Brain Pickings

The Philosophy of Alice in Wonderland

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Cultivating the capacity to believe six impossible things before breakfast.

When Lewis Carroll penned Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865 and Through The Looking-Glass in 1871, he probably didn’t envision his work would reverberate across time to become a cultural icon. It has germinated inspired homages like Salvador Dalí’s little-known illustrations and Tim Burton’s adaptation, it was formative reading for computing pioneer Alan Turing, and it endures as one of the most beloved children’s books with timeless philosophy for grown-ups. The latter, in fact, is the subject of Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy: Curiouser and Curiouser, part of the relentlessly delightful and illuminating Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture series, which has previously given us such gems as Arrested Development and Philosophy: They’ve Made a Huge Mistake. The anthology of essays asks seventeen contemporary thinkers to examine the Lewis Carroll classic through the lens of philosophy, exploring subjects as diverse as drugs, dreams, logic, gender, perception, escapism, and what the Red Queen can teach us about nuclear strategy.

My favorite essay, entitled “Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast,” comes from the chapter on logic. In it, George A. Dunn and Brian McDonald write:

When it comes to the curious conditions of Wonderland, Alice’s efforts to make sense of the nonsensical pay off with dividends. But that’s because the nonsense is only provisional, only on the surface, beneath which a diligent investigator like Alice is able to discern perfectly intelligible, albeit unexpected, rules of cause and effect.

[…]

Once Alice has learned what these rules are, she can count on them to operate as dependably as any of the laws of nature that obtain in our world. They only seem nonsensical to us because our experience of our world aboveground and on this side of the looking glass has burdened us with a slew of preconceptions about what can and cannot be accomplished by ingesting the caps of gilled fungi.

[…]

It is to Alice’s credit that she doesn’t hesitate for a moment to discard her preconceptions when she comes across situations that patently refute them. In doing so, she displays an admirable readiness to encounter reality on its own terms, a receptive cast of mind that many philosophers would include among the most important “intellectual virtues” or character traits that assist in the discovery of truth.

(For a parallel meditation on the importance of being able to step away from assumption, cultivate doubt, and find pleasure in mystery, see yesterday’s related exploration of the necessity for ignorance in science.)

The remaining essays in Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy: Curiouser and Curiouser offer insights on everything from social contracts to post-feminism to logical fallacies, spanning schools of thought as varied as Aristotle, Socrates, Hobbes, Wittgenstein, Derrida, and a wealth in between.

Ultimately, as the Duchess keenly observed, “Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it.”

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