Nonsense and The Fight for a Transparent Political Rhetoric

Clear expression is the foundation upon which we build our political rhetoric. It is important for any liberatory project that our protests and our pronouncements be understood and that we have the means to expose as nonsense any justification given to us for our oppression. However, for the liberal academic, animated as they are by a spirit of charity, accusations of nonsense and their concomitant demand for clear expression have become suspect. These academics are too stupid and too cowardly to appreciate what their charity has bought them. Their suspicions have undermined their own rhetorical foundations and left them ill equipped to respond to the present political moment and to the swelling tide of dispossession and violence that will crash down upon them. If we are to respond at all, if we are to have any hope in succeeding for the sake of the marginalised and oppressed, we must oppose the erosion of our political discourse and fight for clear expression. This may be only the beginning of a liberatory project, but it is an essential step towards its success.

For the liberal academic, of course, language is a purely descriptive, theoretical concern. They recognise no stakes and accept no demands. They are blind to the normative dimension of language and its political valence. It is from this ignorance that Charles Pigden demeans accusations of nonsense as totalitarian and unjust. For him, Neurath was just as bad, just as evil, as the Fascists he was fighting. And certainly there must be a case to be made here. Neurath is not perfect. His ISOTYPE was a distinctly Viennese symbolism which struggled to accommodate the diversity of human experience. Pigden worries that Neurath has unjustly excluded lives and languages other than his own. That this equates in Pigden’s mind to full-scale totalitarianism is laughable. Especially since he is not worried about defending different cultures or different lifestyles. He is worried instead about defending the prospects of metaphysics. “Are there no languages which are, so to speak, metaphysical all the way down?” he asks.[1] And of course if this is your worry you might be tempted to equate the fascists with those fighting against them (even despite the explicitly metaphysical character of German fascism). But Neurath’s project is entirely different. He sought to eliminate racism and nationalism by making racist and nationalist thought and expression impossible. Neurath may have failed in this effort, but it does not follow that racism or nationalism or metaphysics is sensible, as Pigden alleges. Far from it.

A victim of liberal modernity, Pigden reacts to Neurath by declaring any and all “coercive theories of meaning” to be false. His ultimate argument against them, beyond badly misunderstanding their use[2], is an exercise in stone-kicking. The explananda of a theory of meaning, he says, are our linguistic intuitions about what sorts of expressions are meaningful. A coercive theory of meaning attempts to revise what we take to be significant, to “contract the realm of the meaningful.”[3] But, he asks, “Where does the theory get the authority to overcome [our linguistic intuitions]?”[4] When Rosenberg talks about the Eternal Jew and the racial ladder, or when Heidegger talks about the German people hoisting Dasein upon its shoulders, what right does Neurath have in saying that they are speaking nonsense? Surely they must mean something by their convoluted expressions! These fascists are not totalitarians, no: it is Neurath who unjustly coerces them by dismissing their views as nonsense.

A theory of meaning is quite a different thing than a scientific theory. It does not explain. It cannot explain. It has no explananda, least of all our pretheoretic linguistic intuitions. Rather, a theory of meaning is strictly normative. Through it we understand, cultivate, and negotiate our agency as linguistic creatures not alone but within a linguistic community. For Neurath, German had been poorly negotiated. A long history of competing and evolving influences had exacerbated rather that resolve the tensions implicit in human experience. Far too often did German expressions appear to have a meaning only to have that sense evaporate under closer inspection. Instead of waiting for German to organically correct itself, Neurath appealed to the productive power of theoretical science in order to engineer a language. He failed. It has become clear that the functions of natural language cannot (yet) be replicated by even the best science. But this is not to say that we should give up entirely the project to improve language. In their reluctance to treat language as normative, liberal academics have cast themselves off into the current of language and surrendered to its rhetorical ebbs.

If we are seriously interested in constructing a better, juster, freer society, we should take pains to master our language. This is a different project than strict political rhetoric just as surveying a battlefield differs from fighting a battle. A theory of meaning is impartial with respect to what can be meant.[5] But taking stock of how meaning is conveyed and negotiated permits us not only our own interventions, but also to recognise when expressions violate the terms of our agreement. This is nonsense. This is when an expression, despite any appearances to the contrary, fails to signify. This most often occurs by accident, when a speaker mistakenly transgresses linguistic strictures. But this occasionally occurs purposefully, even if unknowingly, for the sake of some rhetorical exercise. It is at this time that linguistic negotiation begins in order that an expression may be either made meaningful and incorporated into a language or dismissed as a confusion. That dismissal is only one (often marginal) possibility demonstrates just how far off Pigden’s understanding of “coercive” theories of meaning has strayed. There is nothing coercive about them. They rather provide transparent mechanisms  for including and supporting diverse discourses into the whole of our language. It appears still that Pigden only objects to dismissing those expressions which not only do not signify but which cannot signify. But if Pigden wishes to continue kicking stones he should be prepared to express himself clearly in order that his expressions may become meaningful. These are the risks: at times, our expressions dissipate into the aether and what appeared to us to be meaningful ceases to have any significance for us. And if that’s the cost of justice, we could have purchased it centuries ago.

In truth, nonsense has a rhetorical mystique and power that is difficult to surrender. No party has been willing thus far to do so. They most often oscillate back and forth between exposing the nonsense of their opponents and manufacturing their own nonsense. So often we think of rhetoric as trickery that we forget that in politics, we wish to persuade. And so I contest that we ourselves shrug off the need for nonsense and trickery and strive instead for clear expression. If we speak in terms that people can confidently grasp, we shall find our projects to be more confidently embraced. Then, and perhaps only then, shall we find liberation.  


[1] Charles Pigden, “Coercive Theories of Meaning, Or: Why Language Shouldn’t Matter (So Much) to Philosophy,” Logique et Analyse 53 (210): 151, 2010: 155

[2] Pigden charges Neurath, Wittgenstein, et cetera with performative and theoretical contradiction for declaring some domain of discourse to be nonsense because, on his view, these theories of meaning necessarily outstrip the thoughts expressible in language. Had Pigden thought deeply about the motivations for these theories, however, he would recognise his error: “coercive” theories of meaning are not supposed to be sensible, expressible, verifiable, or any such thing. They are normative constraints on what can be sensibly expressed and understood. Wittgenstein goes so far as to openly and purposely construct his Tractatus as a work of nonsense, and Neurath too is open about his political and normative motivations. It was not until logical positivism was appropriated by apolitical English theorists that the question of the empirical adequacy of a theory of meaning even arose in part because these theorists could not grasp the normative even if it had handles.

[3] Pigden, 179

[4] Pigden, 178

[5] Philosophers must of course be careful that they genuinely examine language impartially. Far too often they pretend to an appreciation of an ordinary conception of meaning, whatever that might be, while nevertheless using a theory of meaning to obscure their own agenda. Wittgensteinians in particular are guilty of this, often in order to isolate their own philosophical commitments (such as Wittgenstein’s mystical Christianity) from philosophical critique. One indication of this is that the Wittgensteinian grounds their theory of meaning in a simple meaning relation, namely rules, that are manifested by a form of life. But as with everything human, meaning relations come in a wide variety, and their interaction provides the complexity and often the intractability of language.

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