Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy

I’ve been working more on Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy, and I got to a statement that made me shake my head:

Consider that the whole Wonderland story itself is one huge dream, since Alice’s sister wakes her up for tea at the end.  Alice never really visited an actual place called Wonderland; she just thought she did.  –Robert Arp

Um.  No.

When you are dealing with ideas rather than facts, you have to take into consideration that the rules for ideas do not match the rules for facts–and it’s often useful to be aware that what we normally think of as “facts” are so moderated by ideas that the rules for facts may not apply. For example:  “This sweater is red.”  However, if you look at a red sweater under a green light, it’s black; our perception skews the color.  Is the sweater “really” black or red?  Color is reflected light: so it really depends on the color of light it’s reflecting, doesn’t it?  It isn’t “really” red or “really” black–it’s just that most of the light we use would tend to show it as red.  Practically speaking?  Red.  But in “reality,” it’s not red, because you can’t define “reality” as “only in broad daylight,” which is the only time it’s really the red that we expect to see.  Painters know this.

Is this a pipe or isn’t it?

It is a pipe, and it is not a pipe.  Opposite facts may not be true, but opposite ideas are often true.  Love is the best…love is the worst.  Bacon is good…bacon is bad.  Death is tragic…death is hilarious.

Did Alice go to Wonderland, or did she dream it?

It’s perfectly acceptable, when dealing with ideas,  to be inconsistent.  Even paradoxical.  Because often the opposite “truths” of an idea are both true.  Alice both did and did not go to Wonderland: it’s a story.  The characters in Wonderland are both logical and illogical.  Words both have meaning that cannot be changed and are whatever we make of them (Humpty).  We can believe six impossible things before breakfast (White Queen) and in order to reach our destinations, we often have to walk away from them (Red Queen).  The Wonderland of the first book both is and is not the Wonderland of the second; the Red King both does and does not dream Alice into being.  A pun is both logical and illogical; it both follows the rules and breaks them.

We think, “The opposite of something true is false,” but it’s very hard for an idea to be true, that is, factual.  Because ideas are things we think and not facts, it’s very easy for the opposite of an idea to be another idea, rather than just untrue.  Yet we behave as though our ideas were facts: the opposite of me is other; the opposite of my point of view is bullshit.  Yet many points of view have utility–even contradictory ones.  Overall, it seems to take many different types of people (with correspondingly different points of view) in order to make things work.  We can’t all be pawns, after all, or deuces of spades, or even all chessmen, or even all gamesplayers–who will make the chessboards?  Who will sell them?  Yet we think that people who aren’t like us, or who don’t think like us, are liars, stupid, foolish, ignorant, and even inhuman.  The pattern of thinking “the opposite of true is false” is a limitation, a hindrance–a poor tool.

The more valuable pattern, I think, would be not to teach a girl of ten or eighteen (when the books were written, relative to Alice Liddell’s age) that there is one best strategy to follow through life–for example, logic–but to teach her that no matter what people say, no matter that one minute they’re doing you “good” and another doing you “harm,” no matter what changes you go through, there’s a you there, and there are many tools (including but not limited to logic) that you can use to navigate even the most absurd of situations, including breaking rules (even logical ones).  Many children find the Alice books perfectly terrifying–and they are.  They poke holes in what we think of as real, right down to the level of “truth.”

The fictional Alice can enter Wonderland through a rabbit-hole and exit it through a dream: it’s a story, which are both real things and dreams, and something else besides.


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  1. Could it be that Arp is reading the story in a kind of Modern way, while you are reading it in a kind of Post-Modern way? That is, Arp is saying that since Alice wakes from a dream, it must not have been real, within the logic of the story as it is told, while you’re reading it with the idea that it is a story told by an author who knows it is fiction, and who knows that his readers know that it is fiction?

    That said, whether Arp will accept your claims about consistency depends entirely on what kind of philosopher he is. If he is a philosopher in the Anglo-American analytic tradition, he will say that consistency is one of the highest values of any intellectual endeavor, that inconsistency cannot be truth, and that anything contrary to a truth is false. If he is a philosopher in the Continental European tradition, then he will not value consistency so highly, and may well agree with your claim that it is a limitation to think that anything contrary to a truth is false.

    P.S. I’m glad to see that the book has provided you with food for thought.

    • De

      Maybe…but I fail to see how he can choose “waking up” as obviously more valid than “falling down a rabbit hole” – while in the context of a story. Especially because this is Dodgson, who delighted in coming up with nonsense syllogisms – he delighted in making up obviously false constructs in order to teach logic; I can’t imagine *he* meant children to take the story as any more or less real than any of his logic-problems.

      I wonder if there’s a difference between literary criticism and philosophical analysis. I go, “What did Dodgson intend to communicate to his audience?” and think that it would be impossible for him to escape questions from readers or listeners on this subject, all of the time. “What? She went down a rabbit-hole, then woke up from a dream? That doesn’t make sense! That couldn’t really happen!” Then I consider possible responses: 1) He says it was all a dream and has his audience argue with him for being inconsistent. 2) He says none of it was a dream and has his audience argue with him for being inconsistent. 3) He opens a dialogue about the Red King’s dream and whether or not the story is the same as the Red King’s dream; they come to the conclusion that the question of the Red King’s dream is indeed a conundrum but that at least a story with inconsistent rules is at least consistently a story.

      In literary criticism, we might stop to define or at least investigate Dodgson’s era (using various lenses, like Modernism and Post-Modernism, both of which happened after Dodgson’s time) and how it might have affected the story, but we cannot escape the author’s intent.

      I did find quite a bit of the book thought-provoking, but there were quite a few writers who took the opportunity to try to point readers toward their pet philosophies instead of actually interpreting the texts. Annoying, to someone trained in literary criticism: you can use a lens to investigate a text, but if you use the text to investigate the lens, you can easily get booed out of class. “Here’s how feminism interprets Alice,” is okay (if often a bit dull), but “Here’s how Alice builds up feminism and excludes all other possible interpretations of other literary texts” is not, and it seems like several of the essays wandered into that territory. I more enjoyed the ones that said, “Does Alice directly reflect X interpretation, or does X interpretation come out of similarities between Alice, X interpretation, and Y trends during the era?” – Like the one about drugs, where he pulled out what was going on in Dodgson’s era, compared it to drug culture, and noted that the drug culture terms with parallels in Alice often came later. I would have enjoyed this particular essay much more if he’d discussed whether or not Dodgson had pre-Modernist or pre-Post-Modernist tendencies, etc.

      It did give me food for thought, obviously 🙂

  2. Jasmine

    Interesting and inspiring article of yours!
    But as you said, “the pattern of thinking the opposite of true is false is a limitation” and that “we think people that don’t think like us are stupid” — so, what if I dont’t agree with what you’ve said? Then your abovementioned thoughts are a limitation to your own thinking. I actually think the opposite of true is false, so my thought is opposite to your statement. But you can’t say I am stupid just because I don’t think like you. Then you are limited by your own statement.
    Hope to hear how to tackle my question. Thank you for your thought provoking sharing!

    • DeAnna Knippling

      I don’t think you’re stupid – just trying to push buttons.

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