Photo of a fountain pen and writing

Discussion: Writing Philosophical Fiction

The American writer and academic Jay Parini was recently interviewed in The Chronicle where he urged scholars to attempt to write in a variety of genres in order to improve their style:

…writing in different genres can help anyone write with more energy and vision and scope. Memoir is always available. Much of the best criticism now being written is highly personal: the reader in the work, responding. I wish more critics/scholars would try a hand at poetry and fiction, or drama. Biography has been an obsession of mine, partly because it’s the one genre where I can write criticism that is readable and useful, and it’s another place to practice the art of narration.

Helen de Cruz at Oxford Brookes is organizing a fiction-writing workshop and competition for philosophers (announcements are coming soon).  If you’ve ever flirted with the idea of writing fiction, this summer might be a good time to give it a go.

Do you write poetry, fiction, or drama (philosophical or otherwise)? How do you start? Where do your ideas come from? Do you find it to be helpful or exasperating? What challenges or successes have you experienced?  If you’ve thought about it but not yet started, what’s holding you back?  Tell us in the comment section below, or if you’d like to write a post about it, pitch it to us here.

Image: Pixabay

20 thoughts on “Discussion: Writing Philosophical Fiction

  1. I think Parini’s comment is a bit … narrow-minded? Philosophers should, and do, write fiction not JUST to improve their style! Philosophical fiction goes WAY back! I was going to point to Sartre and Camus, but of course we might consider Plato’s Dialogues to be the first ever philosophical plays!

    I think ‘philosophical fiction’ is an excellent way to get people thinking about the things they need to be thinking about! Though for me, there’s no fiction worth writing that ISN’T philosophical — that ISN’T thought-provoking.

    (Serendipitous timing, this post, as I just attended a book launch for one of my own works of philosophical fiction, a novella titled What Happened to Tom, published by Inanna, which is inspired by Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “The Violinist”!)

    • Peg, do you think that people have a different reaction when they think through the violinist case in detail, with the emotional and imaginative vivacity of full-blooded fiction, than when they react to it based on a brief summary in the context of an expository essay?

      I’m inclined to think they do react differently — which then raises some interesting epistemic questions about the extent to which that reaction should be privileged, or not, over a reaction to a cooler, more abstract summary description.

      • Interesting. I’m not inclined to frame the difference between a thought experiment and a novel as the difference between “cool” and “emotional”. I think of thought experiments as springboards: some people can take off and soar through the air doing somersaults and flips through all the conceptual implications, and others sort of just step off and land an inch away.

        I wrote What Happened to Tom because of the latter, because of what I perceive to be (an increasing) lack of imagination. I wanted people (especially, yes, men) to see, and understand, all those conceptual implications.

        And yes, to do that, I included the attendant emotional vivacity, but I don’t think that reduces the status of reaction. At least, I hope it doesn’t; writing philosophical fiction requires a bit of a balancing act, I think. If you’re too heavy on the ideas, people accuse you of being prosaic and tell you that you should stick to writing papers (which is a really interesting reaction in itself), but if you’re too heavy on the emotion, then you risk shortchanging the ideas. (Which is why I’m impressed with Ayn Rand in this regard.)

        • I’m not sure we need to see emotions and ideas as in conflict, or that to the extent we can distinguish the two that emotionality should be seen as reducing the epistemic status of a judgment. I was thinking of “cool” and “emotional” more as a contrast that can apply to our reactions to ideas of all sorts.

          My inclination is to think that it’s epistemically complicated. The human mind is very bad at abstract thinking about principles. Adding imaginative and emotional detail engages the mind on the domains where it is stronger. This is part of the reason, I think, that we use trolley problems, etc., instead of just pure appeal to principle. But adding imaginative and emotional detail also brings epistemic risks. So there are trade-offs, and we should use all of the tools in our toolchest, all the way from abstract principle on one side to fully-fleshed-out emotionally engaging fictions on the other, and bear in mind the epistemic strengths and weaknesses of the different approaches in reaching our best all-things-considered philosophical judgment.

  2. I assume that dialogues count as a form of fiction, although they are a well established form of writing philosophy? In any case I gave writing one a try and the result can be found on my blog:
    https://davidstrohmaier.wordpress.com/2016/04/28/a-dialogue-at-the-demonstration-part-i/

    In contrast to a paper writing a dialogue does not commit to author to endorsing the central philosophical statements made in the text. A dialogue can just be a way of testing ideas, that leaves the commitments of the author more open. I assume that holds for most philosophical fiction with no strong and explicit authorial voice?

  3. Let me suggest that writing fiction is a way of writing philosophy. David Strohmaier mentions dialogues, but fiction has been written as philosophy by Zhuangzi, Rousseau, Nietzsche, and Sartre, among many others.

    The traditional philosophical thought experiment is, or can be, a mini-fiction. But if a philosopher really wants to engage the reader’s imagination and emotions in thinking about a hypothetical case, a more full-blooded fiction can be just the thing.

  4. I agree with Eric that writing fiction can be a way of doing philosophy.

    I’ve always found fictional helpful in philosophy. As Eric noted, the violinist case brings home Thomson’s critique much better than her in some ways superior account, later in the same essay, of the unfair saddling of only women with the duty to preserve life at the cost of their own health and welfare.

    This is also why I was drawn away from “continental” philosophy: after Sartre there seems to be little interest working philosophical fictions into philosophy works. But writers like Nagel, Williams, Thomson and Parfit have made impressive use of these fictions. I’m not sure we can capture the existential import, and lived importance, of philosophical questions in ethics and personhood without these stories. Some aspects of ethics and personhood are expressible only in narrative form.

    Also, Since the post asked “Do you write poetry, fiction, or drama (philosophical or otherwise)?” I will sheepishly include one of the works of philosophical fiction that I had published in a small lit mag. I hope it captures something about the privacy of pain, and the nature of consciousness, that is essentially found only in the relating of an experience or story, even if a fictional one.
    http://sporkpress.com/weeklies/prose/archives/00000038.htm

  5. I wrote a lot of fiction before grad school, and then took about a decade hiatus. In summer 2014, I challenged myself: to write 400 words (exactly) per day, and to write whatever I wanted to write, with no view to whether anyone else would want to read it. If I missed a day, then 400 words rolled over to the next day. I’m currently 478 days (=191,200 words!) behind; but on the other hand, in the last 655 days I have written 177 of them, and thus generated more than 70,000 words. I do the writing via a blog, the post formatting making it easy to count words and post cohesive pieces (and to search when I can’t quite remember what I wrote a year ago!).

    A lot of what I write is philosophically connected — the piece explores time travel, personal identity, the relationship between dreaming, memory, and knowledge, etc. Many posts have been inspired by discussions I’ve had in tutorials. 🙂

    Now I have to decide if I’m brave enough to link to the blog here or not…

  6. Jass Richards’ trilogy (The Road Trip Dialogues, The Blasphemy Tour, and License to Do That) indicates that not only philosophical fiction/drama is possible, but also philosophical fiction/comedy. “I am impressed by the range from stoned silliness to philosophical perspicuity, and I love your comic rhythm.” says L. S. at http://www.jassrichards.com. (And I agree!)

  7. I’ve been writing philosophy and fiction for a few years now, which can be seen on my website Evolutionary Philosophy (www.evphil.com). As I say there, I’m broadly inspired by writers such as Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Sartre, Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Upton Sinclair, Ayn Rand, Iris Murdoch, Robert Pirsig, Rebecca Goldstein, Irvin Yalom, Daniel Quinn, and many others. I think of the philosophy as attacking the rational side of an argument, while the fiction moves readers at an emotional level. Of course, reason and emotion are bi-directionally influential on one another so these are not completely separate entities. I think the fiction forces philosophers to put their ideas into real world situations too, which can be very helpful to both the writers and the real world readers.

    • Oh I paid for that one. Kirkus and Publishers Weekly are the only ones potentially worth that and I chose to try Kirkus for my first self-published novel. Getting a good review from them opened a few doors and gave me confidence I was on the right track.

      Thanks for taking a look!

  8. Well, I think that philosophical fiction is definitely underexplored. I would also say that philosophical ideas, some of which could be quite original, could emerge in fiction. Certainly, I aspire to some of this when I write fiction. On that note, I recently wrote what I would regard as a humorous philosophical novel entitled FACTICITY BLUES. The eBook is out now. The print version with illustrations comes out on 6/10. Here is my website: http://www.jakecamp.com. Thanks for checking it out. And I would love to talk more about philosophical fiction!

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