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Source: The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction (1 ed 2007) by T. Eagleton. p. 26 Top.

The sham swamis and phoney sages of our time stand in for various more conventional gods who have failed. Philosophers, for example, seem to have been reduced to no more than white-coated

[p. 27 exhibits a photograph.]

[p 28 Top:]

technicians of language. It is true that the idea of the philosopher as a guide to the meaning of life is a popular misconception. Even so, one might expect them to do rather more than attempt to dissuade people from leaping out of windows by pointing out that the grammar of [1.] ‘nothing matters’ differs from that of [2.] ‘nothing chatters’.8 At the same time, theology had been discredited by creeping secularization, as well as by the crimes and follies of the churches.

[...]

8 The Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle once claimed that he had argued a student out of suicide by explaining to him this distinction.

What does 2 mean exactly? I understand chatter's ordinary meaning.

  • These dons are so locked away in their intellectual castles. They ought to get out more. He is merely projecting his failure on to the rest of the world. I have no idea what he meant but wonder if he meant that 'Nothing' may have a referent in the first statement but can have none in the second. But it seems unlikely he was being this subtle. – PeterJ Dec 26 '17 at 11:33
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There are two points of difference between the sentences. Note first that 'chatters' has no single meaning but, in the sense Ryle intended, it presumably means what the Oxford English Dictionary says it does : 'talk quickly, incessantly, foolishly or inpportunely' where this is something that (human) language users do.

  1. 'Chatters' is a verb : chattering, as indicated above, is something language users do. I chatter just as I talk, laugh, groan. 'Nothing chatters' means (falsely) that nothing does this, nothing engages in the activity of chattering. 'Matters' is a verb meaning 'is of consequence or significance'. 'Nothing matters' means (possibly truly) that nothing is of any consequence or importance.

  2. In 'Nothing chatters', 'nothing' means contextually 'not even one language user chatters'- that engages in this activity. In 'Nothing matters', 'nothing' has a wider range and means that there is no existing thing or possible state of affairs that is of any consequence or importance. It covers a domain wider than that of language users.

[If we change the sense of 'chatters' to mean something that birds or monkeys do - utter quick series of short sounds - the above examples can be reworked with this altered sense.]

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    I'd like to add that in 'nothing matters' the verb is especially different in the sense that it is conditioned by its referents and in this case, as not specified, has to be understood as 'for anybody'. To matter in this case is no action or process performed or directly observable. It is something created by persons by giving value to something and escapes the mere physical or descriptional sphere. In that case, it is a person, not direct reference to world, giving contextual meaning to something. This is the main grammatical difference here imho. – Philip Klöcking Jan 25 '18 at 15:38
  • @Philip Klöcking. Agreed. I was wrong to say that 'matters' is not a verb. I might as well delete the answer since it has provoked scarcely any interest. The question is not philosophically interesting anyway. Thanks. – Geoffrey Thomas Jan 25 '18 at 16:17
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I see this as reminiscent of a koan structure, and indeed pointing to an area of familiar commentary for them. I certainly see the different referents as not too subtle to be involved. These are clearly book-clever people, give them that much credit.

By a rolling around, a contemplation of the differences, an experience can be had, that 'nothing matters' which can be held on to so tightly, is itself an absurd statement, like who were you before you were born? The important thing is not the answer, but the experience.

The context seems to be pointing at the pincer movement, preventing access to 'the big questions' either through philosophy, or theology. Wittgenstein, one of the biggest influences on English language philosophy in the last century explicitly dismissed these, "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof must one be silent", which he didn't contradict in his later philosophy.

Blaming secularism for the retreat of theology, especially for 'creeping', presumably not on it's merits or by a rational process, I find very objectionable. It fails to acknowledge the reasons, and historical motivations, behind secularism. Theology may be great at 'big questions', but it's terrible at government. I would look to 'legibility' of a previous eras metis: https://aeon.co/ideas/whence-comes-nihilism-the-uncanniest-of-all-guests

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Some things certainly chatter. So it is without contradiction that it this context 'nothing' doesn't mean "no things at all" chatter. It is referring to the Void. Akin to "the void whispers".

This is intended to actively contrast with the 'nothing' in "nothing matters", which obviously does mean "no things at all".

The contrast is captured in these two neat phrases, chosen more for their rhyme than their reason.

After all, everyone knows the nothing doesn't chatter, it nothings. - ref.

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