In 1998, just after my graduation, I came across a book titled ‘language, logic and truth’ by English philosopher Alfred Ayer. This book was a sort of watershed in my understanding of the literary world. Ayer provocatively stated that lot many things written and passed off as great philosophies are just ‘nonsense’. He said that many of them arise as confusion in the usage of language, and can be deciphered only when we know the limitation of our language and our ability to know.
For instance, look at a passage by the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer:
“Philosophy must at all costs be idealistic; indeed, it must be so merely to be honest. For nothing is more certain than that no one ever came out of himself in order to identify himself immediately with things different from him; but everything of which he has certain, sure, and therefore immediate knowledge, lies within his consciousness. Beyond this consciousness, therefore, there can be no immediate certainty …
There can never be an existence that is objective absolutely and in itself; such an existence, indeed, is positively inconceivable. For the objective, as such, always and essentially has its existence in the consciousness of a subject; it is therefore the subject’s representation, and consequently is conditioned by the subject, and moreover by the subject’s forms of representation, which belong to the subject and not to the object–”
According to Ayer such statements have no meaning. Plainly they are just nonsenses. They are the outcome of writers who get confused themselves and get entangled in the liberty provided by the language and their own thoughts.
Although of the creed of philosophers called logical positivists to whom Ayer belonged had a decline, his statement on the nature of language remains true to a large extend. We come across similar misuse of language in the writings of the so-called ‘postmodernist thinkers’. Physicists Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont have written a well-researched book on this. In the book, aptly titled “Fashionable nonsense’1, Sokal and Bricmont state that many of these writers ‘manipulate phrases and sentences that are, in fact, meaningless’. They add that some of these authors exhibit a ‘veritable intoxication with words, combined with a superb indifference to their meaning.’
I shall quote a particularly hilarious one to clarify the point. The following is by Katherine Hayles, an interpreter of Luce Irigaray, a French feminist-psychoanalytic cultural theorist.
” The privileging of solid over fluid mechanics, and indeed the inability of science to deal with turbulent flow at all, she ( Luce Irigaray) attributes to the association of fluidity with femininity. Whereas men have sexual organs that protrude and become rigid, women have openings that leak menstrual blood and vaginal fluids. Although men, too, flow on occasion-when semen is emitted, for example-this aspect of their sexuality is not emphasized. It is the rigidity of the male organs that counts. These idealizations are reinscribed in mathematics, which conceives of fluids as laminated planes and other modified solid forms. In the same way that women are erased within masculinist theories and language, existing only as not-men, so fluids have been erased from science, existing only as not-solids. From this perspective it is no wonder that science has not been able to arrive at a successful model for turbulence. The problem of turbulent flow cannot be solved because the conception of fluids ( and of women) have been formulated so as necessarily to leave unarticulated reminders” 2
Katherine Hayes seems to have ‘extracted’ the above ‘meaning’ from the original essay of Luce Irigrray which runs as follows:
“—It is already getting around-at what rate? In what contexts? In spite of what resistances? – that women themselves according to modalities scarcely compatible with the framework of the ruling symbolics. What doesn’t happen without causing some turbulence, we might even say some whirlwinds, that ought to be reconfined within solid walls of principle, to keep them from spreading to infinity. Otherwise they might even go so far as to disturb that third agency designated as the real- a transgression and confusion of boundaries that it is important to restore to their proper order.
So we shall have to turn back to “science” in order to ask it some questions. Ask, for example, about its historical in elaborating a “theory” of fluids, and about the ensuing aporia even in mathematical formalization.
Now if we examine the properties of fluids, we note that this “real” may well include, and in large measure, a physical reality that continues to resist adequate symbolization and/or that signifies the powerlessness of logic to incorporate in its writing all the characteristic features of nature. And it has often been found necessary to minimize certain of these features of nature, to envisage them, and it, only in light of an ideal status, so as to keep it/them from jamming the works of the theoretical machine—
— And how are we to prevent the very unconscious (of the) “subject” from being propagated as such, indeed diminished in its interpretation, by a systematic that remarks a historical “inattention” to fluids? In other words: what structuration of (the) language does not maintain a complicity of long standing between rationality and a mechanics of solids?3—-“
Inscrutability is the hallmark of these works. As the peer-groups within which these literature flourish also suffer from the same malady of abstruseness, objections are hardly raised against the opaqueness and the meaninglessness of the language.
Indeed, Katherine Hayle’s interpreting Luce Irigaray was titled as ‘Gender encoding in fluid mechanics: Masculine channels and feminine flows’! Irigaray titled her book on feminism as “The ‘mechanics’ of fluids”.
It was heroic of Sokal and Bricmont to get into the territory of postmodernists mumbo-jumbo and state that their utterances meant nothing. They did so in late 1990s. Alfred Ayer did it much earlier in 1936. In fact, he was prescient of what was to come in the form of postmodernism.
While postmodernists play of words may appear innocous, similar inscrutability thrive in literature on religion, politics and many other disciplines connected with humanities. Many interceptors of oriental philosophy and new-age gurus live on such sophistries. We shall discuss many such examples in the course of this blog.
Inspired by Alfred Ayer, I wrote an article in our college magazine titled “propaganda, reason and logic: A perspective of reasoning in languages of common use”
Here I tried to show that languages of common use (LCU)4 are an inadequate means of ‘reasoning’. Reasoning is defined as a process of reaching a conclusion from a set of facts. I proposed that if reasoning is correct an identical set of facts would only yield a single conclusion. Logic is a methodological rule book that try to ensure that reasoning is correct. But most of the times when we do reasoning in LCU , we do not stick to the rule book of logic, but waiver to create incorrect conclusions for various reasons. The LCU allow this to happen. The techniques that allow people to make ‘desired’ conclusions from same set of facts is called ‘rhetoric’. English philosopher John Locke described rhetoric as an “instrument of error and deceit.
LCU allow use of rhetorical techniques to scuttle unity of conclusions. It allows the author to arrive at conclusions he or she wish to reach. Therefore, reasoning in language of common use yield multiple conclusions for the same fact of the matter. Further more, many a times authors get carried away by the inherit ‘looseness’ of language of common use, that nothing prevents them from making absurd and ridiculous claims.
What is the solution to this issue?
Why do need a solution?
To answer the second question, we need a solution to secure peace.
This comes from the realization that at the most fundamental level peace is the direct consequence of our ability to reach at a consensus. If there is no consensus, there won’t be peace. To arrive at a consensus is the first step to achieve durable peace.
How do you achieve consensus? How do you solve the problem of languages of common use?
We could achieve this by analyzing the rhetorical techniques and logical fallacies prevalent in LCUs.
I think the first step towards this is to clarify concept words in LCU. The second step is to look at how people waiver in their reasoning process.
The best way of doing this is to analyze the model put forth by natural science. Because science is the greatest invention of human, and most important reason for its success is its ability to reach at consensus.
Analyzing the consensus-making methods of science would help us to achieve lot in resolving conflicts in our civic space. Here again there a few issues, but as a general rule the consensus generating ability of science is unparalleled in the history of mankind, and there are quite a lot to learn from it as a means of successful conflict resolution.
- Sokal A, Bricmont J. Fashionable nonsense: Postmodern intellectuals abuse of science. N.Y: Picador; 1998
- Hayles KN. Gender encoding in fluid mechanics: Masculine channels and feminine flows. Differences: A Journal of feminist cultural studies 1992; 4(2): 16-44
- Irigaray L. The mechanics of fluids. In This sex which is not one. Ithaya, N.Y: Corell University Press; 1985.
- Language of common use as against formal languages as used in computer science, formal logic or mathematics.