Philosopher’s corner: where a false claim becomes a nonsense claim

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Julian Baggini
Julian Baggini edits and publishes the quarterly The Philosopher’s Magazine

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This article originally appeared in The Skeptic, Volume 15, Issue 2, from 2002.

There are only two things I disbelieve as a matter of principle: things that are false and things that are nonsense. The difference between the two is important, and is giving me a headache.

One useful philosophical principle that can help us decide what to accept as true or reject as false is the principle of charity. This requires us to interpret the position under examination in the way which makes it as rational and cogent as possible. Put another way, the principle states: don’t erect a straw man. I believe this principle is absolutely central to earnest intellectual inquiry. We are often tempted to portray the opinions of our opponents in such a way as to make them look as irrational and implausible as possible. This makes it easier for us to score points against them and confirm our own views. But our victory is hollow unless we test the strongest version of their claims. For example, if you want to prove you have a better football team than Manchester United you have to play their first eleven. Beat their reserves and you can always say “we beat Man U”, but you know deep down the contest was rigged. Similarly, you have only defeated your intellectual opponent if you have taken on the strongest case supporting their belief.

So, if you consider any view while following the principle of charity, by the end you should be able to decide whether it is true, false or whether the jury’s still out. Simple.

But what about nonsense? This is much trickier. The process of assessing a point of view or argument is much more straightforward if you can make sense of it. Unless we want to play at crude relativism, it is quite clear, for example, that the statement “it is safer to use MMR than not” must be either true or false. With nonsense, we don’t say it is true or false, we say it doesn’t make sense. Thus, “the yellow anger sung exponentially” isn’t true or false – it’s gobbledegook.

You might be tempted to say this is false, but problems arise if you do. Hence Bertrand Russell’s obsession with the statement “The present King of France is bald”. If there is no present king of France, to say this is false creates a logical problem because it would imply that “The present King of France is not bald” is true. But of course that isn’t true either. Philosophers love such logical conundrums as much as non-philosophers find them ridiculous.

Black and orange 3D question marks laid on a black background

Here’s the cause of my headache: how do you decide whether something is nonsense or whether you just don’t understand it? There are clear examples of both. Some nonsense is easy to spot, such as the rubbish I wrote above about yellow anger. On other occasions it is obvious that we are in no position to judge. Such would be the case if I failed to follow a lecture in theoretical physics. I know full well that I just don’t know enough about it to decide if it’s nonsense or not.

The problem arises in the intermediate cases, what we might call the Derrida problem. Someone with a British intellectual training who tries to read Derrida often becomes utterly confused. The trouble is, Derrida is not talking theoretical physics. His subject matter is the same as that of his British contemporaries. So there is an expectation that we should be able to understand him and when we don’t, it’s easy to think that he’s just talking nonsense.

But to do this seems chauvinistic. Surely the principle of charity, in this instance, decrees that the most charitable explanation of Derrida’s difficulty is that it just is difficult and you need to spend much more time studying him if you want to make sense of him. Until and unless one makes such an effort, judgement must be suspended. And it’s no good saying that certain of his pronouncements are just incoherent. We must at least allow for the possibility that Derridian discourse, though paradoxical from our viewpoint, is intellectually rigorous and just as capable of being rationally assessed as our home-grown philosophy. The semblance of contradiction, for example, may simply be an artefact of our way of reading him.

However, this is troubling. We want to disbelieve the false and the nonsensical. Indeed, many skeptics argue against certain beliefs (perhaps particularly New Age ones) on the grounds of their incoherence rather than their falsity. If the principle of charity demands that we suspend judgement when we don’t understand something – or when we think we understand it to be nonsense but others insist we just haven’t been thinking about it appropriately – it seems we might have to suspend judgement about too much.

Therein lies the cause of my headache. How do I best assess the views of those who, to the extent to which I do understand them, seem to be talking nonsense, but of whom some might say I just don’t understand them at all? It’s not just my problem – it’s one for all skeptics.

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