Nonsense is a valuable part of language that deserves serious study. Even so, some people resist the idea of rational studies of nonsense. What is the peculiar stigma that many people attach to unintelligible nonsense?
Nonsense is surrounded by several entrenched misconceptions, faulty assumptions, and half-truths. Most people have a bad attitude toward nonsense, and their bad attitude stems mostly from the strongly negative connotation of the pejorative word nonsense. People think nonsense is inherently bad and undesirable. They reflexively associate nonsense with emotions of disgust and repugnance. In their minds nonsense denotes a personal sense of displeasure and rejection. They assume that nonsense is an irredeemable, negative quantity with nothing good about it.
In reality, however, nonsense is part of the good life. Nonsense touches people’s lives most frequently in play, entertainment, literature, and song. That repugnance most people feel toward nonsense is a case of mistaken identity. In real life, as we saw, nonsense is predominantly a recreational and literary department of language—and people love it.
Nonsense seems to be almost exclusively a good thing, yet a darker, obscure, preconscious force is at work in people’s unrealistic attitude toward nonsense. Paul Davies touched on this darker irrational factor in a 2011 article in New Scientist: “The concept of a true void, apart from inducing a queasy feeling, strikes many people as preposterous or even meaningless.”
People mistakenly think that nonsense is akin to nothingness, nonexistence, chaos, and the void. At the beginning of my courses, students completed an exercise that revealed the deep irrational connection between nonsense and nothingness. I asked students to define nonsense in their own words and to state what they think nonsense is. I also asked them to introspect, then describe their inner conscious and cognitive process of defining it.
As they reflected and tried to find the right words, many reported a similar image. They pictured nonsense as an impenetrable blank wall, and behind the wall, they imagined only a shapeless and empty chaos. For them, the word nonsense evoked a yawning abyss of undifferentiated darkness.
The recurrent, ancient image of nonsense as an inchoate nothingness is a frightening archetype. Thinking of nonsense can make people feel dizzy and disoriented. Socrates described the sensation when he was trying to think his way through a thicket of puzzling philosophical concepts. He said that the prospect of “falling into a bottomless pit of nonsense” horrified him (from Plato’s Parmenides).
Most people regard nonsense as an absence of something else, namely, meaning. Few people think of nonsense as something in its own right. People think of nonsense as something sublinguistic, or as below the level of ordinary, meaningful language. In fact, that view sounds like common sense.
In reality, however, the relationship between nonsense and ordinary, meaningful language is the other way around. Nonsense is actually above the level of ordinary, meaningful language in a certain respect. Specifically, we shall see later that nonsense has a greater structural complexity than meaningful language. Therefore, nonsense is not akin to nothingness, and it is not merely the absence of meaning. Nonsense is a complex, extended form of language that operates by its own coherent inner logic. Therefore, nonsense is definitely not akin to nothingness, chaos, and the void.
What do the whimsical writings of Dr. Seuss have in common with near-death experiences?
The answer is that nonsense writing and spiritual experiences seem to defy all logic and yet they both can make a powerful personal impact. In this book, New York Times bestselling author Dr. Raymond Moody shares the groundbreaking results of five decades of research into the philosophy of nonsense, revealing dynamic new perspectives on language, logic, and the mystical side of life. Learn more about Making Sense of Nonsense here.
Raymond Moody, M.D., Ph.D. is the bestselling author of eleven books which have sold over 20 million copies. His seminal work, Life After Life, has completely changed the way we view death and dying and has sold over 13 million copies worldwide.