Home Forums Knowledge Hub IS PHILOSOPHY A FICTION?

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    Truth is so hard to tell, it sometimes needs fiction to make it plausible.

    -Francis Bacon

    The acceptance that all that is solid has melted into the air, that reality and morality are not givens but imperfect human constructs, is the point from which fiction begins.

    -Salman Rushdie


    Taking the question at its face-value automatically leads to a negative reaction: It is not. A simple test is in the way books and other reading materials are classified in bookstores and libraries. One who looks for a philosophy book or a reading material on a philosophical subject matter doesn´t proceed to the ¨Fiction Section¨ of a bookstore or a library to find what s/he needs. Thus, we confidently say in simple (or more precisely, simplified) terms that philosophy is not a fiction.

    But is the issue really settled at this point and any attempt to get more seriously concerned about it is nothing but an exercise in futility? Veering away from the context of the library and bookstore, could there be a more meaningful consideration of whether philosophy is a fiction or otherwise? In the first place, what is a fiction? In responding to this question, we should not get bogged down by the casual identification of the term ¨fiction¨ solely and specifically with literary works like novels and short stories we enjoy reading. Then afterwards, we clarify what we mean by philosophy which could be an irritating matter because the situation obviously requires us to define again for the nth time what philosophy is. Nevertheless, we deal first with the question of what a fiction is.

    When do we say that something (not only a literary work in this case) is a fiction? Linguistically, there are certain semantic properties that constitute the term ¨fiction¨. In its most basic form, a fiction is a product of one´s imagination. It is not therefore a fact—a state of affairs—that actually happens or has happened as a concrete event in space and time. In other words, a fiction is not a circumstance objectively perceived in the actual spatio-temporal context. More simply, we say that a fiction is a figment of one´s imagination.

    It doesn´t however mean that a fiction is generally unrealistic. It is fundamentally unreal as we have tried to semantically clarify it. But in certain cases, a fiction could be realistic. Being realistic, a fictional account may therefore possibly occur in actual experience because its general features and elements are conceived in terms of what has been experienced in reality by its creator or experienced by other people that the fiction creator has observed. Even if we go back to the literary context, we are aware that there are fiction novels and stories that are realistic on the one hand and non-realistic on the other, being in the category of out-of-this-world fantasy like stories of goblins and fairies, zombies and demons, etc.

    In a more formal term, we say that a fiction is a mental formulation. But mental formulation is of course a general description that applies not only to fictions but also to scientific theorizing, mathematical equations, organizational planning, schedule programming, among so many others. In logical terms, we say that: All fiction is mental formulation but not all mental formulation is fiction.

    Let´s have an experimental exercise in formal logic using the argument:

    ¨If a scientific theory is a mental formulation and a fiction is a mental formulation, therefore, a scientific theory is a fiction.¨

    Let: S = scientific theory; M = mental formulation; F = fiction

    ¨For any S such that if S then M and for any F such that if F then M, therefore, if S then F.¨

    This is an invalid argument that violates the order of hypothetical syllogism by committing ¨the fallacy of misplaced middle.¨

    We could say that in a similar vein, philosophizing itself fundamentally involves mental formulation of ideas and concepts couched in propositional arguments or statements of elaborated principles that are empirically coherent and/or logically consistent. But in the light of the above argument, philosophy cannot in any way be construed as fictional. We do not however imply that no connection at all may ever be forged between philosophy and fiction. In fact, a fictional story—whether it is a novel or a short story—may serve as a vehicle to advance a philosophy or a philosophical notion.

    Plato´s Dialogues are not novels but they surely are stories of people so seriously engrossed in philosophical conversations. We could almost precisely surmise that in many of these dialogues, the settings—though we were not there in person and we were not privy to Plato´s experiential domain—are only made-up and hence fictional. A similar genre was used by the Irish empiricist George Berkeley in his Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous. Philosophy or methods of philosophical inquiry could also be the theme of a fictional novel as in Philip Kerr´s A Philosophical Investigation wherein the author even sporadically quotes statements from Wittgenstein´s Philosophical Investigations here and there. Another case in point is the bestselling novel authored by the Norwegian wordsmith Jostein Gaarder, Sophie´s World, which is a serious attempt to ¨de-professionalize¨ western philosophy and its historical development essentially presented in a fictional story for popular readership. In other words, philosophy may in a way be fictionalized—i.e., enclosed as a major focal point in a fictional story—to draw widespread—even grassroot—interest. Nevertheless, the whole process doesn´t make philosophy a fiction.

    Another issue that may be raised is the experiential aspect that characterizes some fictions. As we have earlier determined, some fictional works may not be real but they are realistic, i.e., within the range of what has been experienced and what can be experienced by certain people in this world. This consideration may also serve as a connecting point between the philosophical and the fictional. Without necessarily talking about writing a literary fiction, we could think of fictional stories designed to project philosophical ideas and principles aimed to inspire people to understand life much better and hence make it more meaningfully and even excitingly liveable. But the caveat emptor prevails: The whole process doesn´t in any way make philosophy a fiction. Rather, in the present context, it would be more correct to say that the fiction, i.e., the literary fiction, is on philosophy. This only strengthens the notion that it doesn´t make sense to assert that philosophy is a fiction.

    Looking at philosophy—and I mean western philosophy to be more specific—in the course of its historical development that goes back to ancient Greece, it emerged as a thematic phenomenon in the spontaneous course of broadening the scope of the sphere of human intellectual achievements at the time when the ancient Greeks were deeply immersed in and dimly shrouded by the superstitions and mystifications that characterized its mythological religion dominated by the Olympus-based pantheon of gods and goddesses led by the ¨almighty¨ Zeus. If we want now to talk of fiction, ancient mythological Greek religion was hardcore fiction. And the emergence of the first so-called philosophers was a welcome relief in the lives of a people fed up with the exploitative machination of a hyper-superstitious religion enslaving them for so many generations.

    The new age of the philosophers was a fresh air from the staleness of a petrified mythological religion. This assessment doesn´t however misconstrue the fact that there are certain good things in mythology. ¨The mythology of a people is a serious and conscious presentation of stories that reflect culture. It is the collective memory that heightens a people´s sense of cultural identity, social dignity, and national pride. Myths are a cultural ´roadmap´ that takes us to the socio-existential terrains of the human soul. Myths reflect the uniqueness of the culture of a people as well as the frame of mind of each individual denizens in that cultural context.¨[from ¨The Dynamics of Love as Fertility, Formity and Formality in Ancient Mythologies: A Critico-Structural Excursus into the Classics¨ in Sophophilia by Ruel F. Pepa, p. 57 . . . ] We don´t see anything wrong with mythology as long as it serves to inspire human endeavours within the limits of what is reasonable, facilitative, life-enhancing and happiness-promoting.

    But when the mythological tradition under the aegis of its egotistical leadership and abusive cabal of priests and priestesses has become awry by blowing up certain components that promote deep superstitions to manipulate circumstances and exploit people, the positive aspect of mythology for the main purpose of human flourishing loses its essence. This is what happened in ancient Greece and it inevitably ushered in the emergence of a new breed of people called ¨philosophers¨. They were generally iconoclasts imbued with the aspiration to de-programme the superstitious dogmatism of the people by challenging them to use the power of their critical and analytic rationality to expose and oppose religious errors concocted by their manipulative religious leaders and rammed into their throats hook-line-and-sinker by conditioning in them the superiority of blind faith over reason.

    However, the first philosophers were not totally free from fiction-production. In fact, their philosophizing was basically characterized by fictional theorizing as they searched for a coherent explanation of the origin of reality as we see it in the world or the universe and the things found in it. The first philosophers were generally cosmologists. By way of metaphysical reflections, they problematized the origin, nature and basic substance(s) of the cosmos or the universe. For them, this was the begin-all of how humanity should reckon and explore reality. Each of them had his own fiction—a mental formulation or conception of reality.

    The first of them was Thales of Miletus who came up with the fiction that the most fundamental substance (arche) of the cosmos is water. For him everything came out of water. His student Anaximander had a different fiction; he said it was not water but rather Apeiron or the boundless, the immeasurable, the inconceivable and dark abyss. Later came Anaximenes who was Anaximander´s student. He said it was neither water nor the boundless but air. We can continue on and on discussing the fictions of other philosophers who came out after them and whom history of philosophy calls ¨the Pre-Socratics¨ for the simple reason that they all preceded Socrates. If we want to reconsider the assertion that philosophy is a fiction, it was the cosmological period in the history of western philosophy that precisely gave sense to it.

    In the hands of the Pre-Socratic cosmologists, philosophy could rightly be called a fiction. In a sense, we could call them proto-scientists because they sincerely sought ways to explain in meaningful terms the world out there. They were the precursors of science in an age when philosophy and science were not yet properly demarcated in definitive terms. However, their efforts have been rendered insignificant and their fictions irrelevant as science progressed until it reached its present point of high level sophistication in depth and breadth. Metaphysical cosmology of the Pre-Socratic vintage has been surpassed and overtaken in the modern—and post-modern—age by the scientific field of theoretical physics.

    Then came Socrates whose advent inaugurated a new era in philosophizing. The philosophical problematization shifted from cosmology to ethics. Now philosophy was more concerned with the issue of what a human being ought to do to lead a virtuous life. The most prominent Socratic challenge is not to know the origin and the nature and the substance of the cosmos out there but to know one´s own being. The course of philosophical inquiry has turned inward. ¨Know Thyself¨ is the most prominent of Socrates´ dictums. Philosophy was then focused on the virtuous life and the use of human rationality to get there. In the process, Socrates introduced a method of philosophical inquiry wherein a succession of questions were posed to another person in a conversational encounter until the person had finally realized his originally flawed principles in life through a facilitative opening of his rational capability which led him to a new perspective and to a more insightful way of life. This method of philosophical inquiry became known as the ¨Socratic dialectics.¨

    Philosophy has since then taken a new direction. In the hands of Aristotle who was a student of Plato, the line of demarcation between philosophy and science became more defined. Philosophy is now more infused with the essence of rational inquiry in all its facets. In the course of its development, philosophy´s path in the present era is much more well defined with a more positive view of where it is heading to. It will no longer allow itself to be contaminated by fictional speculations which in history became most rampant during the Middle Ages at the time of the ascendancy of the Roman Catholic religion.

    Philosophy as worldview, philosophy as critical inquiry, philosophy as a way of life, philosophy as a commitment to a cherished principle. . . These are all absolutely serious concerns of the different aspects of philosophy and they are not fictional. We must be delighted though by the fact that literary fiction is an effective and viable channel/vehicle through which philosophical notions may be communicated and reflected on. In ¨An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science Fiction Film¨ Steven M. Sanders makes the following significant comment:

    ¨. . . philosophy and science fiction are thematically interdependent insofar as science fiction provides materials for philosophical thinking about the logical possibility and paradoxes of time travel, the concept of personal identity and what it means to be human, the nature of consciousness and artificial intelligence, the moral implications of encounters with extraterrestrials, and the transformations of the future that will be brought about by science and technology. Of course, many science fiction films emphasize gadgets and special effects to the neglect of conceptual complexity, but the films discussed here engage viewers on the plane of ideas and provide occasions for historical, political, literary, and cultural commentary as well as philosophical analysis.¨

    [The Philosophy of Science Fiction Film, edited by Steven M. Sanders (published by the University Press of Kentucky, 2008)]

    © Ruel F. Pepa, 11 June 2013

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