusively identifying importance with knowledge. In fact, to insist upon what is in effect a tautological relationship between knowledge and importance is to assign a matter such as love to the realm of the non-important (and the nonsensical). Love, after all, is a very broad and, frankly, an indefinite condition, one which remains apart from the “sensicality” describable as knowledge. Accordingly, were importance identifiable only with knowledge, love would have to be assuredly unimportant, but to say about love that it is not a matter of knowledge is most definitely not to say that love is unimportant. From this it follows that importance is something other than the attainment of knowledge.

1 See the brief essay, A Characteristic of Truth, for further discussion about the relationship between truth and determinateness.
2 Emmanuel Levinas, “Forward”, in Of God Who Comes to Mind, Werner Hamacher and David E. Wellbery, eds., trans. By Bettina Bergo (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1998), pp. xii-xiii.

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2 Responses to The Importance of Nonsense

  1. Nick says:

    Thanks for this! I do think, however, that this is one place where Wittgenstein’s “pedigree” is painfully obvious. Let me explain: it was indeed very common, at Oxford and Cambridge in the 1940s, to view ethics as an attempt “to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolutely valuable.” The influence of Moore and Sidgwick made sure that philosophers continued to conceive of the subject as the search for ultimate principles. This allowed the behaviourist/positivist analysis of ethics to proceed without resistance (see Ayer).

    Yet, the history of ethics (and its future, post-Wittgenstein) is replete with examples of alternative research programmes, which we might label (for want of a better term) “Humean-pluralist”. These programmes begin with a psychologically realistic conception of human beings, and they attempt to help actual human beings make sense of their experiences by analyzing and criticizing the various concepts and ideas implicit in their own ethical thought. There is no need to climb into the transcendent to refute Wittgenstein, we need only note that he was sadly unaware of these possibilities, possibilities which had been realized as far back as Protagoras and which had already been explored by Pragmatists like Dewey in the 20th century.

    • Michael S. Pearl says:

      Nick, thank you very much for commenting.

      There is no need to climb into the transcendent to refute Wittgenstein …

      For the sake of greater clarity (and just in case that greater clarity is itself at all interesting): I do not think that the transcendent as discussed is in any way a refutation of Wittgenstein in his referenced lecture. The way he appears to favor knowledge (via its association with determinately expressed facts) without being disdainful of nonsense in and of itself (after all, he does end the lecture by saying about ethics presented in terms of - or aiming for - absolute principles, “so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life … it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it.”) seems well intended to have those who proffer a conception of value in terms of absolute to reconsider the nature of this absolute to which they refer.

      For instance, absolute might be necessarily conjoined with infinite as per Levinas. It is not at all apparent how such a transcendent condition would support an ethical reductionism to principles which (often or ever) eliminate or minimize the need for judgment. This just reinforces the sort of distinction between scientific pursuits and ethical pursuits which Wittgenstein seems to be trying to highlight. That distinction in no way depends upon any sort of non- or lesser-reality being associated with ethical positions or even the transcendent, although there could hardly be a science of the transcendent. Still, what science and ethics (as well as even considerations about the transcendent) would have in common is the importance of nonsense, an importance which is never eliminated by the attainment of any number of instances of knowledge. Of course, the importance of nonsense is that it points to the importance of judgment.

      … alternative research programmes, which we might label (for want of a better term) “Humean-pluralist”. These programmes begin with a psychologically realistic conception of human beings, and they attempt to help actual human beings make sense of their experiences by analyzing and criticizing the various concepts and ideas implicit in their own ethical thought.

      If Wittgenstein was pointing to (or had pointed to) the poverty of the absolute in itself for the sake of an appreciation for the richness of an absolute-infinite and the indeterminateness to be associated with it, then this, too, would have set the stage for a pluralism. Some people veritably recoil from the notion of transcendence, and they much prefer a context of strict immanence. That immanence is actually a common ground insofar as the importance of the transcendent is not separable from the concern with effecting the transcendent (despite its indeterminateness or indefiniteness) within the context of the natural world (so to speak). An ethics or a morality which does not include “a psychologically realistic conception of human beings” is unethical or immoral at best. Likewise, ethical thought (and even the lack thereof) is unavoidably about (or revelatory of) one’s own being and thinking - particularly as effected in judgment.

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