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.