The First Rule of Wittgenstein Club?

I’d like in this post to consider a doctrine I will call Semantic Pyrrhonism.

Classical Pyrrhonism (as defended by Sextus Empiricus, e.g.) is most naturally understood as an epistemic doctrine. This doctrine contains the following components: first, that propositions may be divided into two types, roughly, the propositions of ordinary life (whichever those are – usually they are thought of as being grounded in some kind of more-or-less unproblematic types of perception, desire, and/or social life) and the propositions of, let us say, ‘theory’: science, philosophy, religion, and so on. Second, that the theoretical propositions are one and all unknowable, so that one should neither believe nor disbelieve them, but rather maintain neutrality with respect to them – to be skeptical of them in one sense of that word.

One problem with Epistemic Pyrrhonism is that of delimiting the boundary between the ordinary and the theoretical. It is simply not clear where that boundary lies, as anyone familiar with realist-empiricist debates in philosophy of science over the last half-century can attest to. (An unfertilized egg is a single cell; are cells theoretical posits or objects of ordinary observation?) But the deeper issue is that of specifying the boundary. It seems that any specification of a boundary between the ordinary and the theoretical would have to be a theoretical specification, since we don’t seem to be provided with clear criteria here by nature or some simple form of perception. But as such, the boundary thus specified would have to remain unknowable, since it would fall on the theoretical side of the division.

I leave it as an exercise for the interested reader to determine whether this aspect of Epistemic Pyrrhonism should be a matter of concern to a serious adherent of that view.

Having adumbrated this doctrine, however, let us move on to its stronger analogue, Semantic Pyrrhonism. Semantic Pyrrhonism accepts some similar sort of distinction between types of propositions, say those belonging to ‘ordinary language’ and/or ‘natural science’ on one side and those belonging to philosophy, metaphysics, etc. on the other.  But its claim about the propositions of the far side is not that they are unknowable; rather, they are simply meaningless. It’s not that we can’t know whether, say, being is intrinsically determinate (that is, whether being is always being-such-and-such); rather, the propositions ‘being is intrinsically determinate’ and ‘being is not intrinsically determinate’ are alike nonsensical, saying nothing at all.

Let us say that, for whatever reason, a person was attracted to Semantic Pyrrhonism. It seems to me that such a person might well pass through several stages of understanding of her own doctrine.

The first stage might run like this: “We now have a clear demarcation of sense from nonsense. Being in possession of this, we can now sort out the sciences, humanities, and other forms of human discourse, and in general let people know which utterances of theirs are meaningful and which are not.” To argue this position, you would need to state more precisely what constituted the boundary between meaningful and meaningless propositions. If you were a thoughtful person, or if other philosophers pestered you about it enough, you would eventually come to realize that your proposed demarcation was itself on the ‘philosophical’ or ‘metaphysical’ side of the boundary, and thus that your actual pronouncements about your own position were meaningless.

(A special case of the above: the verification theory of meaning is not itself verifiable.)

At this point a mild bewilderment might set in. You tried to demarcate the meaningful from the meaningless, but your demarcation failed to meet its own standard. And yet! You were so sure that you had exposed various propositions as nonsense, and likewise gotten a grasp of how sensible propositions were constructed. And it can’t after all be doubted that reasoning has its structures, and arguing in language as well.

So what to make of all this? You might think: well, we can’t state what separates significant propositions from nonsense, but we recognize sense where we find it, and recognize too what constitutes good reasoning from propositions with sense and what doesn’t. There is some confusing thing here, perhaps analogous to the paradoxes of self-reference, that prevents us from completely articulating what the bounds of sense might be, but nonetheless we can think those bounds by way of this kind of sustained conceptual investigation. By investigating that which has sense we can develop a sense for its boundaries and recognize what lies without and what lies within, even if the precise bounds are unstatable.

But this position winds up being unstable too. What is this thought that compasses all sensible utterance and yet which cannot be stated? A strange sort of meta-seeing, this: not watching the sunrise or drinking cool water, but rather a mental appreciation that what we say about sunrises and glasses of water and things of that sort can be true or false, while what we say about the freedom of the will and the intrinsic determinacy of being and non-things of that sort can’t

This is quite a lot of structure to pack into a non-linguistic perception, even assuming such things are possible.

But what else can you do? Well, there is a third way, after all. Like the Epistemic Pyrrhonean, we appear to have a problem here with our proposed demarcation of sense from nonsense. We can’t coherently state what this demarcation is, since it rules itself out, and we can’t think it either.

But what we can do is simply stick to saying things that make sense. When someone else talks to us in a way that doesn’t make any obvious sense, we can quiz her to see what she is talking about; perhaps she knows something we don’t and we can learn from her. If this doesn’t work out there may eventually come a point where we try to shake her out of her complacent acquiescence to talking nonsense by trying to expose that nonsense for what it is, deriving contradictions, exposing lacunae, asking for the meaning of terms, and so on. And likewise, when we find ourselves driven to talk in similar ways, we can try to chase down what makes us want to talk that way in the first place.

From this point of view we take our existing forms of sense-making as a given and resist the urge to include things that don’t make sense, or cut off things that do, on the basis of various generalizations we might be inclined to make about what makes sense and what doesn’t.

So has the Semantic Pyrrhonist undermined her own doctrine at this third phase or not? On the one hand, the answer is in some sense yes, in that there is no particular doctrine here to be expressed any more; any attempt to express it must end in meaningless utterance. On the other hand – the Semantic Pyrrhonist seems now to relate to language and communication in a different way. Propositions having a clear sense in context are de-problematized, regardless of odd inferences one might draw from them – the odd inferences are the problem, not the propositions. And generalizations are now no longer any better than their application.

If someone accuses the Semantic Pyrrhonist of being conservative, or perverse, she has a simple recourse: she’s just trying to figure out what people are saying, and whether or not it is true, the same as the rest of us.

6.53 The right method of philosophy would be this. To say nothing except what can be said, i.e. the propositions of natural science, i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy: and then always, when someone else wished to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had given no meaning to certain signs in his propositions. This method would be unsatisfying to the other—he would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy—but it would be the only strictly correct method.

7 Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.


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