Lewis Carroll and The Cheshire Cat

Okay, I know this is a case of dragging something up from the depths of beyond, but anyway… The column on 09-Apr-1976 about ‘Why do cats purr? Why do Cheshire cats grin?’ misses an alternative explanation for the existence of the Cheshire Cat, which may be merely incidental, but quite interesting nonetheless.

Carroll was a logician, in addition to a storyteller, as anyone can tell you. Alice in Wonderland contains inumerable philosophy in-jokes, and the Cheshire Cat’s grin is one of them. A vague idea as to why goes as follows. (And this is highly nutshelled so forgive any glaring errors, all those who are more learned in philosophy than I am).

In philosophy, things that ‘are’ can generally be regarded as substances. Properties of that substance are known as its predicates. For example, you can have a tree. It’s a substance. The tree can be tall. Or bushy. Or responsible for six murders last autumn. Those are its predicates, and although they provide different examples of trees with different characteristics, they don’t detract from each tree’s inherent treeliness.

Another substance is a cat. Its predicates might be that the cat is wet. Or that it is rather fat. Or that it is grinning. Whatever - as long as it is something additional to our knowledge about the cat, then it is a predicate.

Furthermore, some predicates of ‘cat’ are necessary for catliness. As in, it is necessary that all cats are feline. It is not however necessary that all cats are grinning. Specifying that cat x is currently grinning is vaguely useful because it might be the case in some other world that it is not grinning (e.g. when it’s just been kicked or something). However, specifying that cat x is currently feline is less satisfactory because that’s part and parcel of the ‘cat’ bit. If you know what a cat is, you know also that the cat is feline. (Regardless of whether you know you know). So there’s a differentiation between predicates that are necessarily defined by part of the definition of the substance (e.g. felineness of cat x), and predicates that just happen along once in a blue moon, for which it’s neither here nor there to the actual substance whether or not they’re going on (e.g. the grinning). You can separate out the latter from the substance, but the former are bundled up within the definition of the substance. A grin is incidental. Felineness is not.

So what? The point of all this is that you can’t have ‘rather fat’ or ‘wet’ or ‘grinning’ without something to assign the terms to. As in, a grin cannot exist on its own - it needs a mouth at the very least. (Get out of your mind the silly pictures in the cartoon version of a grin floating in the air - that’s still got a substance in terms of the mouth). Similarly, there’s no concept of wetness that doesn’t have some substance as its foundation. You can’t visualise either a grin or wetness without something to be grinning or something to be wet.

So the idea here is that the substance of the Cheshire Cat leaves behind its incidental predicate, the grin. It’s rather odd to think of a grin without a face, but there it is. Carroll is intentionally confusing the ideas. In reality, there’s no way the grin can go anywhere without there being some cat x to ground it. Yet in Carrol’s wonderland, predicates are as free to traipse mud through the shagpile as any substance has ever been.


::takes notes and decides to recomment class to other students::

This analysis does not sink in without an actual quote…

`All right,’ said the Cat; and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.

Well! I've often seen a cat without a grin,' thought Alice; but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever say in my life!’

That’s the bit of interest. Sorry for not including it earlier.


She was looking about for some way of escape, and wondering whether she could get away without being seen, when she noticed a curious appearance in the air: it puzzled her very much at first, but, after watching it a minute or two, she made it out to be a grin, and she said to herself `It’s the Cheshire Cat: now I shall have somebody to talk to.’

`How are you getting on?’ said the Cat, as soon as there was mouth enough for it to speak with.

Incidentally, this too. It’s less clear, but it might be read as the grin appearing before the mouth. (How could a cat have enough mouth for a grin and not enough mouth to speak?)

This quote around the middle of the croquet chapter, (8 I think?), and the first quote towards the end of chapter 6.

Thanks for your post, Zenpea. That’s always the way I looked at the whole Cheshire cat thing (although not in such detail). It’s nice to know there are others like me.

(How could a cat have enough mouth for a grin and not enough mouth to speak?)

The grin would have the teeth and the…whatever they have for lips. Speech would require a jaw and some muscles… :wink:

Yike! This Zenpea guy is deep, or something.

–Nott, the large

Lots of specialized muscles and lots of nerves. That’s why the teaching of Sign Language to apes started; they simply haven’t the apparatus to speak normal human languages.

(The grin would have the teeth and the…whatever they have for lips. Speech would require a jaw and some muscles… )

lol yes, that’s a fair point. We’ll remove that quote and stick to the ‘grin without a cat’ then. :slight_smile:

And deep, hah! It’s just incidental if at all. I mean, you do philosophy and philosophy alone for your degree and try and stand up in the mornings. It takes you half an hour to convince yourself the floor is actually there or that time hasn’t gone the wrong way whilst you weren’t looking. It’s like living with those irrational and fearful expectations you have of everything in a bad dream. The universe hangs by a thread in an ether of infinite nothingness!!

Until the pubs open, anyway. Then we’re fine.


If it didn’t hang by a thread, would it not hang in a nether of somethingness?

Welcome to the SDMB, and thank you for posting your comment.
Please include a link to Cecil’s column if it’s on the straight dope web site.
To include a link, it can be as simple as including the web page location in your post (make sure there is a space before and after the text of the URL).

Cecil’s column can be found on-line at this link:
Why do cats purr? Why do Cheshire cats grin? (09-Apr-1976)

moderator, «Comments on Cecil’s Columns»

Thanks for the welcome, although I’ve been here several months.

I included the mention of the column as suggested on the title of the sticky atop this particular board, but since this post wasn’t actually intended to criticise Cecil’s already well researched origin of the Cat, but merely add an new option, I didn’t feel I needed to link it too. Sorry. My mistake. I haven’t learned the house rules for these matters yet, as it were.

Thanks for doing it for me, anyway. :slight_smile:


Here’s a pretty good explanation for the whole Cheshire cat business(based on newspaper reports from about 10 years ago)

A group of tourists on a literary tour of England visited Lewis Carroll’s home.The tour included a lecture in the church chapel which he frequented as a boy. One of the tourists was tired(bored?), and slumped down in the pew he was sitting in, thus putting himself in the position of a small boy. He happened to look up–and saw the Cheshire Cat!! Something in the carved wooden latticework in the cieling of the church, when viewed from the angle of a small child, looks like a cat. And as you stand up, the cat “disappears”.

Add a child’s fertile imagination, (maybe helped by a boring church sermon,making the poor kid squirm and look for diversions)–and VOILA! you have the Cheshire Cat–with and without its grin.

The philosophical argument above would make a great sophomore paper.(I know, 'cause I wrote a lot of 'em for 3 semesters or so!)
But I think that a causual observation by a bored tourist gives us the best explanation.Charles Dodgson was just reliving his childhood memories, and we still enjoy it a century later.

Thanks for the philosophy lesson, Zenpea! Now I remember why I changed majors 20 years ago. 3 semesters of philosopy were enough!

Maybe Charles Dodgson sat in that pew and saw what that tourist saw. Maybe he didn’t. But either way, and even if his memory was part of the inspiration, Zenpea’s explianation seems far more plausable as far as what would capture the imagination of someone like him.

If it did involve a childhood memory I would say it’s just that that was why he chose a cat and a grin.

The column does not suggest the obvious possible connection that a land of cheese is a land of mice, and a land of mice is a land of happy pussycats.

How about abnormal human languages, like say, Esperanto? Hey, wait a second, what if all those apes have been speaking Esperanto all along?

The only real question now, is who taught whom?

Esperanto is just a Polish idea of simplified Italian. Loglan, with 17 consonants and six vowels would be better, but far better candidates would be Rotokas (spoken in Papua New Guinea), with only six consonants and five vowels or Piraha (from the Amazon) with five consonants and three vowels. Among better-known languages, Hawaiian comes to mind.

What about brown? I can visualize brown without the cat.

Brown is a second order property. A grin is a first order property.

First order properties cannot occur without a substance. Second order properties can insofar as they are only subjective constructs. Sounds complexish, but it’s easy enough to grasp once you realise that we paint the world ourselves.

‘Brown’ is simply the way we interpret signals that come into our eyes. So between our eyes and our brain, we come up with brown; there is no intrinsic brownness in the object itself. The object is not, itself, coloured brown - it just reflects and regracts light in a certain way. Why that translates as brown is just some way we have of perceiving it. If we weren’t looking at things through our eyes, we wouldn’t know it was brown. Brown just wouldn’t exist, since it is actually something we create and assign to the object ourselves. (Compare squareness, which we could see and also feel if something was square - thus implying it is more something to do with the object itself that our senses. Similarly, one can’t imagine squareness without imagining something to be square).

So a grin can’t occur without something to be grinning because it follows squareness in its first order characteristic - it is possible to feel a mouth and tell its smiling; it’s some inherent state of the object. But it is impossible to tell anything is brown outside of our subjective translations of sensory input. Thus it is not part of the object, but part of us, and is thus it is not required that we think of it in terms of other objects, as we do grins and squareness, but merely in terms of our own perception.