Novel forms of thought

In philosophy, logic is too often considered the only appropriate analytical instrument. Adding fiction to the toolkit can, Michael Boylan argues, offer new and illuminating ways to contemplate human existence and its dilemmas

January 27, 2011

I first became aware of the tortuous love triangle between fiction, philosophy and myself when I completed my master's thesis in English at the University of Chicago. On one level, "Moral judgment in Paradise Lost" was all about untangling the Talmudic writings on the eating of the apple, and who knew what and when. I felt compelled to connect biblical commentary to a vocabulary consistent with Kantian philosophy. On another level, I was also trying to give a close read of the beauty of John Milton's poetry. It was a tempestuous task. After I had finished, I transferred from English to philosophy.

I had flirted with fiction and philosophy before. At Carleton College in Minnesota I was a double English and philosophy major who wrote, directed and produced my own plays. I also wrote two novels, one of which garnered me a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship and the other of which was accepted for publication in 1979, but then the publisher ran out of money.

1979 was also the year that I finished my PhD in philosophy. Although there were some philosophers at Chicago who encouraged the intersection of fiction and philosophy, including Paul Ricoeur and Arthur Adkins, the general attitude was that I should keep my passion for fiction a secret. Other prominent members of the department advised me to adopt a pen name if I wanted to continue doodling stories. Real philosophers were interested only in making claims through the analysis of language, logic and science.

I took their advice and published my next novel, Slipknot, under the pen name Angus Black. The manoeuvre was very transparent. Various libraries that purchased the book put on their card catalogues: Angus Black - see Michael Boylan. I was outed.

In 1990, while at Marymount University in Virginia, I received funding for a poetry series in the Washington DC area. I had also previously published a chapbook of poetry in London and a volume on the Persian poet Hafez, rendered into English, that had won me an evening poetry reading at the Library of Congress.

I was coming out of the closet as a fiction writer and philosophy writer. The two worlds were still apart, albeit standing side by side, and now out in the open.

The first step to unite these two loves of my life was my philosophy book, A Just Society (2004). A monograph on distributive justice, it included 11 short narratives that presented more completely the proponents' worldview of each distributive justice theory. Worldview: that was it. Worldview combined all the facts and values that a person might possess that would structure his or her understanding of the world. Finally, the two loves of my life had engaged.

In my next novel, The Extinction of Desire: A Tale of Enlightenment (2007), my worldview philosophy came more to the fore and as a result I did some readings at philosophy departments in the US, the UK and Australia. I followed it with a philosophy book aimed at the general reader, The Good, The True, and The Beautiful: A Quest for Meaning (2008), which claims that we cannot properly know the good, the true or the beautiful without considering the other two as well. This was the most explicit union of philosophy (primarily concerned with the good and the true) with fiction (my depiction of the beautiful). I felt that, conceptually, the marriage had been consummated. I call this marriage "fictive narrative philosophy".

But what made this match possible? How do philosophy and literature communicate? Why would fictive narrative philosophy ever be preferred to straight direct logical discourse?

To answer these questions, I return to Plato, one of the high priests of philosophy and literature. From what has survived of Plato we have a series of dialogues that move from the more dramatic in the early periods, such as the Euthyphro, Apology and Crito, to the less dramatic in the later dialogues, such as the Sophist and Statesman. However, even in the early dialogues, the philosophical argument dominates the fictive action. I call this level-one fictive narrative philosophy. It is akin to the fables of Aesop and the parables of Jesus and Buddha.

At the second level of fictive narrative philosophy, the claims that are presented are balanced by a robust story. The plays and novels of Jean-Paul Sartre and Voltaire are on this level. Finally, at the third level, the story predominates and the philosophical claims must be ferreted out from the dominant story. The novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky (Crime and Punishment), Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being), Charles Johnson (Middle Passage) and Iris Murdoch (The Sea, The Sea) are rather like this.

On each of the levels, fiction and philosophy live together by providing what each does best. First, let's be clear about what is and what is not fictive narrative philosophy. Fiction that only imitates nature or seeks to provide entertainment without making a claim about facts or values in the world is not fictive narrative philosophy. It is just a story.

Much of genre romance, suspense and mystery fiction is like this; fictive narrative philosophy seeks for more. It makes a claim about truth.

But why write a story about truth when you can empirically verify everything and present it in direct logical discourse? This is the paradigm of most 20th-century philosophers, from those connected to logical empiricism to those who believe that clarification through linguistic analysis is all that philosophers can do. Under these accounts, only direct logical discourse counts as philosophy.

To see the other side, we must return to Plato, who is an advocate of the "rationality incompleteness conjecture". This position contends that there are some truths that cannot be properly examined via direct logical discourse. Truth isn't as simple as mere empirical verification or the conceptual analysis of language. Whether we are monist-materialists or dualists (or some hybrid), some of the topography of truth is often hidden from direct physical inspection.

For those intrepid souls who agree, there is a requirement for a mode of expression that is suggestive of that hidden territory. Fictive narrative philosophy is the best candidate.

This is also consistent with Plato's argument in the Timaeus that the best we can obtain in exploring cosmology is a likely story. Although there is specificity in Plato's argument, one can extend the point generally to the fact that humans have only limited exposure to the Forms so that we are forced to fill in the rest. So how do we fill things in? Plato chose fictive narrative philosophy, and I think he's right.

Thus we are set with the following paradigm of how to do philosophy. For problems that are directly amenable to empirical investigation, or are merely verbal disputes that can be examined and clarified to the satisfaction of all, direct logical discourse is the way to proceed. But for those dilemmas of human existence that belie a definitive direct logical account (like Kant's antinomies), it is most appropriate for fictive narrative philosophy to step in and present a likely story that may resonate rationally and emotionally with readers to make its claims.

After I had gone public about my own marriage with fiction, I gave an invited lecture in Los Angeles and then was fortuitously sent a short story by my long-time correspondent Charles Johnson, former editor for the Fiction Collective, a writers' cooperative. Johnson (who also has a PhD in philosophy) began sending me short stories about key moments in the lives of various philosophers. I was particularly taken with the one about Plato being confronted by a Cynic who grilled him on the Theory of Forms by asking about the form of emptiness inside his drinking cup.

I was struck by the genius of Johnson's story and began rereading the other stories he had sent me. Gradually, it came to me that these stories also portrayed the marriage of fiction and philosophy in a very accessible way that could help students and interested readers find a way into philosophy that was previously blocked. Johnson had had his own journey with fiction and philosophy from Faith and the Good Thing (1974) to Oxherding Tale (1982) to Middle Passage (1990) (winner of the National Book Award) and Dreamer (1998) (with lots of direct logical discourse and cartooning efforts thrown in).

What if we could create a book that encouraged the courting of both with enthusiasm? This would change the view of those philosophers who were interested only in making claims through the analysis of language, logic and science.

We are not averse to claims made via analytic language, logic and science. It is the "only" that causes problems. Why couldn't it be just as philosophically legitimate to make claims via fiction? This question prompted a rethinking of the arena of philosophical exploration.

Our approach would be different. We would present traditional direct logical presentations alongside presentations of fiction - the short stories that Johnson had written and the ones that I was about to write. Further, we would offer two modes of legitimate philosophical response - logical and fictive. This creates four possibilities: direct logical text with direct logical response; direct logical text with fictive response; fictive text with direct logical response; and fictive text with fictive response.

Since this was quite a different way to introduce people to philosophy, I decided to create an empirical study including students at various sorts of institutions (Brown University, the George Washington University, Youngstown State University, Marymount University and St Mary's College of Maryland in the US and Charles Sturt University in Australia).

Students were given a short story that made a claim along the lines of the course they were taking and then asked to respond to a set of questions on how effective the fiction was at engaging them in the themes of the course. The findings of the study show convincingly that students actually celebrate the marriage of fiction and philosophy: it opens for them different vistas compared with traditional direct discourse alone.

Johnson and I felt vindicated. Our courtship with those enticing Sirens who stood on different cliffs was not in vain. Unlike Odysseus, we never stoppered our ears nor chained ourselves to the mast, but instead we ventured forth together to merge these two alluring messages: fiction and philosophy. And if we have been successful, then others will have a ticket for a romantic voyage that can allow them to see new places through a rich perspective of intellectual inclusion.

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