Language is used for many purposes, and not all of these purpose demand [a high degree of] coherency. Some use is deliberately incoherent. I’m thinking here of nonsense poems, but you may be able to supply other examples in which incoherence is a virtue rather than a vice. Incoherence varies in degree and kind. ‘The moon rattled like a piece of angry candy’ is syntactically coherent, but semantically incoherent. ‘Angry a piece the like’ is not even syntactically coherent. The former might not even be syntactically coherent to a speaker who does not know English, while the latter might be syntactically and semantically coherent to a speaker of some language whose grammar and semantics allows the listener to make sense of it. Without reference to a particular language it is hard to know what one would mean by ‘this fragment of speech is incoherent’, so we need at least a sense of linguistic context to speak coherently of whether someone is speaking coherently.
If an alien makes strange sounds, one should not say ‘the alien is saying nonsense’ but rather ‘what the alien is saying is nonsense to me’ — better still, ‘I am unable to make sense of what the alien is saying’. If you are a prisoner of the alien, and the alien keeps making a grunt and gesturing you to stand, and hits you until you stand, and does this more than one, the alien’s grunt will make sense to you.
What does it mean to say here that the grunt will ‘make sense’ to you? It means is that there has been successful communication. You hear the grunt and you understand what the alien wants you to do. The aliens is using the grunt to get you to comply, and you are using the grunt to anticipate being hit if you don’t comply. If the alien expects you to comply with more complicated demands, he use more complicated grunts, and you will learn them.
In this case ‘making sense’ of a word (or phrase or sentence — in general a fragment) means knowing what the word is used for and knowing how to use it.
I am trying here to link together notions of making sense, understanding, and coherence, in hopes of showing not only that these notions largely overlap, but that they are notions whose meaning can be conveyed only by showing. They belong to a large class of words for whose meaning cannot in general be explained through words. Wittgenstein showed this most starkly through his Tractatus which culminates with his saying:
“My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.) He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.
Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
Fundamental to him is the distinction between saying something and showing something. According to the Tractatus one says things my means of propositions with a certain logical structure, but it turns out that none of the proposition in the Tractatus have that logical structure. The Tractatus seems to be telling us things, but in the end it has shown us that it has told us nothing but has shown us much. What we see implicitly in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus (and which is explicated only in his later work) is that language can be used for showing as well as saying. When he says ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’ we must not not interpret ‘silence’ too literally. We should read it as: Whereof that which cannot be said, thereof one must say nothing. But what one cannot say one may show, and words can be used to show.
To understand this is to be able to understand the discursive nature of this blog. Much of what I want to be share cannot be said. To speak more accurately: much of what I want to share cannot be be shared through saying things without a host of shared assumptions. These assumptions make up the very heart of what I wish to share, and so cannot be presumed.
(There are mountain peaks to be shown, and vistas that are visible only from the mountain peaks. We are, as yet, only in the foothills.)