While flipping magazine pages recently, I happened to see a reference to something I had not thought of in years and years – the meeting of Alice with Humpty Dumpty when they argued over the meaning of words, as recounted in Through the Looking Glass.
The nub of their conflict is here:
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a 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.’
And there is a “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” of just how does language work? Who sets the meaning of words? If the boss determines meaning, then where is our fundamental freedom? Human discourse degrades into another form of artificial intelligence.
What are words anyway: truth, hallucinations, approximations, inventions, carriers of fixed or malleable cultural perceptions?
Humpty Dumpty, as conceptualized by Lewis Carroll, is a narcissistic, post-modern, deconstructionist – meaning is whatever you want it to be. But to have others get your meaning and follow your lead, you need power to compel or at least manipulate them into seeing things your way. And just so, post-modernists are 1) fixated on who has power and prestige and 2) desperate to attain social and political power and hold it in their own hands, responsible to none other.
You can read the entire conversation of Alice and Humpty Dumpty here.
Carroll takes us back to Plato’s proposal that only philosophers should be our kings and teach us right from wrong. Tolkien also made a good story out of Plato’s conceit, where his Lord of the Rings was the one to “rule them all.” Thomas Hobbes, in 1651, proposed the sovereign state as leviathan to impose order on the anarchy enjoyed by self-interested individuals who think and feel for themselves, just as they wish to do. Jean-Jacques Rousseau followed with his proposal to have the sovereign create a general will, which would take the place of all the variant “particular wills” animating individuals.
In ancient China, Confucius affirmed that the first thing to do in governing people is to “rectify names,” to give them the proper words which would direct them to the right way of thinking and acting.
So, with words, language and discourse, how can we talk sensibly about ethics?