Alice in Wonderland and The Philosophy of Memory

Ever since Lewis Carroll first dreamt up the Alice stories at Oxford in 1865, the fantastical, nonsensical inversions of Wonderland have presented an ideal setting for philosophical reflection. While over time we’ve seen a Wittgenstein essay here, a Carl Jung quote there, this is the first book devoted solely to exploring philosophy through Alice in Wonderland. When we stop to consider it, the need to know and the search for meaning are fundamental characteristics to both children’s literature and philosophical writings alike. Perhaps why there has been such a profound and enduring love for Alice in Wonderland for so many readers over time is that its deeply imaginative sense of wonder has an ability, like all great works of fiction, to take on different shades of meaning and to grow along with its readers.

Here’s a brief excerpt from my chapter, “Memory and Muchness: Alice and the Philosophy of Memory” —

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“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar.

This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly,“I — I hardly know, sir, just at present — at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then” (p. 47).

Alice’s conversation with the Caterpillar shows us how sometimes even the most complicated and important philosophical questions can lie just beneath a seemingly straightforward exchange. The ordinary question “Who are you?” leads Alice to confront one of the fundamental philosophical questions: “Who am I?” As the Caterpillar’s cryptic responses begin to bewilder her more and more, Alice wonders at the Caterpillar’s question, “So you think you’re changed, do you?” —

“I’m afraid I am, sir,” said Alice. “I can’t remember things as I used”. . .

“Can’t remember what things?” said the Caterpillar (p. 48).

Alice cannot answer the question of who she is, because she can’t seem to remember who she was. From this, we can begin to understand how memory is inextricably tied to questions of what we know (or perhaps think we know). Indeed, memory is crucially important for understanding ourselves as conscious, thinking individuals. But what is memory?

Memory is both familiar and mysterious. Sometimes it seems as if the things closest to us can be the hardest to understand — metaphors can be particularly helpful in such cases. Plato (427–347 BCE) likened memory to a wax tablet whose etchings were imprinted upon our souls. John Locke (1632–1704) envisioned memory as a type of storehouse for our ideas.

Perhaps a more helpful question to ask is: what does memory mean to us?

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You might also enjoy a sneak preview of Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy available on Google Books.

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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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