Tuesday 1 September 2015

When Alice met Wittgenstein (2015)

Alice having tea with the Mad Hatter, the Dormouse and the March Hare*
When Alice, Wittgenstein, and Russell
met at the
Mad Hatters Tea Party

by Eric Gerlach

Logic: The art of thinking and reasoning in strict accordance with 
the limitations and incapacities of the human misunderstanding.
– Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary
Many have recognized the striking similarities between Lewis Carroll's two famous books about Alice and Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, one of the most influential philosophical works of the last century.  Less well-known is that Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was one of Ludwig Wittgenstein's favorite books in English, for him a logician's catalog of the ways language can be misused.  Wittgenstein included Carroll's name twice in the text, and there are many close parallels between points Wittgenstein makes about philosophical nonsense and the nonsensical interactions Alice has with Carroll's characters.

So, it seems likely that, at some point, Wittgenstein was thinking of Wonderland as he penned his investigations -  but like much in  Wittgenstein, nothing can be said with complete certainty. Nonetheless, there are some clues. Wittgenstein studied and later taught at Trinity College Cambridge, in the UK, the college where Bertrand Russell. and G.E. Moore were toiling over their task to put language on a logical footing. One connection between Carroll and Wittgenstein can be found in a note Martin Gardner includes in his Annotated Alice, which mentions that Bertrand Russell was thought by many at Cambridge to look like the illustration of the Mad Hatter in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and that Russell,  G. E. Moore  and John McTaggart, all close friends and colleagues, were known as 'the Mad Tea Party'.  Were the three compared to the mad tea party of Carroll's Wonderland merely because of physical resemblances, or are there philosophical comparisons as well?

There were actual mad tea parties in Victorian England, a technique used for teaching social behavior, such as following rules and interacting with others, to insane asylum inmates. It is likely that Carroll learned of such parties from his, favorite uncle, who was a Commissioner of Lunacy whose duties included inspecting asylums. Carroll developed early interests in mental disorders and mathematics following his uncle. and he clearly includes one in Wonderland, a place where time stands still and nonsense is spoken.  A universal and unquestionable logic, the dream of Russell, would also be an unchanging and eternal one, effectively outside of time.  We can also imagine that many at Cambridge found Russell's circle as incomprehensible as Alice found the Hatter's gathering.

Recall that Confucius said that the surest way to ruin a state is for the ruler never to suffer contradiction, and that when the ruler is wrong, he should be told.  An unchanging logic serves as a fine calculus for computers, but it is often unhelpful or even irrelevant when it comes to human interaction.  Logic should be centered on situations of interaction, not absolute certainty or the structure of isolated arguments.  When we are insecure, we long for unchanging answers and one-sided solutions, but when we are wise, we embrace life as an open and evolving adventure like Alice's, involving others.

When Wittgenstein published (with Russell's foreword) his Tractatus (1921), he believed his truth table method would serve as the basis for a fixed logic, and it is still taught in classrooms today.  But later, Wittgenstein abandoned the idea of a single, universal and univocal logic, and argued in his Philosophical Investigations (1953) that we practice a diverse variety of language games and forms of life related to each other by family resemblances, without any universal logic underlying them all. It could be said that Wittgenstein departed from Russell's dream of a single logic much as Alice left the Hatter's tea party after having her fill

This 'later Wittgenstein' argued that the meaning of a thing, word, statement, rule, or practice is not fixed by a single logic, set of rules or final authoritative interpretation, but rather is determined by use in context.  Just as a brake lever functions when it is connected to the rest of the train cabin, when we examine things as if they are universal, outside of particular situations, we become confused about how they work.  There are many ways that language functions, like the variety of tools found in a toolbox or controls found in a train cabin, and we can change the games we play and forms we live.  Knowing how to act is not based in conceptions of language, logic or mathematics, but in feeling familiar with situations that we do not need to fully understand.

This leads us to a problem found all over Wonderland.  Those who do things our way feel familiar to us, and those who do not, feel unfamiliar, odd and curious - words that Alice and Wittgenstein use frequently in their investigations and adventures.  Because meaning is not fully fixed by any single standard and things can be used and interpreted differently by ourselves and others in an unknown number of ways, we must determine for ourselves how much to agree or disagree with others in each interaction, deciding when to ignore, when to attack, when to negotiate, and when to surrender to ways that differ from our own.  Such a range of responses is illustrated by the ways the Mad Hatter, March Hare and Queen of Hearts treat Alice. Their example shows how some responses can result in absurdities and nonsense when we refuse to use the positions of others to examine our own for mistakes and misunderstandings.  Sometimes, we find ourselves having to continuously compromise, painfully at times.  Wittgenstein enjoyed quoting Schopenhauer's story of porcupines cuddling for warmth on a winter's day, advancing and retreating until they find a comfortable distance.

Like Russell, we can dream of a cast-iron logic that puts an end to contradictions and disputes between ourselves and others, and an objective science of human behavior that saves us from continuous suffering and insanity, like the original positivist dream of Auguste Comte.  And Russell like Comte, longed for a scientifically planned socialist society which would use logic and sociology to resolve human dilemmas with mathematical clarity, arriving at univocal solutions that silence the voice of doubt and reproach.  It would be lovely if there was a logic or science of human interaction which could solve all of the contradictions we suffer interacting with others, but human life would be hardly recognizable.  Interactions are often open-ended and confusing for us all, though we can become more familiar with them, more at home in the ways we continuously become confused.  Looking at Wonderland this way can lead us to a greater understanding of the ways that we understand and misunderstand each other, showing us the forms of life we share and the ways we have been playing these games. Is it the way Wittgenstein did too?

Recall the opening scene of Wonderland, in which Alice unknowingly falls into a dream and spies the White Rabbit, an animal that wears a watch and worries about being late.  This absurdity draws Alice into Wonderland.  In the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein says that a dog can fear his master, but doubts that a dog can fear his master tomorrow,  as a dog has as little use for tomorrows as a rabbit does for a watch.  The White Rabbit worries he is breaking a rule, never be late, and is failing to conform to the wishes of the Queen and formal society.  Wittgenstein is said to have never read a word of Aristotle, but the classically trained Carroll had and was certainly aware that the White Rabbit is the absurd combination of an animal that reasons. That, of course, is how Aristotle defined humanity.  Like humanity, rules and games are both ideal and real, abstractions put into practice, which Wittgenstein argues can confuse us when we think of ideals and universals apart from the real and particular, as if they are simply ideal and entirely in the mind like Wonderland.

Following the White Rabbit, Alice finds a three-legged glass table, a golden key, and a small door that leads to a garden.  Carroll preferred playing outside with children to socializing in halls with colleagues.  Alice finds that when she is small enough to go through the door the key is out of reach. The key may stand for the Golden Rule, 'Treat others the way you would want to be treated', preached alike by Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, Muhammad and many others.  It can be easy to forget such a universal and transcultural rule in our daily interactions, as it often does not seem to work or fit.  As Ambrose Bierce said, Christianity is marvelously suited for the needs of one's neighbor.  Others do not treat us as we want to be treated, and so it seems fitting to forget the rules and return the favor.  Or could the key stand for logic itself, the ideal key for resolving contradiction and debate, graspable in the abstract but somewhat out of reach in actual interactions?

Whatever the truth of the matter, Alice is frustrated by the gap between herself and the key and begins to cry, then commands herself to stop.  We are told that Alice often pretends to be two people, gives herself advice but fails to follow it, and once punished herself for cheating at a game of croquet she was playing against herself.  There is a gap between the two Alices, one who focuses on herself and her mistakes, prescribing rules and morals, and one who focuses on other things, forgetting to follow orders.  This is much like Freud's superego and id, scolding parent and forgetful child, as well as the Red and White Queens in the land behind the Looking-Glass.

Alice thinks the door leads to paradise, like a child who dreams of the day she becomes an adult and her problems are over, but when Alice finally gets to the garden she finds a homicidal tyrant  presiding over a game of croquet played with animals that refuse to conform to the rules, much like the two sides of herself.  Alice does not make sense of this, nor does she solve the problems of Wonderland.  She never gets to use the golden key, as her tears sweep her out of the situation while she is tiny.  Similarly, she does not win the game in the Queen's garden, nor is she cleared of suspicion in the courtroom of the king, but rather grows large and angry, declares it all to be nonsense and ends the dream of Wonderland in anger.  Alice begins timid and forgetful like the White Rabbit, and even obeys his orders, but she ends bold and judgemental like the Queen of Hearts, and even dares to contradict her own execution order.

Just before she reaches the tea party, the Cheshire Cat tells Alice that the Hare and Hatter are both insane, as is everyone else.  He explains that a dog growls when angry and wags its tail when happy, while a cat growls when happy and wags his tail when angry.  Alice says she calls it purring, not growling, and the cat says she can call it whatever she likes.  Every position appears backwards to its opposite.  Like the hybrid White Rabbit, the Hare and Hatter are animal and humanity, the informal and formal gathered together.  Hats were proper attire in Carroll's day, and the Hatter, who plays the role of logician, is wearing a hat which he later admits is not his own but one he sells to others.  In Through the Looking Glass, the White Knight, whom many compare to Carroll, says he plucks butterflies from the air and sells them as mutton pies to feed himself, much as a logician or philosopher plucks ideas from thin air and sells them to students.
He said I look for butterflies That sleep among the wheat: I make them into mutton-pies, And sell them in the street.  I sell them unto men, he said, Who sail on stormy seas; And that's the way I get my bread - A trifle, if you please.
When Alice approaches the tea party, the Hare and Hatter see her and shout, 'No room! No room!'.  Are they saying Alice is not welcome, or could  they perhaps be saying that they are outdoors and thus there is 'no room'?  Alice interprets this as an insult, and sits down in retaliation.  The Hare offers her wine, but then admits there isn't any.  Alice says this is rude, and the Hare replies that it is rude to sit down without being invited.  The Hatter tells Alice that she needs a haircut, which Alice says is also rude.

The Hatter replies with a riddle, a riddle which goes unanswered, 'Why is a raven like a writing desk?'.  Why are we rude to others who are rude to us, treating them the very way that they treat us?  This remains an unsolved riddle of existence. Alice says, 'I believe I can guess that'.  The Hare replies, 'Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?'.  Alice agrees, and the Hare replies, 'Then you should say what you mean'.  This is absurd, for as Wittgenstein argues we can say something without meaning it, but when we say something and mean it we mean it in saying it, such that the two are not separate, and we are not in a position to make rulings about the intentions of others apart from their words and actions.  Indeed, Alice protests, and says, 'at least I mean what I say ? that's the same thing, you know'.

Now the Hatter jumps in, playing logician, and misinterprets Alice in the way that Wittgenstein thought Russell misunderstood logic.  The Hatter objects that the two are not the same, and says that 'I see what I eat' is not the same thing as 'I eat what I see'.

One of the first lessons learned in formal logic is that If A then B is not the same thing as If B then A.  The Hatter gives an excellent example, as seeing each thing we eat is very different from eating each thing we see.  However, when Alice says, 'I mean what I say', she is saying she meant the thing she said, not that she always means what she says.  She is not making the universal claim that she is incapable of telling a lie, but making the particular claim that when she said she could guess the answer, she also meant it, and that this is the same thing as saying she meant it and also said it.  In logic and mathematics, A + B is the same thing as B + A, such that 'Alice said and meant it' is the same thing as saying 'Alice meant and said it'.

The Hatter's logic is flawless, but he misunderstands Alice's position.  Alice is an unwelcome intruder, and the Hatter is looking for her to make mistakes.  Is there a parallel between Russell and Wittgenstein here? Wittgenstein says we make 'the easy transition from some to all' when we project the particular way a thing is used or what it means to all possible cases.  What sometimes happens might always happen, but not necessarily.  Philosophers often interpret their own positions as general, allowing for exceptions, but interpret their opponents' positions as universal, contradicted by exceptions.  Rules and positions can be universal and absolute, but they need not be.  If I say that Sam is good, you do not know if I am saying he is perfect in every way, if he is good with some flaws, or that he is a terrible person and thus makes a good choice today as we need to hire a hitman.  Hans Sluga uses the example of a mother telling her daughter to stay in the house, trusting her daughter is wise and reasonable enough to know that when the house is on fire her ruling no longer applies.

In fact, madness was Russell's greatest nightmare. 

According to Wittgenstein, Russell misunderstood logic because he thought it is universal like arithmetic, rather than rooted in particular situations.  Is the idea of absolute certainty a foundation for sanity or is it delusion, the confusion of a dream with reality as Alice does her dream of Wonderland and the Hatter his interpretation of Alice?  Those at Cambridge who compared Russell and his circle to the Hatter's tea party likely thought so.  When Russell was invited to discuss works of literature and philosophy on the radio, he was passionate about many subjects, but only lukewarm when discussing Alice in Wonderland, possibly because he hated others thinking he was mad and resented the comparison of himself to the Hatter.

In fact, madness was Russell's greatest nightmare. When Russell was seventeen, he attempted to strangle a friend to death, fully intending to murder him, and barely managed to stop himself.  Only a few years later at Cambridge, as a fellow student of McTaggart and Moore, Russell learned his uncle Willy had suffered a nervous breakdown, strangled a vagrant and stabbed two men, killing one.  Willy Russell never recovered, and lived out his years hidden away in an asylum, lapsing into a catatonic dreamworld much like Wonderland.  Bertrand Russell became terrified that madness would suddenly take him, as he had only been a breath away from becoming his uncle, and he was haunted by the dueling images of being strangled by a madman or strangling someone as a madman.  One cannot ask for a more dysfunctional image of human interaction. For much of his life, Russell felt as if he was a fish in an aquarium, cut off from the warmth of others.

On the other hand, one of the happiest moments of Russell's youth was learning Euclidean geometry at the age of eleven from his older brother Frank.  Mathematics promised him the universal and eternal, as well as assertions that cannot be contradicted.  Unfortunately, he soon discovered that the work of Euclid rested on axioms, principles that remained unproven.  And so, for much of his life and career, Russell sought a solution to the extent that the American pragmatist and psychologist William James wrote to Russell: 
My dying words to you are, 'Say goodbye to mathematical logic if you wish to preserve your relations with concrete realities'.   
Significantly, in response, Russell wrote to a friend: 
I would much rather, of the two, preserve my relations with symbolic logic.   
This is Wonderland stuff, as is the fact that Russell worked with Whitehead for a decade to publish the Principia Mathematica in 1910, a book few can read that takes 362 pages to prove that 1 + 1 = 2.  And then, in 1911, the very next year, Wittgenstein showed up at Russell's rooms without warning...

Contact details: Eric Gerlach email: ericgerlach@gmail.com 

*This illustration appears in The Nursery Alice, a shortened version of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, published in 1890, featuring enlarged and coloured versions of the original drawings by John Tenniel.

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