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Which Is to Be Master
November 18, 2003 — 5:36 pm

Heading a little further back in Rod Long’s blog archives, Rod takes Dennis Kucinich to task for his abuses of language, such as a proposed use of government force in “making non-violence an organizing principle.” He also notes Ayn Rand’s Anthem and George Orwell’s 1984 as examples of the “corruption of language as a tool of political control.” Fair enough.

But he precedes the post with part of a famous quote from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There, expanded below:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

This familiar quote is frequently misconstrued. Some time ago I was browsing through my copy of The Annotated Alice (a collection of both of Carroll’s Alice novels with annotation by Martin Gardner; my copy is the original edition, although the preceding link leads to the new, expanded edition, which I don’t own — so I don’t know whether it revises or updates any of the content to follow), and was particularly interested to read the annotation associated with this Humpty Dumpty quote. I hadn’t read this in years (and haven’t read through all of the annotations since high school):

Lewis Carroll was fully aware of the profundity in Humpty Dumpty’s whimsical discourse on semantics. Humpty takes the point of view known in the Middle Ages as nominalism; the view that universal terms do not refer to objective existences but are nothing more than flatus vocus, verbal utterances. The view was skillfully defended by William of Occam and is now held by almost all contemporary logical empiricists.

Even in logic and mathematics, where terms are usually more precise than in other subject matters, enormous confusion often results from a failure to realize that words mean “neither more nor less” than what they are intended to mean. In Carroll’s time a lively controversy in formal logic concerned the “existential import” of Aristotle’s four basic propositions. Do the universal statements “All A is B” and “No A is B” imply that A is a set that actually contains members? Is it implied in the particular statements “Some A is B” and “Some A is not B”?

Carroll answers these questions at some length on page 165 of his Symbolic Logic. The passage is worth quoting, for it is straight from the broad mouth of Humpty Dumpty.

The writers, and editors, of the Logical text-books which run in the ordinary grooves — to whom I shall hereafter refer by the (I hope inoffensive) title “The Logicians” — take, on this subject, what seems to me to be a more humble position than is at all necessary. They speak of the Copula of a Proposition “with bated breath”; almost as if it were a living, conscious Entity, capable of declaring for itself what it chose to mean, and that we, poor human creatures, had nothing to do but to ascertain what was its sovereign will and pleasure, and submit to it.

In opposition to this view, I maintain that any writer of a book is fully authorised in attaching any meaning he likes to any word or phrase he intends to use. If I find an author saying, at the beginning of a book, “Let it be understood that by the word ‘black’ I shall always mean ‘white’, and that by the word ‘white’ I shall always mean ‘black’,” I meekly accept his ruling, however injudicious I may think it.

And so, with regard to the question whether a Proposition is or is not to be understood as asserting the existence of its Subject, I maintain that every writer may adopt his own rule, provided of course that it is consistent with itself and with the accepted facts of Logic.

Let us consider certain views that may logically be held, and thus settle which of them may conveniently be held; after which I shall hold myself free to declare which of them I intend to hold.

The view adopted by Carroll (that both “all” and “some” imply existence but that “no” leaves the question open) did not finally win out. In modern logic only the “some” propositions are taken to imply that a class is not a null class. This does not, of course, invalidate the nominalistic attitude of Carroll and his egg. The current point of view was adopted solely because logicians believed it to be the most useful.

When logicians shifted their interest from the class logic of Aristotle to the propositional or truth-value calculus, another furious and funny debate (though mostly among non-logicians) raged over the meaning of “material implication.” Most of the confusion sprang from a failure to realize that “implies” in the statement “A implies B” has a restricted meaning peculiar to the calculus and does not refer to any causal relation between A and B. A similar confusion still persists in regard to the multivalued logics in which terms such as “and,” “not,” and “implies” have no common-sense or intuitive meaning; in fact, they have no meaning whatever other than that which is exactly defined by the matrix tables, which generate these “connective” terms. Once this is fully understood, most of the mystery surrounding these queer logics evaporates.

In mathematics equal amounts of energy have been dissipated in useless argumentation over the “meaning” of such phrases as “imaginary number,” “transfinite number,” and so on; useless because such words mean precisely what they are defined to mean; no more, no less.

On the other hand, if we wish to communicate accurately we are under a kind of moral obligation to avoid Humpty’s practice of giving private meanings to commonly used words. “May we . . . make our words mean whatever we choose them to mean?” asks Roger W. Holmes in his article, “The Philosopher’s Alice In Wonderland,” Antioch Review, Summer 1959. “One thinks of a Soviet delegate using ‘democracy’ in a UN debate. May we pay our words extra, or is this the stuff that propaganda is made of? Do we have an obligation to past usage? In one sense words are our masters, or communication would be impossible. In another we are the masters; otherwise there could be no poetry.”

Pointing this out is not meant as a defense of any particular hash Kucinich may have made out of the language. But there’s more than enough room in public discourse for multiple semantic approaches — strictly defining terms in question for the purposes of a given argument, and sticking to common usage elsewhere. There’s no shame in redefining a word to suit your purposes, as long as you make it clear that’s what you’re doing.

— Eric D. DixonComments (0)

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Eric D. Dixon

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