Late 20th Century Nonsense Police

There has been a discussion of the late Burton Dreben taking place on Brian Leiter’s blog here. (Leiter posted the entry back around Christmas, but revived the discussion 3 days ago by moving it up to the top of his blog.) I had commented a few times in the discussion, but because I know so little about Dreben, I was mostly asking questions. It’s an interesting discussion, with some defenders of Dreben taking part.

Dreben is famous for branding large stretches of philosophy as “nonsense.” He published very little, but had many students, and was very influential.

So, what has this to do with epistemology? Well, the history of the 20th Century Nonsense Police, of course, goes way back toward the beginning of that century, and much of their critical attention was directed at epistemology (as well as at metaphysics). In fact, my own interest in the topic is largely explained by the fact that a good-sized chunk of my dissertation (written under the supervision of Rogers Albritton) dealt with mid-century claims made by Malcolm (inspired by Wittgenstein; especially Malcolm’s “Defending Common Sense,” and his “Moore and Wittgenstein on the Sense of ‘I Know'”) and Wittgenstein (inspired, in turn, by Malcolm; especially W’s On Certainty; see pp. 171-172 of Malcolm’s “Moore and Wittgenstein…” [page ref. to the appearance of the paper in Malcolm’s book Thought and Knowledge] for the impact of Malcolm’s “Defending Common Sense” on Wittgenstein’s thought) that various uses, especially philosophical uses of “I know…” are meaningless or nonsense. Also, one of my first-hand sources on Dreben — someone who himself was actually accused of speaking nonsense by Dreben, while speaking at Harvard — was, if I’m recalling correctly, giving an epistemology paper at the time (and a paper I thought quite well of).

In the end, I found the Malcolm/Wittgenstein case(s) for their charge of nonsense to be quite weak. But at least it was there to be looked at and critically assessed. The problem I have with Dreben, and more generally with late 20th Century Nonsense Police, is that it’s very hard to find out in any detail at all why they thought this or that was nonsense…

To be fair, as I admitted in the discussion at Leiter’s blog, “I believe I got all my ‘info’ on Dreben directly or indirectly from defenders of what Dreben declared ‘nonsense’,” so I have very biased sources. Thus, as I also admitted, it’s perhaps not at all surprising that they should report that Dreben really had nothing but the force of personality (but a considerable amount of that) to back up his charges when he was challenged.

But it seems that there is a fairly obvious way for defenders of Dreben to address the worry that Dreben seemed to have no good grounds for his charges: Produce the grounds!

“Well, he didn’t have any general recipe. He had no theory of nonsense. The reasons varied from case to case.”

Alright, then: Take a few particular cases of things most philosophers (at least nowadays) would think to be perfectly meaningful, and tell us, as best you can, what Dreben’s argument was for the charge that that piece of philosophy is in fact nonsense. (Explaining as well, if need be, exactly what the charge means.)

About 7 years ago, I wrote a review of Avrum Stoll’s Moore and Wittgenstein on Certainty, in which Stroll, while showing great appreciation for Moore, ended up defending Wittgenstein’s position that Moore’s philosophical uses of “know(s)” were in fact nonsense. In connection with writing that review, I did make some considerable effort to find out if there were more recent written defenses of the Wittgenstein position that those who had sympathies for the position would recommend that I read to see the best example of such a case. My informants tended to have the attitude, “No, no, don’t take the Stroll to be representative of the best that can be said,” but they also weren’t able to point to something better that I could read — or at least they refused to recommend anything better.

It was all very suspicious: It had something of the flavor of a cult: If you really wanted to know why all this stuff may be nonsense, you had to have attached yourself as a disciple to someone like Dreben, and eventually you’d have been able to get a sense for his reasons and come to appreciate them. Particularly, it made me suspect that late 20th C nonsense police had learned this lesson from some of their predacessors from earlier in the century: If make your reasons very explicit, they’ll be attacked; so keep them shrouded — it will seem deep & mysterious, and it will be hard to attack. Well, maybe I have too suspicious a mind.

But if there were good reasons behind Dreben’s (and others) charges, why wouldn’t someone — some student or defender — write them up for us in some public place?

Well, maybe it’s out there, and I’ve just missed it. In this new age of blogs, I can go beyond my meagre e-mails-to-friends of several years ago and quite publically ask for reading recommendations. So, to defenders of Dreben: If Dreben had good grounds for his charges, where, if anywhere, can I go to read a good presentation of those reasons? (Again, it’s fine if this is just his reasons against particular pieces of philosophy, with no pretensions of being some kind of general theory of nonsense.)

If there are really good grounds, but they aren’t yet written up anywhere, getting them written up sounds like a really good project for someone to undertake.


Late 20th Century Nonsense Police — 17 Comments

  1. Keith, having been raised in and thoroughly indoctrinated into a cult of post-Wittgensteinian ordinary language philosophy, I am sympathetic with your diagnosis of how the nonsense police work. I’m at some distance from my inital deprogramming, so I am more sympathetic to my beginnings than I used to be. Bowsma, surely a central cult figure in this area, seems to be a source of written arguments that uses of ‘know’ are meaningless. I’m thinking especially of his paper on Descartes (‘many times while in Chicago I’ve been deceived…’). A more obscure figure was a philosopher at University of Oregon named Frank Ebersole, who held sway at my alma mater for many years. He also wrote much, unlike Dreben. Most of the argument of these folks seems to rely on exhausting the reader with examples. “Can’t find an example in which ‘knows x’ makes sense and means what the philosopher says it means? Then it’s nonsense.” I don’t find this very persuasive myself, but who knows, ordinary language seems to be making something of a comeback.

  2. Hi Keith,

    In case it’s of interest to anyone, I just posted on the Leiter thread the following link to Dreben’s bibliography:

    I didn’t happen myself to hear Dreben say much on epistemology, ‘knows’, and skepticism. The seminars I happened to have attended tended to focus on the attempts by various founding figures of analytic philosophy to provide accounts of logical truth and logical validity. But some of this might be of interest to readers of this blog interested in epistemology of logic. Perhaps an interesting piece to read would be the 91 Synthese paper “‘Tautology’: How Not to Use a Word.”

    (Since he proceeded by cases (e.g., arguing that no one’s given good sense to question’s like ‘What makes validities valid?’ by examining what Russell, say, had to say on the matter), it’s not surprising that much of his influence consisted in giving rise to the now recognized sub-field of ‘history of analytic philosophy’ — and of course there one can find plenty of his students publishing.)

    Finally, since I have a feeling that I’m being counted as a “defender of Dreben,” let me publically declare that I like reason (and the giving of reasons!), truth, puppies, and apple pie. I do, however, belong to the cult of Micki — but that’s OK, since we’re married.


  3. From the excerpt of Rawls’s ‘Afterword’ that Leiter uses as a lead, Dreben claims that philosophical arguments rest on premises and that philosophers rely upon different “data” to argue for a statement or set of statements. Rawls attributes to Dreben the (flamboyant) claim that “there are no arguments one philosopher can use to convince another of a metaphysical point. At the basic level, philosophers simply rely and appeal to different ‘data.’ It is a standoff with no resolution by argument.”

    On the face of it, the claim is false. The constructive purpose of counter-examples is to show that a set of constraints cannot be jointly satisfied. That it is a common practice for a philosopher to revise constraints to avoid counterexamples is evidence that he is convinced that something was amiss in his original set of constraints.

    But, one may have two sets of satisfiable constraints that are nevertheless pairwise inconsistent. (Metaphysics!) What then? Is argument worthless here?

    A qualified no. Two sets of satisfiable constraints might differ in some other value—adopting one might be more expensive than the other, more complicated to talk about than the other, be morally worse than the other, or perhaps be less reasonable than the other. An example stored in the back of my mind (which may be completely wrong) is that Nozick reflected on his robust defense of libertarianism in his youth and reported that he thought of it, at the time, as an intellectual exercise only and didn’t appreciate the consequences from doing so. (I also remember the report saying that he regretted it.) Such considerations may not tell against the metaphysics in question, but they might settle a question of which set (view) to accept. Also, more importantly, this type of issue is one we may rationally argue. You might quibble with my pragmatism or think the values in the second case collapse to truth values or…but we could argue about such matters and I might be convinced by such an exchange to revise my view

    Are arguments of this latter kind always resolvable? Probably not. But, all one needs is some success on both of these lines to rule out this proposed reading of ‘nonsense’ as being applicable to philosophy.

  4. Neither being a student (or a student of a student of) Dreben nor an expert on Malcolm, Wittgenstein, etc., I surely cannot claim to know (!) what they meant by asserting that knowledge claims were nonsense. Nevertheless, I do have the following thoughts of my own.

    Perhaps the ‘nonsense’ claim is simply a rather dramatic way of reminding us that we have nothing approaching a ‘standard’ or ‘accepted’ theory of knowledge, thereby undermining any claim to it. Indeed, the problem–if that is what it is–is deeper than that, for we have nothing like a standard or accepted theory of truth either. Here the issue appears very deep, for without an agreed upon conception of truth we would seem to be without an agreed upon conception of argument, particularly the properties arguments might have, such as being valid, invalid, sound, and unsound, all of which are traditionally defined in terms of truth. Without a standardization of these concepts, truth and knowledge claims on the part of philosophers can be ignored with impunity–even ridiculed as nonsense–and argument, though possibly persuasive, need not be understood as ‘rationally obligating’.

    Further, given the traditional framework within which knowledge claims and the like have tended to be understood, such a standardization must not be seen as ‘conventional’ but rather as a (presumably logical) discovery. Without that, it seems quite open for some to say that the self-image of many philosophers, namely that of objective inquirers into the true, abstract nature of things–abstract scientists, in a sense–is merely a conceit. This, perhaps, is what the talk of nonsense is really about: what we think we are doing. If the idea of philosophy as the puruit of truth cannot be seriously sustained we might need to reconceive of it in a way more internally consistent. Either that or learn to defend the traditional conception without begging all the interesting questions.


  5. I’m speculating, but what are blog comments for….

    As Van Inwagen said once, philosophers do not agree on anything to speak of. The interesting issues in our discipline, after strenuous effort by many extremely intelligent people, remain unresolved. Why might this be?

    (a) the issues are very hard. We’re making progress. Resolutions await us.
    (b) the issues are fundamentally irresolvable by the method of argument: i.e., by application of the intellectual resources that all educated and intelligent people have in common.

    The view of classical Enlightenment rationalism, which analytic philosophy inherits, is (a). But post, say, Nietzsche, many thinkers have opted for (b) as a kind of pessimistic meta-induction of philosophical practice. If you think (b) is the truth, then the actual taking of philosophical positions can perhaps be explained as the product of personality quirks or educational influences, but not justified.* And in that way, one might well call philosophical positions nonsense.

    *caveat: assuming your conception of justification is something like, “justified to all rational parties.”

  6. Steve Gross is correct that Dreben’s main focus was to argue that foundational questions about logic were nonsense (and the nonsense of metaphysics was supposed to follow as a corrolary, but Dreben, like his followers today, didn’t read or follow the literature in M&E, so didn’t have much specifically to say about why that work was nonsense). As Steve also points out, Dreben (and the Dreben school’s) particular arguments about why semantic justifications of logic are nonsense is a debate carried out in the literature about the interpretation of Frege and Russell. The Dreben school thinks to philosophize is shallow. Since philosophy is nonsense, one just can’t defend a particular philosophical position (e.g. that logical laws can’t be given any sort of justification). Instead, one has to choose some historical figure, and claim that that figure is a proponent of the particular ‘philosophy is nonsense’ argument. So, they pick people like Frege and Russell, and try to argue that they are really adherents of the Dreben school. So what you get in the discipline often called ‘history of analytic philosophy’ isn’t really history at all, but an attempt to advance certain arguments intended to show that certain kinds of questions are nonsense (in that sense ‘history of analytic philosophy’ is a label like ‘the constitutional restoration act’).

    Be that as it may, I think that actually very interesting philosophy occurs in this literature. I’ve learned a lot from working through the papers of good philosophers like Goldfarb, Ricketts, and Weiner, though I’m not sure much of what they say is really history, or is best taken as history. Rather, I think they are trying to work out the consequences of the premise that logical laws can’t be given non-circular justifications. They point to various passages in people like Frege in which those people also recognize that logical laws can’t be given non-circular justifications. Then they give various philosophical arguments from this premise to the conclusion that doing semantics or metatheory is impossible, and then they attribute these arguments to Frege or Russell, either by reinterpreting various passages, or by charity considerations. People like me, Richard Heck, Ian Proops, and Jamie Tappenden argue that doing metatheory is perfectly compatible with the premise that logical laws can’t be given non-circular justifications. The literature also involves various other arguments with the intended conclusion that metatheory can’t be done (logic is universal, or perfectly general), and these arguments sometimes have premises that are ones that some of their proponents wouldn’t accept today (so these are more historical, as in ‘Frege thought logic was universal, so Frege couldn’t have done metatheory’). Again, anti-Drebenites respond by arguing that the argument is invalid, or the relevant sense of ‘universal’ hasn’t been spelled out (there is an excellent forthcoming Nous paper by Ian Proops on this topic).

    But in general, I take it that Steve’s point is that the Dreben’s school’s main arguments for ‘philosophy is nonsense’ take place within apparently historical discussions about what Frege or Russell ‘really’ meant, despite appearances. This way, they can remain consistent that they are not actually doing philosophy, but only doing history. But that’s where the philosophy occurs, and much of it is quite interesting. But I don’t think it shows that metatheory for logic doesn’t show anything important about logic, or that this shows (e.g.) that contemporary metaphysics, philosophy of language, and epistemology are confused.

  7. “Dreben’s main focus was to argue that foundational questions about logic were nonsense (and the nonsense of metaphysics was supposed to follow as a corrolary, but Dreben, like his followers today, didn’t read or follow the literature in M&E, so didn’t have much specifically to say about why that work was nonsense).”

    That might explain a lot. My understanding is that he would at times at least charge speakers (like candidates for junior positions at Harvard) who were giving M&E (not phil. of logic) talks with engaging in nonsense — sometimes quite aggressively. Then there would be no problem with his being unaware of the work in question, because he would have just heard the talk. But if these speakers’ guilt was supposed to be just some kind of “corrolary” of the result that foundational issues about logic were nonsense, though their work really had nothing more directly to do with those foundational logical concepts than any other M&E (or ethics, social & political philosophy, for that matter), then one imagines that it would have been extremely difficult for Dreben to explain why these poor speakers were guilty in such a way that his philosophical friends — who were somehow exampted from the charge — wouldn’t be equally guilty. Perhaps at that point his best option when challenged would be, not real argument, but aggressive, witty bluster, backed up by supporters in the room who would chuckle at the appropriate times. (Perhaps something along the lines of “It’s a mark of great sagacity to be able to tell when one has a good question and when not. Otherwise one winds up with the ludicrous spectacle, as the ancients said, of one man milking a he-goat and the other holding a sieve underneath”, a recollection of a Drebenism from the Leiter discussion, though I don’t know in what context this saying was used.) The result would be the exchanges as they were described to me: The “defendant,” ready to go on counter-attack & trying to get the accuser to specify his grounds to falitate such a counter-attack; but the accuser being extremely coy about his grounds, instead finding increasingly witty & aggressive (& very rhetorically effective, at least given the response of the people in the room) ways of repeating his charge.

  8. This is fascinating to hear of the (alleged) behavior of Dreben in such contexts, since it matches so very closely the behavior of many anti-theory, later-Wittgensteinian, philosophy-as-therapy philosophers I know of. Many otherwise good philosophers succumbed to the temptation to play to the crowd, and particularly to take an outsider’s view of a philosophical debate, instead of engage seriously with philosophical views (this seems to me to be the tone of Austin’s ‘Sense and Sensibilia’, for instance). I would say that it is a professional hazard of philosophy that goes back to the Sophists, except that certain strains of ordinary language philosophy seem particularly vulnerable to this sort of use. After all, we all know the language. So when a philosopher talks, we have only to check our own linguistic intuitions to determine whether what she says makes sense. No expertise is needed. No familiarity with the literature is required. Each time you address a philosophical question, it is for the very first time. So why should you have to know the background of a debate in any area of philosophy?

  9. In fairness, I have now heard a report of at least one occasion on which Harvard folk came to the aid someone being so questioned. I don’t know what the typical way was for these things to go.

  10. Mainly a question: has Stanley Cavell been on radars of any present? He offers a therapeutic diagnosis of traditional problems of epistemology by opposing the ‘ordinary voice’ to the ‘metaphysical voice’ through readings of Wittgenstein and Austin.

    Indeed, its an interesting variation for the word ‘ordinary’ jumping from here to contextualism.

  11. The picture of most philosophy as nonsense requires Wittgenstein’s view of its corrective as a kind of therapy through which the target is coaxed into recognizing the confusion at its source. That therapy may itself involve non-cognitive use of language (together with such things as pointed reminders of accepted correct uses of constituent terms.) I am not sure what it would be to demand proof that some bit of pseudosensical verbiage to which a speaker is attached is in fact nonsense.

    There are certainly some bad Wittgensteinians who fail to take seriously this requirement. In terms of the therapeutic metaphor, they are like people who, having been cured of a certain mental cramp, are now content just to mock others who suffer from it from their own, now enlightened, vantage point. It might be fair to label such writers “nonsense police”, since they will appear to be insisting on arbitrary rules and restrictions.

    Wittgenstein himself was certainly not guilty of this. As for Dreben, I’m not in a position to judge.

  12. I am not sure what it would be to demand proof that some bit of pseudosensical verbiage to which a speaker is attached is in fact nonsense.

    Is it too much to ask for the policeman’s reasons for thinking a piece of verbiage is only pseudosensical? Some hint? Or must we simply take his word for it? There’s been no mention of proofs til now.

  13. No, I meant to suggest that only a bad Wittgensteinian leaves it looking like one must just take it on the policeman’s word that one is speaking nonsense. A better one will have a lot to say to try to help one into recognizing it as such.

    I am curious: what sort of considerations count for you as giving good grounds for the claim that some putative thesis is really disguised nonsense?

  14. A better one will have a lot to say to try to help one into recognizing it as such.

    OK then. I was just asking for what Dreben had to say here.

  15. This comment by Robert Johnson,

    “…So when a philosopher talks, we have only to check our own linguistic intuitions to determine whether what she says makes sense. No expertise is needed. No familiarity with the literature is required. Each time you address a philosophical question, it is for the very first time. So why should you have to know the background of a debate in any area of philosophy? …”

    sounds much different than the advice or practice offered by either Frank Ebersole or John Cook at the University of Oregon during the 70’s and 80’s. Their classes centered on reading the texts of good traditional and contemporary philosophers. We tried to engage ourselves in the problems raised by those philosophers. Yes, there was the appeal to whether the philosophical claim sounded fishy, but that came amidst an argument why that should be relevant.

    I have been more impressed, since my classes with Ebersole, with his advice to state philosophical problems in one’s own words, and to thereby try to better engage them. I have thought that though he thought Wittgensein was a philosopher worth studying deeply, Ebersole wasn’t willing to adopt anything Wittgensein said without question. These are the ideas I came away from his classes with, moreso than his advocating the separation of sense from nonsense.

  16. As someone who studied with John Cook and Frank Ebersole many years ago at Oregon and with Malcolm at Cornell, I, too, do not find the characterization of their method as shallow, dismissive of the history of philosophy, or making easy recourse to “linguistic intuitions” to be fair. Nevetheless, Robert Johnson’s characterization of Ebersole’s essays as employing a method of exhaustion by example is, I think, quite apt. And I can understand why the overwhelming majority of philosophers are so quickly dismissive of this approach to the extent that they are aware of it at all. Even after all these years, I find the method to be illuminating, if not fully satisfying, but it is by its nature the voice of an outsider to the conversation questioning the terms that drive the conversation onward. To philosophers who have identified themselves with a place in the conversation (I am an A-theorist, I am a perdurantist, I am a Davidsonian, etc., etc.), the scruples of a well-tuned linguistic ear must seem not only irrelevant or silly but also more than a little bit rude. The charge of “cultishness” or “arrogance” towards the philosophical tradition rightly applies, I think, to many in the Wittgensteinian and ordinary language philosophy traditions; but that failure is hardly unique to any philosophical tradition: Quine no less than Wittgenstein and Heidegger has his slavish followers who find comfort in adopting the assumptions, bon mots, and stylistic quirks of their masters.

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