The Philosopher's Alice in Wonderland

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The Philosopher's Alice in Wonderland

Roger W. Holmes

Have you ever seen Nobody? What would your world be like if objects had no names? Can you remember what will happen week after next? How many impossible things can you believe before breakfast--if you hold your breath and shut your eyes? These questions transport us to the world of Lewis Carroll: to Wonderland, with the White Rabbit and the Mock Turtle.... They also transport us to the realm of Philosophy.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass belong most obviously and particularly to children whether in nurseries or bomb shelters.... [Both] Wonderland and the Looking-Glass country belong to the logician and the philosopher as much as to parents and children. These regions are crowded with the problems and paraphernalia of logic and metaphysics and theory of knowledge and ethics. Here are superbly imaginative treatments of logical principles, the uses and meanings of words, the functions of names, the perplexities connected with time and space, the problem of personal identity, the status of substance in relation to its qualities, the mindbody problem. (pp. 159-60)

Sometimes Carroll finds an unforgettable illustration of a major principle. We know that if all apples are red, it does not follow that all red things are applies: the logician's technical description of this is the nonconvertibility simpliciter of universal proportions. (p. 161)

Most often Carroll uses the absurd hilarity of Wonderland to bring difficult technical concepts into sharp focus; and for this gift teachers of logic and philosophy have unmeasured admiration and gratitude.... Lewis Carroll reminds us that we often refer to this curious but important logical entity. The White King is waiting for his messengers and asks Alice to look along the road to see if they are coming:
"I see nobody on the road," said Alice.

"I only wish I had such eyes," the King remarked in a fretful tone. "To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance too! Why, it's as much as I can do to see real people, by this light."

This is amusing and, without benefit of logic, it is also confusing. When the messenger finally arrives, several pages later, confusion is doubly confounded:
"Who did you pass on the road?" the King went on....

"Nobody," said the Messenger.

"Quite right," said the King; "this young lady saw him too. So of course Nobody walks slower than you."

"I do my best," the Messenger said in a sullen tone. "I'm sure nobody walks much faster than I do!"

"He can't do that," said the King, "or else he'd have been here first."

"Nobody" may stand for no person, but you had better be careful how you talk about him! (pp. 161-62)

[Alice boasts] to the Gnat that she can name the insects:
"Of course they answer to their names?" the Gnat remarked carelessly.

"I never knew them to do that."

"What's the use of their having names," the Gnat said, "if they won't answer to them?'"

"No use to them," said Alice, "but it's useful to the people that name them, I suppose. If not, why do things have names at all?"

Why, indeed? Medieval philosophers fought bitterly about this. Alice seems to be a Nominalist, suggesting that names are tags by which we can conveniently denote objects without having to point. But a few pages later she comes to the Wood-where-things-have-no-names and quickly discovers what the Medieval Realists knew: that names have a connotation as well as a denotation.... [Names] are more than tags: they convey information. Such a wood evokes fascinating philosophic speculation. Suppose we could remember no names. Not only would it be impossible to communicate with anyone about objects except by pointing, but also we should be unable to generalize and should have to rely entirely on conditioned responses. (p. 162)

The most complex discussion of the function of words takes place between Alice and the White Knight when the latter offers to sing Alice a song. This passage is a classic. The Knight announces that the name of the song "is called `Haddock's Eyes'" and the following famous conversation ensues:

"Oh, that's the name of the song, is it?" Alice said, trying to feel interested.

"No, you don't understand," the Knight said, looking a little vexed. "That's what the name is called. The name really is `The Aged Aged Man.'"

"Then I ought to have said `That's what the song is called'?" Alice corrected herself.

"No, you oughtn't: that's quite another thing! The song is called `Ways and Means'; but that's only what it's called, you know!"

"Well, what is the song, then?" said Alice, who was by this time completely bewildered.

"I was coming to that," the Knight said. "The song really is `A-sitting On A Gate....'"

The issues it raises are technical and abstract, but not without excitement. Pause and analyze the situation which the White Knight describes. There are two things involved, the name of the song and the song itself. Of the name it can be said a) what the name is , b) what the name is called. And of the song itself it can be said a) what the song is, and b) what the song is called. (p. 164)

The word "call" is ambiguous. We call a person by name or nickname: if I had known Keats intimately I might call him "Jack." In another sense I describe him to someone else; then I call him "England's greatest romantic poet" or "one whose name is writ in water." The first illustrates what a name is called, and is the arbitrary assigning of a tag to an individual. The second is an example of what a thing is called, and how information is conveyed. You might say that Keats was so many inches tall; he could then be called a man of such-and-such a stature. You might call a day a period of so many minutes, or a pebble on the beach of Time. Here is essentially the difference between a dictionary and an encyclopedia: the one gives information about names, the other provides data about things. Except, as the White Knight made clear, the items in a dictionary are not properly names at all!

We come, finally, to the thing itself. And here Lewis Carroll was definitely pulling our leg. The White Knight said that the song he was singing was "A-sitting On A Gate"--but remember that that was not its name! It was not even what the thing was called--a sad song or a lengthy one. What could it be, if it is neither the name of the song nor a description of the song? It could only be the thing itself.... To be consistent, the White Knight, when he had said that the song is...., could only have burst into the song itself. Whether consistent or not, the White Knight is Lewis Carroll's cherished gift to logicians. (p. 165)

The wealth of material which Lewis Carroll presents for the illuminating of philosophy is almost without end.... Alice wondered what happens to the flame of a candle when the candle is put out, while she was shutting up like a telescope during her first adventure in Wonderland, wondered whether she would go out altogether--"like a candle." The Pre-Socratics enjoyed that problem. What does happen to the flame?

Some of the philosophic problems are perennial. In her bewilderment at the sudden changes in her size and the conversations with a unique rabbit who wore a vest and gloves and carried a watch, Alice asks herself, "Who in the world am I? Ah, that's the great puzzle." And it is one of the greatest of philosophic puzzles, the problem of personal identity. (pp. 166-67)

Another passage of major philosophic interest from the Looking-Glass book has to do with dreams. Tweedledum and Tweedledee and Alice are watching the Red King, who is sleeping fit to snore his head off, as Tweedledum remarked:

"He's dreaming now," said Tweedledee, "and what do you think he's dreaming about?"

Alice said, "Nobody can guess that."

"Why, about you!" Tweedledee explained, clapping his hands triumphantly. "And if he left off dreaming about you, where do you suppose you'd be?"

"Where I am now, of course," said Alice.

"Not you!" Tweedledee retorted contemptuously. "You'd be nowhere. Why, you're only a sort of thing in his dream!"

"If that there King was to wake," added Tweedledum, "you'd go out--bang!--just like a candle."

"I shouldn't!" Alice exclaimed indignantly. "Besides if I'm only a sort of thing in his dream, what are you, I should like to know?"

"Ditto," said Tweedledum.

"Ditto, ditto!" cried Tweedledee.
The Red King performs the function of God in the philosophy of Bishop Berkeley, for whom the tree in the forest exists when there are no humans to perceive it. To be is to be perceived, ultimately in the mind of God--or the Red King. (p. 169)

Lewis Carroll is at his best when he considers time. The Looking-Glass country was a place in which time moved backwards. Through a playful reference to memory, he approaches the curious character of Looking-Glass punishment:

"What sort of things do you remember best?" Alice ventured to ask.

"Oh, things that happened the week after next," the Queen replied in a careless tone. "For instance, now," she went on, sticking a large piece of plaster on her finger as she spoke, "there's the King's Messenger. He's in prison now, being punished; and the trial doesn't even begin till next Wednesday; and of course the crime comes last of all."

"Suppose he never commits the crime?" said Alice.

"That would be all the better, wouldn't it?" the Queen said, as she bound the plaster around her finger with a bit of ribbon....

Alice was sure there was a mistake somewhere. It reminds one of the story about the irate father who spanked his son for fighting. When the boy insisted he had not been in a fight the father replied, as he continued to apply the hairbrush, that even if he had not been in one that day he was sure to be in one soon. (pp. 170-71)

It just does not make sense. Punishment exists in a Bergsonian time-with-direction. As everyone knows who has seen movies run backwards, most human actions so lose their significance when reversed as to appear hilarious. (p. 171)

One final temporal reference has also to do with the poor disheveled White Queen, who couldn't keep her shawl straight and who had got her brush so tangled in her hair that Alice had to retrieve it for her. Alice said she though the Queen should have a lady's maid to take care of her:
"I'm sure I'll take you with pleasure!" the Queen said. "Twopence a week, and jam every other day."

Alice couldn't help but laughing, as she said, "I don't want you to hire me--and I don't care for jam."

"It's very good jam," said the Queen.

"Well, I don't want any today, at any rate."

"You couldn't have it if you did want it," the Queen said. "The rule is jam tomorrow and jam yesterday--but never jam today."

"It must come sometime to `jam today,'" Alice objected.

"No, it can't," said the Queen. "It's jam every other day; today isn't any other day, you know."

"I don't understand you," said Alice. "It's dreadfully confusing!"

And so it is. The difficulty is partly the result of one of Lewis Carroll's favorite devices in entertaining children, the play on words. It is also in part the philosophic problem of knowing when the present becomes the past and the future the present. It is the problem with which James was concerned when he described time as shaped like a saddle. It is the problem that bothers the Idealist when he realizes that he can never know the present: to know it is to make it an object of our thinking and hence to put it into the past. Can the present ever be known? Can we ever have jam in the todayness of tomorrow? By its nature tomorrow must come; also, by its very definition, it can never come. (p. 173)

The world of Lewis Carroll is more extensive than most travelers in it realize. Less familiar, though unforgettable once visited, is the wild region of the Snark and the Boojum and the Bellman's problem with the bowsprit that got mixed with the rudder sometimes, in The Hunting of the Snark. The more conventional land of the story of Sylvie and Bruno and the amusing architecture of Lewis Carroll's logic exercises are now seldom included in an itinerary. There is even a vacation spot for students of government, the little-known "The Dynamics of a Particle," involving plain superficiality, obtuse anger, and acute anger (the inclination of two voters to one another whose views are not in the same direction); a world in which a speaker may digress from one point to another, a controversy be raised about any question and at any distance from that question....

If this essay has any "porpoise" it is to send you, the reader, to the pleasures of philosophy and logic by way of the unique fascination of Lewis Carroll. And do not get caught in the elusiveness of Alice's jam. Do not promise yourself the delights of philosophy tomorrow. Enjoy them now: take Lewis Carroll down from the shelf tonight. (p. 174)

(Source:  Roger W. Holmes, "The Philosopher's `Alice in Wonderland'," in The Antioch Review, Vol. XIX, No. 2, Summer, 1959.

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