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Wittgenstein, Moorean Absurdity and its Disappearance from Speech

Abstract

G. E. Moore famously observed that to say, “ I went to the pictures last Tuesday but I don’t believe that I did” would be “absurd”. Why should it be absurd of me to say something about myself that might be true of me? Moore suggested an answer to this, but as I will show, one that fails. Wittgenstein was greatly impressed by Moore’s discovery of a class of absurd but possibly true assertions because he saw that it illuminates “the logic of assertion”. Wittgenstein suggests a promising relation of assertion to belief in terms of the idea that one “expresses belief” that is consistent with the spirit of Moore’s failed attempt to explain the absurdity. Wittgenstein also observes that “under unusual circumstances”, the sentence, “It’s raining but I don’t believe it” could be given “a clear sense”. Why does the absurdity disappear from speech in such cases? Wittgenstein further suggests that analogous absurdity may be found in terms of desire, rather than belief. In what follows I develop an account of Moorean absurdity that, with the exception of Wittgenstein’s last suggestion, is broadly consistent with both Moore’s approach and Wittgenstein’s.

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Correspondence to John N. Williams.

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Williams, J.N. Wittgenstein, Moorean Absurdity and its Disappearance from Speech. Synthese 149, 225–254 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-004-6252-0

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Keywords

  • Clear Sense
  • Failed Attempt
  • Unusual Circumstance
  • True Assertion
  • Promising Relation