Book Review: “The Logic of Alice”

The following is reprinted from the Daresbury Chronicle (ISSN 1757-3912), March 2010, edited by Mr. Keith Wright. Dr. Sherry L. Ackerman wrote the review:

Bernard Patten’s The Logic of Alice: Clear Thinking in Wonderland left me scratching my head. To be honest, I still haven’t decided whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. It’s not a book that I will forget about quickly—mostly because it left me really confused. Now, don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t the erudition of Patten’s logic that left me in the dust. I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy and have taught logic at university for three decades. I can do syllogisms in my sleep. What confused me was—well, the illogical logic that Patten kept touting as “clear thinking”. Let me start at the beginning. I launched into the book with a certain enthusiasm. Logic is one of my things. So is Lewis Carroll. And, the praise statements on the back of the book were encouraging. There were a number of effuse statements from Carrollian luminaries. And there was even a glowing comment from a retired philosophy professor. So, I started reading and the head scratching began. No problem, I thought. Let me check the amazon site and get a broad overview of the book. I thought that this might put it all into perspective. So, I clicked on the site–but the information listed for the book was actually about another book—it, in fact, described a book by Brian Jenkins that was about terrorists and nuclear weaponry. This didn’t seem like “clear thinking” to me. More head scratching. Anyway, not one to be easily dissuaded, I built a good fire in my woodstove and sat down to read.

On page 22, Patten commits a fairly grievous logical error. He states: “On page ten, when Carroll asks whether the Proposition ‘The Cake you have given me is nice’ was Particular or Universal (believe it or not it is Universal as all the cake is referenced, not a particular part of it) a modern eleven-year-old couldn’t and wouldn’t see it mattered anyway. Was this a game or wasn’t it?” Patten erroneously identifies the proposition as Universal. It is a Particular proposition by virtue of the fact that it is singular. A particular proposition asserts something about some, but not all, members of a class. A singular proposition asserts something about one member of a class, as in “the cake”. A Universal proposition asserts something about all members of a class. “The cake” asserts something about one (singular) particular cake—the one that “you have given me”. Even if we were to interpret the major term in this premise as “the cake that you have given me”, instead of “the cake”, universality is still not assured. There is no assertion that “the cake that you have given me” speaks to “all cakes that you have given me”, or to “all cakes”. On page 35, Patten states that “If Alice is free, then the children reading AAW might also be free.” This statement comes perilously close to committing the informal fallacy of composition. A fallacy of composition arises when one reasons from the characteristics of an individual member of a class (in this case, Alice) to a conclusion regarding the characteristics of the entire class (in this case, the children reading AAW). Patten is technically off the hook because Alice and her readers do not, in the strictest sense, constitute the same class. It’s fuzzy, though, and isn’t a very compelling model for “clear thinking”. I’m not sure what to say about Patten’s treatment of the a priori on pages 80-81. Patten defines the a priori as: “a priori is based on the application of a general and previously accepted principle to the particular situation. Thus, its dependability is uneven.” Well, yes—but it’s more accurate to say that its dependability is independent of observation for herein lies the key.

Patten’s ensuing mode of illustration, about Darwin’s conclusion regarding blue-eyed, white cats is not accurate since a priori claims exist in the mind prior to and independent of experience. They are, further, not based on prior study or examination. The head scratching, thus, got really intense by page 93. Here Patten describes how Lincoln “gave up on his little blue pills because they were making him sicker”. He applauds Lincoln’s decision to stop taking the errant pills, claiming that, had he not, we might have “had a presidential suicide”. Here, Patten commits the informal fallacy of the slippery slope. A slippery slope argument states that a relatively small first step inevitably leads to a chain of related events culminating in some significant impact, much like an object given a small push over the edge of a slope sliding all the way to the bottom. In other words, the fallacy leaves out all of the intermediary steps between, in this case, the pills making Lincoln sick and an accidental suicide from having taken them. But, that’s enough of the logical hair-splitting. You get the idea. The book, purportedly on “clear thinking”, is riddled with logical fallacies. Let me address some of my broader philosophical concerns. The segment, on pages 97-98, called “Death is Bad”, comparing the thinking of Socrates and Woody Allen, commits just the problem that Patten counsels away from —diversionary humor–on page 76. Allen’s humorous comments about death lead away from (ie, constitute a red herring) Socrates’ more earnest attempt to examine what amounts to a very significant philosophical problem.

Since though, I wanted to avoid jumping to conclusions from first impressions (something which Patten advises against on page 124), I pressed on. I was sailing along until I met with another philosophical roadblock at page 163. Here, Patten recounts the tale of the pigeon’s criteria for being a serpent. I think that he misses, philosophically, the main point here. While Patten examines this tale in terms of an undistributed middle term, the more obvious game is a bit of cat and mouse with nominalism. Nominalism is a philosophical view according to which general or abstract terms and predicates exist, while universals or abstract objects, which are sometimes thought to correspond to these terms, do not exist. Carroll’s own view is found in the text of his book, Symbolic Logic, when he states that “…I maintain that any writer of a book is fully authorized in attaching any meaning he likes to any word or phrase he intends to use. If I find an author saying, at the beginning of his book, ‘Let it be understood that by the word “black” I shall always mean “white,” and that by the word “white” I shall always mean “black,”’ I merely accept his ruling, however injudicious I may think it.”

So, nominalism—more than a contrary to fact argument–was the theme when the Pigeon, thinking that Alice was a serpent, said “You’re a serpent, and there’s no use denying it. I suppose you’ll be telling me next that you never tasted an egg!” Alice replied, “I have tasted eggs, certainly, but little girls eat eggs quite as much as serpents do, you know.” To this bit of news, the Pigeon replied “…if they do…then they’re a kind of serpent.” Whereas the universals are defined in terms of resemblance, the eating of eggs; the particulars are required to resemble each other in being called by the same name, “serpents.” Carroll had already set a precedent for gaming with nominalism when, for example, Alice saw Humpty balanced on the top of the wall, and she exclaimed, “And how exactly like an egg he is!” To this, Humpty replied that it was “very provoking to be called an egg.” Alice then assured him that he only resembled the common group of particulars called “eggs” by stating that, “I said you looked like an egg, Sir.” When Humpty turned the tables on Alice by asking her to tell him her name, she innocently replied, “My name is Alice, but—“. Humpty retorted that it was a “stupid name enough!” and asked her what it meant. Alice asked Humpty, “Must a name mean something?” and Humpty assured her that “of course it must.” As if Carroll wanted to be certain that his point was not missed, he had Humpty continue to explain, “My name means the shape I am….With a name like yours, you might be any shape, almost.” Thus, Humpty, as a particular “egg” was defined by his resemblance to other “eggs” in being called by the same name. However, he could not determine how to reconcile, by resemblance, the particular “Alice” with the larger, universal group of “Alices.” I have to confess that I loved Patten’s analysis of Bushisms (although I have no idea how they ended up in a book purportedly on Alice in Wonderland). If one can’t find a logical fallacy in George W. Bush’s statements, s/he is asleep at the wheel. And, Patten cited some grand ones! I was a little surprised, though, that he didn’t showcase the most obvious—and historically grievous—logical error that Bush made–that being the conditional (hypothetical) syllogism that goes like this: If we find weapons of mass destruction, (then) we will go to war with Iraq We found no weapons of mass destruction Therefore (opps!) we are going to war with Iraq That little fallacy sent the US packing to the Middle East to initiate a multi-million dollar war (in which we are still, by the way, involved) for no apparent reason. The syllogism suffers from a denial of the antecedent (also called the inverse error), a fallacy rendering the reasoning invalid. It was probably Bush’s most significant—and obvious–logical error! In closing, I am reminded of the first time that I saw Jackson Pollock’s artwork. I couldn’t decide if it was a good thing or a bad thing. It left me really confused. I’m putting Patten’s work in the same category.

I have entertained the idea that perhaps Patten purposely made so many philosophical faux pas. Maybe he writes in an abstract expressionist genre. Or, maybe he is incredibly clever and has designed his own game of cat and mouse. And, I have to admit, there was something—although I can’t quite put my finger on it, but something—about the book that really turned me on. Head scratching is not all bad. Like I said earlier, it’s not a book that I will forget about quickly.

Sherry Ackmerman

~ by Contrariwise on March 8, 2010.

2 Responses to “Book Review: “The Logic of Alice””

  1. Logic and philosophy tend to go a certain distance over my head, but after reading your review I dug this book out and had a go at it.
    Unfortunately I found the guy’s prose style so irritating that I couldn’t get past the first chapter and so cannot comment on your more in-depth criticisms!

  2. […] There’s a lengthy review here. […]

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