We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE
The Philosopher's Alice (review)

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 1, Number 1, Fall 1976
pp. 118-119 | 10.1353/phl.1976.0003

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Shorter Reviews The Philosopher's Alice, by Peter Heath; pp. 249. London and New York: St. Martin's Press, 1974, £ 3.95 and $10.00. Paradox begets paradox: The Philosopher's Alice, technical in content but popular in presentation, is enthralling, yet, unlike its progenitor, tedious. Its progenitor, I hasten to explain, is the equivocal, provocative Alice, not the chaste and innocent Alice. Little girls are not serpents, but neither are they tales, despite Heath's obfuscation of the distinction in his tide and in his introductory remarks about "Alice's unfortunate miscarriage as a child's logic book." Such cross-categorial parthenogenesis must have been not only traumatic but contagious, for we are even curiouserly admonished in a defense of Carroll from "ultimate meaninglessness [by] read[ing] into Alice no meaning . . . at all," that "an author should have more meaning than a child" (p. 8). The author's explicit aim is to give a "full . . . account of Alice's logico-philosophical misadventures [for] the general reader" (p. 7), but nonetheless much of the book is too scholarly for the layman, too heavily laden with references to published papers with the merest mention of Alice and with far-fetched accounts of putative echoings of all the classics of philosophy, to be aimed at anyone other than the specialist. But even if, for Heath as for Mill, only the specialist can judge which aspect, which persona, of so Janus-faced a work wears, to mix a metaphor, the trousers, he is still left with the uncomfortable question of what he is to do with the book, for there is nothing in it of intrinsic philosophical importance or originality. Although he forswears "spell[ing] everything out in words of one letter" (and yet, incidentally, defends the White Queen's literacy on the irrelevant grounds of the philosophical perplexity of two of these three words), Heath so labors the obvious explanations of the obvious as to destroy its humor. Nonetheless, it is possible to treat the book as an Homeric or epic joke—if one likes that kind of interminable joke—and to see merit in Heath's factitious commentary as a parody of textual exegesis. Of course Heath's claim that "Alice . . . can explain all the philosophies that ever were invented, and a great many that had not been invented when it was written" (p. 8) completely ignores Carroll's intentions. It may, certainly, be reasonable to expect a man's humor and his academic interests to lie together, but, however mathematical and linguistic his humor, this psychological commonplace cannot justify the claim that, whether by genius or clairvoyance, he deliberately included both Wittgensteins, Moore, Russell, Quine, Austin, and Strawson amongst his dramatis personne. In fact such prophetic eisegesis 118 Shorter Reviews119 perpetrates a huge instance of one of Alice's favorite fallacies; for although it may be that if Carroll had intended to make a certain point, he would have foreshadowed or reflected so-and-so, it does not follow because he may be so interpreted that he so intended. Such philosophical fabrication or psychomythologizing is as irrelevant to the appreciation of humor as is the telepsychoanalysis of its author. Carroll's "child's logic book" has, for Heath, a transcendental purpose; by asking "What has gone wrong here [in Wonderland]?" it probes the "bounds of sense" (p. 6). Heath's involved explanations of commonplace puns, circumlocutions, misunderstandings and pedantries must then reveal the synthetic a priori. Yet in all this, the impropriety of the whole effort goes unnoticed: if Alice is to draw a limit to thought, then Wonderland must be unthinkable. It is as if Heath's Tractatus concludes "Whereof we cannot philosophize, thereof we must remain silent"; but even that does not entail that there can be no other reason—such as the avoidance of tedium—for doing so. The real Alice, according to Heath, received from that "perennial pursuer of young girls," Carroll, "not only a lesson in logic, but a sermon on morals as well," but the elaboration of this thesis goes beyond mere implausibility. Perhaps she was "snobbish, tactless, or imprudent, and . . . rude to the lower orders" (p. 6), but Heath also claims that the...