That ‘intuitionism’, however, has paradoxical consequences, to the effect that it seems to lead, if we take into account the development of Husserl’s thought, to some vindication of the common sense theory of nonsense, from which Husserl seemed first to distance himself, according to which an expression like ‘round square’ for example, to some extent, has no sense.
As a matter of fact, if we take a closer look at the fact that to any expression might correspond some ‘fulfilment’, there might turn out to be some more complicated situations about that fulfilment than the ones we have grossly distinguished, that is to say either ‘possibility’ or ‘impossibility’. In particular, there might come out substantially diverse kinds of ‘impossibility’ that do not bear at all the same way on the logical and phenomenological status of the expression itself.
As of the Ist Logical Investigation
, Husserl has made a distinction between two kinds of conflict: real contradiction
(when one says A and non-A at the same time), Widerspruch
, and that kind of incompatibility
) that is not a contradiction
. In the IVth Logical Investigation
, he makes clear this distinction:
we draw a line between material (synthetic) absurdity (materialer, synthetischer Widersinn) and formal, analytic absurdity (formaler oder analytischer Widersinn). In the former case, concepts with content (first order material kernels of meaning) must be given, as is the case, e.g., in the proposition ‘A square is round’ and in all false propositions of pure geometry, while the latter covers every purely formal, objective incompatibility, grounded in the pure essence of the semantic categories, without regard to any material content of knowledge. (Husserl 2001b, p. 72)
We must observe that, then, Husserl takes a proposition like ‘A square is round’ that entails some kind of (geometrical, therefore a priori) incompatibility, to be false. This is not obvious at all: a certain common sense will very likely take it to be neither true nor false, but a mere piece of nonsense. However, if we consider more complex examples, that are not as intuitive, like the one Husserl took in the §15 of the Ist Logical Investigation, ‘a regular decahedron’ (2001a, p. 202), maybe it makes better sense: it is a full bloodied (informative) truth, that a decahedron cannot be regular, and, conversely, ‘this decahedron is regular’ is necessarily false.
But, at the paragraph §10 of the IVth Logical Investigation
, Husserl deals with examples that do not seem as easy. For instance, he gives this example: ‘This algebraic number is green’. What is exactly the logical status of that kind of sentence? According to Husserl, first, it is a genuine (well-formed) expression. The proof is that we can form it by substituting ‘This tree’ by ‘This algebraic number’ in ‘This tree is green’, which is a perfectly correct expression. “Any nominal material – in a wide sense of ‘nominal material’ – can here be inserted” (Husserl 2001b
, p. 63). The result is really an expression, to the effect that it definitely has a meaning
: “In each case we have once more a meaning unified in sense”. Of course, such a possibility to save the sense depends on the respect paid to the meaning category (Bedeutungskategorie
) of the substituted term, that must be preserved in the substitution if one wants to benefit from the meaningfulness of the original expression so as to build by variation other meaningful expressions.
In such free exchange of materials within each category, false, foolish, ridiculous meanings (falsche, dumme, lächerliche Bedeutungen) – complete propositions or elements of propositions – may result, but such results will necessarily be unified meanings, or grammatical expressions whose sense can be unitarily accomplished. (Husserl 2001b, p. 63, translation slightly corrected)
So, the problem is: what is the semantic status of such ‘false, foolish, ridiculous meanings’? Are they mere ‘pieces of nonsense’, as the common sense probably would say?
Husserl firmly resists that idea in the §12 of the same IVth Logical Investigation: one must absolutely distinguish between real nonsense (Unsinn), which is mere lack of sense (no meaning was given, or some impossibility results from the grammatical combination of meanings, due to the ‘meaning categories’ involved), and ‘absurdity’ (Widersinn). We “exaggerate and call the latter ‘senseless’ (sinnlos), when it is rather a sub-species of the significant (ein Teilgebiet des Sinnvollen)” (Husserl 2001b, p. 67). In fact, all those expressions that sound ‘ridiculous’, as far as they are real expressions, endowed with meaning (but with an absurd meaning), must be interpreted in the way the §14 will make explicit: that is to say, as material absurdities, that, in virtue of the very meanings they combine, are false. So a sentence like ‘This algebraic number is green’ is just false: an object belonging to the ontological category of numbers cannot bear any property belonging to the category of colours. This is an intuitive incompatibility, that can be experienced in a definite fulfilment in the mode of conflict: you just cannot make your intuitive number (in the sense of ‘categorial intuition’, then) bear the givenness of such a property, it is a priori impossible – as a result of the ontological and, correlatively, phenomenological (i.e. intuitive) kinds of both concepts.
Such a result would definitely be uneasy for the common sense. We probably do not want to hold such a proposition – if we take it for a proposition at all – for ‘false’, but for ‘absurd.’ It is exactly what Husserl’s further research on the nature of fulfilment allows to account for. In Formal and Transcendental Logic (1929), Husserl in fact goes over that issue of the logical status of some manifest ‘absurdities’ again, and qualifies his doctrine noticeably.11 At the §89 of FTL, Husserl deals with this nice piece of ordinary nonsense: “This colour plus one makes three”. In such a case, “we say that the sentence ‘makes no proper sense’ (gibt keinen eigentlichen Sinn)” (1969, p. 216). That means that “it is impossible, in actual thinking, to acquire the judgement as a possible one – not, however, because it contains an analytic or extra-analytic contradiction, but because it is, so to speak, exalted above harmoniousness and contradiction in its ‘senselessness’ (ist in seiner ‘Sinnlosigkeit’ über Einstimmigkeit und Widerspruch erhaben).”
So, according to the later Husserl, such an expression, in spite of its grammatical well formedness, has no meaning – thus, as such, is not really an expression. The problem, so Husserl, is that even ‘contradiction’ presupposes some unity of ‘sense’. The conflict, as we put it before, can only settle on the ground of some positivity that has to be itself interpreted as some kind of (wider) unity. What is absolutely not to reconcile does not belong as such even to the sphere of conflict – is not representable as a conflict.
The problem is a problem about content. We cannot build a unitary meaning with any contents. There are conditions on those contents, if the meaning, in some paradoxical sense, must ‘make sense’. As such, those contents involved in one meaning (by one expression) must belong to some unitary horizon, at least, if not better, the one of ‘the world’, as the general horizon of the experience. “The ideal existence of the judgement-content depends on the conditions for the unity of possible experience” (Husserl 1977, p. 217).
The idea is very simple: we cannot fulfil ‘anything’. Fulfilment supposes that we stay within the bounds of what might be either true or false, because what proposes a possible (even if bound to come out as ‘impossible’ at last) setting for the intuition. There are however things that it does not even make sense to demand on intuition – definitely not to give a round square, which is impossible but whose impossibility it is possible to experience, but, for instance, to give a green algebraic number, in which case it is even impossible to see what one must try representing. There are ostensible expressions that do not have any conditions of fulfilment (any ‘fulfilling sense’), because they are structurally disconnected from the general conditions of experience, that constitute the universal ground of meaning, due to its intentional – that is to say orientated towards fulfilment – nature.
In fact, one might possibly think that a recalcitrant exception to the doctrine held in the Logical Investigations has been found here: there are, finally, expressions ‘without fulfilment’, and we must disconnect meaning from fulfilment. But it is not at all the case: it means just that such ‘expressions’ must not anymore be held for genuine, full-blooded expressions. Common sense is vindicated, and those purported ‘expressions’ have to be called, in a new sense (closer to the common sense), real pieces of nonsense. There is not only (merely) grammatical nonsense, but also a kind of nonsense that results from the impossibility (in the radical way, that time, and not as some possible – representable – impossibility) of the fulfilment – when the fulfilment really lacks, and it makes no sense to seek it. This case is ‘nonsense’ as well. Proof, one more time, of the power of the fulfilment and of its bearing on meaning as such.
As such, the possibility of fulfilment (not necessarily of an adequate fulfilment and, thus, not necessarily of a ‘possible’ fulfilment), seems to be a universal condition of meaning, as Husserl, as he went deeper and deeper into the logic of fulfilment, wound up by taking the existing case of meaning intentionality without fulfilment – whose ostensible meaning (because, in that case, one would definitely not be allowed to speak of more than ostensible meaning) hinders the very possibility of any fulfilment – as a pathological condition of that intentionality. Meaning intentionality is the first one, and, to some extent, the paradigm of intentionality (in general). But it cannot stand by itself. One cannot ignore that it is meant for relation – even if not necessarily relational, as it might essentially fail in its attempt to relate, but, then, even that failure makes sense only again.