“I’m sure my memory only works one way,” Alice remarked. “I can’t remember things before they happen.”

“It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,” the Queen remarked.”

(Alice through the looking glass, chapter 5).

What would a Wittgensteinian perspective on this be? Is it worthwhile?

A comparison between Ludwig Wittgenstein and Lewis Carroll is not an unlikely occurrence. This is largely due to both of them giving a similar treatment of nonsense in that it results from confusion and errors. Wittgenstein’s perspective on nonsense is that it causes a lot of confusion, the example of Carroll’s character Alice being exposed to nonsense throughout her ‘adventures’ and becoming bewildered and puzzled by it is a valid one. For Wittgenstein, the problem is that philosophers are puzzled and confused by the nonsense that they speak, write or say, whilst being unaware that they are uttering such nonsense. According to Pitcher [K.T.Fann, 1967], in both of these cases, this nonsense takes on the form of something that is akin to ‘madness’. Carroll’s character Alice’s world is filled with this kind of ‘madness’ and this is true of the world in which Wittgenstein’s philosophers exist. Wittgenstein does mention Lewis Carroll by name in the Philosophical Investigations when discussing words without meaning, he states that such words appear in Carroll’s poems [Philosophical Investigations, p13].

To take the first remark from Through the Looking Glass, from a Wittgensteinian perspective, Alice’s concerns about her memory working one way are not concerns about the nature of memory (she would be wrong to think this). Alice’s confusion is caused by the ‘mystifying’ way that our language is used — it is this failing that is commonly made and repeated in philosophy. For Wittgenstein, it is not the new facts about the way we think (for Alice, memory) that is a concern of ours, ‘all the facts that concern us lie open before us’ [P6, The Blue & Brown Books] — it is the use and substance of the thing which confuses us. Wittgenstein states that many of our forms of expression seduce us into thinking of time as “a queer thing” of one kind or another [P6, The Blue & Brown Books]. According to Ray Monk (P337, 1990), The Blue Book was responsible for introducing the idea of a ‘Language-game’ (Ways of using signs that are much more simplistic than those in which we use the signs of complicated everyday language, like a child would use when beginning to learn how words are used) and the technique that was based on it for taking away philosophical confusion. The Blue Book began with one of the most influential ‘sources’ of philosophical confusion, the ease of becoming misled by ‘substantives’ to seek something that matches them, for example: ‘What is time?’, ‘What is meaning?’, ‘What is knowledge?’, ‘What is thought?’ And so on. Philosophy has always previously attempted to answer such questions by naming some ‘thing’ and the technique of language-games was intended to break this pattern (Monk, P337, 1990).

Evidence of Wittgenstein’s interest in nonsense can also be found in the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus and, the Philosophical Investigations. In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein’s aim is to understand how language is structured from the inside while demonstrating the limitations that exist, and, as language expresses thought, this meant an investigation into the limits of thought. It was Wiitgenstein’s wish to discover where the line should be drawn in order to divide sense from nonsense, so that it is possible to realise when you have reached it and stop, in other words, when the limit is reached, language ceases, and beyond it there can only be silence. The necessity that the limits of language should lie where they do is an absolute necessity. Wittgenstein’s view about the structure of reality was that it is composed of simple objects, and that this structure is accurately repeated in the structure of elementary propositions. From Wittgenstein’s viewpoint, the idea that there must be objects would be a valid metaphysical thesis. For Wittgenstein, elementary propositions are the basic components of all languages (all languages have a uniform logical structure, which does not necessarily show on the surface) once it has been broken down. Elementary propositions can be described as a class of factual propositions which are logically independent of one another. These are used to calculate the limits of language through the use of a logical formula. When Wittgenstein speaks of the limits of language in the Tractatus, he means the limits of factual discourse.

Wittgenstein ends the Preface of the Tractatus by making two claims, the first one being that it lays down the general lines of a final solution to the problems of philosophy, and the second one is that it shows how little is achieved when these problems are solved. This makes the suggestion that philosophy is finished. These problems of philosophy are solved by a critique of language which fixes the limits of factual discourse. The reason why the problems of philosophy are posed is that the logic of our language is misunderstood. The Tractatus produced two main ideas: 1) the propositions of factual language are pictures, and 2) the propositions of logic are tautologies. For Wittgenstein, an example of a tautology would be something like this: “I know that either it is raining or it is not raining,” and could possibly be likened to the ‘Bellman’s Map’ in Lewis Carroll’s Hunting of the Snark: “A Perfect and absolute blank”. Within the Tractatus, Wittgenstein argues that many of the philosophical propositions and questions are not false, but ‘nonsensical’ (Tractatus, 4.003). But perhaps the most cited part of the Tractatus, and the one that makes clear Wittgenstein’s purpose of transcending rational thought, would be Paragraph 6.54, where Wittgenstein states that: “My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used — as steps — to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)”. In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein sees nonsense as a combination of words being nonsensical when it cannot possibly be understood, because no sense is or can be fitted to it.

As far as Wittgenstein is concerned in his later work, the Philosophical Investigations, philosophers have a tendency to speak nonsense, but not in an obvious way, it is hidden. The mistaken understanding that we have got from previous results of philosophy stems from it ‘running its head up against the limits of language’ [p119, PI]. Wittgenstein understands good philosophy as having the capacity to show this nonsense for what it really is, and the previous nonsense from other philosophical doctrines enables us to see the value of what we have discovered. Wittgenstein’s conception in the Philosophical Investigations seems to be of something that is destroying all that is interesting and important [PI, p118]. Wittgenstein’s idea in the Philosophical Investigations was still to plot the limits of language, but he no longer believed the limit to be a continuous line. Factual discourse was not as important anymore, Wittgenstein was not able to derive its many different forms from a single essence — he now saw language as a variety of many different practices irreducible to a single pattern, the aim was to bring the many points of origin and subdivisions of logical space together through the drawing of connecting lines between them. For Pitcher, some of these kinds of nonsense that Wittgenstein highlighted exist within the work of Lewis Carroll (although this nonsense in Carroll’s work is intended for comic effect), this nonsense has its roots in fundamental confusions and mistakes. Another point that Pitcher made was that Carroll and Wittgenstein have a common dislike for specific philosophical teachings.

In the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein makes the difference between patent and disguised nonsense clear, patent nonsense is whatever is immediately recognisable as nonsense and, disguised nonsense is anything that may sound like good sense but is not, and the absurdity of which needs to be shown (Hunter, 1985, P165). At the end of Para 524 in the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein indicates that he believes a transition has been made from some patent to some disguised nonsense, but leaves the reader to see for themselves where this has happened. According to Hunter (1985, P171), the answer to what the disguised nonsense is can be found in the reply ‘What the picture tells me is itself’, if it is nonsense but can be accepted as sense, then that is a valid reason to describe it as disguised nonsense. Hunter makes the argument that patent nonsense can also be found in the same sentence through the use of the example of an art gallery and the sentence being used to describe a work of art, or music at a concert — where the listener, or observer goes away content with another piece of nonsense to add to their ‘collection’. Hunter arrives at the conclusion (1985, P172) that Wittgenstein was having himself some fun as a trickster by first getting the reader to accept ‘What the picture tells me is itself’ as a fair point then, after highlighting that there is some nonsense there, the reader retreats back to make the discovery that this sentence is in fact disguised nonsense. This leaves Wittgenstein in the position to point out what the reader has seen throughout — that it is actually patent nonsense. So, there is really no difference between the two transitions, and no problem about why Wittgenstein should wish to move from patent to disguised nonsense.

In an interesting view of what nonsense might be, and another example of how Lewis Carroll is often used to demonstrate philosophical points, Cora Diamond distinguishes the ‘natural’ view, which only has the fact that there does not appear to be any plausible alternatives going for it [Pg. 95], from the Frege and Wittgensteinian view which goes against it and is considered by Diamond to be a possible view of nonsense. For Diamond, the ‘natural’ view is best described by the work of Annette Baier [Encyclopedia of Philosophy], where six kinds of nonsense are presented. The two kinds of nonsense I shall focus on here are the third and fifth ones. The third kind is as follows: Sentences that involve ‘category errors’ will be nonsense of another kind, Baier gives an example from the work of Lewis Carroll:

“He thought he saw a Garden-Door

That opened with a key:

He looked again, and found it was

A Double Rule of Three.”

The second kind of nonsense (number five) is where it is the kind that can be created by using an acceptable sentence and supplanting one or more words (though not many more than that) with nonsense words. An example of this type of nonsense is perhaps Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” [P28–30, Through the Looking Glass].

For Cora Diamond in ‘What Nonsense Might Be’ [P95 -114, Ch 3, The Realistic Spirit], Wittgenstein does not understand there to be any kind of nonsense if it has to be deemed nonsense in the sense of what the terms that compose it mean (there is no ‘positive’ nonsense). Something is nonsense only because ‘some determination of meaning has not been made’ [P106, Ch 3, Diamond, The Realistic Spirit]. This is best illustrated for Diamond through the use of Para 500 (amongst others) from the Philosophical Investigations: “When a sentence is called senseless it is not as it were its sense that is senseless. But a combination of words is being excluded from the language, withdrawn from circulation.” Looking briefly at Wittgenstein’s work on private language, Cora Diamond suggests that: “for Wittgenstein the sentence ‘Smith is following a rule that no one but Smith could conceivably understand’ is discardable from the language, but not because of what it would have to mean if we were to stick to the meanings determined independently for its parts. It is, on Wittgenstein’s view, in the same position as the sentence ‘Smith is following an abracadabra’.” [1]

According to Pitcher, it is very easy to become mixed-up between empirical and logical necessity. This is because words like “must”, “can’t” or “won’t” often happen in expressions of both of these. Alice and the White Queen are both guilty of this particular mistake. Alice thought that the statement “I can’t remember things before they happen” voiced an empirical necessity (in other words, she thought it was like the statement: “I can’t break twigs before they are dry”). From this she made the assumption that if she had a better memory, it is possible that she might have been able to achieve remembering things before they happened. For Pitcher, it is not an empirical, but instead it is a logical (or ‘conceptual’) necessity that one cannot remember things before they happen. As the White Queen thought that Alice’s incapacity to remember things before they happen was because of the quality of the girl’s memory being poor, this meant that she was also confused between empirical with logical necessity. The White Queen became confused because in her world time ran backwards, and in that type of world it would make sense to speak of remembering “things that happened the week after next.” However, the problem is that the White Queen forgot her own memory also operated in only one direction (the opposite direction from which Alice’s memory operated). If she had remembered it, she would have been oblivious that this was also a theme of logical necessity [ ].

A Wittgensteinian perspective on Carroll’s work is a worthwhile one for three reasons. The first one being that an example such as Alice in Through the Looking Glass demonstrates much more than a children’s character going on various mythical adventures, it highlights the nonsense that Wittgenstein is trying to encourage his readers to uncover in various philosophical works. The second reason is that it is an indication of the similarities in Carroll and Wittgenstein’s work. This can be shown clearly in Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty piece in Through the Looking Glass, where a conversation happens between Humpty Dumpty and Alice about the use of the word ‘glory’ [Ch.6] and the choosing of a words meaning. In Philosphical Investigations, Wittgenstein uses an example of “bububu”, as a demonstration as to whether it is possible to say such a ‘word’ and mean something that would ordinarily seem incomprehensible, such as: “If it doesn’t rain I shall go for a walk?” [PI, p.18]. Both Wittgenstein and Carroll were interested in many of the same issues of the limits of language and its use. This is not to say that Wittgenstein is in agreement with Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, it is actually what he is opposing, he attacks the idea that what a person means when saying anything results from the performance of the mental act of intention. The third reason relates to humour in Wittgenstein’s work and the grammatical joke. It is clear that Carroll employed the use of humour in his work, and Wittgenstein has been known to have an awareness of such humour: “…Wittgenstein once said that a serious and good philosophical work could be written that would consist entirely of jokes (without being facetious).” [Malcolm, as cited in Pitcher].


W.W.Bartley III, Wittgenstein, The Cresset Library, London, 1986.

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Penguin Books, London, 1994.

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, Penguin Books, London, 1994.

Cora Diamond, The Realistic Spirit — Philosophy, and the Mind, The MIT Press, London, 1991.

Wittgenstein, Nonsense, and Lewis Carrollby George Pitcher In: [Ed] K.T.Fann, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Man and His Philosophy, Harvester Press, Sussex, 1967.

James Guetti, Wittgenstein and the Grammar of Literary Experience, The University of Georgia Press, London, 1993.

J.F.M.Hunter, Understanding Wittgenstein — Studies of Philosophical Investigations, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 1985.

Marie McGinn, Wittgenstein and the Philosophical Investigations, Routledge, London, 1997.

Ray Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein — The Duty of Genius, Vintage, London, 1990.

David Pears, Wittgenstein (Second Edition), Fontana Modern Masters, Fontana Press, London, 1997.

R.C.Solomon, Continental Philosophy Since 1750, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1988.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1922.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Blue and Brown Books, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 1997.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 1997.

[1] 1 This “abracadabra” example was used by Wittgenstein in a lecture of 24 October 1935 first [Unpublished notes taken by Margaret Macdonald of lectures on ‘Personal Experience’, Michaelmas, 1935], and again in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, Para 665.

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