The illusion of apparent meaning

Knowledge is power, and understanding is power. If one person can persuade another that he knows or understands something the other does not, the other person is put “on the back foot”. He’s in danger of looking stupid, and therefore weak. He’s on the defensive: he has to “bow to the better judgement” of the seemingly more clever one who claims to have the knowledge or understanding.

It’s no surprise that wherever there is human intercourse, especially where decisions have to be made and hence power is involved, humans naturally gravitate towards claiming to know and understand more than they really do know or understand. And in so doing, the stuff they claim to know or understand can take on a life of its own. It can “snowball”. Others too want to claim that they know or understand the same thing. They agree with each other, and want to be seen to agree with each other. Their agreement reinforces the idea that there actually is something that is known or understood. But this idea is often illusory.

The story of the “emperor’s new clothes” isn’t a simple one about insincere people kowtowing to power. It’s more subtle than that. It’s about completely sincere people being taken in by an illusion. The emperor is taken in by the combination of his own vanity and the flattery of others, of course, but these others are also taken in by their own vanity and the illusion that they have themselves acquired a special expertise.

Mill wrote: “the general tendency of things throughout the world is to render mediocrity the ascendant power among mankind”. I would add that the general tendency throughout the world is to render a significant proportion of what mankind talks about mere bullshit and nonsense.

The best philosophers usually acknowledge our human urge to claim we know or understand more than we really do know or understand, and thus to promote bullshit and give nonsense a life of its own. In ancient Greece, Socrates said that the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing. Philosophers of the “modern” era focused more on spurious claims to understanding – on the idea that we can sincerely think that language or ideas have clear meaning, when in fact they are meaningless. For example, Hobbes thought much of what academics say consists of “insignificant speech” (i.e. talk without significance or meaning), and that the idea of “free will” (among many others) was literally nonsensical:

And therefore if a man should talk to me of a round quadrangle; or accidents of bread in cheese; or immaterial substances; or of a free subject; a free will; or any free but free from being hindered by opposition; I should not say he were in an error, but that his words were without meaning; that is to say, absurd.

Hume distrusted the “abstruse reasonings of philosophers” and urged us to reject the “sophistry and illusion” in much philosophical writing. The word ‘illusion’ is important here: Hume realized that something can seem meaningful to a sincere person who means well, at the same time as actually being nonsensical. The appearance of meaning can be an illusion.

Hobbes and Hume were early members of a (mostly English-speaking) philosophical tradition that recognized the seductiveness of merely apparent meaning. Burke fulminated against the grand-sounding rhetoric of the French Revolution, and the thunderous twaddle of its philosophical torch-bearer Rousseau. Bentham said talk of “imprescriptible rights” was “nonsense upon stilts”. AJ Ayer and the logical positivists said that much of what was then being written (by such philosophers as the “unbridled metaphysician” Heidegger) was literally meaningless. Quine said much the same about Derrida. But as far as I am aware, calling another philosopher’s writing nonsensical is nowadays considered bad manners.

The later Wittgenstein did much to explain the mechanisms that give rise to the illusion of apparent meaning. He rejected the widespread assumption that meaning is determined by “how it seems to conscious experience”, and substituted the idea that meaning is use. This move to pragmatism – from looking at experiences inside the head to looking at habitual behaviour between agents – can be illustrated by a rudimentary example. Honey bees “dance” to communicate the location of nectar to other members of the hive. The moves of the dance don’t mean what they do by “seeming” to mean anything to the bees’ conscious experience (bees probably don’t have anything that could be called conscious experience). Rather, the bees behave in regular ways – by reacting to the dance as well as dancing themselves – that in effect interpret the moves to mean what they do.

That is a rudimentary example, but all meaning is like that, even the meanings of sophisticated human languages. They all depend on behaviour. The trouble is, human behaviour is complicated: much of it involves social rituals, and power plays. The priest or academic gives the impression that he understands some arcane fact about the Holy Trinity or Natural Law, say, and the layman is so impressed that he too is eager to go through the motions of understanding. This sort of human behaviour can seem meaningful to the conscious experience of all those involved, at the same time as bearing nothing more than mere “social meaning”. We might say that there are rules of syntax, in the absence of any real semantics of the sort that renders what we say true or false. Human linguistic “dances” often refer to less than the dance of the honey bee.

By understanding language as habitual activity, Wittgenstein also saw that language sometimes “goes on holiday” (in fact philosophical problems are typically caused by language doing that). Behaviour appropriate to one area of human life can be transplanted into another, like Englishmen who go out in the midday sun in non-English climates where the midday sun can kill. Factual discourse about “is”s can slide imperceptibly into moral discourse about “ought”s. Legal discourse about rules in the statute book or rights in a written constitution can move lock, stock and barrel into the realm of ethics, so that people find themselves talking about “natural law” or “natural rights”.

The jargon of specialists is unusually capable of generating the illusion of apparent meaning, because we tend to hand decision-making powers over to specialists. We tend to assume that their expertise isn’t a simply matter of their having opinions about subjects that the rest of us don’t have opinions about, but of their having greater knowledge, deeper understanding or more reliable judgement than the rest of us. And “who are we to question such expertise?”

All this applies with even greater force to the jargon of supposed moral experts, which is uniquely spellbinding. Our agreement with them is “on steroids” – we don’t just agree, we agree with the added ingredient of moral indignation, which always gives an extra boost to the suspension of disbelief.

This often results in the most insidious lack of clarity – a lack of clarity in which things seem clear to the morally committed, but are really not clear at all.

In Ireland last week we learned that lack of clarity – specifically, lack of clarity in the law – can be a matter of life and death. The heartening thing is, the week before that, Irish legislators learned that most voters recognize lack of clarity, and react to it with hostility, or at least indifference.