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Lewis Caroll

John Tufail

Although much has been written on Lewis Carroll’s philosophy, it can be reasonably stated that the vast majority of what has been written has been based, understandably, on a false premise. This premise, first asserted by S. Dodgson Collingwood in the first biography of Carroll -1898 – and re-affirmed consistently since, is that Lewis Carroll was, in all things, the epitomy of 19th century traditional and conservative thought. Thus, the idea that Carroll, in his writings, would espouse a neo-Platonist philosophy and a ideas on the nature of language that flew in the face of mainstream Victorian thought, could not be countenanced. It is only recently that the traditional view of Carroll has been successfully challenged.

As a consequence little thought has been given to Carroll’s use of illustration in his collaborations with his artists other than from a purely aesthetic point of view. Neither has the full import of Carroll’s use of ‘nonsense’ as a device for systematically presenting a coherent and persuasive philosophy of language been sufficiently well explored.

This short paper, concentrating on ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ (AiW) is by way of an introduction to Carroll’s philosophy of language – most especially of his challenge to the traditional view of how language developed historically from motivated sign, to arbitrary sign, with all other written linguistic forms being merely milestones in this ‘advancement’.

Although the primary purpose of this paper is to examine the relationship between motivated and arbitrary sign in (AiW), it is felt at least useful to begin by providing some groundwork on how Carroll sees the relationship between reality, truth and the articulated and written text (arbitrary signs).
I would therefore like to begin by examining a position that has fairly general acceptance in contemporary Western Thought. A position that has been strongly articulated and supported among philosophers from a wide range of ideological and philosophical schools. It is a position taken by people as disparate as Mannheim, Althusser. Ayer and Lukes – that although some aspects of reality are culturally mediated, socially determined, irretrievably ideological in nature. Others are not. I quote for example, Steven Lukes from his essay on ‘The Social Determination of truth’:

a. There are no good reasons for supposing that all criteria of truth and validity are contextually dependent and variable:
b. there are good reasons for maintaining that some are not, that these are universal and fundamental, and that those criteria that are context dependent are parasitic on them…

To support this position, Lukes appeals to language as evidence of the universality of meaning with the notion of:

The existence of a common reality as a necessary pre-condition of our understanding ‘G’s language (‘G’ being a member of a language group other than my own). Though we need not agree about all the facts, the member of ‘G’ must have our distinction between truth and falsity as applied to a shared reality if we are to understand the language.

I believe that this appeal is essentially misplaced and is based on a misconception of how meaning develops in language. To illustrate this point I can turn, inevitably, to ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ as this very question is one that Lewis Carroll addressed extremely succinctly one hundred years before Lukes!

A three inch high Alice has just fallen into a pool of tears , previously formed by a nine foot Alice. As she struggles in the pool she is overtaken by the Mouse which she attempts to engage in pleasant conversation. Failing in English, she tries again in French:

‘So she began again; ‘Ou est ma Chatte’ which was the first lesson in herFrench lesson book. The mouse gave a sudden leap out of the water, and seemed to quiver all over with fright.

‘Oh I beg your pardon!’ cried Alice hastily, afraid that she had hurt the poor animal’s feelings, ‘I quite forgot you didn’t like cats’.

‘Not like cats! cried the Mouse, in a shrill passionate voice. ‘Would you like cats if you were me.’

‘Well perhaps not,’ said Alice, in a soothing tone; ‘don’t be angry about it, and yet I wish I could show you our cat Dinah; I think you’d take a fancy to cats if you could only see her. She is such a quiet thing.. And she is such a nice soft thing to nurse – and she’s such a capital one for catching mice…’

The switch from English to French here by Carroll is interesting and useful when looking at Luke’s argument. It seems to me that Carroll is showing that, contrary to Luke’s claim, it is not necessary for us to share a common reality in order to develop a knowledge of how another language operates, merely to develop a negotiated perceptual approximation. Thus Wittgenstein argues that such a negotiation of meaning does not require a ‘common understanding’ (Luke’s phrase) but a; ‘complicated network of superficial similarities which overlap and crisscross’ (Philosophical Investigations).

Alice was in this manner able to communicate on the level of superficial appearances with the Mouse (note, by the way, the Platonic capital), in the sense that there was a similarity between her concept of ‘Cat’ and that of the Mouse at the level of superficial perception/material appearance. However, she remained fundamentally unable to share Mouse’s world view at the level of meaning. To Alice a cat would always be a loveable, harmless (indeed by virtue of being an excellent mouser, extremely useful) pet. To the Mouse, on the other hand, it would always remain a dangerous, nasty, low assassin.


This is a theme to which Carroll returns on a number of occasions in AiW and can be seen as a central theme in this particular work. In her very next conversation with the Mouse she starts to talk about her loveable, ‘bright eyed terrier’ and reference will be made to the episode where Alice nibbles the mushroom and finds her neck extending from her body. In this incident she meets a pigeon who identifies her as a serpent: the Idea of a serpent being to a pigeon any creature that is both all head and neck and eats eggs. To underline his point, Carroll brings the 3” tall Alice into confrontation with a ‘normally’ sized puppy – an episode in which Alice’s universalist (Idealistic?) world view nearly brings her to grief. Yet having been nearly trampled to death by this relatively enormous animal, our heroine cannot conceive of it in any other terms than,

and yet what a dear little puppy it was!”

Carroll in these episodes appears to be making a crucial distinction between perception and understanding – between the material and the essential – the point being that two people with different world views, different realities, would not necessarily disagree that something is perceived (a puppy, a cat or a tear for example) but their understanding of the significance of the perception would fundamentally differ.

This understanding/perception distinction is important when one is considering the function of illustration in nonsense works (in particular), for it reflects directly on the position taken by people like Bacon, Spencer and Crane on the evolution of language, in that it asks questions of their position that illustration is purely and formally an evidentiary mediator between language and reality.
In ‘The Colours of Rhetoric’. Wendy Steiner puts the evidentiary case as follows:

Illustrations are pictures of the thing-world inserted into the verbal text. As pictures,icons, they both signify and contain the characteristics of what they picture.’

But of course Carroll’s book both exploit for its humorous possibilities and deny the validity of this and like statements at any but the most superficial level.

The importance of illustration in the works of Lewis Carroll cannot be overstated. Throughout his life he used the perceived evidential properties of illustration to brighten and clarify not only his fictional texts but also his non-fiction. In fact, it is worth stating that the distinction between fiction and non-fiction as applied to Carroll is a particularly arbitrary one – ‘useful’ only because Carroll himself made the distinction clear by deciding on the authorship (Lewis Carroll or CL Dodgson) of each piece.
Nonetheless, even in his most ‘academic’ works, Carroll employed ‘fictive’ devices for their illustrative properties and possibilities.

The opening paragraph of AiW contains the following reflection from the mind of Alice:

“What is the use of a book”, thought Alice, “without pictures or conversation?”

This could easily (though less effectively!) be written as:

‘How can any development in knowledge or understanding take place without dialogue/dialectic or illustrative devices’.

The classic Platonist response to the observer-centred philosophy of Aristotle. In AiW, the narrator the narrator plays on the evidentiary concept of illustration – not only in his attempt to ‘legitimise’ his fictive world – but also to subvert it. As an aside it should be remembered that Carroll was a superb photographer, and more than most he understood at an early stage the fallacy of the claim, ‘the camera cannot lie’.

When Alice meets the Gryphon, for example, the narrator refers out from the written text by saying,

“if you don’t know what a Gryphon is (emphasis added), look at the picture.”

Apart from the subtly tautologistic nature of the statement, the main point to note here, is Carroll’s use of ‘is’. He doesn’t say, for example, ‘if you don’t know what a Gryphon looks like’, he uses is – a word that implies existential import for the Gryphon. Given Carroll’s careful use of language throughout the ‘Alice’ books, this application is unlikely to be merely fortuitous – particularly in view of the earlier distinction made between material perception and Platonic idealism. It is a distinction that is crucial to Carroll’s humour. Indeed, it is something more than humour that Carroll is achieving. Carroll’s choice of gryphon for this particular piece of existential sleight-of-pen brings to mind his intense interest in Blake’s illustrations during the period her was writing AiW. We know that Carroll was so interested in them that he had ordered a special printing of them through his publisher, McMillan. We do not know, but it is likely that one of these illustrations would have been that of ‘Beatrice addressing Dante from the Car’ (1826-27) with its prominent illustration of a gryphon before Ezekiel’s chariot. Certainly the religious and poetic symbolism of the Gryphon would have been well known to Carroll and his contemporaries As Stephen Pricket says in book, ‘Words and the Word’:

‘For Blake, Dante’s bi-fold vision of the Griffin is not merely an encounter with the spirit of prophecy, but more specifically with poetic genius.’

This ‘bi-fold vision’ linking the Gryphon with ‘poetic genius’ not only reflects Blake’s powerful biblical imagery, but also brings to the forefront Coleridge’s insistence of the primacy of the poetic in Biblical translation – and the huge influence Coleridge’s neo-Platonism had on Carroll’s linguistic, philosophical and theological development.

In 1855, we have this entry in Carroll’s diary:

Jan: 15. (M) ‘Read Coleridge’s ‘Aids to Reflection in the evening – it is one of those books that improve on a second reading: I find very little in it even obscure now’

On January 7 1856, there is an extended entry by Carroll in which he states,

Finished Alton Locke’.

This book, written by Charles Kingsley caused Carroll much anguish and spiritual soul searching. Kingsley was part of the mid-19th century neo-Platonist revival group that included F.D. Maurice and Alfred Lord Tennyson.

On January 3rd 1857, Carroll noted,

Began reading Kingsley’s Hypatia’.

He finished it on January 7th and again it threw him in turmoil. Hypatia was arguably the greatest of the early neo-Platonist philosophers and she was savagely murdered at the behest of ‘St Cyril’. Carroll notes,

‘The book has interested me strongly in the history of Cyril, which I intend to read the next opportunity’.

On January 3rd 1858, Carroll writes:

Began Coleridge’s ‘Aids to Reflection’ for the second time. ‘I intend to make a sort of analysis of it this time…’

Actually Carroll’s memory is at fault here, as in the earlier diary entry he makes specific reference to the fact that he had read it earlier – this was his third full reading (at least). So, In four (perhaps five) consecutive years, in the early part of January of each month, Carroll read, and was greatly moved by the works of either Charles Kingsley or Samuel Taylor Coleridge – both strongly associated with the emerging 19th century neo-Platonist tradition, itself almost entirely due to the writings of Coleridge.

This may help explain why Carroll’s precise use of language is always an appeal to understanding rather than the visual perception of the phenomenon. In AiW Carroll leaves little to chance. Later in the same work, at the trial of the Knave, the narrator once again interjects with the statement.

The King wore his crown over his wig (look at the frontispiece if you want to see how he did it)’.

This is the second time in the book that Carroll has appealed to the evidentiary nature of illustrations – but surely ironically! Not only that but, as this thesis will demonstrate, there are other reasons why Carroll might well have wanted to draw attention to these particular illustrations.

Once again, however, the appeal is to understanding (how the Act was achieved) rather than to perception (what it looked like).


Of course Lewis Carroll was not the only 19th century writer to use illustrations linguistically, either to enhance, or even subvert, the written text. Most famously Thackeray (‘Vanity Fair’) and Dickens (notably in ‘Dombey and Son’ where he used illustration to evade Victorian mores on adultery) also used illustration in the same linguistic manner. Readings of neither ‘Vanity Fair’ nor ‘Dombey and Son’, for example, can said to be complete unless the illustrations are ‘read’ as extensions of the text.
This challenging of illustration as purely evidentiary, essentially subservient to the written text was, if not common, at least a notable feature of certain strands of Victorian linguistic philosophy. Yet the prevailing view of the text/illustration relationship remained (and to a large extent still remains) that stated by Wendy Steiner earlier in this piece or more expansively by Herbert Read in his historical account of the evolution of aesthetics in ‘Icon and Idea’:

‘Before the word was the image, and the first recorded attempts of man to define the real are pictorial attempts, Images scratched or pecked or painted on the surface of rocks or caves. Our knowledge of the existence of this primal art is comparatively recent, and so staggering was the impact of the knowledge on the scientific mind that for some years the authenticity of the evidence was doubted. Even now the significance of this art, for anthropology, for aesthetics, and I would say, for philosophy, has not been fully appreciated.’

The presumption (unfounded) that the motivated sign precedes the arbitrary in the evolution of language is a powerful motivator in the perception that the motivated sign is necessarily secondary and subservient to the arbitrary. Yet such accounts are demonstrably selective and wrong. It ignores, for example, the fact that in so-called ‘pre-literate societies, the arbitrary sign pre-dominates over the motivated sign. Status and rank badges, boundary signifiers, and direction indicators are all examples of the arbitrary sign taking its place alongside the motivated sign in human culture. Read’s presumption also assumes an evolutionary theory of language based on the extremely subjective idea of a hierarchy of linguistic types; hieroglyph, cuneiform, ideogram, alphabet. Read again:

The stylised symbol of the human form, though it is so dynamic in the Franco-Cantarian and Bushman art…. Is a sign, and in the extreme case we are near to the Chinese ideogram or pictograph. We are at the beginning of a long evolution that led to the invention (sic) of writing.

Or see Francis Bacon writing in Novum Organum:

‘Again, if one considers the refinement of the arts….as the discovery of the letters of the alphabet (still unadopted by the Chinese) in grammar.’

We are presented with an evolutionary continuum ranging from the pictorial representation of the ‘Bushman’s’ art – representing a one-to-one relationship between sign and object, symbol and reality, and the arbitrary, unmotivated, abstracted linguistic sign of Western Culture at the other – apparently representing a retreat from the ‘real’ to the intellectual. This is a hypothesis that is pregnant with qualitative implications. For example, without context, it is impossible to know to what extent Bushman’s art is merely evidential representation or whether at least some is symbol, metaphor or allusion Yet ironically, much of the debate about language since the Baconian revolution has been precisely to attempt to force language back into a one-to-one relationship with reality.

The attempt to somehow ‘purify’ language – return it to a State of Grace – was both a powerful philosophical movement throughout the 18th and much of the 19th centuries (indeed the rejection of the ‘poetics’ of the St James Bible in the 20th century evidences the continuation of this into the 20th century). This movement, although initially instigated by philosophical empiricism, taken to its extreme in theological and Biblical debate.

One of the fiercest debates running through the 19th century surrounded to what extent the Bible should be taken as a literal and historical record (literality) what contents should be read as allegory or metaphor. This, of course, is a fundamental and long-standing debate that continues to the present day – but in the 19th century it was given additional impetus by the project undertaken by Horst and Wescott to provide a new interpretation of the Bible.

Brooke Foss Westcott (1825-1903) and Fenton John Anthony Hort (1828-1892) undertook to carry out a complete revision of the King James Bible aimed at eliminating inaccuracies of translation from the original Greek texts. This project caused great controversy at the time – a controversy that continues to this day.

On the one side their supporters acclaim them for their contribution to biblical scholarship, having profoundly advanced knowledge of the original Greek texts. On the other side, they are accused of heresy and apostasy. Their opponents, largely, see the King James’ version of the Bible as ‘inspired’ and the True scripture.

Although the debate was complex and often convoluted, at the heart of the debate was the question of literality.

This mode of thought opposed allegorical, interpretive and metaphorical interpretations of biblical passages (to a greater or lesser degree – depending on how ‘fundamentalist’ the views of the advocate).

It is in this historical and theological context that Carroll’s work must be seen in order to fully understand the radical nature of his works. It also provides a pragmatic and contextual reason why Carroll was so keen to separate his fictional from his non- fictional works by way of a pseudonym.
To return to AiW, the frontispiece contains at least one other contradictory element that can be seen as challenging the evidentiary nature of illustration. Every reader of AiW makes the assumption that at the trial the prisoner before the court is, indeed, the Knave of Hearts. This, quite reasonable, assumption is based primarily on extra contextual evidence. Knowledge of the Rhyme in question, the consequent relationships between the key characters (the Knave and Queen of hearts – with the poor King acting as judge). Illustratively the Carroll/Tenniel relationship produces two illustrations that both show a predominance of Heart symbols – reinforcing out initial perceptions.

Curiously, however, (as Alice herself may have exclaimed), it is the case that nowhere in Carroll’s text does he refer to the prisoner before the court as the Knave of Hearts, merely the Knave, of which in a pack of cards there are four. The only reference to a Knave of Hearts is in the nursery rhyme itself. The fact that actual identity of the prisoner by the reader is rarely queried is due to three factors.
First is the conscious (and/or unconscious) ‘recognition’ by the majority of readers of the nursery rhyme itself – this is crucial

Second is the ‘fact’ that in the eyes of the reader, most illustrations appear to operate comfortably as subservient to the text.

Third is the fact that Carroll (as the narrator) mischievously and subtly reinforces this with hints and associative allusion that almost, but never quite, confirm the fact that the Knave present in the trial is indeed the Knave of hearts. Thus, in the garden scene, Carroll mentions the King and Queen of Hearts…. And the Knave – as opposed to the certainty of ‘The King, Queen and Knave of hearts’.

The frontispiece itself underlines this dialectic between certainty and uncertainty. Although it is a full page illustration, dominating the reader’s consciousness, it is both spatially and temporally removed from the trial scene. It is only when the illustration is examined closely that it can be seen that there is no conclusive evidence that the Knave before the court is, indeed, the Knave of hearts.

Indeed, of all the playing cards that Tenniel’s illustrations portray, it is only the Knave whose identity remains consistently ambiguous. In none of the illustrations of the Knave (there are three) is he unambiguously represented, in text or illustration, as The Knave of Hearts – we only have the nursery rhyme itself as evidence.

Never, for example, is he shown sporting a heart motif (as, for example, the gardeners’ display their suits, as do the King and Queen – quite ostentatiously). Indeed, in the frontispiece the dominant motif on the Knave’s dress is the Club.

There is one significant exception to this. Uniquely, in chapter VIII (‘The Queen’s Croquet Ground’), a knave is indeed identified clearly as the Knave of Hearts . In the procession (first) the narrator says,

Then followed the Knave of Hearts, carrying the King’s crown.

Then, a few lines later,

‘…the Queen then said severely, “who is this?” She said to the Knave of Hearts…

Immediately adjacent to these observations is an illustration depicting the Knave of Hearts bearing the crown. Compare this illustration of the indubitable Knave of Hearts (‘what I say three times is true’!) with the illustration of the knave in the trial.

They are quite clearly two different characters. The clothing differs (look at the headwear, for example – and the tunic design). More compelling, however, are the features. Tenniel has the knave in the two Trial illustrations sporting a prominent up-turned moustache, whereas the Knave of Hearts in the Croquet Ground scene is wearing a rather more desultory, down-turned moustache. Also, as befitting a knave who has just scoffed the Queen’s tarts, the face of the Knave of heats is round and plump – unlike the face of the knave in the trial scenes.

It could be queried that this is a mere error by Tenniel that both illustrator and author overlooked. Indeed this argument has been advanced. There are two counter-arguments to this objection. First is the fact that this is unlikely given the fact that it is known just how carefully both Carroll and Tenniel scrutinised the book for just such errors (remember Carroll withdrew the first print-run because of lack of quality).

Secondly, this is not the only time Carroll plays the same trick on the reader. Look at the two Bellman illustrations below from the Hunting of the Snark. Different Illustrator same illusion:

Not only are the beards of the two Bellmen quite different, the one above fine and flowing, the one below coarse and bushy.

here the Bellman sports a wart on his nose that the Bellman above completely lacks.

To the unwary reader, the nonsense element of the Knave’s trial is the fact that the normal procedures of a court of law are reversed – sentence-verdict-evidence, Yet is this really such nonsense? A nursery rhyme is, after all, a closed system. The Knave of Hearts, being a member of this closed system, has no existence or function other than being the knave that stole the tarts. Logically, the only evidence required is the nursery rhyme itself. This Carroll duly provides at the opening of the trial, as of course, should be the case.

If it is the Knave of hearts before the court, both evidence and verdict are contained within the rhyme itself. The only possible question, therefore, is whether the prisoner before the court is actually the right knave – the Knave of Hearts – for we know that only the Knave of Hearts can be guilty!
And, as has been shown, Carroll goes to great lengths to create an ambiguity on precisely this issue.
It is suggested that thee are few better examples of the dangers inherent in accepting at face value the ‘evidentiary’ properties of illustration. In this case it can be seen that the reader’s ‘reading’ of the illustration is determined by his own expectations – just as the illusionist relies on the
audience’s ‘expectations’ to create the illusion. Because the reader expects the illustration to be evidentiary to an unambiguous text, Carroll the illusionist is able to perform his illusion.

The illustrations refer not out from the text of a universe of playing cards and stolen tarts (not, of course, Carroll’s creations) but back into the body of the written text. The Trial illustrations carry an incomplete information structure that render them meaningless as signifying agents without the additional information contained in the verbal text and the reader’s external knowledge of the nursery rhyme. What we have are two complex but incomplete structures that are mapped onto each other in such a way that to each part of one structure there is a corresponding part in the other. This, of course, includes significant absences.

In his book, ‘Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid’, Douglas Hofstadter discusses how fomal systems come to create meaning. He suggests that a primary causative factor is the existence of what he terms ‘isomorphic relationships’:

‘It is a cause for joy when a mathematician discovers an isomorphism between two Structures which he knows. It is often a ‘bolt from the blue’,and a source of wonderment. The perception of an isomorphism which creates meaning in the minds of people. A final word on the perception of isomorphisms: since they come in all shapes and sizes, figuratively speaking, it is nor always totally clear when you really have found an isomorphism. Thus isomorphism is a word with all the usual vagueness of words – which is a defect but an advantage as well.

It is interesting that Hofstadter’s book is subtitled, ‘A Metaphorical Fugue on Minds and Machines in the Spirit of Lewis Carroll’, for surely few writers have so sympathetically summed up the wonderment and enlightenment that readers of Lewis Carroll’s works experience. And few have given a better rebuttal of the nature of language as embraced by those mentioned earlier in this paper.

This concept of isomorphism, though, as Hofstadter acknowledges, is generally restricted to a discussion of mathematical structures. However, this concept of isomorphic generation of meaning can be usefully and most satisfyingly applied to the complex relationship that exists between text, illustration and audience. Hofstadter appears to be arguing that understanding arises not though mere physical perception but through a process similar to that described by Wittgenstein (op cit). Painters, illustrators, cartoonists, novelists and other artists utilise this process, translating the world as an infinitely complex and shifting series of signs and images. The idea of humanity’s relationship with reality is thus something like a detective story in which we are given a series of more or less disconnected clues – an incomplete picture from which we form an image of sufficient coherence that enables to formulate and negotiate our existence.

This theory is used by Umberto Eco (‘A Theory of Semiotics’) when discussing his ideas on sign production – stressing that the recognisability of a clue is a socially learned process in the first instance:

Recognition occurs when a given object or event, produced by nature or human action (intentionally or unintentionally) and existing in a world of facts,comes to be viewed by an addressee as the expression of a given content, either through a pre-existing and coded correlation or through the positing of a possible correlation by its addressee.’

Or, in a more concise manner as presented by a gentleman at least slightly ‘known’ to the readers of this paper:

‘Still, you know, words mean more than we mean to express when we use them; as a whole book ought to mean a great deal more than the writer meant.’


John Tufail
is an independent consultant in Health and Social Policy and a visiting lecturer in the philosophy of health. He has published widely on the relationship between verbal and non-verbal language and for the last four years has been carrying out research in the field of learning difficulties.

John’s interest in Lewis Carroll developed from his doctoral studies on the relationship between language and illustration in the early 1980s. His interest in Carroll then broadened to include a continuing exploration of the philosophical, political and theological influences bearing on Carroll’s life and his works. He has been very instrumental in rediscovering Dodgson’s ‘lost’ associations with radicals like F.D. Maurice and in placing Dodgson’s political conservatism in its proper historical context.

John is a former Director of the Pracyabani Institute and has edited various journals and magazines.

He worked closely with Kate Lyon on an analysis of ‘The Hunting of the Snark’ and other Carroll-related projects. He is a former director of the Pracyabani Institute and has edited various journals and magazines.


Lewis Carroll’s ‘conservatism’ The Illuminated Snark

(paper presented at the 2nd International Carroll conference, University of Rennes, 2003)


[Alice readers: see also Sherry Ackerman’s ‘Looking for Lewis Caroll’ presentation on the Hidden Sources: Western Esoteric Influence on the Arts post for the 2008 CCWE Conference.]


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