University of Washington’s Center for Philosophy for Children
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Title and Author: “A Mad Tea Party” from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Field of Philosophy: Logic; Metaphysics; Philosophy of Language;

Plot Summary: Alice comes upon a table set under a tree in front of March Hare's house, with the Mad Hatter sitting and having tea. She sits down and the Mad Hatter asks her, “Why is a Raven like a writing desk?” They then begin discussing riddles and Alice claims that to say what you mean and to mean what you say is the same thing. However, everyone else disagrees. Then after a brief discussion of time, Alice confesses that she does not know why a raven is like a writing desk. However, neither does the Mad Hatter. The Dormouse then tells a story that Alice questions at every opportunity. After everyone switches places, Alice gets up and before leaving says, “I'll never go there again. It was the stupidest tea party I have ever went to in my life.”

Some Discussion Questions and Activities:

  1. Alice notices that the Dormouse is being used as a cushion by the March Hare and the Hatter. She thinks to herself, “Very uncomfortable for the Dormouse, only, as it’s asleep, I suppose it doesn’t mind.” Can you be uncomfortable when you are asleep? Can things bother you when you are asleep?
  2. Does what happens to you matter if you can’t feel it?
  3. Does what happens to you matter if you don’t know about it?
  4. Is there a difference between meaning what you say and saying what you mean? Why or why not?
  5. What can you do with time? (Think of all the terms we use: waste it, spend it, kill it, etc.). Are there better or worse things to do with it?
  6. Complete this sentence: “My favorite way to spend time is to …, and the reason why is ….”
  7. Can you take “more tea” if you’ve had none? Isn’t it easy to take “more” than nothing?
  8. Alice starts to say, I don’t think . . .” and the Hatter interrupts her, “Then you shouldn’t talk.” Can you talk without thinking? Can you notice something without thinking about it? Can you stop thinking?
  9. Is the Hatter being rude? What is rudeness?
  10. Finish the Dormouse’s story about Elsie, Lacie and Tillie.
  11. At some point the Hatter says something and Alice thinks to herself that the remark had “not sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English.” Can a sentence have “no sort of meaning” at all in it? Make up a nonsense sentence. We’ll write them all down and see if we can come up with some context in which the sentence is not nonsense.
  12. What was the strangest thing that ever happened to you? What made it strange? Is there anything in the world that isn’t strange?
  13. Imagine the most “curious party” you can. Who would you invite? What would you do? What would make it curious?
  14. Is saying what you mean the same as meaning what you say? If so, why? If not, what is the difference?