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Alice in Blunderland

Peter Rickman travels through the looking glass in search of some of philosophy’s pitfalls.

Alice picked a book from her father’s study. It had a forbidding title – Contemporary Philosophy – but she was not easily deterred. She persisted through the afternoon and fell exhausted into a troubled sleep. Once again she dreamed. As she walked into the garden she was faced with a bird and it winked at her.

“You are an owl,” she said, for she had seen a stuffed bird like this in the local museum and it said Barnyard Owl underneath.

“Yes,” the bird said, “I am also the bird of Minerva.”

“How do you do,” Alice said politely, “but what’s Minerva, is it a face cream?”

The owl hooted with laughter. “No, silly, it’s the Roman goddess of wisdom. As her bird I am into philosophy.”

“Oh dear,” Alice sighed, “it’s all very puzzling.”

“Maybe I can help you,” the owl said. “Just follow me.” And she slowly started her flight.

They came upon a man in a white laboratory coat who was looking into a room in which a great deal was going on. The man studied it through the keyhole.

“Excuse me,” Alice said, “why are you looking through the keyhole when the door is standing wide open?”

The man frowned at her. “I believe in mathematical purity and logical precision,” he announced.

“Come again,” Alice said, looking puzzled.

“Well, you see, young lady,” said the white-coated man, pained but patient, “the view through the open door is complex, confusing and ambiguous. I am a scientist and I believe in precision – I focus on what can be measured. The keyhole provides a well-defined picture, anyone else looking through it will see things from the same angle and can verify my observation. We can hope for reliable results.”

Alice opened her mouth to reply, but the owl flapped his wings and moved on beckoning her to follow.

“He is a positivist,” the owl said apologetically.

“In studying the human world he is a behaviourist, which means,” he continued anticipating her question, “counting only observable behaviour as evidence.”

Before Alice could pursue the matter further they had reached the next port of call. Here a dignified looking man sat behind a desk.

Before she could open her mouth he said, “I am here to help. I can dissipate your problems. I am an expert in the art of untangling other peoples’ problems.”

“Well”, Alice replied, after a little pause, “I wonder if I shall have beauty when I grow up? I know a song where the girl asks her mother something like this and she is told ‘whatever will be will be.’”

The dignified gentlemen laughed. “Your worry is entirely due to what we call a ‘category mistake.’ ‘Having beauty’ sounds very much like ‘having a skirt’ but while the skirt is an object that can be found in your wardrobe, there is no such object as beauty to be found anywhere and so you cannot possess it as you can a skirt.” He paused for a moment. “Problem solved. Your worries are over. Good luck.”

Alice lingered, wondering if he thought that luck was something you could have, but the owl was waving her on murmuring “that was a linguistic analyst.”

They next came upon a man sitting on a bench in the open. He was wearing leather shorts and a hat decorated with what looked like a shaving brush. He was obviously concentrating on what reached him through his large ear trumpet.

“What is he doing?” Alice asked the owl.

“He’s called Martin Heidegger and he is listening to the voice of being,” the bird replied.

“Being what?” Alice asked.

“A reasonable question,” the owl replied.

“This chap is distinguishing being something, like ‘being a little girl’, from just being, as opposed to ‘not being.’ ‘Being’ is something like the ground of everything and, indeed, sounds like a depersonalised God.”

Alice looked a little bewildered, and who can blame her? “But what does this chap actually hear?”

The owl laughed. He switched on a small tape recorder and suddenly the air was filled by a strident German voice.

“What is it?” Alice asked.

“It’s Hitler,” the owl explained, “ speaking at a rally of his Nazi Party. I see you look puzzled. It was before your time. Adolf Hitler was the leader of Germany who plunged his nation into the disastrous second world-war. It came as a shock to some of Heidegger’s admirers when he recognised the ‘voice of being’ in that of Hitler.”

Alice looked thoughtful. “Maybe I’ll learn about that war in school, but why are we talking about the listener now?”

The owl flapped her wings. “Heidegger had some interesting things to say about human life and people in other countries shared some of his views. Sartre, a Frenchman, did not take the same view of Hitler, but when he looked at being he felt nausea.”

Alice wrinkled her nose. “Is there nothing more cheerful in philosophy?”

The owl moved on. “Let us see.”

They came to an open field over which layers of mist lingered.

“I can see nothing,” complained Alice.

“There is nothing to see,” the owl replied. “We have got around to deconstruction which contends that nothing is meaningful, all is riddled with contradictions.”

“Strange,” said Alice.

“This particular movement belongs to a group of viewpoints with such names as postmodernism and poststructuralism.”

“Post as in post office?” Alice was puzzled.

Once again the owl hooted with laughter. “No, no, post as the Latin word for ‘after.’ They claim to be the latest, coming after, and outdating other movements.”

Alice thought about this for a moment. “Why is there nobody about?” she finally queried.

“Simple,” the bird replied, “because there is nobody. There is a book that speaks of the death of the author.”

“Poor chap,” Alice interjected.

“Well,” the owl was a bit irritated by the interruption, “the man whose name is on the front of the book is actually dead, but that is not what he meant. He claimed that there are books but no authors. It’s the language that is the author of writing.”

“How strange,” Alice mused. “Does that mean that there is bread but no bakers, motor cars but no mechanics, clothes but no….”

“I get the point,” the owl interrupted, “I suspect that you are right and that is why you see no people – humanity has been abolished.”

“Oh dear, oh dear,” Alice sighed. And this is where the dream ended.

Alice woke up with a headache.

“I wish,” she thought, “I hadn’t taken that book from my dad’s library.”

© Prof. Peter Rickman 2002

Peter Rickman is visiting professor of Philosophy at the City University, London.

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