Monday, September 25, 2006

Pain-in-the-Ass-Continental-Philosopher Post

I am preparing my lecture on the problem of personal identity today and my textbook has the following discussion:

. . .consider the sentence "Green ideas sleep furiously." Even though the individual words that constitute this sentence are familiar and the sentence as a whole is grammatical, still, the sentence doesn't make any sense. I cannot conceive of what a world would be like in which this sentence was true. Ideas just aren't the sort of things that can sleep, much less sleep furiously. Nor are ideas the sort of things that can be a color, green or otherwise."

I have read this passage many times of the past few years and I always just shake my head in disagreement. I don't see what the problem with this sentence is. First of all, in a poetic context, this sentence can make perfect sense. Imagine a poem about jealousy which ends with the line, "green ideas sleep furiously." My mind would conjure up a jealous lover's fitful sleep. I am not even sure I buy the claim that ideas cannot be a color. I take it that the author means that literally. And yet, many fancy fMRI machines can represent our neural activity with colors. Or, better yet, how about folks with Synesthesia?

I guess what I am getting at here is that I reject this kind of analysis of sentences, wherein what is implied is that we could derive some sort of perfect language purged of such "nonsensical sentences." While I know that Analytic Philosophy has become far more nuanced in its analysis of the logic of sentences, it is my response to this author's example of a nonsensical sentence that reminds me why I didn't take that philosophical route. (Although, Steve G, you taught me well, I respect the project, I do.)