Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

03 APRIL, 2012

The Philosophy of Alice in Wonderland


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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30 MARCH, 2012

Beautiful Vintage Cross-Sections of Trees, Many Rare or Extinct Today


A bittersweet masterpiece of design and natural history.

From Cedric Pollet’s artful photos of bark to Rachel Sussman’s magnificent portraits of Earth’s most ancient perennial plants, trees seem to possess a special magnetism for human curiosity. But no visual documentarian has approached the inventory of trees with more dedication than Romeyn Beck Hough (1857-1924). Between 1888 and 1913, Hough cataloged hundreds of tree specimens in what became an epic 14-volume masterwork entitled American Woods. He employed a breathtaking, unusual display method: actual specimens mounted on card stock in three cutouts of the tree’s wood — transverse, radial, and tangential — alongside detailed descriptions of the tree’s habitat, characteristics, growth patterns, medicinal properties, and commercial possibilities. The collection endures as a work of unparalleled achievement and retails accordingly, with edition sets appraised as high as $30,000.

Luckily, Taschen has preserved Hough’s work and love of trees in the much more accessible The Woodbook: The Complete Plates, reproducing in painstaking facsimile all specimen plates from a rare original volume the editors acquired. The trees are arranged in alphabetical order and presented in Hough’s signature triad of cross-sections, revealing a wealth of colors and textures. Accompanying the wood cuts are lithographs by Charles Sprague Sargent, depicting the leaves and nuts of the trees, as well as texts contextualizing the trees’ geographical origins and physical characteristics.

Besides being an invaluable treat for naturalists and designers alike, The Woodbook is also a bittersweet artifact — in the century since Hough completed American Woods, many of the trees have become rare or completely extinct.

The individual plates have been made available online, courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center of the NCSU Libraries — a fine addition to these 7 important digitization projects.


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29 MARCH, 2012

Ancient Romans’ Fanciful and Entertaining Pre-Scientific Beliefs about Animal Behavior


What the greed of the octopus has to do with the ram’s preferred bedside and the hyena’s gender-bending.

We don’t know much about the Roman writer, collector, and moralist Claudius Aelianus, better-remembered as Aelian, except that he was born sometime between A.D. 165 and 170 some 25 miles outside of Rome, and that he made obsessive almanac-like collections on esoteric and odd topics. Though few of those survive, his magnum opus, De Natura Animalium (On the Nature of Animals), was popular enough in his heyday to survive largely intact, enduring as the only know work of Aelian’s today. The collection features seemingly random stories about animals, selected for no other reason that Aelian found them interesting, and serves as a kind of early encyclopedia of animal behavior rooted partly in mythology, partly in the speculative science of the day, and partly in Aelian’s own liberties as a storyteller.

In Aelian’s On the Nature of Animals, writer and Encyclopedia Britannica contributing editor Gregory McNamee resurrects the best of these stories, full of sketchy science and fanciful facts, to offer unprecedented insight into how ancient Romans thought of animals — a curious precursor to today’s scientific fascination with animal minds, and a fascinating caricature of our tendency to imbue the minds of others, be they animal or human, with the characteristics, qualities, and motives of our own.

Aelian was also a clever publisher with a keen sense of what people would find interesting and of how to get them interested in the obscure and exotic — the hallmark of a great curator. McNamee writes in the introduction:

Aelian knew as much as any person of his time about animals. He knew what this contemporaries knew, and he knew what they would find exotic. On the Nature of Animals is thus both a wonderful window onto the beliefs of ordinary people and a testimonial to the transmission of knowledge in the ancient world. It is also a great entertainment to read, as Aelian ponders the ways of the animals an tries to work them out, sometimes successfully, by our lights, and sometimes not.

A few entertaining, enlightening, scientifically egregious selections:

The OCTOPUS is greedy, sneaky, and voracious, and it will eat anything. It is probably the most omnivorous creature in the sea. Here is the proof: in times of hunger, it will eat one of its own tentacles, thus making up for a lack of prey. When better times come, it grows back the missing limb. Nature thus gives it a ready meal in moments of want.

If you were to see a male HYENA this year, next year you would see female one. The reverse is true. Hyenas share both sexes, and they marry, and having done so, they change sex year by year. This a fact and not a fancy tale, and it makes the stories of Caeneus and Teiresias seem quaint.

The ELEPHANT is frightened of rams and the squaling of pigs, and the Romans put both to use in sending the elephants of Pyrrhus of Epirus in flight, by which the Romans won a resounding victory. The elephant is also easily overcome and mollified by a woman’s beauty. At Alexandria, in Egypt, it is said that an elephant competed with Aristophanes of Byzantium for the love of a garland maker. The elephant loves fragrances and is entranced by the smell of flowers and perfumes.

When a LION grows old, burdened by age, he cannot hunt. He hides himself away in caves or lairs in the jungle, and he does nothing about hunting even the weakest of his former prey, for he is self-conscious about his age and well aware of his incapacity. His young will come get him and take him out while they hunt, but leave him behind whenever they give chase to some animal. When they have successfully hunted, then they invite their old father to the feast. He comes quietly up, step by step, almost at a crawl, and meekly embraces his children, licking them, and then eats with them. No Solon had to deliver this as a law to the lions: nature, which supposedly knows nothing of law, teaches them to do these things. This is a a law that is immutable.

The female DOLPHIN has breasts like a human woman, and she suckles her young with abundant milk. Dolphins swim in a body, ranked by age. The young swim in front, and after them the adults. The dolphin loves her children and protects them: first come the young, then the females, then the males, all alert and on guard, keeping an eye out on the whole school. What, O great Homer, would Nestor say, whom you call the foremost tactician among all the heroes of his time?

During winter the RAM will sleep on its left side, while after the venereal equinox it sleeps on its right side. At each change of the season, it changes its way of sleeping.

When CRANES squawk, they bring on rain showers. So it is said — and also, that cranes have some sort of power which arouses women and causes them to dispense sexual favors. I take this at the word of those who have seen it happen.

In the prologue, Aelian conveys a healthy ethos that many contemporary writers — or creators in any discipline, for that matter — would be wise to take heed, balancing pride in one’s work with realism about the all too common compulsion to please all critics:

For my part, I have gathered everything I could learn on the subject here, and put it all into ordinary speech. It seems to me that the result is noteworthy. If you think so, then I hope these words will be useful to you. If not, give them to your rather to keep and study. Not everything pleases everyone, and not everyone wants to study everything. Plenty of other writers have come before me, but that should not disqualify me from praise, if it really is true that this learned book is far ranging and well written enough to deserve attention.

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