The Caterpillar Conversation

Last class’s conversation featured discussion of the concept of rules, rule following, and social convention in Alice.  My group discussed the caterpillar conversation, which I found to be a particularly provocative instance of the question of normativity in Alice. The question of normativity has been of particular concern to many philosophers over the course of the latter half of the 20th century, and in our discussion I was reminded of several points emphasized in a class I took a few semesters ago on the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.  Wittgenstein’s later philosophy was particularly concerned with the nature of rule following as it applied to a whole host of phenomena, including linguistic usage, social convention, mathematics, etc.  He, perhaps like Alice, came to endorse the view that rules were inherently arbitrary things, and that the normative content of a particular rule was not guided by any inherent meaning of the rule itself, but rather by the social consensus of the community of rule followers.

We see this theme throughout Alice, but particularly in the instance of the caterpillar conversation.  It is notable to me that both Alice and the caterpillar are insistent that they both declare who they are (their names) before proceeding any further in their conversation, or for the caterpillar to explain anything to Alice.  I wonder why this is, and I keep coming back to the idea that one’s identity (a name) confers some kind of social expectation (and explanation of behavior) on an individual.  I wonder then why the caterpillar makes Alice recite the poem she recites, and why he is so furious when she gets it slightly wrong (apparently).  Perhaps this is just part and parcel of following rules in Wonderland: something ostensibly important like a name is not easily recalled, yet a trivial matter like the recitation of a children’s song is a major episode.  It seems to me that Carroll is trying to emphasize the inherently arbitrary nature of rules and social convention.

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