Words and Meanings

While sitting uneasily at the Mad Hatter’s tea-party Alice is engaged in the following exchange with the March Hare and the Hatter:

“. . . why is a raven like a writing desk?”

“I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles — I believe I can guess that,” she added aloud.

“Do you mean that you can find out the answer to it?” asked the March haste.

“Exactly so,” said Alice.

“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.

“I do,” Alice replied hastily; “at least — at least I mean what I say — that’s the same thing, you know.”

“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “Why you might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see!'”

“”You might just as well say” added the March Hare, “that ‘I like what I get’ is the same thing as ‘I get what I like.'”

And so it goes in Wonderland. Poor Alice!

In our world, where we seldom wonder, we occasionally puzzle over the problem whether the tree falling in the forest with no one around can be said to have made a sound. Or, to quote William James, we ask whether in going around a tree with a squirrel on the other side do we go around the squirrel if he remains always on the other side of the tree?

Well, some of us worry about such things. Mostly stuffy philosophers in their closets. These appear to be real problems when, in fact they are somewhat spurious. They are merely verbal problems and they can be solved by simply stipulating what we mean by “sound,” in the first case, and “around” in the second case. To take the second case, we go around the squirrel if by “around” we mean we circumscribe the squirrel; we do not if we mean by “around” that we see all sides, front, and back of the squirrel.  In the first case it is clear that depends on what we mean by “sound.” It all depends on saying what we mean.

If we mean what we say, on the other hand, then we are probably not modern parents who challenge their kids with threats they seldom or never carry out: “Peter, if you don’t stop hitting your little sister you will be sent to your room!” But, as so often happens, Peter keeps hitting his sister and is never sent to his room. Parents so often don’t mean what they say and the kids grow up not knowing where the line is drawn — if, indeed, there IS any line!

Thus do logical and linguistic puzzles translate into real-life experiences where kids are spoiled and we both eat what we see and see what we eat. Or we seem always to get what we like even if we really don’t want it — and we certainly don’t need it.

But, in the end, as Ludwig Wittgenstein told us long ago, we need to show the fly the way out of the milk bottle: we need to make clear to others what we mean when we use words — words such as “socialism,” “capitalism,” “democracy,” “conservative,” or “liberal.” Otherwise the fly will buzz around in the milk bottle and never get out — and we will debate endlessly about matters that really don’t matter and insist that facts are really fictions and truth is a matter of opinion.


More Huxley Snippits

I mentioned in a previous post in which I quoted at length from Huxley’s Brave New World Revisited, that he was very concerned about the loss of human freedom in a world increasingly crowded and tending toward what he calls “dictatorship.” I want to continue to quote from his book because what he has to say is so relevant today and has the ring of truth. Speaking of truth, he thinks the ability to distinguish between what is true and what is false are essential elements in a good education. Imagine!

“An education for freedom (and for the love and intelligence which are at once the conditions and the results of freedom) must be among other things an education in the proper use of language.. . . .Suffice it to say that all the intellectual materials for a sound education in the proper use of language — education on every level from kindergarten to graduate school — are now available. Such an education in the art of distinguishing between the proper and the improper use of symbols could be inaugurated immediately. Indeed it might have been inaugurated at any time during the last thirty or forty years. And yet children are nowhere taught in any systematic way, to distinguish true from false, or meaningful from meaningless, statements. Why is this so? Because their elders even in the democratic countries do not want them to be given this sort of education.”

Indeed, their parents want them to learn a trade, to be able to earn money right after graduation — which is important, to be sure, but not of first importance. Given that the distinguishing mark of the human species is the use of symbols, it is of first importance, as Huxley suggests, that our children learn to use their minds, to learn how language functions and to see how easily facts can be manipulated in order to persuade the unwary. Huxley, as I have mentioned before, understood the nature of freedom and the ease with which it can be taken away from us — without our knowing it has been lost. As he says in this regard:

“It is perfectly possible for a man to be out of prison and yet not to be free — to be under no physical restraint and yet to be a psychological captive, compelled to think, feel, and act as the representatives of the national State, or of some private interest within the nation, want him to think, feel, and act. There will never be such a thing as a writ of habeas mentum; for no sheriff or jailer can bring an illegally imprisoned mind into court, and no person whose mind has been made captive by the methods outlined above [in his discussion of propaganda] would be in a position to complain of his captivity. The nature of psychological compulsion is such that those who act under constraint remain under the impression that they are acting on their own initiative. The victim of mind-manipulation does not know that he is a victim. To him the walls of his prison are invisible and he believes himself to be free.” [Italics added]

The result, of course, is a society like that in Huxley’s novel, a society of captives who think they are free: denizens of an ant hill, as Dostoevsky put it.  When I asked my classes to read Huxley’s novels most had no idea what he was talking about: his world was so unlike theirs. Or so they thought.

“That so many of the well-fed television watchers in the world’s most powerful democracy should be so completely indifferent to the idea of self-government, so blankly uninterested in freedom of thought and the right to dissent, is distressing but not surprising. ‘Free as a bird,’ we say, and envy the winged creatures for their power of unfettered movement in all three dimensions. But, alas, we forget the dodo. Any bird that has learned how to grub up a good living without being compelled to use its wings will soon renounce the privilege of flight and remain forever grounded. Something analogous is true of human beings. If the bread is supplied regularly and copiously three times a day, many of them will be perfectly content to live by bread alone. ‘In the end,’ says the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s parable, ‘in the end they will lay their freedom at our feet and say to us, ‘make us your slaves, but feed us.'”

One wonders if the plethora of entertainment that surrounds us and diverts our attention from important matters could possibly be part of an attempt to dull our minds, weaken our critical faculties. Is that far-fetched? In any event, apropos of Huxley’s last comment, the interesting, albeit disturbing, question is what will happen to these Dodos when there isn’t enough bread? They will then be forced to think in order to survive, but almost certainly, as things now stand, they will be unable to do so.