I remember hearing somewhere that this notion was a positivist or Wittgensteinian idea (?) but I cannot find info on it via Google search or Chat-GPT.

I am curious whether this criterion is true, where I can read more about it, and who may have 'coined' it.

Example: "There is something." would be meaningless under this idea if we could not meaningfully say "There is nothing."

  • I suggest also asking this question on the English stack exchange. Commented Aug 1, 2023 at 18:00
  • I think meaningless sentences are much less clear than your example. Nothing can't be, but that isn't meaningless. Not even "colorless green ideas sleep furiously" is totally meaningless, "sleep furiously is both grammatical and interpretable, though its interpretation is unusual" en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colorless_green_ideas_sleep_furiously. Pushing further, there is clear nonsense, zero meaning like: akcadm jortens, and negating would clearly be nonsense too.
    – J Kusin
    Commented Aug 1, 2023 at 18:18
  • 1
    Little did @JKusin know, "Akcadm jortens" was a spell in a parallel world that was a variant of the Harry Potter killing spell that had the even worse effect of manifesting jorts (jean-shorts) on the target. Mwahahah! Commented Aug 1, 2023 at 19:11
  • Meaning seems to be going cheap these days.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Aug 2, 2023 at 1:16

2 Answers 2


Let's consider this proposition: 'If a sentence is meaningless, then its negation is also meaningless.' The question seems to arise from a logical positivist perspective, which suggests that a statement is only meaningful if it can be empirically verified or is analytically true.

But let's take a step back and consider the nature of language itself. Wittgenstein suggested that we should view language as a kind of 'language game'. In these games, the rules are not fixed by logic or metaphysics, but by the particular practices and forms of life of those who 'play' the game.

Take for example the game of chess. The meaning of a move in chess is not intrinsic to the pieces or the board, but is determined by the rules of the game. If we move a piece in a way that is not allowed by the rules, it would be as if we had uttered a 'meaningless' sentence.

Now consider the negation of this move. It isn't so much that this negation is 'meaningless', but rather it is simply affirming the rules of the game. 'I do not move my rook diagonally,' is not a meaningless statement, but rather a reinforcement of the rules that govern the game of chess.

In a similar way, a sentence and its negation are part of the same language game, governed by the rules of that game. If a sentence appears meaningless, it may simply be that we do not understand the rules of the game in which it is being played. The negation of the sentence, then, would belong to the same game, and its 'meaning' or 'meaninglessness' would depend on those same rules.

check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophical_Investigations


The idea you're referring to seems to be related to the principle of verification, which is indeed associated with the philosophical movement known as logical positivism.

The principle of verification, as proposed by the Vienna Circle in the early 20th century, asserts that a statement is only meaningful if it can be empirically verified or is true by definition. In other words, a statement must have some way to be proven true or false, through empirical evidence or logical reasoning, for it to be considered meaningful.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein had an influence on the Vienna Circle and the development of logical positivism, especially with his early work, "Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus". Wittgenstein argued that most philosophical problems arise from misunderstandings of the logic of language, and that properly understanding language would resolve these issues. He suggested that any statement that doesn't depict a state of affairs in the world is meaningless.

Applying these ideas to your example, "There is something," could be seen as meaningless if there's no way to verify it or its negation, "There is nothing." In this view, for a statement to be meaningful, there must be some empirical or logical means to determine whether it's true or false.

Logical positivism and its verification principle have been subject to much criticism and are no longer dominant in philosophy, but they had a significant impact on the philosophy of science and language. If you want to read more about these topics, you might want to explore works by A.J. Ayer (like "Language, Truth, and Logic"), Rudolf Carnap, and Ludwig Wittgenstein's early writings.

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