Image of children sitting on the floor in a classroom, raising their arms.

Review: Ozma of Oz

Gareth B. Matthews

Review of Ozma of Oz by L. Frank Baum (Chicago: Rand mcNally, 1907).  Originally published in Thinking: The Journal of Philosophy for Children 1(2): 3.

Everybody knows that some children’s stories are adventure stories: but not everybody realizes that sometimes the adventure is intellectual. A story of intellectual adventure is a thought experiment (Gedank­ experiment), or perhaps a series of thought experiments, that explores problematic ideas, such as the notions of life, nature, consciousness, mood and temperament.

Frank Baum’s Ozma of Oz (mercifully still in print!) is a splendid tale of intellectual adventure. Here are some of its thought experiments.

First, there is the idea of a tree that bears lunch boxes and napkins as “fruit” (p. 27). Each of these boxes contains a ham sandwich, a piece of sponge cake, a pickle, a slice of new cheese and an apple; and each box is marked with the word ‘lunch’ on its side. Could a lunch box really be a product of nature? If not, why not? Could a mark that appeared naturally on a fruit and that was isomorphic with the English word ‘lunch’ mean lunch? If so, under what conditions?

Second, there is the idea of a peculiar race of beings called “wheelers” (p. 32) that resemble human beings, but have wheels at the ends of their four limbs and move about by rolling on those wheels. The wheel is, of course, one of the simplest of human inventions; but it is an invention – it does not copy nature. Could a wheel be a product of nature? Or is a wheel necessarily (in some ap­propriate sense of ‘necessarily’) an artifact?

Third, there is the idea of a mechanical man (called “Tiktok”) who is said to think, to speak, to act and to do “everything but live.” (p. 43) Tiktok’s instructions say where to insert the key to wind up his ‘think,’ where to insert it to wind up his ‘talk’ and where to insert it to wind up his action. Might a mechanical (or an electronic!) man be capable of thought? Might one be capable of real speech? At one-point Tiktok admits that he is only a machine that “can-not feel sorrow or joy, no matter what happens.” (p. 67) Could a being incapable of emotion be nevertheless capable of thought?

Fourth, there is the idea of a princess with thirty alter­native heads – each, in its own peculiar way, a model of beauty. (p. 79) Each morning this princess, instead of selecting a dress to wear for that day, selects a head. With each head, as the princess seems to know, there goes a characteristic mood and temperament. Could one choose one’s mood or temperament for the day? What is the connection between, for example, having red hair and having a fiery disposition? Is it natural? Conventional? Or what?

The thought experiments in Ozma of Oz are philosophically rich; so is some of the reasoning. Here, for example, is an intriguing argument from continuity: “Once,” said Dorothy, “I knew a man made out of tin, who was a woodman named Nick Chopper. But he was alive as we are, ’cause he was born a real man and got his tin body a little at a time – first a leg and then a finger and then an ear – for the reason that he had so many accidents with his axe and cut himself up in a very careless manner.” (p. 42)

One could base a whole philosophy course on Ozma of Oz. One can also read it simply for fun – including, of course, philosophical fun.