"It is the business of the future to be dangerous," writes Whitehead in "Science and the Modern World" (1925). To which Alice of "Alice in Wonderland" might add: "And to be curiouser and curiouser."
In her adventures, chronicled in "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" (1865) and "Through the Looking-Glass" (1871), she learns to see the world as a malleable, ever-changing tapestry—mysterious, sometimes frightening, but unfailingly captivating.
Whitehead would agree. His "process philosophy" suggests that the essential nature of the actual cosmos, and indeed the entire universe, is one of fluidity and transformation.
While patterns exist, they evolve over time. Even laws of nature are not static; the laws of electromagnetism, for example, pertain to our current cosmic epoch but may not apply in earlier or later cosmic epochs. The universe is strange.
We must live in light of the strangeness. Whitehead not only portrays the universe as an endless adventure but also believes that humans should embrace this adventurous spirit—a notion implied in the title of another of his works, "Adventures of Ideas" (1933). To live with a sense of adventure is to be open to novelty, to the unexpected, to the strange.
Alice, familiar with the whimsy of falling through looking glasses and tumbling down rabbit holes, would appreciate the sentiment.
Whitehead and Alice are good friends. Like Alice, Whitehead sees the world as a ceaseless source of intrigue. It's a journey marked by both peril and endless fascination. It is different at every moment, almost dreamlike.
Curiouser and curiouser.
- Jay McDaniel
Philosophy and Curiosity
An Interdisciplinary Capstone Course
It is my senior year in college. I am enrolled in a seminar called "Philosophy and Curiosity," co-taught by a professor of English literature and a professor of Philosophy. The course is premised on the idea that we literature can illuminate philosophy, that philosophy can illuminate literature, and that, sometimes, literature and philosophy point so similar sensibilities, similar outlooks on life. Our course is centered on the works of Lewis Carroll (1832–1898) and Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947). The two writers were mathematicians, logicians, polymaths, and speculative thinkers, living in a different era but sharing similar approaches to life and thought.
The primary texts for the course are:
"Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" by Lewis Carroll (published in 1865)
"Through the Looking-Glass" by Lewis Carroll (published in 1871)
"Modes of Thought" by Alfred North Whitehead (published in 1938)
"Process and Reality" by Alfred North Whitehead (published in 1929) [Portions Only]
The philosophy professor sets the tone at the outset, suggesting that Lewis Carroll's narratives can serve as more approachable avenues into Whitehead's complex philosophical ideas than Whitehead's own demanding texts. The professor adds a playful comment, "Alice was a Whiteheadian." As the seminar progresses, you find yourself reflecting on the following themes.
Fluidity and Change: Core to process philosophy is the belief that reality is always in flux. Carroll's dynamic worlds, where Alice faces continual changes like size shifts and bewildering experiences, exemplify this focus on ceaseless transformation. Wonderland and the Looking-Glass realms reflect a universe that is ever-changing, aligning with process philosophy's view of the impermanence of existence.
Relational Ontology: Process philosophy asserts that reality emerges from relationships and encounters. Alice's diverse interactions with characters such as the Cheshire Cat and the Mad Hatter emphasize this point. Her transformations aren't isolated events but results of complex interactions, much like process philosophy's view of existence as a network of relationships.
Creativity and Imagination: Creativity is pivotal in Whitehead's philosophical system. Carroll's lands brimming with fantastical creatures and puzzling riddles are not mere products of imagination but can be seen as embodiments of the creative forces believed by process philosophy to shape the fabric of reality.
Non-Linearity and Multiple Perspectives: The philosophy questions a single, linear understanding of time, proposing instead that multiple perspectives co-exist. Alice's surreal, dreamlike adventures reflect this, shattering conventional notions of linear time and sequence, resonating with process philosophy's emphasis on the relativity of experience.
Integration of Opposites: Aiming to reconcile dichotomies, process philosophy attempts to find unity in diversity. Carroll often juxtaposes contrasting elements—like logic against nonsense or order versus chaos—yet they complement each other, echoing the philosophical pursuit of integrating opposites into a harmonious whole.
Importance of Curiosity in Human Life: Process philosophy prizes the eternal quest for understanding and remaining open to new potentialities. Alice's consistent curiosity and questioning throughout her journeys exemplify this philosophical focus on the necessity of inquisitiveness for comprehending the ever-changing intricacies of reality.
The Aesthetic Value of Interesting Ideas over Truth: In process philosophy, the aesthetic quality of ideas often surpasses the need for factual accuracy. Carroll's curious characters and strange events are not meant to represent empirical facts but rather to serve as springboards for contemplation, aligning with the philosophy’s emphasis on the conceptual and aesthetic aspects of existence.
Blurring of Actual and Potential: In Whitehead's "Process and Reality," there's a unique focus on propositions that blend actuality with potentiality. Alice's encounters blur these lines, as seen in the White Queen’s idea of believing in impossibilities. This mirrors process philosophy’s concept that the real and the possible coalesce in a continuum of experiences.
The Power of Dreams: The philosophy places significance on different layers of experience for understanding reality. Given the dream-like narratives in Carroll's works, these stories support the idea that alternative states of consciousness, like dreams, are integral to a more comprehensive understanding of reality.
Relativity of Personal Identity: Consonant with the fluid and relational nature of process philosophy, Alice undergoes significant identity transformations during her quests. She questions societal roles, her own self-perception, and even the nature of identity itself, resonating with the philosophy's view of identity as ever-evolving.
Challenging Fixed Social Norms: Beyond their entertainment value, Alice's tales critique the fixed social conventions of her Victorian context. This critique mirrors process philosophy's own skepticism towards traditional societal constructs, inviting us to question and redefine them.
Questioning Basic Assumptions: Both Carroll’s works and process philosophy compel us to question foundational beliefs about what is 'real.' From Wonderland's talking animals to shape-shifting landscapes, these stories force a reconsideration of our traditional frameworks, highlighting the philosophy's commitment to challenging established definitions of reality.
The seminar meets once a week for three hours. There are fifteen students. Each student is asked to take one of these twelve ideas and see if the readings for the day illuminate the idea in some way. Students are free to go off in different directions, however. "It's OK to fall through rabbit holes," says the professor. I fall through several holes in the course of the course. I'm still not sure what Whitehead means by "actual entities." Are they little bitty moments in an atom; or is my own experience, including my imagination, an actual entity, too? But I've grown more curious along the way. Curiouser and curiouser.
Claiming my Inner Alice
a note to my professors
As I approach the end of my senior year, this "Philosophy and Curiosity" seminar has illuminated the profundity hidden within the whimsy of Carroll's tales and the intricacies of Whitehead's philosophy. Reading both side by side, I have found a harmonious interplay of ideas that transcends the boundaries of literature and philosophy. In this seminar, it becomes evident that life's complexities and paradoxes are not to be solved but explored, celebrated even. This is an idea important to me as I face my own future, itself uncertain. The characters in Wonderland and the Looking-Glass realms, much like Whitehead's metaphysical entities, act as enigmatic guides through a labyrinth of existential and ontological questions. The course has rekindled my own "Alice-like" curiosity, pushing me to look at the world through a Whiteheadian lens—one that is constantly evolving and delightfully unpredictable. Whether I'm questioning societal norms, pondering the nature of reality, or embracing the aesthetic value of intriguing ideas, I am reminded that the quest for understanding is a lifelong adventure. And as I prepare to step into a future that is "dangerous" and ever-changing, I carry with me the wisdom of Alice and Whitehead: to live courageously, to think critically, and to wonder ceaselessly. Indeed, as Alice would say, things are getting "curiouser and curiouser," and that's the beauty of it all.
- Wendy Wonderland
Lewis Carroll Quotes
“It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”
“But I don’t want to go among mad people," Alice remarked. "Oh, you can’t help that," said the Cat: "we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad." "How do you know I’m mad?" said Alice. "You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn’t have come here.”
“She generally gave herself very good advice, (though she very seldom followed it).”
“Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?" "That depends a good deal on where you want to get to." "I don't much care where –" "Then it doesn't matter which way you go.”
“If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn't. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn't be. And what it wouldn't be, it would. You see?”
“Who in the world am I? Ah, that's the great puzzle.”
“I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently? And then it covers them up snug, you know, with a white quilt; and perhaps it says, "Go to sleep, darlings, till the summer comes again.”
Alice and Dreaming A BBC Discussion
"Before there were books there were stories". Salman Rushdie's opening words in his collected Essays from 2003-2020. In one of them he reveals that Alice in Wonderland made such an impression on him as a child that he can still recite Jabberwocky. So Free Thinking brought him together with the literary historian Lucy Powell and with Mark Blacklock, who has studied literature about the fourth dimension, for a conversation about the power of dreams, the place of logic and irrationality and the truth of maths - inspired by the new exhibition about Alice in Wonderland on at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Matthew Sweet hosts the discussion.
Alice in Wonderland: Its Enduring Appeal A BBC Discussion
Its early readers included Queen Victoria and a young Oscar Wilde. 150 years after it became a publishing sensation the writer Lynne Truss and children's novelist Philip Ardagh discuss 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' and its enduring appeal to readers, writers and film makers with Anne McElvoy. Recorded in front of an audience at the Royal College of Music.