Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Deconstructionism and the Mad Hatter

I just came across this hilarious and delightful bit from another website. I'm pretty sure it wasn't really written by Carroll but you get the point:

Scholars have been thrilled recently at discovering a hitherto unpublished fragment of Lewis Carroll's work about Alice . It goes like this:

'When I use a word,' said Humpty Dumpty scornfully, 'it means what I want it to mean, neither more nor less.'

'My dear old thing,' said the March Hare, 'there's more to it than that. When you say or write something, you've got to reckon that you can't keep tabs on it. Other people may take what you say quite differently from how you meant it. It's like setting a bird free. Once it's gone, it flies where it wants.'

'I'm afraid he's right, Humpty' chipped in Alice , passing him his tea. 'If you want to get through to us, you've got to use words in ways that we'll understand.'

'Absolutely,' the March Hare agreed. 'There's no ultimate reason why we shouldn't call that teapot over there by the name "hot water bottle" instead. But if you were the only one who did call it "hot water bottle" you'd be in for a shock come teatime.'

Alice continued, 'Of course, you could start a new fashion, and if you did it frequently enough then at least all your friends could get the hang of it, and we'd know "hot water bottle" meant "teapot".'

The Mad Hatter had been listening to all this with mounting displeasure. 'What tommy rot! You're both talking as though Humpty could use language to communicate something.'

'He's not as thick as that,' objected the March Hare defensively.

'Not just him - anyone,' the Mad Hatter came back, splattering bits of muffin over the tea party in his intensity. 'Language doesn't give me access to what Humpty thinks. How could I know he was using language in the same way I was? When he says, "I'm having a nice time here" he might mean by "nice" what I mean by "nasty". And we could never find that out, because all we have to say is that what we mean by "nice" and "nasty" are other words. It's all just words. It's as though each one of us is inside a little bubble, all on our own, and every now and then we float close to each other, but we never know what's going on in the bubble next door.' He paused for breath and turned to Alice . 'Another cuppa, please, Alice pet, three sugars.'

'Pet, eh?' said Alice from between clenched teeth. 'That sounds like an offensive socially conditioned sexist term.'

'Only to you, Alice dear, just your subjective reaction,' said the Mad Hatter, taking his tea and sipping it. 'Blinking ____, I asked for sugar, didn't I?'

'So sorry,' said Alice sweetly 'In my language "three sugars" means you don't want any.'

'You know jolly well what I meant ...' the Mad Hatter accused as the tea party broke up in disarray.

I found this at as part of a larger article on deconstructionism. I must confess i don't fully understand deconstructionism (and i haven't yet read the rest of the article), but it points out the problem with the extreme forms of some parts of relativistic postmodernism.

Some would say that perfect communication is impossible (which i agree with), but then they take it so far as to say that all knowledge is impossible because all effective communication is impossible. This is when we find people saying that we can know nothing with reasonable certainty. Again, i am grateful for those who have alerted us to the fact that all communication is approximate and we know less things with absolute certainty than we think we do. But if communication is really impossible, why do the people who believe this bother to write books and articles and blog posts trying to "communicate" this belief? If any communication or knowledge is impossible, why bother to write?

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