"Seeing, more or less" by Bryony Pierce

Fiction as Experimental Philosophy: Interview with Bryony Pierce

Bryony Pierce attended the Fiction Writing for Philosophers Workshop that was held at Oxford Brookes University on June 1-2, 2017 and here she reflects on her experience and views about philosophical fiction.

Why should philosophers write fiction?  

Fiction shapes our thought from an early age, raising some of the first philosophical questions we encounter.  As a child, the most fascinating works of fiction, for me, were the ones that forced me to question my assumptions and experience a sense of wonder.  The questions I grappled with ranged from whether something could be bigger on the inside than the outside, like the TARDIS in Doctor Who, and how to make sense of the concept of infinity, to moral and political problems such as the treatment of minorities, the role of social class and other structures within society and the general justifying aim of punishment.

Philosophers, like anyone else, should avail themselves of any (ethical) methods that have the potential to be effective in achieving their objectives.  I see no need to preserve strict boundaries around philosophy as a unique and distinct discipline.  Perhaps this is why I have ended up actively promoting interdisciplinary work, experimental philosophy and community philosophy.  The use of fiction to convey philosophical ideas, despite its long tradition, seems not to be viewed as part of what it is to do proper philosophy, within contemporary academic philosophy, yet it has some clear advantages over conference talks, blogs, journal articles or reference books.

For example, fiction is accessible to a wide audience and can raise philosophical questions even in its simplest forms (fairy tales are full of moral dilemmas and social commentary).  Stories are often memorable, retaining a lasting influence on our thinking; they allow us to enter a world of make-believe that engages our emotions rather than abstract reasoning alone, which is an advantage if reasons are grounded in the qualitative character of affective experience, as I have claimed; and, perhaps most importantly of all, a work of fiction needn’t make a clear commitment to any particular philosophical position – people can apply their own premises to draw diverse conclusions and be inspired in ways that may transcend the author’s intentions.

This potential for ambivalence lends fiction a versatility that academic papers generally lack, allowing its content and messages to vary from person to person, from one moment to the next (like in the rabbit-duck illusion); or, in the longer term, in response to how our beliefs and attitudes develop over the years.  Something that is implicit in a work of fiction, appealing to our emotions, for example, may strike us as a more compelling reason to adopt a philosophical position than an explicit set of abstract arguments that are more difficult to relate to our experiences.  Unlike a thought experiment, in which conclusions reached can sometimes be determined quite arbitrarily, a work of fiction can provide details that resolve things one way or another, prompting us to consider counterfactuals as well as to examine which factors influenced our judgements in specific cases.

The idea of filling philosophy journals with suitably speculative short stories is appealing, but I don’t think we should burn our non-fiction any more than we should burn our armchairs or cut ourselves off from other disciplines. I see alternative methodological approaches as a valuable supplement to prevalent methods and not a substitute for or a threat to them.

Lastly, I think philosophers inclined to use this method will enjoy the process, possibly gaining new insights into their own intuitions and discovering nuanced views that they might otherwise not have thought to explore.  Creating fiction can be a fruitful research method, as well as a persuasive means of presenting one’s existing ideas.

Why did you attend the philosophical fiction writing workshop?  

Mainly because I expected it to be fun (and it was), but also to learn about writing fiction; receive feedback on my writing; develop my ideas on how I might use fiction within community philosophy, and possibly within experimental philosophy; and meet other philosophers interested in using fiction.

What did you learn at the workshop?  

It’s quite hard to know what I’ve learned until it’s put into practice, but I feel as though I have; a clearer idea of what to be wary of when writing; a greater appreciation of the importance of trusting one’s own judgement, ultimately; a deeper insight into what I value most in philosophical fiction, after reading other participants’ stories, which I hope will help me adjust the balance of different elements in my own work; and a better understanding of the role philosophical content can play in fiction, which I hope to share with others.

Have you written philosophical fiction before?  

I haven’t knowingly set out to convey or explore philosophical ideas in fiction, only produced works that could be interpreted, as most fiction can be, as dealing with philosophical themes, for example, questions about morality, appearance and reality, knowledge, the self and the notion of value.  These pieces were written for my own satisfaction, for particular children, or for research purposes (as part of a psychology study), not for publication.

What sort of philosophical fiction are you writing now?

The story I’m working on now is about the criteria we rely on to make judgements about our own and others’ identity. What, if anything, makes someone the same person over time?  And is the claim that personal identity is all-or-nothing coherent?  After that, I plan to write a series of pieces exploring what it is like to live without the illusion of free will, drawing on my own experience of action as essentially reactive.

Bryony Pierce is a Research Associate at the University of Bristol, a Founder Member of Experimental Philosophy Group UK, and a community philosophy facilitator.  Her research interests include consciousness, [re]action, free will, aesthetics and experimental philosophy.  

Image: “Seeing, more or less” © Bryony Pierce

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