The Last Word
The Politeness of Tutorials

A Foundation in Nonsense

Cat in the Hat Where was the starting point for my philosophy? Recently, Charles Cameron juxtaposed one of my remarks with one from the philosopher Cornelius Castoriades:

Philosophers almost always start by saying: “I want to see what being is, what reality is. Now, here is a table; what does this table show to me as characteristic of a real being?” No philosopher ever started by saying: “I want to see what being is, what reality is. Now, here is my memory of my dream of last night; what does this show me as characteristic of a real being?” No philosopher ever starts by saying “Let the Requiem of Mozart be a paradigm of being”, and seeing in the physical world a deficient mode of being, instead of looking at things the other way around, instead of seeing in the imaginary, i.e., human mode of existence, a deficient or secondary mode of being.

I cannot claim to have started by placing an artwork like Mozart’s requiem as a ‘paradigm of being’, but I certainly did not begin philosophy by asking about being and reality. The stepping point for my philosophy was nonsense, and specifically the defence of nonsense – perhaps even, as the Discordians affirm, ‘nonsense as salvation’. The origins of this can be seen in my account of Moore’s Paradox and the Belief in False Things (2009): being told, in outright denial, that I did not believe things that I knew were false set me on a certain path. The most recent step on that path was to reformulate knowledge in order to view it as a practice.

How can nonsense possibly provide an adequate foundation for anything? Consider that to gain an authentic understanding of something we must be willing to fully experience it. If we start with conceptions of truth, nonsense is simply the vast array of things we must discard as irrelevant (often, without any serious examination of what we are dismissing). Most people live in precisely this fashion; other ways of being in the world are nonsense by default, and can be ignored or derided. But if we start from nonsense – from a close study of nonsense – we discover how suspicious truth appears when it is taken as a miraculous starting point. Truth is a worthy destination, but we cannot simply expect that it was there fully formed at the point of departure. Beginning at nonsense, on the other hand, allows us to gain a proper appreciation for truth – and indeed, for nonsense itself.

The Castoriades quote also resonated with me by stressing the importance of imagination – which has been the consistent theme in this stage of my philosophy (what I’m tempted to term ‘my immature philosophy’, although I might not live long enough to make fine wine from my own grapes). In this regard, I would like to add another connection to this chain in the form of the British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, who in a lecture series from 1925 spoke of the relationship between the ‘realm of possibility’ and actuality:

It is the realm of alternative suggestions, whose foothold in actuality transcends each actual occasion. The real relevance of untrue propositions for each actual occasion is disclosed by art, romance, and by criticism in reference to ideals. It is the foundation of the metaphysical position which I am maintaining that the understanding of actuality requires a reference to ideality.

This philosophy – where understanding actuality actively requires thoughtful consideration of possibility – seems to face towards where Castoriades is gesturing when he talks of seeing in the physical world “a deficient mode of being”. Here, I join with these other voices in believing in the unbounded value of striving towards ideals, even if so doing is a kind of nonsense.

For Charles.

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