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Graduate Seminar: Might Philosophy be Nonsense


Whereas in previous centuries philosophers usually opposed one another’s views by thinking of them as false, Western philosophers of the twentieth century systematically turned to critiquing one another’s ideas in terms of their being nonsense. Accusations of nonsense were the favoured weapon of those who had taken the ‘linguistic turn’, such as Ludwig Wittgenstein, the logical positivists, and mid-century ‘ordinary language philosophers’ like Gilbert Ryle and J.L.Austin.

Such philosophies are now very much out of favour. The reasons for their being so are many and various, but they certainly include an increased unwillingness to suppose that philosophical pronouncements are nonsense, that is, strictly and literally meaningless. I try to show that such approaches are much more radical than any of us, advocates or opponents, care to admit, and that they face serious problems because of the ways in which they deploy the idea of nonsense. I explain why certain prominent ways of understanding Wittgenstein face and even exacerbate these problems, and why the gravity of the problems has not been seen. I then ask what ways there are in which the problems might be alleviated.


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