Saturday 17 October 2020

On the Failures of Nonsense-Policing and Ordinary Language Philosophy

In this post I reflect on the failures of nonsense-policing and ordinary language philosophy, and the fact that notwithstanding these failures, paying critical attention to semantic issues is of central importance in philosophy, and in metaphysics as well as philosophy of language. 

The early Twentieth Century saw a surge of interest in the idea that the apparently intractable problems of philosophy come from misunderstanding language, and that philosophical questions are often unanswerable not because they are too difficult for us, but because they fail to make sense, or we fail to understand them properly.

This idea took various forms. The logical positivists attempted to give general criteria of meaningfulness using the notion of verification, the early Wittgenstein aims at a comprehensive, general theory of how language represent which leaves no place for genuine philosophical propositions, and more specific doctrines in logic and philosophy of language were used to dissolve particular problems.

Logical positivists attempted to formulate a criterion of meaningfulness in terms of the notion of verifiability. The basic idea is that a meaningful sentence must either be analytic (i.e. true in virtue of meaning) or verifiable in principle by experience. Philosophical sentences which are neither analytic nor verifiable experientially are therefore meaningless if this idea is correct, and works of metaphysics appear to be full of such sentences. As powerful as this idea seemed to the logical positivists, attempts to work it out in detail ran into trouble. There are also serious problems affecting even the basic idea; what about statements about minute happenings in the distant past, or events outside our light cone? (Such cases are more or less worrying depending on how one thinks about ‘verifiability in principle’.) And what about competing theoretical claims that do not appear to be analytic but where the contest does not appear to be settled by any possible experience? These arise in science as well as philosophy and we seem to decide about them on the basis of things like theoretical virtues rather than empirical tests. Thus the whole idea of experiential verifiability as a criterion of meaningfulness has been largely abandoned (at least in academic philosophy; it enjoys a vigorous half-life, along with Popper’s idea that truly scientific theories must be falsifiable, in the wider intellectual culture).

Wittgenstein in the Tractatus (a source of inspiration for the verificationists) attempts to say in general how meaningful propositions are constructed. In numbered, often cryptic remarks, we are given a beautiful, austere picture of how language represents. Elementary propositions are constructed out of names, and more complex propositions are constructed from them by simple logical operations. Anything which can’t be constructed in this way is not a genuine proposition. And many sentences in philosophical works fail to be genuine propositions. Wittgenstein’s proposal is that, with theses and questions in metaphysical philosophy, something akin to what is wrong with the sentence ‘Mortality is Socrates’ has gone wrong, only more subtly so.

(Wittgenstein’s later work is also replete with denials of sense, although it is up for debate what these come to and what they are based on. Assessing expressions for sense becomes a looser, more occasion-sensitive affair in the later work, as opposed to being based on some general theory of meaningfulness. Sense-denying aspects of Wittgenstein’s work, and interpreters of his work who emphasise them (e.g. P.M.S. Hacker), have come in for extensive criticism, and are seldom echoed in more recent contemporary philosophy. I see them as an unfortunate holdover from the early work, and as marking a place where Wittgenstein’s ideas require both revision and further development.)

Apart from general criteria of meaningfulness and overarching theories of what can be said, logical doctrines about particular parts of language have also been used to dispense with philosophical problems by denying sense. A famous example is the doctrine, defended by Bertrand Russell and wielded by many later writers (a prominent example being Rudolph Carnap), that ‘exists’ cannot be used with proper names. This is a kind of modern logical version of Kant’s doctrine that existence is not a predicate. From a contemporary point of view, this seems hopelessly revisionary. What we ordinarily call ‘proper names’ can meaningfully be put together with ‘exists’, and logically minded philosophers must accommodate this fact as best they can. 

The above views have in common that they are supposed to be based on the technical foundation of modern logic. Another influential Twentieth Century development of the idea that a better understanding of linguistic meaning is methodologically crucial is the Ordinary Language Philosophy (OLP) movement, as spearheaded by J.L. Austin. In a way it involves a kind of nonsense policing, but there is no general, technical policy that is being enforced; the OLP nonsense police, if that’s what they are, know that they’re operating in a complicated society and will require good judgement. This no doubt enhanced OLP’s plausibility in the wake of logical positivism’s failure.

I once heard from a mentor that in the 1960’s there was a feeling in the air that the traditional problems of philosophy would soon be cleared up by means of OLP. That this hasn’t happened should be uncontroversial. Why it hasn’t happened is more controversial, but we can speculate. One factor seems to be that the urge to use language in extraordinary ways is deep-rooted. No amount of attention to ordinary usage can stop it. Metaphysicians have become more self-conscious about the fact that their use of key terminology may depart from ordinary usage, and have found ways to persist in it nonetheless. (For example, in response to arguments by Eli Hirsch to the effect that non-commonsensical claims in ontology simply couldn’t be true, since they fly in the face of metasemantic wisdom - charity demands that we interpret natural language sentences so they aren’t radically false - Theodore Sider has argued that non-commonsensical metaphysical views should be regarded as being stated in Ontologese, a special non-ordinary language. For the Hirsch-Sider debate, see (in dialectical order) Hirsch (2010) (a collection of essays), Sider (2009), Hirsch (2008) and Sider (2014).)

Another factor may be a lack of technical sophistication: philosophy can get quite technical, but OLP tends not to come along for the ride. (Perhaps proponents of OLP could have done better here, either by coming along for the ride in some fashion or by forestalling misguided research programmes.) OLP at its most interesting can also become quite idiosyncratic and fragile, in contrast to a more recent trend of international and interpersonal cooperation. One of the most intriguing developments of OLP, the work of Stanley Cavell, typifies this tendency: you see all this sophistication, all these interesting scruples, but you have to be a special kind of person in a special kind of culture to appreciate it. Interesting as it may be, such work can be difficult to make use of in the sort of thing that Bertrand Russell called ‘technical philosophy’. Above all, the ordinary language philosophy of the mid Twentieth Century has simply been sidelined by more vital developments in connection with which it appears at least to have little to offer. Quine, Putnam, Kripke, Lewis and many others come on the scene, we get a whole raft of topics and problems to work on, and ordinary language philosophy falls by the wayside. 

The failures of nonsense-policing and ordinary language philosophy have had the unfortunate consequence of leading to complacency about sense in contemporary philosophy; a kind of presumption of innocence, where once basic standards of clarity have been met, we tend to take it for granted that philosophers’ utterances are meaningful and that we understand well enough what they mean. According to this way of thinking, the important work in philosophy tends to consist, not in inquiring not into the sense of expressions, but rather into which claims are true.

But the failure of nonsense-policing should not be taken to suggest that the analysis of meaning is not of central importance in philosophy. There may not be much of a future for denying meaning to animating words and phrases, but there remains a need to be critical and inquisitive about what they do mean. We are often being critical in this way even if we aren’t explicitly talking about meaning, or aren’t doing so systematically. But to get further we need to be able to be self-conscious and systematic, without losing crucial data that doesn’t fit well with the kind of thin, reference-based conception of meaning that now seems to hold sway again in philosophy.


Hirsch, Eli (2010). Quantifier Variance and Realism: Essays in Metaontology. Oxford University Press.

Hirsch, Eli (2008). Language, ontology, and structure. Noûs 42 (3):509-528.

Sider, Theodore (2009). Ontological realism. In David John Chalmers, David Manley & Ryan Wasserman (eds.), Metametaphysics: New Essays on the Foundations of Ontology. Oxford University Press. pp. 384-423.

Sider, Theodore (2014). Hirsch's Attack on Ontologese. Noûs 48 (3):565-572.