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I recently watched Jan Švankmajer’s Alice (1988), an adaptation which mixes stop-motion animation with a live actor’s realisation of Lewis Carroll’s character Alice, in the setting of a bizarre Wonderland which often seems to all be crammed within a house.

Angela Carter mentions this film in a collection called On Strangeness (ed. Margaret Bridges, 1990, Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag). In an introduction to her story ‘The Curious Room’, Carter talks of an affinity between the surrealist aesthetic of Švankmajer’s work – which she describes as involving ‘the furious disruption of rationality’ – and the exploration of nonsense in Carroll’s stories.

The strangeness of the goings-on in Lewis Carroll’s work is part of what makes it philosophically interesting. For example, take its skilled pinpointing of what is absurd. For the Cheshire Cat to leave behind a bodiless grin is far more effective than, say, the idea of a bodiless mouth, because a grin is worn in a way a mouth is not – a grin is something which is done, and done by an embodied individual.

Another famous case is Humpty Dumpty’s claim to be able to make words mean whatever he wants, with his statement ‘There’s glory for you’ allegedly having meant ‘There’s a nice knock-down argument for you’. Humpty’s is not a theory many of us would endorse when trying to answer the questions of what meaning is and where it comes from. But a better theory should not only avoid fixing word-meaning by whimsy – it should also tell us why Humpty’s approach is perverse, and what this reveals about the role of the individual speaker in determining what they have said.

Communication is something so central to our interactions with one another that we often take it for granted until an occasion where it doesn’t work as we thought it would. For those who, like me, are interested in how communication underpins interpersonal exchanges and relationships, such occasions are important data. The Alice stories provide a study of possible breakdowns in mutual understanding between people. Some are extreme cases, like the impossibility of communication if the meanings of words are private rather than communal. (After all, if Humpty applies his strategy as a matter of course, there is no reason for Alice even to trust that his explicit definitions mean what she thinks they do!)

Others are versions of communicative problems more familiar from everyday discourse. The philosopher Paul Grice has argued that ‘conversational implicatures’ – where we manage to tacitly communicate something without explicitly saying it – can be understood in terms of mutual expectations concerning how one’s conversation partner will converse. For example, we generally have expectations that the person we are talking to will judge the things she says to be relevant to the topics of the conversation; and we have expectations concerning how much information a person should provide. Such expectations govern what it is to be conversationally cooperative. But Alice’s conversation partners often seem to be extremely uncooperative, at least by Alice’s standards and by ours. Why do they say the things they do to her? Are they trying to be helpful, or trying to be obstructive? Are they suggesting something she has failed to notice? Do they willingly flout or ignore Alice’s familiar communicative conventions? Do they operate with different sets of expectations which we need to try to understand?

It’s not just Alice’s understanding of others’ linguistic behaviour which is vulnerable in Wonderland and through the looking glass, but also her understanding of their behaviour more generally. Understanding somebody is a key to anticipating their behaviour. When we have difficulty coming up with reasons why others behave the way they do, we face a serious block to predicting their actions – and, in turn, a serious block to understanding them well enough to trust them. The behaviour of Alice’s companions is often alien (whether it’s advancing an argument which doesn’t add up, or engaging in insufficiently constrained beheading). Motives and interests are unclear. Characters often have a serious degree of unfathomability, which is why they are potentially dangerous to be around.

Work by philosophers like Donald Davidson has made a strong case for thinking that in order to make any sense of another person, you must work on the assumption that the other person is to some extent like you. We mustn’t suppose too much similarity, of course, else we would leave no space for the idea of difference between someone else’s outlook and our own. But enough similarity must be assumed to guide me in attributing beliefs and attitudes to the other person. When this assumption becomes unstable – as it sometimes threatens to in Wonderland – our chance of comprehending the other being, treating them as a person with thoughts and aims, starts to disappear.

The Alice stories bring our attention to the hazy line between strange goings-on which can nevertheless be interpreted (in principle and with effort) – and, on the other hand, the genuinely incomprehensible. By raising the question of what we can make sense of and how we do it, Carroll’s stories, and adaptations like Švankmajer’s, point us towards something which underpins how humans relate to one another.

Dr Emily Caddick Bourne, ICE Academic Director for Philosophy

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