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The Fear of Instability

Ilkka Pättiniemi

While Ilmari is dealing with the errors of empiricism (an endeavour on which I hope to contribute), I will continue diagnosing the realist’s condition. There is of course the idea that if we are not in touch with the really real, then anything goes. That is, a straightforward fear or relativism. But there is also a related fear, the fear that if we do not have solid, unquestinable grounds on which to build, things will be unstable – we will not be able to rely on anything. It is this fear that I wish to address.

We earlier encountered the worry that mere conventions will not support enough weight to do any actual work in our enquiry. Conventions, after all (we are told), can be – are – quite arbitrary. Related is the fear that if language is not built on solid foundations all talk will be rendered meaningless, will be but noise. Enter, again, one of my heroes, Lewis Carroll. In Through the Looking-Glass (1871[1999]) Carroll uses the character of Humpty Dumpty to highlight the problems of a use-based semantics:

‘As I was saying, that seems to be done right — though I haven’t time to look it over thoroughly just now — and that shows that there are three hundred and sixty-four days when you might get un-birthday presents —’

‘Certainly,’ said Alice.

‘And only one for birthday presents, you know. There’s glory for you!’

‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘

‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.

‘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.’

Carroll (1871[1999])

Alice, more than reasonably, doubts that words can be made to do such things. Even Humpty Dumpty’s assurance that he pays words double for double duty, is not enough to alleviate Alice’s – our – fears. ‘Glory’ simply does not mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’!

Though the worry of relativism is evident here, a deeper worry is that on this view meaning is unstable. And if this were what the purveyors of use theories of meaning, and of conventionalism, were selling, then we should not give them the time of day. But ‘conventional’ and ‘based on use’ do not mean arbitrary. Nor do they mean without criteria. (Unless, of course, we start using them that way!) As long as we are able to keep our meanings and conventions fixed enough for long enough times, communication, classification – and science, are possible. They will grant us stability enough. Certainly we will not have an eternal, ahistorical ground on which to build, as the realist might hope, but Venice has stood for ages without comparable grounds, and – I propose – so will science.

Carroll, Lewis (1871[1999]). Through the Looking-Glass, in The Complete Lewis Carroll, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions (1999). 

Published by Ilkka Pättiniemi

A Helsinki based philosopher and bassist. An idiot.

2 thoughts on “The Fear of Instability

  1. I woke up this early morning at 4 something am, a vivid burning thought about Alice in Wonderland, which I have not recently re read. Even as I write this, the memory of that experience has become vague like the creatures adrift in Alice’s salt water tears. What was the question again Tweedle Dee, or Dum?

    It might have been a quest, rather than a question, that Alive in Wonderland was a map, perhaps mathematical, to understanding our reality, this reality that we currently inhabit now. The reality formed by Industrialization, mathematical understandings, and as I was reading articles, the French New Wave computer Alphaville, or AI, was reading me and tried to lead me astray with stories of the author’s sordid desires.

    Little did Alphaville know that I had already memorized the Jabberwocky and even recited it to my children, as I pushed them on the swing in a rhythm that defied IT’s hold on them. Perhaps poetry holds the answers, but my children are now lost in Wonderland, and being raised by the Lions in the Veld.

    I am trying to hold onto the threads of the surging quest that catapulted me out of bed in search for my phone to speak into and record the moment. Language is no longer sufficient, thanks to Alphaville’s reduction of language, to explain these thoughts.

    I have never been suspicious of living in a constructed reality until now, but then who knows what artificial whisperings have planted thoughts (nano seeds of discontent) into my brain. Are those messages in the book? My creative self is considering writing a script to hold onto the concepts I “experienced”…have you noticed that realizations are not just a thought, they are sensory connections held together by thought. Usually we can only reach those cracks in our thought reality where the light gets in (as Leonard Cohen explained) “There is a crack in everything, thats how the light gets in.”

    Like Alice falling down the rabbit hole and searching for the White Rabbit, I don’t where to start. I was given a message, it was cathartic and now I wonder if I must leave hidden messages in my physical reality or here in this constructed reality that we spend most of our lives trying to navigate, like…Alice. The internet is non linear, like Alice, we can jump from one rabbit wiki hole to the next in our search for answers. But every time we ask questions, “Like where is the White Rabbit and what am I doing here? The Cheshire cat just grins and disappears.

    And yet I am still here, searching for answers and an explanation, How is Alice in Wonderland a map to understanding our existence, or ExistenZ, Cronenberg’s alt gaming reality, and what other authors have tried to help us understand beyond to obvious dystopian writers. A Wrinkle in Time was a profound book in my childhood, the rhythm of IT has become so apparent in my children’s lives as they are confined by screens and their own versions of reality that prevent them from fully experiencing the world outside and within.


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