Nothing more than useful nonsense

Ludwig Wittgenstein by Ben Richards (1947)

Ludwig Wittgenstein by Ben Richards (1947)

Thus, even the philosophical achievements of the Tractatus itself are nothing more than useful nonsense; once appreciated, they are themselves to be discarded. The book concludes with the lone statement: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” (Tractatus 7) This is a stark message indeed, for it renders literally unspeakable so much of human life. As Wittgenstein’s friend and colleague Frank Ramsey put it, “What we can’t say we can’t say, and we can’t whistle it either.” It was this carefully-delineated sense of what a logical language can properly express that influenced members of the Vienna Circle in their formulation of the principles of logical positivism. Wittgenstein himself supposed that there was nothing left for philosophers to do. True to this conviction, he abandoned the discipline for nearly a decade. (Garth Kemerling


The “spam queue” for this blog usually contains a high percentage of nonsense – including insincere and irrelevant compliments (often couched in broken English), or handfuls of disjunct excerpts nefariously grabbed from unrelated and unacknowledged sources – and including links to sites offering goods and services of no interest or value to me. 

Once in a while, I find the material interesting – such as this excerpt from what turned out to be (thank-you, Google) an essay by Garth Kemerling dealing with Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus on a site calling itself Philosophy Pages


When you have to make a hard decision, flip a coin. Why? Because when that coin is in the air … you suddenly know what you’re hoping for.

So simple! So stunningly simple! When I spotted these words today, on I Can Read, today’s post was suddenly in the bag.

Typically, the author/originator is anonymous — and it’s all over the Internet already.

Every thesis is … a prosthesis

“every thesis is (bands erect) a prosthesis; what affords reading affords reading by citations (necessarily truncated clippings, repetitions, suctions, sections, suspensions, selections, stitchings, scarrings, grafts, pastiches, organs without their own proper body covered with cuts, traversed by lice)” (Derrida, 1974: 168b).

Long before the word mashup was coined, I was already a masher. My recent series (which started out a mini-series) exploring possible approaches to the reading of sacred texts (the Bible, especially) is something of a mashup … I acknowledge, too, that Derrida’s description is entirely warranted.

Those posts are — as their painstaking bibliographies might have signalled — fragments of an actual thesis (submitted in 2002). Having nothing at all to do with reading the Bible, my thesis offered a deconstruction of what was at that time labelled “the Digital Divide”.

Deconstruction enables us to contest the nature of reality; in that sense, it is akin to pure science. But it also permits us to invent and fabricate alternative realities — to see visions, dream dreams, narrate parables — and I don’t know, but I suspect that’s what we’re here for.

Derrida, J. 1974. Glas. Web page — part of the Hydra web site, designed and edited by Peter Krapp — “This Forum © 1996-2000 Peter Krapp” — — accessed 27 February 2002, but now defunct.

A Wikipedia article, Glas (book), gives an apt but brief description of the work. Amazon lists eight used copies of the paperback edition, priced from $176.76.

Are we wrong to believe?

There are no facts in themselves. It is always necessary to begin by introducing a meaning in order that there can be a fact (Friedrich Nietzsche, quoted by Roland Barthes in The Discourse of History).

Gilles Deleuze, in Proust and Signs, asserts that “Philosophy supposes direct declaration and explicit signification, proceeding from a mind seeking the truth. Physics supposes an objective and unambiguous matter subject to the conditions of reality” (Deleuze, 1972: p90). Given that our knowledge of both nature and culture is shaped, conditioned, classified, and formulated by our language (Norris, 1982: pp4-5), “We are wrong to believe in facts; there are only signs. We are wrong to believe in truth; there are only interpretations” (Deleuze, 1972: p90). 

In the view of Roland Barthes, “it’s impossible to consider a cultural object outside of the articulated, spoken, and written language which surrounds it” (Barthes, 1985 (9): p65).

In Language, Truth and Logic, A J Ayer states that “the propositions in which we record the observations that verify these hypotheses are themselves sense-experience. Thus there are no final propositions” (Ayer, nd: p94). 

On such a basis, then, the objectives of physics and philosophy are unattainable: all their writings are “cultural products” (Barthes, 1983: p4) — constituting (borrowing Barthes’s description of Gide’s novels) “a fine fiction … in which one agrees to believe because it explains life and at the same time is a little stronger, a little larger than life (it affords the image of an ideal; every mythology is a dream)” (Barthes, 1982 (1): p13). 

Of course, such statements are no more ‘the truth’ than the assertions they challenge and deny; accordingly, they might be read not as an attempt to express the inexpressible, but rather as an endeavour “to unexpress the expressible” (Barthes, 1972: p15).  Their intention (their ‘revolutionary task’) is not to supplant physics and philosophy but to transgress, to recognize and to reverse, to challenge, to deny (Barthes, 1985 (1): p47).

Ultimately, then, the narratives, rhetorics, and ideologies of physics and metaphysics — indeed, all notions of ‘reality’ and ‘truth’ — are subject to a transcendence at once elegant and sublime: “The odor of a flower, when it constitutes a sign, transcends at once the laws of matter and the categories of mind” (Deleuze, 1972: p91). 

Whereas — in terms of anything that language might articulate — there is no truth, it is equally clear that (for Barthes, as for Deleuze) “Everything is implicated, everything is complicated, everything is sign, meaning, essence” (Deleuze, 1972: p91).  It can fairly be said, then, that (like Proust) Barthes is ultimately concerned neither with philosophy nor physics, neither ‘culture’ nor ‘nature’, but with ‘the peculiar interplay between nature and culture’.

All things are subject to interpretation; whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth (Friedrich Nietzsche).


Ayer, A. nd. Language, Truth and Logic. New York: Dover.

Barthes, R. The Discourse of History, translated by Stephen Bann, on a web-page identified as belonging to Patricia Craddock, Department of English, University of Florida

Barthes, R. 1972. Critical Essays. Translated by Richard Howard; copyright © 1972 by Northwestern University Press. Evanston: Northwestern University Press. Translated from the French Essais critiques, copyright © 1964 by Éditions du Seuil.

Barthes, R. 1982. A Barthes Reader : Edited and with an Introduction by Susan Sontag. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd. (1) ‘On Gide and His Journal’ (1942). Translated by Richard Howard. Translation copyright © 1981 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc. ‘Notes sur André Gide et son Journal’ was published in July 1942 in Existences, the magazine of the Sanatorium des Etudiants de France at Saint-Hilaire-du-Touvet (Isére).

Barthes, R. 1983. Empire of Signs. London: Jonathan Cape [“First British edition”]. First published by Hill and Wang, New York, in 1982. Translated by Richard Howard; translation copyright © 1982 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc; originally published in French as L’Empire des Signes; copyright © 1970 by Éditions d’Art Albert Skira SA, Genève.

Barthes, R. 1985. The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962‑1980 [39 items], translated from the French by Linda Coverdale. London: Jonathan Cape (1985). Translation copyright © 1985 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc; originally published in French as Le Grain de la voix, copyright © 1981 by Éditions du Seuil.

Deleuze, G. 1972. Proust and Signs. New York: George Braziller, Inc. Originally published in French under the title Proust et les Signes, © 1964, by Presses Universitaires de France. Translated by Richard Howard; translation copyright © 1972 by George Braziller, Inc.

Norris, C. 1982. Deconstruction : Theory and Practice. (In a series: New Accents; General Editor, Terence Hawkes.)  London & New York: Methuen & Co.

See also

“And your point is …?”

Meaning is only ever produced by the frictions between things. Like every medium, sound derives its meaning from context, from intertextuality, from the play of difference in its conceptual and material strata” (Seth Kim-Cohen)

[W]hat I enjoy in a narrative is not directly its content or even its structure, but rather the abrasions I impose upon the fine surface: I read on, I skip, I look up, I dip in again. (Roland Barthes, in The Pleasure of the Text)

Uncertain about where to go next in this mini-series, and beginning to sense that it was time to get to the point, I sat down with a pen and paper, intending, first, to clear my mind, then just write. But I allowed myself to be hijacked — by that piece of text by Seth Kim-Cohen cited above (which I had scribbled down on a previous occasion).

Christoph Cox’s ArtForum letter presents a critique of Seth Kim-Cohen’s critique of a work of ‘sound art’ by Doug Aitken. In his response to Cox’s letter, Kim-Cohen quotes Cox: “[N]ature (ourselves, our languages, and our valuations included) is dynamically differential.” Kim-Cohen then points out: 

just as meaning is a product of difference, difference is a product of meaning. For that reason, it is equally difficult to see how language and our valuations might be included on the side of nature rather than culture. As Deleuze and Grattan imply in A Thousand Plateaus (1980), the wasp and the orchid don’t recognize themselves as wasp and orchid.

Given our tendencies and talents for extracting meaning from constructs of matter, energy, and information, we human beings must build our anti-essentialist models of ontology, epistemology, ethics and aesthetics on the side of meaning, world, and culture [rather than that of earth, nature, and being].

 Too good not to share.

Seth Kim-Cohen, cited by Christoph Cox of Amherest, Massachusetts, in a letter published on page 16 of the January 2010 edition of ArtForum.