Slogans and Nonsense: Edition Five


Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics belongs to a unique society. It is one of few philosophical works to commit a logical error in the first line:

Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and choice, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.

Because the business model of academic philosophy is built on constant disagreement, philosophers have still not decided which logical error Aristotle makes. It might seem that two and a half millennia is a long time to disagree on what error Aristotle makes in the first sentence. But philosophers have failed to agree on the meaning of knowledge for even longer than that. Without resorting to the hieroglyphs of formal logic, Aristotle’s error is to go from talking about ‘some good’ to ‘the good.’ Even if it is true that every activity aims at some good or aims to be good, this does not mean that every activity aims at the good. Despite their similarities, ‘some good’ and ‘the good’ are not the same in the same way ‘some pasta’ and ‘the pasta’ are not the same.

One might hesitantly call this a fallacy of equivocation. The words are the same, but the meanings are different. Amongst other things, the tweets of Donald Trump provide a good example:

If Hilary Clinton can’t satisfy her Husband what makes her think she can satisfy America? 

In this brief episode of misogyny, ‘satisfy’ is used with two different meanings. The fallacy of equivocation is widespread. Closely related to the fallacy of equivocation is the category mistake. Despite what the name suggests, Scott Morrison’s being Prime Minister is not an example of a category mistake. A category mistake ascribes X a feature which is only attributable of Y, such a colour of sound. Fry and Laurie provide a good example of a category mistake:

That surely is a thought to take out for a cream tea on a rainy sunny afternoon.

Such ‘mistakes’ can be found in the modernist’s fevered search for novelty:

Though Robin Ellacott’s twenty-five years of life had seen their moments of drama and incident, she had never before woken up in the certain knowledge that she would remember the coming day for as long as she lived.

Here, the modernist iconoclast Robert Galbraith scintillates a spark of originality. In Galbraith’s phrasing, it is the years that are doing the seeing. A novel move: in humdrum fiction, years are rarely afforded the magic of sight. The category mistake hovers on the border of profound nonsense. There is low-level senselessness which might be parsed into sense. Take this from Terry Eagleton:

The profound is not necessarily the valid

I can’t be bothered to work out what this means. But that is mostly because this is from a book about comedy that claims, “it is worth noting that comedy does not need to be funny.” A great excuse if your stand-up bombs. Of course, any nonsense which is grammatical can be parsed into sense with the handy phrase ‘by X I mean Y,’ for example by ‘Dog I mean cat.’ Thus, the excesses of Heidegger are not condemned as meaningless but instead spawn cottage industries that attempt interpret nonsense such as:

The Nothing itself nothings.

The current generation rejects the dictums of Heidegger. The playgrounds are full of children arguing that there is no such thing as nothing because nothing is something. Otherwise, we couldn’t talk about it. It is heartening to learn that though I thought I had nothing for breakfast I actually had something. Like this article, my stomach is full on the something of nothing. It winds itself up on the emptiness that a lot of language use is literally confused.



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