Most people will never read a philosophy essay or book, but they will probably encounter in philosophical fiction – it’s everywhere, from blockbusters to best-selling novels. If you think philosophers should have a hearing in the wider world, that’s one important reason (though not the only reason) for philosophers to consider writing their own stories. But the thought of writing philosophical fiction is daunting. Professional philosophers lack both training and incentive to do it.
I’ve been interested in writing fiction for some time, and I started looking for ways to make the idea of fiction writing more appealing and realistic for philosophers. In the end, I organised a workshop, “Fiction Writing for Philosophers”,and a prize competition for the best philosophical story, “The APA Berry Fund Philosophy Through Fiction” competition. I will here explore what philosophical fiction is, why philosophy might profit from engaging in it, consider some objections to philosophical fiction writing, and then look at the activities I have organised to help philosophers write fiction.
Philosophy is often considered an obscure and elitist practice. Yet, through fiction, the general public regularly partakes in philosophical thinking. Philosophical blockbusters such as Inception make us marvel, and prompt us to think about deep questions concerning free will, skepticism, the mind, and society. A recent example is the movie Arrival, based on Ted Chiang’s novella Story of Your Life. Spoilers ahead.
The story’s protagonist is Louise Banks, a professor in linguistics. She helps the American army decode the language of a group of aliens (Heptapods) who have landed on earth. She discovers that the aliens have two distinct linguistic systems: a spoken language (Heptapod A), and a written language that has no discernible connection to the spoken one (Heptapod B). She discovers that Heptapod B is unlike any human writing system. Learning how the writing system works profoundly influences the way she thinks. Louise can now see future events before they unfold, and she will make future life choices in the full knowledge of what is to come.
The story explores two philosophical questions. The first is the theory of linguistic relativity, the idea that language fundamentally influences how we think, including how we perceive the world. Story of Your Life/Arrival pushes this theory a bit further by imagining a language that would allow us to perceive time in a way that no human being does. Some proponents of this theory, such as Benjamin Whorf, argued that speakers of the native American Hopi language had a radically different perception of time and space compared to westerners – cyclical, rather than linear. Whorf’s claims that language would radically change time and space perception are the subject of continued philosophical discussion. In Arrival the premise is that learning to read and understand Heptapod B (the alien writing system) would lead Louise to conceive of time in a similar way to the aliens: time is no longer perceived as linear, but as cyclical, echoed in the alien writing system which looks like spidery logograms inscribed in circles.
The second central philosophical theme is the relationship between free will and knowledge of the future. In particular, the protagonist knows that she will conceive a child who will die young, and she also knows what it is like to experience this loss and grief before it actually occurs. She is then confronted with the choice to conceive the child, when her boyfriend/co-worker asks if they should start a family. In the film Louise Banks asks, “If you could see your whole life laid out in front of you, would you change things?”
The philosophical blockbuster is not unusual. It responds to a little-explored human emotion, wonder. In Plato’s Thaetetus, Socrates famously says that philosophy begins in wonder. Wonder is a positive emotion that is elicited by stimuli in the environment, such as starry skies and expansive natural scenery, and by human accomplishments, but it can also be elicited through reflection on nature and even life itself. It is characterised by increased focus, curiosity, some loss of self, and increased tolerance for complex, ambiguous situations.
Philosophy is a tool that helps to elicit wonder and to encourage people to actively engage in reflection on hefty subjects (such as the meaning of life in the face of death). Thinking about such substantial subjects as life, death, and meaning is not the exclusive terrain of philosophers, however. Novelists have also explored such issues, from a different angle.
I understand philosophical fiction in a broad sense: fiction that uses philosophical ideas or aims to address philosophical questions. There is also philosophical fiction in a narrow sense: fiction written by philosophers. Examples include novels by Simone De Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre and Iris Murdoch. The philosophical novel has a venerable history. The first Arabic novel, Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān (The Self-Taught Philosopher), written by Ibn Tufayl in the twelfth century, was a philosophical novel. The story recounts the life of Hayy, a feral child who grew up in total isolation from humans and who discovered truths through reasoned inquiry. Eventually, he came into contact with human civilisation, where he became acquainted with religion, civilisation, and science. The story is in effect a long thought experiment that contemplates the relationship between philosophy and revelation. Older philosophical works (e.g. Plato’s Republic, Hume’s Dialogues concerning Natural Religion) use rich and long allegories, dialogues and other story formats. The current philosophical literature, especially in the analytic tradition, is more narrowly focused on brief thought experiments as the primary mode of fiction.
What is the advantage of exploring one or more philosophical ideas through fiction? This is, in itself, a philosophical question. Philosophers have a large array of tools at their disposal, such as conceptual analysis, as well as results from the sciences. Why then do they keep on coming back to stories? As the philosopher R. P Cameron argues, thought experiments are a form of mini-fiction: we engage with a story to draw a conclusion about the world.
Making a good thought experiment is an art. It is a delicate form of flash fiction. Thought experiments are tools of persuasion. They elicit philosophical intuitions. In Philippa Foot’s famous trolley scenarios for example, a reader is asked to consider switching a trolley to another track so as to avert running into five workers, killing them. Unfortunately, there is another worker on the track you divert to, so you would kill one person. Is it permissible (or obligatory, or forbidden) to switch to the other track? And how about if the only way to stop the trolley is to push a fat man in front of the tracks? It seems to many readers that it is wrong to push the fat man in front of the tracks, even though five innocent people might be saved. Because they are used as tools of persuasion and because they are fairly short, thought experiments tend to elicit fairly clear, unequivocal intuitions. They do not leave much room for ambiguity.
Philosophical thinking can also benefit from ambiguity and open-endedness, and here is where longer fiction (in the format of a short story, novelette, novella, or a full novel) can serve a viable purpose. While the typical philosophical thought experiment is meant to elicit intuitions in the reader that help the author to make a point forcefully, a philosophical story can be much more than a tool for persuasion. It can be a tool for thinking, where we can lay out the consequences of a particular philosophical viewpoint in great detail. Take the concept of immortality. An enduring question is whether we’d eventually get fed up with being immortal (the tedium of immortality, as Bernard Williams called it), or whether we’d always find new things to do. The novel series Twilight explores this idea in some detail. In particular, it is a narrative that exemplifies the Mormon idea of an afterlife.
As I’ve argued elsewhere there are epistemic benefits to writing fiction: we can work out for ourselves, as authors (and readers), what the consequences of a philosophical position might be. In fiction, we can be freed from the requirement for having to convince our readers. A story can merely ask its readers to consider a situation, without having to argue for it. What if we experienced time differently (Story of Your Life, Ted Chiang)? What if a large-scale society were to run without any state intervention or taxation (The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert Heinlein)? What if we had to rely entirely on external media as memory devices (the Christopher Nolan film Memento)? Exploring such “what if” scenarios without having to commit oneself to a given view can be liberating.
From this it does not follow that every philosopher should write fiction. But it does follow that writing fiction might benefit philosophical enquiry, and might give us insights and provide a distinctive and productive new way of engaging in philosophical inquiry. The sceptic might still argue against plunging ourselves into this new endeavour. “Philosophers argue, and stories aren’t arguments. You aren’t establishing or proving anything through a story,” she might object. One could counter that the best philosophical fiction can sometimes demonstrate that a philosophical proposition is true. Arrival/Story of Your Life might show that it is possible to make free choices in the full knowledge of the future that is to come. In particular, both the movie and short story present a touching non-linear series of interactions between mother and daughter that show the bond between them. Even though the daughter’s life will be brief, it is understandable that the mother decides it is still a life worth living. Moreover, perhaps the inconclusiveness of the format of fiction isn’t that much of a problem. There are few philosophical problems that have been resolved beyond dispute. Maybe some tolerance for ambiguity in philosophy would be a good thing.
A second worry the sceptic might have is that stories often involve unreliable narrators: the character from whose point of view we see the story unfold might not always represent the author’s viewpoint. One could respond to this worry that philosophers change their minds anyway (Hilary Putnam being a famous example). In the history of philosophy, where the format of philosophising was broader than it currently is, there are plenty of instances of the unreliable narrator. For example, Hume’s Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, which features a dialogue between three people, continues to elicit scholarly discussion concerning to what extent Hume personally endorsed what the interlocutors are saying. An unreliable narrator may also give philosophers a way to explore ideas without necessarily being committed to them. The relationship between Iris Murdoch’s philosophical and fictional writings is not at all straightforward, for example.
A third worry is that writing fiction is a specialist art, and that philosophers are not trained to write good stories, and they don’t know how to find a venue to publish them. Thus, even if philosophers wish to explore fiction, there is an important obstacle in the way: how to start? This is an important concern, especially given that academic writing and fiction writing have different conventions. To alleviate this concern, I organised a workshop Fiction Writing for Philosophers, funded by the British Society of Aesthetics, at Oxford Brookes University in 2017.
A total of 45 philosophers applied, and 27 were accepted. Every workshop participant sent a draft of a short story or book chapter beforehand, which was used for a mentoring session. The workshop consisted of talks in the morning by philosophers Sara Uckelman and Eric Schwitzgebel, and me, as well as professional writer and creative fiction lecturer James Hawes, who gave a hands-on presentation where we had to write the beginning of a story closely modelled on the beginning of a novel by Ernest Hemingway. In the afternoons, Sara, Eric and James had one-on-one sessions with the workshop participants to help improve their short stories.
At the end of the second day, there was a panel session with workshop participants who had already successfully published fiction, including Frances Howard-Snyder (short fiction, genre: romance), Carol Quinn (novel), Sara Uckelman and Eric Schwitzgebel (short fiction, genre: Science Fiction and Fantasy). We also had one panellist who had published poetry (Mara Daria Cojocaru). Each panellist briefly talked about their experience in publishing, and this was followed by an hour of questions and answers from the public. The publishing panel was particularly interesting in showing how different the publication of stories is compared to journal articles. Submission is not anonymised, and it matters to some extent if you have name recognition in the field, although publishers are always interested in reading something from a new, unpublished author. Hence it is important to place your first works in well-regarded magazines, which, like philosophy journals, have their own prestige hierarchies. Submitting to book publishers, especially without an agent, can be tricky.
Given the interest in fiction writing from the philosophical community, I asked the plenary speakers to provide their writing tips for philosophers as blog posts. Thanks to Skye Cleary (APA blog moderator and workshop participant), these are now published on the American Philosophical Association’s website, and can be consulted:
- Eric Schwitzgebel, “Writing for the 10 percent” blog.apaonline.org/2017/09/12/writing-for-the-ten-percent/
- Sara Uckelman “Plot as argument, argument as plot” (in 3 parts, part 3 is linked) blog.apaonline.org/2017/09/07/structuring-a-philosophical-novel/
- James Hawes “A novelist’s tips for writing philosophical fiction” blog.apaonline.org/2017/06/13/a-novelists-tips-for-writing-philosophical-fiction/
There are also two interviews by workshop participants, Bryony Pierce and Hugh Reynolds, on their experiences writing fiction and of the workshop, here
- Bryony Pierce blog.apaonline.org/2017/07/26/bryony-pierce-on-writing-philosophical-fiction/
- Hugh Reynolds blog.apaonline.org/2017/08/09/hugh-d-reynolds-on-philosophical-fiction/
I also organised a competition in 2016 for the best philosophical story, funded by the American Philosophical Association’s Berry Fund for Public Philosophy. The winning story would receive a cash prize and would be published in Sci Phi Journal, a speculative fiction journal that specialises in philosophical fiction. Deviating from the norms in fiction publishing, we used anonymised submissions for this competition, which were judged by a team of three philosophers with experience in reading and writing fiction: Eric Schwitzgebel, Mark Silcox, and Meghan Sullivan. The competition was open to everyone, but philosophers were especially encouraged to submit. As the deadline of the competition drew closer, the inbox of the email address I had created for this purpose became inundated with a very large number of submissions. Putting them together and checking if they fit the eligibility requirements became almost a full-time occupation. In the end, there were 704 eligible submissions, more than 10 times what I had anticipated.
Fortunately, a team of readers at Sci Phi Journal read the submissions for basic quality, narrowing the total number of submissions to about 100, which were sent to the judges. The judges independently went through the remaining 100 stories, and they unanimously selected Lisa Schoenberg’s story The Adjoiners as the winner, and also unanimously decided to accord an honourable mention to John Holbo’s story Morality Tale (National University Singapore). It is interesting to compare these two stories.
Schoenberg’s story, which can be read freely online here sciphijournal.org/the-adjoiners-by-lisa-schoenberg/ is immersive, reflective, and examines whether you can commit a crime against yourself. By contrast, John Holbo’s story, freely available here, sciphijournal.org/morality-tale-by-john-holbo/ is terse and full of dark humour, exploring the puzzle of imaginative resistance. This is a test of Tamar Gendler’s idea that while we can easily imagine worlds with, say, different rules of physics, different dimensions, magic and the like, our mind somehow resists the idea of a morally deviant world, for instance, one where killing baby girls would be morally good. Holbo takes up this challenge by imagining such a world.
If you are a philosopher (or someone interested in philosophy), here is a way to see if writing fiction is for you. Try to write a short story on a topic of philosophical interest. There is no set formula to begin, and that is not a bad thing; creativity is a serendipitous process and we need to take advantage of the serendipity. In that respect, writing a story is not so different from writing a philosophical paper. As Sara Uckelman argued in her lecture Plot as argument, argument as plot, both philosophy papers and stories are adventures you take the reader on. Both require careful attention for structure, bringing in the right elements at the right time. As she puts it,
“Your readers are on the adventure with you, and so are people in the secondary literature: you can call upon the powers of the wizard David Lewis, and he is going to get you through the caves of Moria. He might die in the end, but you can take any of your weak spots and get other people in your adventure party to fill in those gaps. You need to start from the beginning with Gandalf along with you because you can’t just fly him in ad hoc at the last moment to get you through Moria. Pay attention to the bits you are going to need. Make sure you have fellow travellers at the beginning.”
As James Hawes argued in his lecture for our workshop, sometimes it is convenient to forget about plot, and to focus on the big picture, the big governing idea that holds your story together. Sometimes plot comes first and you can connect it to a bigger philosophical topic. Engaging in philosophy in this way can provide new insights into philosophical problems and a different way of engaging with them.