Hairdresser Philosopher

Practical and Impractical Advice for Philosophers Writing Fiction

by Hugh D. Reynolds

Eric Schwitzgebel has a pleasingly liberal view of what constitutes philosophy. A philosopher is anyone wrestling with the “biggest picture framing issues” of… well, anything.

In a keynote session at the Fiction Writing for Philosophers Workshop that was held at Oxford Brookes University in June 2017, Schwitzgebel, Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Riverside, shared his advice–which he stated would be both practical and impractical.

Schwitzgebel tells us of a leading coiffeur who styles himself as a “Philosopher of Hair”. We laugh – but there’s something in this – the vagary, the contingency in favoured forms of philosophical output. And it’s not just hairdressers that threaten to encroach upon the Philosophy Department’s turf. Given that the foundational issues in any branch of science or art are philosophical in nature, it follows that most people “doing” philosophy today aren’t professional philosophers.

There are a host of ways one could go about doing philosophy, but of late a consensus has emerged amongst those that write articles for academic journals: the only proper way to “do” philosophy is by writing articles for academic journals. Is it time to re-stock the tool shed? Philosophical nuts come in all shapes and sizes; yet contemporary attempts to crack them are somewhat monotone.

As Schwitzgebel wrote in a Los Angeles Times op-ed piece:

Too exclusive a focus on technical journal articles excludes non-academics from the dialogue — or maybe, better said, excludes us philosophers from non-academics’ more important dialogue.

Schwitzgebel has shown his mettle in conventional form, as attested by all manner of journal articles and the books Perplexities of Consciousness (MIT Press, 2011) and (with Russell T. Hurlburt) Describing Inner Experience? Proponent Meets Skeptic (MIT Press, 2007), where he plays the skeptic, defending a view of introspective incompetence.

A philosopher of psychology amongst many other things, Schwitzgebel is not shy of working in an experimental vein. Take, for instance, ingenious research with Joshua Rust investigating the ethical behaviour of professional ethicists (if you think they lead a more ethically upright life than the rest of us, think again). He is not afraid to “do” philosophy in and for a wider public, as demonstrated on his blog The Splintered Mind. One of his bravest feats though is this: he writes fiction as a way of “doing” philosophy.

Fiction writing for philosophers is hardly innovative. Many famous thinkers of the past have written it. From Plato and Zhuangzi, through Voltaire and Nietzsche, to Camus and Dennett. Fiction has been a vehicle for philosophy – though the connection between an author’s philosophical stance and their literary output is not always a straightforward one. Scholars of Iris Murdoch, in attendance at the workshop, gave particularly fascinating insights into links and possible disconnects between Murdoch’s parallel academic and literary careers. Perhaps in time, and in a different academic climate, the divisions we see in a contemporary writer’s body of work will become less important to us. We might come to value what they have to say to the world, on the basis of content, irrespective of their adherence to accepted form.

Philosophy for fiction writers is no new thing either. As Schwitzgebel puts it:

Much good fiction is about exploring a worldview or set of values or foundational questions about the human condition – as such, it is philosophical.

It seems that novelists and screenwriters too are joining the massed ranks (doubtless led by the hair styling theorists) mining foundations right beneath the philosophers’ feet.

Yet, there is a particular style of fiction that is prevalent within orthodox philosophy texts. One could call it a sort of idea-laden flash-fiction– though exponents will baulk at any suggestion these micro-works can be jotted down on a whim. The best examples encapsulate profound concepts and are the gateway to vast acreage of research. I write, of course, of thought experiments.

Why, Schwitzgebel asks, do we philosophers find these paragraph-long vignettes so valuable? Trolley problems, Twin Earth, Nozick’s Experience Machine, Parfit’s Teleporters. They help us realize non-obvious consequences of views like

do the greatest good for the greatest number

or

what you mean when you use a term depends entirely on psychological facts about you.

They help by forcing us to pay attention to challenging cases. But there is something more here. Something hard-nosed champions of rationalism like me aren’t always so willing to admit: thought experiments can engage our imagination and our emotions. (Pace Anscombe and others who – I hear – fear that an adherence to thought experiments might be leading moral philosophy astray – allowing us to neglect emotional context and complexity.)

At this point in the proceedings Schwitzgebel tested us against his conviction that “Humans stink at abstract thinking.” He showed us four cards:

AC37 cards

And then asked: Which card(s) do I turn to verify the rule “if C on one side, then 7 on the other”?

This is a version of the Wason Selection Task. In certain contexts, respondents find it much easier to work out. For example: Which card(s) do I turn to verify the rule “if alcoholic drink on one side, then over 21 on the other”?

Gin Cola Cards

(Hint/give-away: turn over card(s) that could show the rule is violated.)

Schwitzgebel suggests that, just as we can recast the Wason Selection Test to make it less abstract, easier to identify with, maybe we can move away from abstract statements of ideas along a spectrum. The spectrum has abstract statements at one end, and fully developed works of fiction at the other. As we slide along it there is a trade-off between epistemic virtues and vices. The paragraph-long thought experiments, which we know and love, might occupy the middle ground of this spectrum. We are often very happy to sit there. Thought experiments isolate a variable to reflect upon. They “limit distraction”. But there are costs too. It is easy for students to get hung-up on discussion of thought experiments – without going on to explore wider territory which a fuller fiction could tackle.

As a contributor to the workshop interjected: people “fill-in the emptiness of a thought experiment”, they load their own baggage onto it. Whereas, with more extensive philosophical fictions, the author is filling up this space on the reader’s behalf – possibly, enriching it. Another audience member spoke of a motivation for doing this: we can worry “will the philosophy work in the real world,” so why not, paradoxically, turn it into a fiction, and try and find out? Schwitzgebel himself adds that in more extensive fictions – unlike tidy thought experiment take-outs – authors can push-back further against objections. They can consider more options. And in doing so, they can reach different audiences.

A fine way to develop a taste for this approach would be to read some of Schwitzgebel’s own philosophical fiction (tales including What Kelp Remembers, Momentary Sage, Fish Dance and The Turing Machines of Babel). Another terrific source maintained on his site is The Philosophical SF List.

The list is a gourmet guide, compiling reading (and viewing) suggestions from the professional philosophical community. The S in the SF stands for speculative, thus encompassing a gamut of genres beyond the strictly sci-fi. For Schwitzgebel, of all fictions, it is speculative fiction that can be a boon to philosophers. These are fictions “about situations outside the ordinary run of experience (science fiction, fantasy, utopia, horror)”. They can operate “as a means of engaging imagination and emotion about remoter hypotheticals or future possibilities.”

Whilst these stories can allow distance, uncertainty and multiplicity of perspective, that’s not always the case. Take two eighteenth century classics. Voltaire’s Candide, is a univocal swipe at Leibniz, but it serves its author’s purposes of “making vivid the absurdity of an opposing view”. Rousseau’s Emile, is a single-minded recipe for educating the ideal citizen, but it is “making vivid the appeal and possibility of a way of living.” Against these affirmations of a single perspective, Schwitzgebel juxtaposes works that unsettle the reader. Nabokov’s Lolita. O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. The Southern Gothic tales of Flannery O’Connor.

Such works don’t provide easy or immediate answers, they sow fields of interesting questions and uncertainties. What if our ability to recognise beauty in a human face could be switched off and on again? See Ted Chiang’s Liking What You See. What if we had complete voluntary control over our emotions? See R. Scott Bakker’s Crash Space. Within Schwitzgebel’s own fiction and even his non-fiction – articles like If Materialism Is True, the United States Is Probably Conscious (Philosophical Studies 2015) – the speculative mood and its generative potential abounds. If a nation state is a conscious entity, what then? As Schwitzgebel admits in an interview for 3:AM Magazine, disorientation can be appealing:

I think it’s exhilarating to find myself tossed into such confusion, with my apparent certainties evaporating beneath me.

In commending the fictive approach to his fellow philosophers, Schwitzgebel asks us to consider how much richer films like West World and Inception might be if they were done “(philosophically) better”; if there were more carry-over of specific theories and thought experiments from philosophy. We have already seen that so much philosophy is being done beyond the (philosophical) academy – but that’s not to say philosophers-proper don’t have much to give back to the wider world, including Hollywood.

The best fiction is a walk inside someone’s mind, and philosophers often have very interesting minds.

But hang on. Before you resign your professorship and head out to Tinseltown to pitch that screenplay to studio bosses, you had better read-on for Schwitzgebel’s practical and impractical advice for philosophers writing fiction. Brace yourself, and curb those star-struck ambitions for a moment.

Write for the ten percent. Even among people who like fiction, most will not like your work. Even among people who like your specific genre of fiction, most will not like your work. Your friends and family will not like it.  Your colleagues will not like it.  Other writers will not like it. That’s fine! Aim for the ten percent.

Crucially, when sharing your first forays into fiction, find beta-readers whom you trust. Get your critiques from this ten percent.

Schwitzgebel generously owned up to many “philosopherish mistakes” he has made when writing – so we may learn from them. These include pacing his stories too fast, or cramming them too densely with ideas. No matter how clear you think you are being, readers don’t get things in a sentence. This could be a case of good philosophical training getting in the way of generating narrative that really engages. Rather than stripping back to minimalist concision, Schwitzgebel now lets his readers “soak a bit in it, relish it, build up an image, an idea”. Hint at something, confirm it, and later remind them.

Readers need to be invested in your tale. Why should they care about your character or world if you don’t pay attention to earning that care? Earn it through plot, and emotional engagement. A big philosopherish mistake is to set some dialogue within a “white room” – with no scenery or context. This starkness is less conducive to reader comfort than something enriched with detail and background. Do not just let characters speak, have them do something – this will quickly get you away from the “white room”. Do it subtly though or you will risk committing another philosopherish faux pas; that of the “expository lump” or info-dump – putting all the required pre-knowledge you wish to impart in one indigestible chunk.

One sort of expository lump that sticks in the throat is known in the trade as the “As you know Bob…” trope. Recall all those old (and many not-so old) movies where the expert scientist turns to his assistant (e.g. Bob) and tells all manner of things that are surely already known to the assistant, for the benefit of the viewing audience. The clumsiness is compounded by Bob asking a “Tell me Professor…” type question to get the “As you know Bob…” response. In dialogue, try to avoid having one character ask a question, and the other answer it in a straightforward way. The result is clunky because there’s too much character co-operation, no tension, conflict or suspense. Just ever-forgetful Bobs and their ever-patient Professors.

In fleshing-out your story, conjuring a vivid picture, there is a temptation to scatter random detail hither and dither. This is yet another mistake Schwitzgebel is now wise to.

Every sentence should be doing at least three things.

Details could be revealing the narrator’s perspective, whilst also advancing the plot, and hinting toward another scene or character. Words should be serving your story in manifold ways. The good prose writer, like the poet, needs to write as if words matter. “Say every sentence aloud to yourself” and “Cut the boring stuff”.

Of Schwitzgebel’s parting remarks, the one that sticks with me is:

Butt in the chair beats inspiration. Bad writing can bloom into something; perfectionism is for later.

Much more than just schooling philosophers in creative writing, Eric Schwitzgebel is presenting the case for doing fiction writing as a way of doing philosophy. Whether we are out to unsettle commonsensical assumptions, lead our audiences towards a vision of the world (or away from one), open-up minds to bizarre possible futures, or stretch them about metaphysics – in fiction, philosophy can flourish.

Hugh D. Reynolds is a teacher, writer and learning project manager based in Bristol, England. You can read more about his philosophical and other exploits at hughdreynolds.com.

1 thought on “Practical and Impractical Advice for Philosophers Writing Fiction

  1. “Too exclusive a focus on technical journal articles excludes non-academics from the dialogue — or maybe, better said, excludes us philosophers from non-academics’ more important dialogue.”

    I hope, based on this, that the workshop’s organisers will consider more workshops in the future that include non-academics.

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