George Pitcher (essay date 1965)
SOURCE: "Wittgenstein, Nonsense, and Lewis Carroll," in Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Man and His Philosophy, edited by K. T. Fann, 1967. Reprint by Humanities Press, 1978, pp. 315-35.
[Pitcher is an American author and educator. In the following essay, originally published in 1965, he relates Wittgenstein's writings on linguistic nonsense to Lewis Carroll's use of nonsense language.]
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was always concerned, one way or another, about nonsense; and much more so in his later writings than in the early ones. Nonsense is construed in the Tractatus in a narrow technical way: a combination of words is nonsensical when it cannot possibly be understood, because no sense is or can (except trivially) be accorded it. As an example of a nonsensical question, Wittgenstein gives that of "whether the good is more or less identical than the beautiful." He thinks that "most of the propositions and questions to be found in philosophical works are not false but nonsensical," not even excepting, sadly, those found in the Tractatus itself. One of his main objectives is to devise and justify a method for distinguishing sense from nonsense, so that the latter may be consigned, as it should be, to silence. Nonsense is thus viewed as the major target for the philosopher's destructive weapons.
In the later Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein still finds that philosophers—including the author of the Tractatus—are professionally given to uttering nonsense. Not obvious nonsense, but hidden nonsense: and he conceives the job of good philosophy to be that of revealing it for what it is. "My aim," he wrote, "is: to teach you to pass from a piece of disguised nonsense to something that is patent nonsense." Disguised nonsense has a surface air of plausibility and naturalness about it, so that it can take in even a sensible man. It has the semblance of sense. But when one examines it carefully and follows out its consequences, its inherent absurdity becomes manifest. Wittgenstein is still as concerned as ever to exorcise nonsense from philosophy; he wants to cure us of the puzzlement, the deep disquietude, it engenders in our soul. But now he also uses it like a vaccine that cures us of itself He may, for instance, describe some state of affairs that, according to a certain harmless-looking view or picture which he is criticizing, ought to be perfectly unexceptionable: but in fact the alleged state of affairs is radically odd, inherently absurd. The hidden nonsense is thus uncovered.
It is through the bond of nonsense that Wittgenstein is closely linked with Lewis Carroll. What I shall seek in general to demonstrate is the remarkable extent and depth of the affinity between these two great writers with respect to nonsense. Since I do not want to embroil myself in controversies about matters that would be excessively difficult to establish with anything approaching certainty, I shall not draw the further conclusion that Carroll exerted a profound influence on the later Wittgenstein. That he did, is one of my firm convictions; but I shall content myself with pointing out what I believe to be the extraordinary and illuminating parallels between their treatments of nonsense.
What I aim to show in particular is, first, that some of the important general kinds of nonsense that the later Wittgenstein finds in the doctrines of philosophers are found also in the writings of Lewis Carroll. By "kinds of nonsense," I mean nonsense that has its source in certain fundamental confusions and errors. I shall try to show that the very same confusions with which Wittgenstein charges philosophers were deliberately employed by Carroll for comic effect. Second, I want to show that some quite specific philosophical doctrines that the later Wittgenstein attacks are ridiculed also by Carroll. (Certain of these specific doctrines will embody, naturally, some of the general types of nonsense just mentioned.) Third, I shall cite several examples used by Wittgenstein to illustrate his points that resemble, in varying degrees, examples that are found in the works of Carroll.
Does it seem paradoxical, or even perverse, to assert that philosophy and humor—especially nonsense humor—are intimately related? If so, I hasten to add that Wittgenstein himself was keenly aware of the connection:
Let us ask ourselves: why do we feel a grammatical joke to be deep? (And that is what the depth of philosophy is.)
And [biographer Norman] Malcolm reports that
… Wittgenstein once said that a serious and good philosophical work could be written that would consist entirely of jokes (without being facetious).
Wittgenstein undoubtedly had the works of Lewis Carroll in mind when he made those remarks.
Nor is it really very surprising to find some affinity between the nonsense of Carroll and that which bothered Wittgenstein: for both men were professional logicians and much of their nonsense, as we shall see, is grounded in just those matters connected with language that a logician must concern himself with—such matters, for example, as the meanings of terms and sentences, as the logical differences that exist amongst various sort of terms, as the fact that sentences having the same (or at least apparently the same) grammatical form sometimes express propositions of radically different logical forms, and so on.
I shall present my case by starting with items of less importance and proceeding in the rough direction of those of more importance.
- Wittgenstein makes the point that one must not be seduced into thinking that one understands a certain sentence simply because it is grammatically well-formed and consists entirely of familiar words: the sentence may, in fact, make no sense whatever, or be at least "fishy" in some important respect.
"These deaf-mutes have learned only a gesture-language, but each of them talks to himself inwardly in a vocal language."—Now, don't you understand that?—… I do not know whether I am to say I understand it or don't understand it. I might answer, "It's an English sentence; apparently quite in order—that is, until one wants to do something with it; it has a connection with other sentences which makes it difficult for us to say that nobody really knows what it tells us; but everyone who has not become calloused by doing philosophy notices that there is something wrong here."
The same point is made in The Blue and Brown Books: there, instead of saying, "It's an English sentence; apparently quite in order," he says, "It sounds English, or German, etc., all right." This point and even the forms of words in which it is expressed are reminiscent of Carroll. After the Hatter had said something (viz., "Which is just the case with mine") that he seemed to have thought answered Alice's criticism of his watch,
Alice felt dreadfully puzzled. The Hatter's remark seemed to her to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English. "I don't quite understand you," she said, as politely as she could.
A similar scene occurs in Sylvie and Bruno Concluded. The Professor said:
"I hope you'll enjoy the dinner—such as it is; and that you won't mind the heat—such as it isn't."
The sentence sounded well, but somehow I couldn't quite understand it.…
- Just as there are remarks that are nonsense, or nearly so, because one can "do nothing" with them, so there are acts which make little or no sense because nothing of the right sort follows from them; they do not have the consequences or connections that are needed to make them into the kinds of acts they purport to be. Two examples that Wittgenstein gives of such acts find parallels in Carroll:
(a) Why can't my right hand give my left hand money?—My right hand can put it into my left hand. My right hand can write a deed of gift and my left hand a receipt.—But the further practical consequences would not be those of a gift.…
When Alice, after having eaten a piece of magical cake, grew so tall that she could hardly see her feet, she contemplated the possibility of having to send presents to them.
And she went on planning to herself how she would manage it. "They must go by the carrier," she thought, "and how funny it'll seem, sending presents to one's own feet! And how odd the directions will look!"
Alice's Right Foot, Esq.
near the Fender
(with Alice's love).
Oh dear, what nonsense I'm talking!"
(b) Imagine someone saying: "But I know how tall I am!" and laying his hand on top of his head to prove it.
Putting your hand on top of your head does not demonstrate that you know how tall you are, because it has no conceptual connections with anything beyond itself—for example, with acts of measuring with foot rules, or of standing back to back with another person of known height. The same (vacuous) act could be performed by anyone, no matter how tall he was and whether or not he knew how tall he was. Similarly, if you should ever have occasion, like Alice, to wonder whether you are rapidly growing or shrinking, it will avail you nothing to put your hand on top of your head to find out: the same results will be achieved in either case—namely, none.
She ate a little bit, and said anxiously to herself "Which way? Which way?", holding her hand on the top of her head to feel which way it was growing; and she was quite surprised to find that she remained the same size.
Alice's procedure would not be fruitless, of course, if she had reason to think that only her head and/or neck were stretching or shrinking while the rest of her body was remaining the same size. But she had no such reason, nor, as far as I can tell, did she think she had. Her surprise, therefore, is entirely unwarranted.
- I can detect no intimate connection between Carroll and the early Wittgenstein, and so virtually all my examples are drawn from the later Wittgenstein. Still, there is one point in the Tractatus with which Carroll would presumably agree. Wittgenstein maintains that tautologies, including the Law of Excluded Middle, say nothing.
(For example, I know nothing about the weather when I know that it is either raining or not raining.)
Carroll relies on this truth for his laughs when he has the White Knight describe the song he intends to sing.
"It's long," said the Knight, "but it's very, very beautiful. Everybody that hears me sing it—either it brings tears into their eyes, or else—"
"Or else what?" said Alice, for the Knight had made a sudden pause.
"Or else it doesn't, you know."
- In both the Tractatus and the Investigations, Wittgenstein heaps scorn on the (alleged) proposition that "A thing is identical with itself."
Roughly speaking, to say of two things that they are identical is nonsense, and to say of one thing that it is identical with itself is to say nothing at all.
"A thing is identical with itself."—There is no finer example of a useless proposition, which yet is connected with a certain play of the imagination. It is as if in imagination we put a thing into its own shape and saw that it fitted.
Carroll, too, saw that there is something very peculiar about such propositions:
"I'm sorry you don't like lessons," I said. "You should copy Sylvie. She's always as busy as the day is long!"
"Well, so am I!" said Bruno.
"No, no!" Sylvie corrected him. " You 're as busy as the day is short!"
"Well, what's the difference?" Bruno asked.
"Mister Sir, isn't the day as short as it's long? I mean, isn't it the same length?"
- One of the points that Wittgenstein makes over and over again in his later writings is that certain words which seem to denote something momentary and fleeting—usually, a feeling or thought or sensation-—actually signify something quite different—perhaps a disposition or ability, or at least a longer-range pattern of events. At one point, he uses the example of "grief": one is tempted to think that this word simply denotes an inner feeling which, although it usually endures for some time, may happen on occasion to last for only a few seconds or even for only one. To cast doubt on this whole idea, Wittgenstein asks:
Why does it sound queer to say: "For a second he felt deep grief?" Only because it so seldom happens?
But don't you feel grief now? ("But aren't you playing chess now?") The answer may be affirmative, but that does not make the concept of grief any more like the concept of a sensation.
Carroll, too, appreciates the absurdity of supposing that someone could feel deep grief for only a second. In Knot VIII of A Tangled Tale, we read:
"But oh, agony! Here is the outer gate, and we must part!" He sobbed as he shook hands with them, and the next moment was briskly walking away.
"He might have waited to see us off!" said the old man piteously.
"And he needn't have begun whistling the very moment he left us!" said the young one severely.
- Two points that are constantly stressed in the later writings of Wittgenstein are the following: (a) that "an ostensive definition can be variously interpreted in every case," and (b) that from the fact that a person knows what a word W denotes in one linguistic construction, it does not follow that he knows what W denotes in a different construction. (This latter point is, of course, intimately related to point 1, above.) To illustrate point (b), Wittgenstein uses the example of "measuring": one may know very well what it is to measure distance or length, but from this it does not follow that he knows what it is to measure time. In Carroll, there are passages in which these two points seem to play an essential part. During the trial of the Knave of Hearts,
one of the guinea-pigs cheered, and was immediately suppressed by the officers of the court. (As that is rather a hard word, I will just explain to you how it was done. They had a large canvas bag, which tied up at the mouth with strings: into this they slipped the guinea-pig, head first, and then sat upon it.)
"I'm glad I've seen that done," thought Alice. "I've so often read in the newspapers, at the end of trials, 'There was some attempt at applause, which was immediately suppressed by the officers of the court,' and I never understood what it meant till now."
This was not, to be sure, a paradigm case of an ostensive definition, since no one pointed to the proceedings and said to Alice "That is what is known as 'suppressing a guinea-pig' "; but it was just like one, since Alice guessed, from her previous reading of the newspapers, that it was in fact a case of suppressing a guinea-pig. Although not explicitly stated, it seems clear enough that Alice thought the phrase "suppressing a guinea-pig" refers to the beast's being put head first into a large canvas bag and being then sat upon, rather than to its being restrained and its cheering quelled, by whatever means. She thus misinterpreted the "ostensive definition" (point (a)). It is not so clear what is to be made of the second paragraph. Did Alice think she understood what the phrase "suppressing the the people" (i.e. those who attempt to applaud at the end of trials) means? If so, she was wrong—for such people are not generally put head first into large canvas bags and sat upon—and then the point of passage would be to show just how drastic her misinterpretation of the ostensive definition was. Or, to read the passage more literally, did Alice rather think she understood what "suppressing an attempt" (e.g., at applause) means? If so, she was wrong again: for even if she knew what suppressing a guinea-pig was, it would not follow that she knew what suppressing an attempt at applause was (point (b)). Indeed, on her understanding of the phrase "suppressing a guinea-pig," the phrase "suppressing an attempt at applause" is nonsensical, for attempts cannot be put into bags and be sat upon.
The following passage from Sylvie and Bruno Concluded is, however, more clearly relevant to point (b):
"You seem to enjoy that cake?" the Professor remarked.
"Doos that mean 'munch'?" Bruno whispered to Sylvie.
Sylvie nodded. "It means 'to munch' and 'to like to munch.'"
Bruno smiled at the Professor. "I doos enjoy it," he said.
The Other Professor caught the word. "And I hope you're enjoying yourself little Man?" he enquired.
Bruno's look of horror quite startled him. "No, indeed I aren't!" he said.
Sylvie's analysis of "enjoy cake" seems to me to be masterful; at any rate, Bruno may be assumed to know what it is to enjoy cake. But he mistakenly thought this knowledge entailed a knowledge of what it is to enjoy himself Hence the Other Professor's...
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