On the very idea of a ‘senseless’ question

Claude asked:

Have there been any persons in the history of philosophy who believed that there was no such thing as a “senseless question”?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Do colourless green ideas sleep furiously? Or not? — I am quoting the famous example of a sentence (or question) that obeys the rules of English grammar but which we cannot make sense of, at least in a literal way. Of course (as one writer, John Hollander, demonstrated successfully in his poem ‘Coiled Alizarine’) you can compose a poem where the statement, ‘Colourless green ideas sleep furiously,’ does appear to make a kind of sense — ‘poetic sense’ — and in the context of the poem, one might tend to agree:

    Curiously deep
    The slumber of crimson thoughts
    While breathless
    In stodgy viridian
    Colorless green ideas sleep furiously

After all, a poem can be seen as a condensed argument (I’ve said the same about song lyrics in chapter 1 of my book ‘Philosophizer’) but I doubt whether anyone would seriously claim that the question concerning colourless green ideas has an answer which we are unable to discover owing to our limited cognitive abilities.

So far as I am aware, no philosopher has claimed that there is ‘no such thing as a senseless question,’ and that would be a difficult claim to defend, given the above example. However, one must bear in mind that this only became a live issue after philosophers like Wittgenstein or Carnap in the 20th century argued that many of the traditional ‘questions’ in the history of philosophy are, in fact, senseless. My view is that they were wrong. I don’t feel the least temptation to dismiss questions like, ‘Does God exist?’, ‘Is time real or unreal?’, ‘Is the universe composed of matter or ideas?’ as senseless, even though I would find it difficult to defend my position with anything resembling a ‘theory of meaning’ or a ‘criterion of meaningfulness’.

The point is that we don’t, in fact, have anything resembling a comprehensive theory of the way language works, or the way words succeed (or don’t succeed) in conveying ideas. Language is flexible, constantly in the process of being expanded, modified, sharpened. If you were to ask me how I know what I mean by some of the questions I have asked — like the question, ‘Could there be a universe exactly like the actual universe differing only in the fact that I am not GK?’ — my answer is no. I don’t know. And I say that without a hint of embarrassment. I have a strong feeling, or intuition, that I somehow ‘know’ what the question is getting at, but I would be at a loss to explain exactly how I know.

Frankly, I am tired (and bored) of professional philosophers making confident claims about the limits of meaning with nothing to back them up apart from a flimsy ‘theory’ — a hypothetical claim of the form, ‘If things were thus and so then other things would be such and such.’ One of the most blatant examples is the theory of materialism, but that’s a topic for another post.

So, no, the question, or possibility whether there are no ‘senseless’ questions (apart from contrived examples that do not even appear to make sense) hasn’t appeared in the history of Western philosophy, so far as I am aware, and really gets its point in response to claims by 20th philosophers like Wittgenstein et. al. I am happy to be nominated as ‘the’ philosopher who takes this view. If you know of any others, do let me know!

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