On Philosophy

June 19, 2007

Method: How To Avoid Writing Nonsense

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

As a philosopher the thing to fear is not being wrong. Being wrong is inevitable. The thing to fear is writing nonsense while being unaware that you are writing nonsense. This is not because nonsense doesn’t pay or isn’t respected. It is perfectly possible to be paid to write nonsense, and even to write nonsense well enough that other people begin to think of it as profound. So I guess if you do philosophy just as a job or to be some kind of public figure then writing nonsense might be fine. But philosophy generally doesn’t pay that well, and it is rare for a philosopher to become well known, so I suspect that if you do philosophy it is because you want to contribute to philosophy, to make some small progress of your own. In that case nonsense, even nonsense that convinces other people that it is not nonsense, is to be avoided at all costs. Obviously it is best to be right, but even being wrong can be a contribution to philosophy as a whole, by eliminating one solution from the list of possibilities. But nonsense makes no lasting contribution at all. Once it is recognized as nonsense it will simply be discarded.

The problem with nonsense is that there is no guarantee that it will be immediately recognized as such. Certainly it never seems to be nonsense to the author. And so the author will thus present it as making sense, and may do so well enough to convince others that it has content. And once the ball gets rolling it becomes harder and harder for people to come out and say that it is nonsense, especially when it starts being taught in classes. Instead of rejecting it as nonsense people begin to think that their lack of understanding is a sign that it is really deep and profound. This may lead them to study it until it begins to make sense to them, and which point they will begin to champion it as deep and profound, repeating the cycle. So, to get back to my original topic, even if we are writing nonsense there may be no clear indication of that fact. And so to avoid accidentally writing nonsense it is necessary to look closely and objectively at our own work.

But, before I describe a relatively reliable process for detecting nonsense, let me first describe the traditional rules of thumb for detecting nonsense.
1- most sentences contain at least one word that cannot be found in a small dictionary
2- it is hard to explain what is being claimed in simpler terms
3- an obsession with oneness, being, transcendence, or nothingness
4- capitalization of Words other than proper names in the middle of sentences
5- putting single “words” in quotes without sufficient reason
6- mathematical terms used in a non-mathematical context
7- others say that it sounds eastern or post-modern
Of course these rules of thumb aren’t perfect. If is perfectly possible for something that makes sense to violate some or all of these rules, and it is perfectly possible for nonsense not to break any of them. So these rules of thumb aren’t the best when it comes to evaluating our own work. However they can be quite useful when there is only a limited time in which to read a large number of journal articles, instead of carefully considering whether each particular paper makes sense we can save ourselves from reading many of them by applying these rules of thumb, at the cost of skipping the occasional useful paper disguised as nonsense.

Given that the traditional rules of thumb are imperfect I think that the best way to detect nonsense is simply by considering what the world would be like if the claim being considered was false, and some competing claim was true. If the world would be exactly the same, or the possibility of the claim being false is incoherent, then there is a good chance that the claim in question is nonsense. For example, consider the mystical claim that “all is one”. Would the world be different if the opposite, that “all is not one”, were the case? I can’t see how it would be. Thus it appears that the claim that “all is one” is not really claiming anything at all. It is thus nonsense, a non-claim verbally dressed up to seem like a claim. Or consider the claim that “all successful contemporary societies are virtuous”, where virtuous is defined as the property of not being conquered by an external foe. Considering what the world would be like if the opposite is true is to consider what a successful contemporary society that is conquered by an external foe would be like. But obviously that is a contradiction in terms, because it is impossible to be both a successful society and a conquered one. Thus the claim is revealed as not actually a proper claim. In contrast consider that same claim where virtuous is defined as having a mechanism for resolving internal disputes. Considering the opposite being true in this case is considering a world containing a successful contemporary society with no method for resolving internal disputes. Although such a society seems unlikely to exist it isn’t impossible by definition, and thus the claim is a real claim.

But despite the usefulness of this method there is one important exception to keep in mind, namely when dealing with claims that are intended to be definitions. Often a work that is not nonsense will want to provide some terms with more precise meanings, and will thus begin by defining those terms. Obviously such definitional claims are tautologies, and hence it makes no sense to consider what things would like if they were false. But, on the other hand, this is because they aren’t really claims at all, properly speaking, rather they provide the framework with which claims will be later made. So when evaluating whether something is nonsense it is important to remember to evaluate the central claims with this method, and not the preliminary definitions. (Of course something that is all definitions is nonsense, unless it is a dictionary, because it is probably portraying those definitions as if they were claims.)

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