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Philosophical Fiction: Interview with Helen de Cruz

Helen De Cruz is a senior lecturer (associate professor) in philosophy at Oxford Brookes University. She is co-author of A natural history of natural theology (MIT Press) and has written numerous papers in edited volumes and journals in the philosophy of cognitive science.  She has recently launched a philosophy through fiction short story competition sponsored by the APA Berry Fund.

There seems to be a renewed interest in philosophical fiction. Would you agree?  And if so, why do you think this is happening?  

I think you are definitely right that there is an increased interest in philosophical fiction. I would like to draw a distinction between two kinds of philosophical fiction. First, there is fiction that tackles philosophical issues, for example, the skeptical questions that are raised by films (and other forms of fiction) such as The Matrix or Inception. Second, there’s fiction written by people who self-identify as philosophers and have had some philosophical training, such as Iris Murdoch or Jean-Paul Sartre. The first category has had a steady output of works, especially in science fiction and fantasy, although fiction that tackles philosophical issues isn’t constrained to those genres. The second category remains relatively small.  While some philosophers write fiction, I think this is still a fringe phenomenon, especially in academic, analytic philosophy, where articles in prestigious journals and books with recognized academic publishers are still the main measures of success.

What makes a work of fiction distinctively philosophical, in your view?

A work of fiction can be distinctively philosophical by virtue of the way it tackles a given question. Many works of philosophical fiction are elaborate thought experiments. Robert Heinlein’s novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, for instance, is one long thought experiment of whether a libertarian society—a minimal state that doesn’t even deal with crimes—could feasibly work and how such a society would be organized. Heinlein comes up with all sorts of interesting concepts along the way.  For instance, because of lack of a social safety net, people would need to organize social security privately.  As a solution, he invents the line marriage, with dozens of people marrying each other into one large existing marriage, which can stretch for generations.

Should philosophers read philosophical fiction?  

I think reading philosophical fiction is beneficial for philosophers because it explores issues and ideas that aren’t easily dealt with in the format of a journal article or monograph. We already use fictional scenarios: trolley problems, people-seeds, hostage situations, and Hollywood stand-offs in thought experiments. At best, philosophical thought experiments are a form of flash fiction, that is, ultra-brief fiction of typically a few hundred words in length. Good thought experiments are an essential part of our toolkit.  Occasionally they can be quirky and poetic.  But more often they tend to be dry and lack emotional engagement and depth.  Eleonore Stump calls shallow characters the “philosophical crash-dummies Smith and Jones”. We can deliberate whether to pull the switch in a trolley scenario, and even whether to push a fat man to stop the trolley, but it is very difficult to predict what we would actually do in such a case. By contrast, fiction can draw you in by its transportative qualities. Transportation is a term coined by Richard Gerrig to denote the sense of being absorbed in a story. Fiction also engages us emotionally. The long format of a story helps us better to understand the consequences of philosophical positions.

To give one example, I regard Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight tetralogy as a brilliant exercise in thinking about what an afterlife could look like. Meyer is a practicing Mormon, and Mormon views of the afterlife have a prominent place for the body and for conjugal love, which they traditionally regard as heterosexual marriage. Mormons see our afterlife as a time when we can continue to develop interests and socially interact with others. Twilight uses vampires as an analogy to understand this afterlife. The vampire family, the Cullens, continue to have social relationships, including marriage, and they cultivate hobbies.  For example, Edward Cullen is an accomplished pianist. They take delight in hunting and physical exercise. These novels provide new philosophical insights into the problem of the tedium of immortality. Bernard Williams, who used another story (an opera called The Makropulos Affair), argued that immortality would inevitably become insufferably tedious. Authors such as John Fischer responded that an afterlife could continue to be meaningful, filled with projects, interests, and social relationships. My sense is that Twilight provides philosophical insight into this problem: after all, the oldest Cullen (Carlisle) is about as old as Elina Makropulous.  Williams uses Elina’s tedium to argue that immortality would be tedious for everyone.  But the difference is that Carlisle Cullen has a family of immortals to connect with, whereas Elina is alone. So I think that the presence of family and friends can make a difference in how we would experience immortality.

Picture of Philosophical Fiction
Image: Pixabay

Should philosophers attempt to write philosophical fiction?

There are two reasons for why I think philosophers should give fiction a try. First, as I mentioned earlier, the form of fiction–length, emotional involvement, and narrative–can help us address philosophical questions that are not easily dealt with in the usual academic formats of journal articles and nonfiction monographs. Fiction can expand the scope of our philosophical toolkit. Second, the professionalization of philosophy has led to some unfortunate consequences, some of which include a narrowing of what is deemed philosophically interesting. There is great pressure on graduate students and other untenured philosophers to write papers that would end up in “good journals”, that is, a limited number of general philosophy journals and some specialist ones. The problem is that these are highly restricted in their scope.

We should fight this tendency. I think papers in journals such as The Philosophical Review and The Journal of Philosophy are interesting, but philosophy is much broader and deeper than that. We should allow more space for personal narratives and situations that aren’t cut-and-dry. A lot of philosophical debate is strictly intra-philosophical, and articles that are valued most concern topics that aren’t of great interest to others. One way to see if a philosophical idea could have wider appeal is to examine if it could work in a story. Philosophical fiction provides some avenue toward becoming less insular and concerned with what other philosophers think.

Søren Kierkegaard thought that fiction was a better way of relating his ideas because he said it enhanced the work and released the reader from dragging “the weight of [his] personal reality”.  Would you agree with Kierkegaard?  

Yes, good fiction has the ability to transport you away from your day-to-day concerns.  This has peculiar effects, one of which is an increased tolerance for open-endedness and ambiguity. Cognitive scientists have found that we have a natural tendency to find cognitive closure, especially when we are in a situation of debate or argument. We want to seize on a position that we will then defend to the teeth, giving rise to such phenomena as belief polarization and confirmation bias, where arguers aren’t easily swayed by opponents’ views, but instead pay attention to evidence and arguments that correspond to their own position. In an experiment by Maja Djikic, people who read a piece of fiction, compared to those who read a piece of nonfiction of similar length and reading difficulty, exhibited a decreased need for cognitive closure and increasing tolerance of ambiguity. This is especially important for philosophical work. For instance, while I am not a libertarian and in general find libertarian arguments unpersuasive, I found Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress to be an engaging and compelling read, and it genuinely made me consider the positive aspects of a libertarian society. While Heinlein didn’t sway me, I believe I now have a more charitable view of libertarianism.

An argument against philosophizing via fiction is that the views come from unreliable characters, so we can’t take the ideas of the characters to be representative of the author.  What are your thoughts on this, and what other disadvantages or concerns might there be about philosophical fiction?   

I think philosophers are still too much into the view that there is an objective view from nowhere, and that we can make statements that are separate from our situation in life and our particular lived experiences. In philosophical fiction, of course, the ideas cannot be directly thought of as representative of the author. In Iris Murdoch’s work, the relationship between their philosophical fiction and nonfictional philosophical work remains a continued topic of debate, and is not straightforward at all. Yet, fiction can provide a different register for an author to explore ideas. Even in philosophical nonfiction, we sometimes defend ideas we aren’t 100% on board with or doubt, but that we think are workable. So I think that if we do this in philosophical fiction, there isn’t an enormous difference.

How does the academy view philosophical fiction, compared, for example, with a scholarly monograph?  

There may be regional geographic differences, but my sense is that philosophical fiction is not routinely regarded as contributing to someone’s scholarly record. For example, here in the UK we have the Research Excellence Framework (“REF”) where you can submit your four best works in the course of six years for evaluation and universities receive research funding based on this. I have never heard or seen anyone submitting a work of fiction to the REF.  It might have happened, but it would be unusual. In one philosophy faculty in the U.S. where I was visiting, I learned that a professor who came up for tenure had a collection of published poems in her tenure file.  They were taken into account in the tenure decision, so it is possible to have nonfiction works count. But my sense is that fiction still has a long way to go to be properly recognized as a way to do philosophical work.

What some of your favorite works of philosophical fiction?

Eric Schwitzgebel recently asked philosophers about their favorite works in speculative fiction, so I will just reiterate some of the works I mentioned there along with reasons for why I think they are philosophically interesting.

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes is about a severely mentally disabled man who gets an experimental treatment that (temporarily, as it turns out) removes the mental disability.  The epistolary writing style echoes this.  Keyes was inspired by his work teaching English to students with special needs. One student asked him if he could attend a regular class if he worked hard and became smart. This novel asks pertinent questions about personal identity and disability. For example, to what extent is a mental disability a core part of a disabled person’s identity?

Relatedly, I enjoyed Daniel Galouye’s Dark Universe, which studies a society of people who are steeped in darkness.  In effect, it’s a society of blind people, and the book looks at how this society is organized. For instance, they live in underground constructions and use central emitters of sound to help them with echolocation. There’s the philosophical question of what it’s like to use echolocation, famously asked by Thomas Nagel, but the question of what a human society using echolocation would look like hasn’t been explored. Dark Universe provides a sense of what this would be like. I am part of a group of philosophers who are currently in the process of requesting funding to explore this link between fiction, philosophy and disability further. I believe this would greatly help us to gain insight into questions relating to disability.

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Find out more about Helen here.  Details about the philosophy through fiction short story competition are here. For further inspiration, check out recent discussions on the blog about reading and writing philosophical fiction.  

If you’d like to write for the APA blog, we’d love to hear from you.  Pitch your ideas to us here.

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